Damian Lewis: Slow cooking

Seven years after Tom Hanks told him he'd be the first red-haired movie star, Damian Lewis is making his mark in 'The Baker'. By James Rampton

Tuesday 26 February 2008 01:00

Damian Lewis is deep in conversation with his brother Gareth, who has just directed the actor in his latest film, The Baker. So how was it for the actor working with his younger sibling? "We've actually had a ball working together," Lewis declares, as Gareth bids us farewell. "Maybe at the end of each working day, the Coen brothers throw knives at pictures of each other when they get home, but Gareth and I had such fun. It was like being kids again, only more sophisticated." He stops and grins. "Perhaps I should say, 'only marginally more sophisticated'! We certainly have more expensive toys now."

On the back of such television dramas as Band of Brothers, The Forsyte Saga and Stephen Poliakoff's Friends and Crocodiles, Lewis has become one of our most highly sought-after actors, both here and in the US. In person, it's easy to see why – he has the magnetism of a natural-born star. Intellectually self-confident, he possesses an effortless charisma that works just as well in comedy as it does in drama.

The 37-year-old, who is married to actress Helen McCrory and is the father of two young children, Manon and Gulliver, stresses that there was no stress between him and Gareth during the shoot. "We had a very respectful understanding of each other's positions. Gareth and I never have full-blown rows. We avoid disputes because we're particularly vigilant about each other's feelings. We never argue."

So what has their fraternal collaboration produced? Released in cinemas on Friday, the blacker-than-black comedy centres on Milo (Lewis), a troubled man who gives up his job as a hitman and retires to what he imagines will be a tranquil existence as a baker in a remote Welsh village. It emerges, however, that Milo is being pursued by a gay assassin. In addition, the oddball village wouldn't be out of place in a David Lynch movie. It's the sort of place where traffic is stopped for no discernible reason by men dressed as medieval knights and a bored youth blows up sheep for his own amusement.

Lewis applauds the bizarreness of the movie, which his brother also scripted. "I like the fact that it gets away from conventions. There are several moments that are really quite weird. It's great, for example, that the local village idiot likes blowing up sheep. People can be scared of these sort of off-the-wall ideas. I think strangeness is great, but the problem is people don't always know how to market strangeness."

Watch the trailer for 'The Baker' here

After Eton and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, Lewis did not have to wait long for success. He got his big break before he turned 30, playing the lead in 2001's Band of Brothers, the epic Second World War drama produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

When he was invited to audition at Spielberg's office in Hollywood, though, Lewis was convinced he had no chance of landing the role. "When I got there, they had photos of Dick Winters as a young man all over the wall of the office, and I sat down next to a guy who was the spitting image of him. He said: 'I'm here for Dick Winters,' and my heart sank.

"Anyway, when I went in, it was surreal because Steven did the classic American thing of saying: 'You live in London, do you know John?', and I thought: 'Not unless he's been in Kensal Green recently.' It turned out they just wanted to see what kind of a bloke I was, and when I came out Steven's assistant said: 'Are you ready for the boot camp in March?' I jumped up, shouted 'Sure am, buddy', and kissed everyone in the room."

The red-headed actor became friends with Spielberg and Hanks – pretty handy pals to have in the dog-eat-dog environment of Hollywood. "I learnt what kids they are," Lewis recollects. "They're so normal because they absolutely adore what they do. They've never allowed their status as Hollywood royalty to interfere with what they love. Steven will sit for hours with you and the tea-boy telling you exactly how he got a certain shot in Jaws."

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Something of a heart-throb, Lewis was also given a compliment by Hanks that he has treasured. "Tom Hanks said to me: 'You're going to be the first ever red-headed film star!' If people with red hair can be perceived as sexy and land romantic leads, then that has to be good for redheads in general. It's fun to be able to challenge the status quo."

Lewis is now cementing his status in the US by starring in Life, a well-regarded NBC series that is coming soon to ITV. "I've been out in LA for the last six months shooting it," the actor says. "I play Charlie Crews, a cop who is sent to prison for life after being framed for a triple murder. After 12 years, he is exonerated and released. Of course, he wants to know who has set him up, but the twist is that rather than being an avenging-angel vigilante, Charlie has embraced the way of Zen in prison. Now he has the most life-affirming, optimistic, generous, child-like qualities. He is enjoying every moment intensely because he's been given a second chance."

The actor lapped up the atmosphere in Hollywood. "The only spanner in the works," he reveals, "was that our two children are very young and are only 14 months apart, and it was initially difficult for the family when we all went out there. I was routinely working 16 hours a day. A US television shoot just doesn't go into a normal day. A lot of divorces happen out there, but," he adds, wryly, "everyone has nice cars and a swimming pool. As an introduction to Hollywood for our family, it was definitely tough."

It looks like they're going to have to get used to it, however – Lewis is slated to star opposite John Malkovich and Peter O'Toole in Love and Virtue. Now that the writers' strike is finally over, the actor is also hoping to return to LA to film more of Life. It's all a long way from baking chocolate cakes in a far-flung Welsh village.

'The Baker' opens on Friday

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