INTERVIEW

Damian Lewis

By Noah Davis

Illustration by Marco and Mauro La Villa

DAMIAN LEWIS WAS a few minutes late, fresh off an afternoon of getting fitted for a prosthetic so he could play Rob Ford, the late mayor of Toronto, in an upcoming film. The process involved getting his face and head completely covered in silicon strips, breathing through a small hole near the nose. It sounded awful, frankly, and, as he explained, a similar experience apparently once sent a big-screen martial-art tough guy into a blind panic.

Lewis, 47, was in New York to finish up the third season of Showtime hit, Billions. Shooting ran long due to the weather. What was supposed to be a six-month trip became seven going on eight, accruing “half a million” air miles flying back to London to see his wife and two kids during down time. The next morning, he had to be up at five o’clock to shoot a scene or two at Citi Field, and production would wrap for good in three days. He was ready to return home.

But first: dinner. We settle in at Kings Co Imperial, in Williamsburg, and get started with some fried mock eel, whatever that is. Lewis was ready to eat: “That’s the point of coming to Chinese restaurants, right? To get a bit of fried food.”

ND You’re a fan of this restaurant. How’s the food situation in Williamsburg?

DL I’m staying in a hotel, so I’m paying like 50 quid, $50 for breakfast. I’m walking around the neighborhood, but nothing’s open because my call time was so early, saying ‘Please, will someone just open?’ Give me an egg and a roll. $5. That’s all I want. I have to eat this Sicilian Eggs Benedict in this hotel I’m in. It costs me $25. There’s a sprinkling of pepperoni on spinach with some rustic Sicilian bread, you’ll be pleased to hear [laughs].

I think Williamsburg is great. Every now and then I feel like I want to be with some grownups. I thought it was going to be really young, and I’d be older than everyone, but that train left the station, like, 10 years ago. Williamsburg is already a middle-class, fairly wealthy neighborhood, but every street corner still has a beer hall where you can buy pitchers of beer. They all feel like a student union, even though everyone who is sitting at the tables works at Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan.

How has your experience of being in New York City changed in the three years you’ve been doing Billions?

The first season, we started on the first of July. My family was here for July and August, and we had a house in Westhampton. We did the whole thing and committed to it. After that, I got a nice big house in Chelsea that a friend of mine rented, not lent, to me. He was a better friend before he gave me the price. I was in this really lovely big house on 20th street. My family went home, and I had three months to go back and forth.

Last year, we brought my kids out with me from July through December. We were in the same house in Chelsea and the kids were in school here. My wife was with me for a couple of months before she went home to do a big TV show, so she was flying back and forth. We got a Tottenham-supporting, Harley-Davidson-driving nanny from Brooklyn. She was absolutely incredible. She was a qualified accountant and didn’t want to do accounting on productions anymore. She needed a break and was trying to do some writing. Someone recommended her to babysit. She didn’t know how to nanny children, but she was so sweet. She was slogging it into Chelsea from Bushwick. She did that for about three weeks, slogging back and forth, and then she said, ‘Damian, I haven’t brought it in because I didn’t want you to think I was influencing your kids in a bad way, but I ride a Harley-Davidson.’ I was like, ‘I think that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. Why aren’t you riding it in?’ So she started riding her motorcycle to the house.

This year, I started wondering what I was doing in this really expensive house in Chelsea. My friend is married to what you can only describe as Venezuelan aristocracy. Her mother is the first Latin American woman on the board of MOMA, and she has her own formidable art collection. It’s so formidable that she tours it on the road 12 months of the year. I came back to the house one day and there was a huge space on the wall where one of the big paintings was. I called my friend Nick and asked him what the hell happened. He told me it went out on tour. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You have very expensive art sitting on the walls of this house while I’ve got an eight year old and a nine year old and a nanny on a Harley running around’? That was making me quite tense as my nine year old, Gulliver, was just throwing tennis balls against the wall. So I got out of that house.

Have you spent time in Williamsburg before?

