Damian Lewis talks to TV Real about what appealed to him about the docudrama Spy Wars, which is being rolled out by A+E Networks.
Lewis already knew a fair bit about espionage before signing on to executive produce and present the A+E Networks UK-commissioned series Spy Wars. He did, after all, play an MI6 agent in Our Kind of Traitor, based on the John le Carré novel, and a U.S. prisoner of war who returns home and is hailed as a hero as he secretly plots a terrorist attack in Showtime’s Homeland. Damian Lewis: Spy Wars sees the British actor recounting notable stories of espionage from the last four decades, spanning from the Cold War all the way through to the contemporary war on terror. The eight-part series produced by Alaska TV in association with Lewis’s own Rookery Productions sees him speaking directly to camera and features expert interviews and dramatic reenactments.
TV REAL: Tell us about the genesis of Spy Wars. How did you come to be involved in the show?
LEWIS: My brother [executive producer Gareth Lewis] was already involved, he was going to be directing parts of it. He said, Do you want to do this? I said, I don’t really do factual, I’m not a presenter. But I got sucked into these eight spy stories. I came on as a co-producer and tried to get to the bottom of what makes a man or woman do heroic or traitorous things on behalf of their country. That was it really. It came to me by invitation and my curiosity was tickled.
TV REAL: As you got into the details of these stories, what were some of the things that surprised you?
LEWIS: To be honest, a lot of what happens in the spy world is pretty unscientific. There’s still quite a lot of buccaneering and derring-do, if you like. It’s not risk-averse. It’s pro-risk, and often it can seem a bit chaotic, a bit ramshackle, and even at times a bit amateurish. Exotic words like “dead-drop” and “brush past” and things like that can simply be someone walking into a supermarket with the same plastic bag and putting it down and then each leaving with each other’s bag. It’s not exactly high-tech. While you’re looking for a slightly more sci-fi, James Bond aspect to these stories, they don’t exist. So the challenge for us was how to make the stories gripping and suspenseful. We tried to get into the minds of the individuals and what was at stake for them. What are the documents in that bag? What happens if that individual is caught? Why is the individual doing it? If the individual is a KGB officer and he’s caught, he’s going to be executed. If he’s a Western intelligence officer, he’s going to be imprisoned for life. We were trying to find out why these men and women are motivated to do these things. The motivation is often grubby and personal. It can be for simple revenge, a need to be heard, a need to belong to something, to be loved. People turn traitor for all these different reasons. So the surprise was constantly the grubbiness! And the desperation that’s there. And the extreme risk that these people are prepared to take in order to keep going.
TV REAL: How did the team decide on which events to focus on?
LEWIS: It was Cold War and post-Cold War spy stories. A lot of the success of an episode depends on who you can get access to. We had to drop two episodes because we realized we weren’t going to get the access that we needed. We had to move pretty quickly to find other storylines. Accessing the right people for interviews is essential. And the irony is of course that whilst it’s exciting that you can get to Robert Gates [former U.S. Secretary of Defense] or Leon Panetta [former director of the CIA] or Charles Powell, who was an advisor to Margaret Thatcher, a lot of these guys are still bound by official secrets acts, and they can’t often talk in a lot of detail. So you have the wow factor of people who were actually there. [Mossad agent] Danny Limor, for example, extracting thousands of [Ethiopian Jews] to a fake scuba-diving school on the coast of Sudan. We had access to Danny Limor. He was there—actually an operative in the field. And he was able to talk about it. But often they’re not allowed to talk about it. So you never quite know what you’re going to get. And there’s a budget for all these things. You can’t keep flying around the world to find people to talk to. You have a finite amount of time in which to get the interview. You don’t know until all the component parts are assembled. It’s like a big pile of washing. It’s all thrown in a basket, stuck in the middle of the production office, and then you pick through it. And you slowly start to realize whether you have a compelling [episode]. You know the story is good because you did your research, but you don’t know if you have a compelling way of telling that story until you’ve sorted through all the washing!
TV REAL: I’ve heard that so much of the craft of acting is about the interactions with your co-stars. What was it like for you spending so much time talking directly to the camera?
LEWIS: It was interesting. We were trying to find ways to take off that presenter style that journalists all seem to have. Like a journalist standing outside the White House or a reporter standing outside the Houses of Parliament. Our sets, in a soft way, were designed to reflect the world we were in for each particular story. I wasn’t in full costume. Just because we were in the Sudanese desert, I wasn’t in full combat desert gear! But nevertheless, I wore tones that spoke to that sort of landscape. And we tried to dress up the set a little bit so it would integrate seamlessly into the real landscape. And then in terms of presenting style, we talked about the camera work. Should we have matching cuts? So if you’ve just cut away from Danny Limor or one of the agents who was an operative in Sudan and you were in close-up, then come in close-up to me, so the audience feels the presenter is integrated into the action a little bit. We tried to make it a bit more immediate that way, so the action doesn’t get hacked off every time you come to me. At the same time, there is an element of handholding in my role in this. Summing up at the end of episodes, end of episode parts, before and after commercial breaks, that’s the format we’re working in. I’m reminding the audience of what the story is, I do a little summing up. It was an interesting experience! I don’t think I will become a factual presenter. I don’t think that’s what I want to do. I want to remain an actor. But it was part of me being involved in the series and being part of telling these stories. I think it would not have been the smartest use of my time just to ask me on as a producer and not put me in front of the camera! [Laughs] I say that in all modesty. I think it was clear that it was going to be useful.
TV REAL: Do you have a favorite episode?
LEWIS: From a journalistic point of view, I really like the episode “Spies Next Door.” It runs directly in an interesting way to recent events here with Sergei Skripal [a Russian intelligence officer recruited as a spy by British officials] and Putin. For just a really fun story and the sheer incredibility of what they achieved, I would say “Exodus” is a big story [about the rescue of Ethiopian Jews by Israel in 1977]. And in terms of the disintegration of an individual through the pressures of spying, you couldn’t do better than “Trojan Horse,” which is the story of Vladimir Vetrov [a KGB officer and secret operative for the French Intelligence Service during the Cold War].