Damian Lewis Talks Billions

Damian-Lewis-2After attending London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Damian Lewis took to the stage in numerous productions, from Shakespeare to Ibsen. Lewis also worked on both the big screen and the small. He was cast as World War II hero Richard Winters in Band of Brothers, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe, then went on to perform in the miniseries The Forsyte Saga and in several TV projects and feature films, including An Unfinished Life with Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford. Lewis’s nuanced portrayal of damaged, conflicted, former Al Qaeda prisoner Sergeant Nicholas Brody in Homeland on Showtime earned him a Golden Globe and an Emmy. He received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for his performance as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall. Lewis has returned to Showtime in Billions as hedge-fund king Bobby Axelrod, who is being pursued on insider-trading charges by U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by fellow Golden Globe and Emmy winner Paul Giamatti. Lewis talks to World Screen about immersing himself in the world of high-stakes finance and the expanding opportunities in the evolving TV landscape.

WS: What appealed to you about Billions?
LEWIS: I was drawn to it because I feel there is a place on TV—and Showtime is very interested in this—for finding subject matter that can become bigger than the TV show itself, so that the conversation can extend into the news pages. A show like Billions [is like that because] it explores contemporary financial culture, which is something that we’ve all become more familiar with. Since the crisis of 2007-2008, people have a bit more of an understanding of what happened. Some people are angry, others are just fascinated by that world and what drives those people. We haven’t really had that story told, and it seemed a good opportunity to tell it. People have preconceptions about hedge-fund billionaires, so I think we had an opportunity to explore the world those people live in and to explore the individual as well, and to just get people to think about it in a less black-and-white way. That’s why I decided to do the show and hopefully we will achieve that.

WS: Do you have a process for preparing for a role? How did you prepare for Bobby?
LEWIS: I do have a process; it’s pretty straightforward. I like to get reading material, so I find literature on the subject and I find documentary footage. I also like to meet people who are in [the character’s] world. If I’m telling a true story I want to represent it in a credible way.

So preparing for this meant that I sat down with many powerful hedge-fund guys, all of whom are billionaires, some of whom were directly involved in the crash of 2007-2008 [and others] who have become successful more recently. And I investigated the intellectual process. I was interested in whether there was a moral position that any of them took. I was interested in what they saw as the positive effects of a hedge fund, and whether they were prepared to concede that there were any negative effects. I was much more interested in really finding out the mechanisms of a hedge fund—where it fits and what role it can play within the market—because that’s what most people don’t understand. It was interesting to learn in my talks with them that the hedge funds sit apart from mainstream Wall Street and consider themselves to be apart from it. And I think they are feared by mainstream Wall Street! But also I find myself sympathizing with them. I think the first thing to say is that, individually, they behave differently from one another, so it’s impossible to broadly say they are all [similar]. But I think the ones that are liked and have integrity have been maligned, and I think hedge funds do have a role to play. I have sympathy with the idea that they are market regulators; they can go in and hold firms that might not be performing to account.

Certainly in 2007-2008, with the subprime mortgages, there were a bunch of guys who just couldn’t believe what was happening, who couldn’t believe that no one else had seen how dysfunctional the market really was at that point. They tried to point it out, but they went on to make lots of money as a result of shorting the market. They played by the rules of the game. They actually weren’t the ones, it seems to me, who were corrupt. It seems like there was corruption and coercion everywhere else. That would be my view.

So I’ve learned a lot by talking to them and reading about them. That’s my process, getting in the room with people. Bobby Axelrod is a fictional character. He isn’t any one guy, and I discovered pretty quickly that modeling him on one particular person wasn’t going to be any use to me. It became obvious very early on that David [Levien] and Brian [Koppelman], the writers on the show, had wanted [to create a fictional character]. So I was able to borrow things, but behaviorally I haven’t been able to borrow that much—it’s been more intellectual.

WS: You have been widely praised for your ability to portray ambiguity; we certainly saw that with Sergeant Brody on Homeland, who could communicate so much with a glance, without speaking. Is Bobby less subtle than Brody, or is there ambiguity in Bobby as well?
LEWIS: This is a noisier show than Homeland. It’s a little bit more front foot, a little bit more alpha—alpha male and alpha female. Sometimes the language is slightly heightened in a Tarantino-, Sorkin-esque kind of way. It gives great rhythm and music to the language, but it means that things are more expressed than they are implied. It’s more explicit, I would say. I think the writers are extremely interested in ambiguity and in playing with the notion of [questioning] who is good and who is bad, who’s likeable and who’s unlikeable. But in terms of performance, it’s been much more front foot. It’s been much more aggressive, more confrontational, and I hope not without its subtlety and nuance; but the style of the show is much more New York-y.