Twenty years ago, I first worked in New York in a Broadway production of “Hamlet”. Ralph Fiennes was Hamlet, and it was right in the height of his fame from Schindler’s List, Quiz Show, and The English Patient. He was really flying high. It was a real coming-of-age, rite-of-passage time for me. I was 25. Just a bunch of 25-year-old English actors in this hit show. Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg all edging past each other on the stairwell to come say hi to Ralph. It was an endless, endless procession of Hollywood royalty that wanted to be at the show that season. We were all out of our minds, 20-something kids running around having the greatest time.

I was dating a girl who lived in Williamsburg, about five blocks from where I’m staying now. At Bedford, there was nothing. There was one cafe that did the best tuna melt in all of New York called the L Cafe. I would walk there, have my tuna melt, then get on the L train. There really was a sense that if you looked out over the East River you’d see bodies lapping up on the floor.

The apartment that I was renting [before the hotel] is in the old Esquire Shoe Polish building. It was bought by a woman whose dad owned factories in Williamsburg. She’s about 60 and remembers the streets being lined with hookers, all of them waiting for the 4,000 employees to come out of the Domino Sugar factories. It’s all very John Cheever. She bought that building at an auction. In the end, with legal costs, the entire building cost $200,000 in 1992. It lay empty for 17 years because she couldn’t persuade a developer to be interested in it. She finally got the money and, with the help of a developer, single-handedly developed the building. She still lives there and runs it as a collective with a community vibe. She’s holding on to some vestige of a more-liberal, ’70s-era time. The elevator works, sometimes. But the apartments are great. Really beautifully done.

How did you find it?

Nothing romantic. StreetEasy. I really struggle with being here for six months and having to pay seven months rent. The finder’s fee being a whole month’s rent really does my head in.

What’s your perception of soccer in America?

Soccer isn’t quite in your DNA. Perhaps it will osmose through over the next century. When I’m playing soccer with people here, unless I’m with a bunch of Latinos or explicitly Europeans, I feel part of some counter-cultural sport. And I always enjoy that. I feel like I’m in on something, like I’m playing with a group of sophisticates [laughs]. You can start at 10, and it’s a good option for mums and dads because it’s safe, but interest in the sport fades out for a lot of people. The people who stayed with it either got to colleges and universities where they considered it important enough to keep playing or it’s just something about you personally that you pursued pick-up games all over the city and you’re still doing it at age 40. That’s your sport. In terms of playing it socially, I like the people who play it. They seem to have a broad outlook, a curiosity. It suggests a more international outlook.

Your sports scene is so crowded that I don’t know how soccer wiggles its way in. Your college sports have such a following as well. I work on a TV set where any member of the crew is able to talk in great detail about their football, baseball, basketball, and hockey teams. And then repeat all of that for their colleges. Where does soccer really fit in? The money is obviously not there yet. The league here is still a place where people who played at a higher standard elsewhere in the world can come to see out the last three or four years of their career. Thierry Henry, who is one of the greatest gentlemen ever to play the sport, was less than gentlemanly on a number of occasions when he was here with the Red Bulls. You could see his frustration.

“We went to the Tottenham game, the big derby. I walked along, holding my boy’s hand, with a little lump in my throat. This is what it’s all about. There’s only one problem: I’m walking to the fucking Emirates.”

Do you play when you’re home?

I have three revolving games, all of which I fail to turn up to because I’m here or whatever. The one that’s the highest standard is a league where we compete. That’s the one that you have to be in shape, otherwise you slightly embarrass yourself. That’s why it’s the game I show up for the least because I’m never quite enough in shape. We had a great kid, a New York University graduate, who was 23 years old and doing a year in London. He found us somehow. We stuck him in goal for a year.

Put the American in goal…

He was a goalie [laughs]. So he played with us for a year. And then when a couple of the guys from our team went to the US, they looked him up and played in his game.

There’s something about soccer that facilitates friendships. It’s not like basketball where you can play one-on-one. Soccer’s better with more people.

