Eye on Emmy: Homeland’s Damian Lewis Talks About Playing No Ordinary Anti-Hero
Just as Nicholas Brody received a hero’s welcome upon being rescued from captivity in Afghanistan, Damian Lewis of Showtime’s Homeland has been met with plaudits for his riveting portrayal of the conflicted Marine sergeant, husband, father and… would-be terrorist. Lewis – going for his first Emmy nomination this year, having previously been nominated for the 2012 Golden Globes for playing Brody on this series and in 2002 for his role in HBO’s Band of Brothers – reveals how he makes the potentially reprehensible relatable.
TVLINE | You had to play a character who for much of Season 1 needed to keep us guessing about his agenda. How much did the producers share with you up front?
They gave me a pretty good outline, but what wasn’t explicit from the outset was whether Brody was actually going to try and do something. They never said, “This guy is a terrorist and he will act in a devastating way.”
TVLINE | Actors can get caught up in the idea of playing a likeable character – certainly not an American-bred terrorist. How’d you get past any such concerns?
It was a crackling script. Also, I don’t mind playing unlikeable roles; I’ve done it before. One of the things you should seek to achieve as an actor is that your character is understood somehow. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “You’re a guy who is going to blow up the vice president, you’re lying to your wife and you just generally scare the hell out of us, because you are unpredictable and unknown — and yet we oddly kind of liked you.” If people like what they find, that’s their choice. Some people will still choose to not like you, and that’s fine. But I had one contention: Is there a way of finding in Islam a force for good, a nurturing thing in his life? Plenty of people think that if you’re a Muslim you want to blow people up, which is nonsense, and to pander to that would be irresponsible. We were at great pains to find motivations for him, and they successfully did that.
TVLINE | Ultimately it’s your job to sell us on the fact that Brody believes what he believes.
Exactly. In the 17th century, when actors were given a play, “the argument” was the word for the script – and I approach characters like that. I put forward my side of the argument.
TVLINE | Is there a scene that stands out for you as being particularly difficult?
The interrogation between myself and Claire Danes’ character [CIA officer Carrie Mathison], when I was first brought in [to Langley], is nuanced and carefully colored because the audience doesn’t know how much Brody is hiding. At that point, I had fundamentals available to me – yes, he had been brutalized and tortured physically and mentally, and yes, at some point in captivity he settled into a life that he made peace with – but there were details of his relationship with [Al Qaeda commander] Abu Nazir that I wasn’t fully clear about, so I had to set out my stalls and make choices. Yet I couldn’t just not make any choices, because it would be nebulous and dull.
TVLINE | And it never felt like you were playing it down the middle on purpose.
I’m glad; thank you for saying that. Whenever it seemed like Brody might be evading a question, and that me might be pointedly, I could always choose to play a genuine confusion of events, because he was damaged. So when the audience is going, “You lying bastard,” at the same time they might hopefully entertain the thought, “Poor guy is a victim of circumstances. He’s clearly broken.”
TVLINE | The second interrogation, at the cabin – did you and Claire appreciate that it was a significant moment in the early going of the series?
We did, because everyone was talking about how this incredible episode [“The Weekend”] written by Meredith Stiehm was a bit like a play. It was two people in a cabin, and something was going to be revealed — that Brody had been with Abu Nazir, that he had lied, and that in some confused way he’d sort of loved this man that provided a solace for him. But the scene created some difficulty because a psychological through line didn’t quite match up, so we thrashed it out for a long time one morning, which was very draining. But the more that actors look like they’re being put through the wringer, it usually means they had more fun with it. That’s what you sign up to do, to have stuff that’s written like that.
TVLINE | Nick and his wife Jessica shared some very raw moments as they tried to rediscover who they were as a couple. How did you and Morena Baccarin get to that place of trust? The scenes were almost uncomfortable to watch.
They weren’t comfortable to do, either. But it’s part of the job, and Morena was brilliant. I was very glad to see those scenes, because in the research I had done, physical intimacy is very hard to win back after you’ve been away and gone without it for a long time. Many people who come back with post-traumatic disorder know they should love their [family], and yet as excited as they are to see them, they find it difficult to articulate that.
TVLINE | Your scenes with 17-year-old Morgan Saylor, who plays Brody’s daughter Dana, also at times packed a considerable amount of dramatic tension.
This is a little simplistic, but one of the themes toward the end of the season is that love wins. “Love conquers all,” to give it the hippie spin. Brody isn’t a radicalized jihadist — that’s not what put him in that [bunker] — but he is prepared at that point to act … and he’s brought back from the brink by the love he has for his family. If you like, Dana’s voice pierces the “fog” of the unreliable, irrational state he’s in at the moment that he’s prepared to flick the switch. The love he feels for her outweighs any abstract political idea he has. For me, that’s a good message.
TVLINE | You had esteemed company on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, in front of and behind the camera. What about that experience informed the rest of your career?
There’s no question that was a formative experience. I was green then and all I knew, to use [producer] Tom Hanks’ words, is that it was a “social document.” Meaning, a lot of these people were still alive and we owed it to them to represent them truthfully, so I was focused on not letting down [United States Army officer] Dick Winters. To be involved in something like that so early in your career makes you think, “Wow, that’s what’s possible” if you’re lucky enough to be in the hat. That’s exactly what I feel with Homeland. I was extremely lucky to be in the hat.
Season 2 of Showtime’s Homeland premieres Sept. 30.