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Damian Lewis finds a challenging home in ‘Homeland’

By Luaine Lee, McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — British actor Damian Lewis is living in an alternate world of sorts. While it surprised him more than anyone when he snatched the Emmy as best actor for his role as the inscrutable ex-prisoner in Showtime’s “Homeland,” he admits that such characters are a subliminal part of him.

“I come from a tradition where I believe that acting is the inverse of lying,” he says over a salad, which he wolfs down quickly.

“It’s not lying and trickery. It’s truth and honesty and sincerity. You occupy an alternative reality, and you commit to that reality utterly and honestly. And that’s what will be conveyed to an audience, if you do it right,” he says.

So far he’s done it right. Americans first noticed the tall redhead in “Band of Brothers.” Lewis portrayed a lieutenant who’s forced to take command of Easy Company when American paratroopers storm Normandy. His American accent was so flawless that his fellow actors refused to believe he was British.

In a complete turnaround, he next played the acquisitive and uptight Soames Forsyte in the “The Forsyte Saga.” And later starred in his own American series, “Life.”

But it’s his role in “Homeland” that has set him apart. “If you capture the essence of someone really conflicted at the heart of a serious drama, with elements of tragedy in it possibly, I think they register with an audience just that much more strongly than lighter comic roles,” he says.

“I think if I am attracted to those sorts of characters — intense characters or serious characters — I think it’s not so much that they’re intense and serious, I think I’m interested in people who are conflicted. That’s the most interesting character to play. It allows you to explore subtext. It means there is a subtext … I’m really just drawn to good writing — what’s concealed and not revealed. Perhaps that’s a particularly English thing, as the English don’t let their emotions out that much.

“But it’s those things, which are concealed, and I think it’s always far more interesting to watch an actor try NOT to reveal something than that moment of revelation.”

But for a long time Lewis, 41, despaired of ever revealing his face on film or television. “I was filled with the most doubt just after I’d done two years at the Royal Shakespeare Company,” he recalls.

“I’d done theater pretty much exclusively between leaving theater school and finishing at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that was about a six-year stretch,” he says, folding his arms in front of him.

“I’d done some TV, pretty inconsequential stuff. Because I hadn’t been primed or groomed in any way for film or TV, I had no interest in it … Then I started to see there was this whole other industry out there with infinite possibilities and started becoming intrigued by being on set — the cameras and the mechanics of the industry, the industrial nature of putting a film together with the machinery and lights … And I thought that was fascinating and really desperately wanted to get into some good TV shows.”

He auditioned for three of them. But he failed at all three. “I didn’t get any of these jobs. And I thought, ‘Maybe I’m just going to be one of these Ian McKellen types, Anthony Sher types. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m a bit too big and beefy for the camera and maybe it’ll just take me 20-30 years of working in theater and getting a reputation before I finally do some camera work.”

But he landed a role in the series “The Warriors,” a program that went on to win the British Oscar. “I was so happy. I’d thought maybe it’s the theater for me, (TV) was another world. And look where we are now,” he says, circling the room with his right hand, “sitting in the Beverly Hilton in L.A. because little things fell into place. And I’m incredibly lucky!”

Still coaxing things into place has not been easy. Lewis is married to British actress Helen McCrory (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) and is the father of two children a girl, 5, and a boy, 4.

Managing two careers and two children can be a challenge, he says. “You caught me on a very interesting weekend. Helen is in London working on a national theater in a new play. My kids are in Charlotte, N.C., with a nanny. And I’m here. That’s not something that has ever happened to us before. Because we’ve always successfully managed to dovetail in and out of each other’s jobs and ALWAYS have (one of us) with the kids. … They came out for summer vacation. Helen came out too,” he says.

“She had to go back, and I just had to come here for three days, but I’ve kept the kids with me in America for two more weeks because then I get to see them and be with them and they don’t miss me so much. Then I have to send them home to mummy because mummy starts to miss them.”

Sighing, he says, “It’s a little bit of a relay, handing the kids around like little packages. I hope they don’t think we’re divorced. But I don’t think they do. They’re just happy being with us on what they think is just a great vacation. They’re in the sun swimming, eating hot dogs, visiting Native Americans — Cherokees and cowboys.”

———

Jesse Spencer has retired his white lab coat from “House” for a firefighter’s rig in NBC’s new “Chicago Fire,” which premieres Wednesday. Spencer, who was born in Australia, says he’s learned a lot about the folk who man the big red trucks. “They have a very noble profession, but I think that’s a very outsider perspective and that’s where our show is good, because we’re concentrating on the characters,” he says.

“They don’t see themselves as heroes. They’re guys, they’re gals, and they’re doing their job. And it’s a dangerous job, and they run into these situations and they have issues with each other, and they might not necessarily like each other that much. But once they get together as a unit, they work together as a unit, and that’s what they do best.”

———

Connie Britton, who finally earned kudos for her role as coach’s wife Tami Taylor in “Friday Night Lights,” has snagged an even juicier role in ABC’s new “Nashville.” She plays a country singer sliding down the back side of fame as an ambitious younger chanteuse breathes down her neck.

For Britton, playing Southern belles has become a cottage industry.

“There’s something about Southern women that is so unique and yet so universal,” she says, “and I think that’s why people really respond to strong Southern women, because strong Southern women are also allowed to be soft and feminine and have a sense of humor.

“And there’s something that I really love about that. But what I love about it in particular is actually the universality of it. My family, we did spend time in the North and then I grew up in Virginia ultimately, so I feel that I’ve had a lot of different backgrounds. This character is actually incredibly different from Tami Taylor of ‘Friday Night Lights.’ I think even her accent is going to be different. There probably won’t be as many ‘y’alls.’”

“Nashville” premieres Wednesday.

———

“Arrow” alights on the CW on Wednesday, with a quiver full of dynamic physical feats. The show is based on the DC comic books, but the writers will embellish from there. “We are definitely taking a lot of inspiration from the comics, most specifically ‘Green Arrow: Year One’ and ‘Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters,’” says executive producer Marc Guggenheim.

“But it’s really a point of inspiration that sets up our world. We have already taken a fair number of liberties with the character. For example, in the comics, both of his parents are dead. We keep Oliver’s mother alive. Oliver didn’t have any siblings. We gave him a sister. One of the nice things about Green Arrow is unlike Batman or Spider Man or Superman — where everyone knows about Batman’s parents dying or Krypton blowing up or getting bit by a radioactive spider — Green Arrow has an origin that is subject to a lot of interpretation. In fact, it’s been interpreted and re-interpreted in the comics over many, many years. So there’s not as much canon that’s precious, so we can play around. But we always start with the comic as our source of inspiration.”

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