I went to private schools. I’m a privately educated man where team sport and team ethos is very much part of the education. It’s not just because they have the money and enough people to put 11 kids on a nicely mowed soccer field. It’s part of the ethos of the education that you join teams, you win and you lose together. You learn how to lose gracefully. I’m afraid my small ‘c’ conservative comes out big time when it comes to team sports. I think they are important. They’ve given me so much pleasure. Eban [Kit creator and publisher, also present] and I don’t know each other well, but we know each other well enough that after a few years of playing together, we are sitting down and having a nice meal. It wouldn’t have happened without all of us hauling our asses out of bed somehow at 6:30 in the morning to go play football. It’s insane. I can be a little dewy-eyed about that. I think there’s a romance about that. It’s great. It’s really great.

Do you get to Anfield much?

When I can. We have a big European night coming up, which I really want to take my son to. When I was filming Homeland, I came home one week to see my son, Gulliver, who was five years old, in an Arsenal strip. I hadn’t really gotten him going on the whole football thing. I went, ‘Helen? Honey?’ My wife, bless her, had thought that it was a good idea to give him an Arsenal strip because we actually can hear The Emirates when they score. We’re that close. He goes to a school in North London, and a bunch of his pals are Arsenal fans. I decided I was going to give it a go. I’d go down to The Emirates with Gulliver and would support him if he became an Arsenal supporter. It was always a regret of mine that I didn’t support my local team. I didn’t have that experience of walking through the streets with my dad to go to the game.

So, I walked Gulliver to his first Arsenal game through the streets with other dads and families, all wearing red and white. We went to the Tottenham game, the big derby. I walked along, holding my boy’s hand, with a little lump in my throat. This is what it’s all about. This is what I wanted to do. There’s only one problem: I’m walking to the fucking Emirates.

I did really try to get into Arsenal. I thought my boy would be an Arsenal fan, and I’d take the intellectual stance. We’d have interesting conversations about how our teams are doing. We’d watch the football together, sometimes.

But I just couldn’t do it. I thought, ‘That’s bullshit.’ I’ve supported Liverpool since I was seven. Slowly, over the next year or two, I started pulling my son to Liverpool. And you know what? I was right. We sit and watch Liverpool together and when Liverpool score we are going nuts together. I’m picking him up and hugging him. Call me an old softie, but it’s great.

Have you brought him to Anfield yet?

I took him to his first game last January. He was nine. We got a little VIP treatment, which was very nice, and shown on the team bus. The driver showed us around. We asked where everyone sat. Gully loved Sturridge so he went and sat in his seat. In the dashboard in the front, there was a cold box with some Cokes and a couple of beers, which Klopp always had. I went to sit in Klopp’s seat and hidden at his table was another little cold box with a few more beers. The driver said he thought Klopp had a couple before the game. I bet he does. All those occasions where he’s losing his glasses [laughs].

There’s been talk of England boycotting the World Cup following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Do you think that would ever actually happen?

Well, I’m sure the Russians are furious that our royal family won’t be coming. It’s the lamest threat that we’re not sending our royal family. The Brits are so funny. After the poisoning scandal, they asked anyone who was in that restaurant or that park for a period of seven or eight hours to take their clothes home and wash them. But don’t handwash them. Make sure you give them a proper machine wash. What is this, 1952? Just throw them out. Throw them away! Sure, give them a good scrub with some Tide [laughs]. No, throw them away!

We have a history of boycotting. Our cricket teams boycotted in South Africa during apartheid. We’d need to have a conversation about whether a sportsman’s career should be compromised because of a political situation? Should they just be allowed to go out and play and prove themselves? Let’s see how this develops. Let’s see if we can get any more conclusive proof, although I think it’s pretty damn obvious.

If you’re asking me, do I think we can be proud that we didn’t send cricket teams to South Africa during apartheid? Yes, I think that was a good stance. Some cricketers went under a sports promoter called Kerry Packer who set up separate leagues. There was a lot of money there for the players who went. Their argument was to separate the two, sport and politics. I don’t think they feel proud about that decision.

