KEANE AS MUSTARD
After flirting with Hollywood and impressing TV audiences in Spielberg and Hanks’s Band of Brothers, British thesp Damian Lewis turned to low-budget indie film Keane and nearly lost his mind in the process, he tells Leigh Singer.
“I don’t think acting is rocket science,” asserts Damian Lewis, with an engaging mix of forthrightness and modesty. “I think it’s more an exercise of the imagination - using your imagination to put yourself in a situation - and I believe that very strongly. But having said that, after about three weeks on this film, I do remember starting to feel a bit fragmented in my mind. It was quite an interesting thing but it scared the living bejesus out of me to be honest.”
If it’s not rocket science, then it’s definitely some other strange alchemy that enabled 35-year old Lewis, an upbeat, flame-haired British actor, to transform himself into a mentally ill New Yorker, compulsively searching the city for his missing daughter in director Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane. His heartbreaking William Keane is a self-destructive, guilt-ridden alcoholic, sweating, shuffling and mumbling through Manhattan’s seamier side on a seemingly hopeless quest, the camera buzzing mere inches from Lewis’s head as it tracks, in this writer’s opinion, one of the best screen performances of the decade.
Little wonder, then, that even for someone who disavows the famous ‘Method’ school of acting, things started to get a little weird during the shoot. “I don’t tend to take my work home with me,” he notes. “When it’s a wrap, it’s a wrap and a cool beer is usually the way forward. But I’d invested so much time in trying to understand what it was like to be constantly paranoid and anxious and panic-stricken, that if you allow that mindset…”
He tails off, then quickly turns to the swanky hotel bar’s busy waiters as an example. “That pouring water over there or the crockery back there, if you don’t filter out those noises,” he suggests, “they become like attacks constantly. People suffering from paranoia are unable to filter these things out and then it manifests itself in all different ways, like, the guy behind the bar is probably working for M16, monitoring my moves.”
Lewis smiles apologetically. “I’m aware that this may all sound pretentious – but if you’re functioning well as an actor and you’re allowing your imagination to be that broad, and sponge-like and letting things in, you do risk psychosis.”
Fortunately the self-induced headaches and anxiety didn’t last – and Lewis is equally quick to admit the more pragmatic reasons for taking a film in which you’re in practically every shot. “Of course a little light bulb lights up above any actor’s head when he sees he’s in every scene,” he grins. “Having said that, there was also another part of me saying, hang on, is this an encyclopedia of, like, the Greatest Hits of Mental Illness Tics? Handled by the wrong person, it could have seemed like an overwrought student’s foray into emotional issues. But all of that was dispelled when I saw Lodge’s two earlier films (Clean, Shaven and Claire Dolan). I thought he was such a beautiful filmmaker.”
Kerrigan’s appreciation was mutual - and even more intriguing since it came from seeing Lewis’s breakthrough as the stoic lead in feted Spielberg-Hanks World War II mini-series Band of Brothers. “It couldn’t be further removed [from Keane],” Lewis admits. “That’s an extraordinary leap of faith by Lodge when you’re casting a project like this, but I really thank him for it.”
It’s indicative of Lewis’s own tastes that, after his self-confessed “gilt-edged introduction” to the US movie industry (“Tom Hanks personally recommended me to his agency, which by the way is such an indication of the sickeningly nice guy Tom is,” he jokes), he’s never been tempted to pursue the American dream. A theatrically trained RSC actor before Band of Brothers hit, his few Hollywood experiences – An Unfinished Life opposite Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez, or the execrable Dreamcatcher with Morgan Freeman – haven’t exactly inspired him to sell-up for L.A.
“Dreamcatcher was a big $80 million studio movie,” he shrugs, “and I was sort of taken along in the excitement and the rush of it. I loved working with the guys in it and the crew but it was a real eye-opener into just what a bloated and protracted affair making a big studio movie is. The resources and time available to you lends itself to just lazy filmmaking. I remember just sitting in Vancouver day after day in my hotel room, waiting to do a single line against green screen or something. It wasn’t stimulating.”
The result is that we’re equally likely to see Lewis taking on prestigious homegrown TV projects like Stephen Poliakoff’s Friends and Crocodiles or The Forsyte Saga remake; or treading the boards in the West End – and loving it. “We were trained in the theatre,” he offers simply. “That’s what we did. Having said that, I was at drama school with people like Ewan [McGregor] and Ewan was always very clear he wanted to do film.”
“I love doing a Stormbreaker, really good entertainment is vital,” Lewis allows, of the new teen spy Brit blockbuster where he plays evil Russian Gregorovich, who, ironically, offs McGregor in the opening reel. “But certainly you work for intense periods of time as an actor and then have time off, so when you have those periods of work, you want them to be as intense and as challenging as they possible. It’s a sort of junkie-ism, in a way.”
Those periods of time off are about to become much busier, with his partner, actress Helen McCrory, due to give birth in September. Meanwhile the drive for intense, challenging work is probably responsible for Lewis both playing a disaffected hitman in his brother Gareth’s upcoming comedy The Baker and co-producing the film.
“What’s appealing about production is the overview you have, but there’s also a lot about it that’s frankly clerical and secretarial,” he says mournfully. “I’m not naturally good at that. Definitely not.” Producing may not be rocket science either, but not being able to exercise his imagination? It’s obviously enough to drive Damian Lewis a little out of his mind.
Keane opens on September 22nd.