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.

RELATED | Early Intel on Homeland Season 2: Will Carrie Go Rogue? Plus: The New Threat to Brody

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.

RELATED | Homeland Hands Out Two Season 2 Promotions

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.

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  1. Anya says:

    Love him so much! I was afraid we’d never see him
    On American television again after the wonderful Life, but he’s just outstanding on Homeland. Thanks for the interview!

    • AfterShare says:

      Loved “Life” so much. Was conflicted about “Homeland”. He is brilliant.

    • peeveem says:

      Anya – thanks so much for mentioning Life. No one ever talks about it and I thought it a wonderful show and Lewis was just great in it.

    • Kate says:

      Agreed! It was the thing that upset me the most about the whole Leno moving to 10 instead of retiring debacle. If NBC hadnt cleared all their 10 pm slots for him I think Life would have continued!

      • Anna B says:

        Absolutely agree with you about Life, which could have enjoyed a long run had NBC played its cards right. There must have been some changes in management at NBC to have let a show that had some of finest writing and actors that I have seen in a long time. That network continues to pay the price for the Leno fiasco. Whoever is at the helm has no imagination. Life is definitely one of those “if only” shows.” I still miss it and the characters.

      • Becca says:

        Enough with blaming Leno for the Jeff Zucker caused problems at NBC!
        If Leno had left, NBC had to pay him $145 million, but they painted themselves into a corner when they agreed to give Conan the Tonight Show after five years or pay him $40 million.
        Leno wanted to leave NBC & go to ABC which would have given him a show in six months but NBC was afraid that would destroy Conan so they had a shortage of programming, due again, to Zucker’s incompetence & needed to fill at least three hours of prime time a week. So for some insane reason, they forced Leno into the 10PM slot five nights a week & hobbled him with guest restrictions, mainly, he couldn’t have on anyone that was scheduled for Conan’s Tonight Show or had been on it in the previous weeks. Add to that Letterman also has guest restrictions that prevent them from appearing on his show if they’ve appeared on another network & you have a show where the biggest guest of the night is a nobody fourth lead actress from a low rated show on NBC.
        Leno wanted to leave NBC, but he was also ambivalent about knocking Nightline off the air, which is what ABC was prepared to do. Letterman also had turned down ABC years before for that same reason.
        So all Leno had was a monologue & some really crappy guests & a few new taped skits with new, untested comics doing them. He got crappy ratings, but Conan still had six months of shows without Leno as the lead-in before the local newscasts & he didn’t click with the national audience, which is what many TV professionals told NBC. But Zucker was determined to save GE the $40 million breakup fee & keep Leno & avoid that breakup fee.
        The moral of this story is: Don’t fire the guy with the Number One show in the time slot, you’ll wreck the entire brand & in this case, Leno, Letterman & Conan all have much lower ratings than three years ago!

        Sorry to inconvenience you with the facts!

    • tp says:

      I miss Life SO much!

  2. Another1bitesTheDust says:

    Can’t wait! Awesome show… Keeps you on the edge of your seat, guessing, and unsure of who to cheer for because the actors pull you back and forth between their characters. Very well done acting & writing. Hope this show is around a long time!

  3. DL says:

    He’s so outstanding! Loved him in Life, love him even more in Homeland! Go Damien! Hope you’ll get an Emmy to put on your shelf!

  4. Trina says:

    If you get the chance check out a small indie film he did called “The Baker” . It’s funny, charming and just slightly sick in the true British tradition.

  5. Eliza says:

    Damian Lewis is flawless on Homeland!

    Cannot wait for Season 2.

  6. H says:

    I love Homeland. What is Damian Lewis’s real accent? Sometimes on Homeland his accent sounds really fake/forced.

  7. Mark says:

    He’s pretty good on the show. I can’t stand Morgan Saylor though. That character and the way she plays her is so atrocious. I cringe at any scenes involving her.

  8. moobear says:

    Love Damian Lewis, he plays barely suppressed psycho like the best of them…. Christopher Walken (can go from normal to psycho in 3.0 seconds), Gary Oldman (can go from normal to psycho in 2.5 seconds) and now we have Michael C. Hall and Damian Lewis. MTV needs to bring back Celebrity Death Match just so can see Hall v Lewis!!!!

  9. Mick says:

    I hope he wins as good as Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, and Timonthy Olyphant are he was breath taking.

  10. Dani says:

    It’s got to be between him, Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm this year. I can’t pick between them so who knows which way they’ll go.

    Really solid actor, backed up by equally solid writing.

  11. Izzy says:

    He was brilliantly dastardly in Forsyte Saga. It was so hard to hate Damian Lewis even when he was playing a guy that is absolutely repulsive. Gosh he was good.

    Homeland is great all round, hope they will get some love with Emmy.