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My daughter, at the beginning of last summer, said, ‘Daddy, I’m not being funny. But are we going anywhere tropical this summer?’ I said, ‘You two spoiled brats. Motorhome. And a week around Wales.’ We stuck them in a motorhome. It was the most fun in the world. We camped at campsites. Just driving around Wales. Endless greenery and hills. I just totally fell in love with Wales all over again.

Did you spend much time in Washington, DC, during Homeland?

We went to Langley once. It was a fascinating meeting. We were all lined up on one side of the room, and they were on the other, all behind tables. It was like a summit. It was an opportunity to ask all of the operatives, some of whom were field operatives, questions. What was the emotional toll like on the individual?

Was that useful?

It was. They were all opaque. We couldn’t get through, couldn’t get a glimmer from any one of them. It was a bit like being with the Moonies. They were all slightly glazed over, talking about moral imperatives, being a crusading cause for good, and whatever bad press they got being worth it because they were doing the right thing for free Western democracies. It was like everyone had taken a pill and regurgitating.

There was a woman sitting across from Claire [Danes]. She was talking. But this woman, she said she had a daughter. I asked her how she managed her job and being a mother. There was a brief moment where she got caught in her throat. Her eyes just slightly dilated and welled up. She said it was hard, very hard. She was honest and open, saying she didn’t see her daughter as much as she wanted and that she couldn’t tell her what she did. That was a moment of humanity.

“What’s good about Billions now is that there’s a little bit more cause and effect. Slowly but surely we’re seeing the corrupting, soul-blackening, heart-shriveling effect of power and money.”

Was that meeting after the first season?

Between the first and the second. So we were there talking, and the door opened in the corner of the room. John Brennan [former CIA Director] walked in. He welcomed us, and said he liked the show and that he hoped we got a little insight into what it was like to be in the CIA and work at Langley. He told us that he worked there, then went to the White House, and came back because it’s impossible to leave. He said, ‘You’re not here through an addiction. You’re here through an affliction.’

He started talking about moral imperatives and repeating a bit of what the agents were saying. And then, totally unsolicited, he launched into a story about how they were under fire from Edward Snowden. Talking about the security breach and the untold, irreparable damage that Snowden did. He’s undone decades of intelligence work and it will take us decades to put it back together. Brennan got more and more angry as he was talking, and you could tell that just by talking about it he was exercising it. The temperature rise in the room was palpable.

Does Trump surprise you?

I’m flabbergasted by what has happened. We just watched Trump wondering whether the circus was ever going to crash, and it kept heading right down the freeway. It didn’t come off the road. There he is. It makes me happy to be doing Billions. I think it’s a really good show for now. It’s Trumpian in its sensibility and its attitude, certainly the character I play and the world that I inhabit in it. The government feels corrupt. It makes America feel corrupted without being corrupted itself. Trump feels like a corrupting force, morally, ethically, to say nothing of what damage he’s actually going to do to the economy, which he seems to keep confusing with the GDP and general productivity of the country.

In the world of Billions, these guys are playing a game and they play to win. They cross ethical lines all the time with impunity. The game is everything. The win is everything. It’s tainted by ego. I think it’s very entertaining, but it has value, too.

What’s good about Billions now is that there’s a little bit more cause and effect. People have to take a little bit more responsibility for their actions, whereas in season one, perhaps the creative team was just interested in showing this world. They didn’t seem interested in the consequences. There are now consequences. Slowly but surely we’re seeing the corrupting, soul-blackening, heart-shriveling effect of power and money.

Is that a function of the show maturing or of it trying to represent current events a bit more?

Homeland was very happy to and prided itself often on being a beat ahead of real events. Each season seemed to be uncannily current. The guys on Billions are a bit reluctant to do that. They wanted it to be a smart show but at least in the first two seasons, they didn’t want it to be drawing parallels and comparisons. In season three, I think they have done a bit more of that. They’ve made more obvious parallels in the writing. It’s so much fun when you can make immediate and obvious comparisons. It is a show for now.

This article appears in Kit Issue 04, available in print at 2018 NYFEST and Tribeca Film Festival Hub.