WS: Homeland was about spies and terrorism, and Brody came home and was hiding who he really was. Here Bobby and Chuck aren’t hiding who they are—at least it doesn’t seem that way, I’ve only seen the first episodes!
LEWIS: Certainly one of the intentions of the show is that people will be revealed to be not what they seem. We have a man from privilege and wealth who is working in public office for not much money. And we have a man from a blue-collar, working-class background who has made a lot of money. There is the theme of regulation versus libertarianism. There is a bit of a class theme in there and, obviously, money. You will see likeable things about Bobby, who you suppose, in the beginning of the show, is being pursued by the U.S. attorney. And there is no reason to believe the U.S. attorney is wrong: he thinks he’s got a whiff of insider trading and unlawful business, and there is no reason not to believe him. The attorney, in turn, will reveal himself to be an equally ambitious, grasping and aggressive alpha male, in the same way that Bobby can be. The whole thing has become sort of gladiatorial; it’s like two kings in their own kingdoms, and we observe what they have done to attain power and what they will do to preserve it. That’s really where the show is.

WS: What has playing opposite Paul Giamatti been like?
LEWIS: When we’ve done [scenes together], it’s been absolutely wonderful. We don’t get to do it very often because we have these parallel stories. I love working with Paul. There is always a confrontation [between our characters] when we come together.

Paul is one of the smartest actors I’ve worked with. He is totally present. Emotionally, intellectually and physically he inhabits his space entirely. He’s a force to be opposite of, and I love it. I’d love to get on stage with him actually! He’s a complete gentleman and a lovely guy. It’s been wonderful. He has an ability to inhabit his lines in a credible way. He is totally present, that’s what I would say about Paul, that’s what’s so engaging about watching him as an actor and being in the space with him; he creates a force because of how present he is, intellectually, emotionally and physically. It’s thrilling to be working with him.

WS: Years ago many actors thought that film would offer them the most challenging and rewarding work, and a lot of them looked down on television. Over the course of your career, how have you seen that change? Certainly film still offers many opportunities, but tele­vision has so many character-driven series now.
LEWIS: I don’t think film is offering fewer opportunities than it used to, it’s that TV is offering so many more. And the TV landscape has shifted entirely. It’s unrecognizable now as an art form. Once the way in which we got our content changed, and we started having library viewing and binge-viewing and people being able to watch episodes back to back, it wasn’t so important to come to the TV once a week. As a result, the way the stories could be told changed. It was a happy coincidence that lots of things shifted at the same time. I think people were finding it harder to make intelligent independent films and to get them financed and seen. They found that there were storytelling opportunities in TV. At the same time—I’m not a scholar of it—but it seems that the studios saw a chance to monetize TV in a way they hadn’t before. It truly became this global industry and as a result, Band of Brothers was one of the first successful limited series, a major piece of television shot abroad with foreign crews and foreign actors. That didn’t happen in TV. It always seemed to happen in a backlot in L.A. And it seemed to be a very Hollywood-American community. But suddenly TV was being made like feature films, and TV shows were going abroad. Foreign markets were so important to the sales of TV shows, and as a result, people like me got really lucky; I came of age as an actor just at the time the TV world was shifting. You can probably trace this current trend with this type of TV show being made back to about 2001, 2002, when we made Band of Brothers and when The Sopranos was being made. It became clear that there was an appetite for a 12-hour movie, which effectively is what we are talking about. Subsequently, we’ve had The Wire and Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Homeland—all these seminal shows of the last several years, which have been committed to telling a 12-hour story like a 12-hour film. Viewers have loved having the opportunity to watch something over 12 hours, and so we have binge-watching, which is kind of a new thing.

I just feel incredibly fortunate. There is still the opportunity to make film, but there is also the opportunity to make things like Billions and Homeland, in which you get to really tease out a story, in a more novelistic way, over 12 hours. It’s a sign of the times—80 percent of the directors I just worked with on Billions have all made major films, but are also interested in making TV now.

WS: With the opportunities available in this new landscape, what kind of roles do you look for? What kind of work do you enjoy?
LEWIS: I enjoy it all. I’ve never had a good answer to that question. I take each role as it comes. It has to be something that hooks me in, but I would say I respond more to the material than to the role. I don’t want to be playing a fabulous character in a piece that I don’t think stands up or isn’t of interest to me. It’s the subject matter and the story that appeals to me, and I then hope to make the character interesting and credible within that.