  12. AJ says:

    Will Peter Dinklage be moving to the lead male actor category this year for Game of Thrones? Or will everyone on the show be competing as supporting actors.actresses? He does great justice to the character of Tyrion Lannister and his Emmy win last year was well deserved. I really liked Homeland and Damian Lewis was great on the show, but I don’t think he will win.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      Dinklage is Supporting this year.

      • AJ says:

        In that case, I hope Damian Lewis wins. Homeland was one of my favorite new shows of the year. Just outstanding.

      • AJ says:

        I can’t wait to see what shows get nominated for outstanding Drama either. I read Downton Abbey is moving into the category. You have Homeland that deserves a nomination. Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead. Mad Men. And Breaking Bad better finally win after blowing half of Gus’ face off. No shortage of good drama on TV right now.

  13. Britta Unfiltered says:

    Hmmm….after Kelsey Grammar winning the golden globe for best drama actor, I think he probably has the Emmy in the bag. He gives a pretty good performance on Boss too, but I would very happily see Damian Lewis take it, and it would be deserved. This is going to be a hard to vote for category this year. Jon Hamm, Kelsey Grammar, Damian Lewis are definitely the front runners, at least in my humble opinion, and all 3 deserve it. But I really think it will go to Kelsey Grammar. I think the other 3 nominations will go to Steve Buscemi, Michael C. Hall, and I gotta go with my boyfriend Timothy Olyphant in a cowboy hat for that last one. (Sorry, Hugh Laurie). I do wonder if Andrew Lincoln in a cowboy hat can beat out Michael C. Hall though. Claire Danes takes best actress for sure.
    I absolutely think Homeland is getting the Emmy this year over Mad Men. And Matt Weiner can thank their obsessive fascination with Megan for that. Just kidding, it probably doesn’t matter what Mad Men could have done this year in terms of story. Homeland was just perfection and became my new favorite thing after one episode. That show is addictive and all-consuming with complex characters, a great story, and some of the best plot turns I have ever seen on a TV show. My season one DVD has been pre-ordered since March, and I am so annoyed I have to wait longer for it to come!

    • Britta Unfiltered says:

      Oh my gosh, I forgot about Bryan Cranston. It has been too long since Breaking Bad was on, ugh!!! So replace Timothy Olyphant with Bryan Cranston and there’s my prediction. That hurt me to say, as I crush on Timothy Olyphant pretty obsessively, but his role on Justified this year felt a bit limited as they gave more screen time to the many villains this season. I think that’s going to hurt his chances. And Bryan Cranston is definitely a frontrunner. Possibly even a winner, but I bet they wait until part 2 of the season airs in 2013 before they give it to him.

  14. Alexis says:

    He is mind blowingly brilliant on Homeland. And I always knew he would be based on his standout performances in Life and Band of Brothers.
    I really feel strongly that he, Claire and the show itself are going to break some long-standing Emmy record and win the top 3 Drama categories.
    I certainly would support it!

  15. Kat says:

    His portrayal of Captain Winters was perfection. I watched it again today!! Life was also a great show but of course when a new show is picked up by NBC it doesn’t stand a chance. I tried to like Homeland but I stopped watching because I wasn’t up to seeing Damien play a traitor to his country so I stopped.

  16. Nicholas M. Denoyer says:

    I think Homeland deserves not only nominations, but wins for Lewis and Danes. I would not have even watched the show if it wasn’t for those two. They drew me to the show and kept me watching week to week. Call me crazy but I don’t feel uncomfortable at all about watching Sgt. Brody trying to complete his “mission,” so to speak. I just love watching bad guys who have likeable qualities. That reason alone makes it a wise decision that Showtime decided to kerp DEXTER and Homeland on the same broadcast schedule. They both play very well off each other. Michael C. Hall and Damian Lewis are two very talented men and they both happen to have red hair.

    Now, about Morgan Saylor’s performance, I think she was great last year on Homeland. Not many actresses her age would have been able to pull it off. The scenes between father and daughter were some of the best of the entire season. I think that’s partly because those scenes gave us glimpses into what Brody was like before he left eight years prior. Their conversation over the phone in the bunker was both heartbreaking and suspenseful.

    I’m really looking forward to what Homeland has in store for us in season two. By my understanding, there will be a six month gap in the story between seasons. Hopefully, Homeland can continue to improve in its second season, which, in my mind, there is little to no doubt about it. The writing is good and the cast is great, as is the camera work. Hell, let’s face it, the whole production is great.

  17. Ellen in NYC says:

    I want to know if Homeland mucky mucks are committed to Damian Lewis. I always felt the pr was skewed towards Claire Danes, and not sure if that was because they thought she was the draw (and especially the draw for a younger demographic) or because they saw her as the star, and others were expendable.

    I tuned in specifically for Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin. It would be very upsetting if either of those two left the show.