There weren't a whole lot of upset winners at last Sunday's Emmy Awards, but one of the few was Homeland star Damian Lewis, who beat out, among others, Mad Men's Jon Hamm and three-time winner Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad to take home the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Lewis' co-star, Claire Danes, won for her lead performance as well, and the show ended a four-year Mad Men streak when it was named Outstanding Drama Series. On Saturday's Weekend Edition, Lewis talks to NPR's Scott Simon about his character, Nicholas Brody, and on how he — a British actor — came to play so many American men in uniform.
(This story contains information about the first season of Homeland, so be warned.)
Lewis says that Brody, a prisoner of war who returns after eight years of captivity, comes home deeply affected by the man most responsible for his detention, who becomes both a captor and a father figure: "I think Nicholas Brody is made unstable by that relationship. And so he's a confused soul. While his impulses might be defendable, his – his action is not. So there's a lot going on with Brody, but I try to ground him in what's essentially an abusive relationship with this father figure."
Brody, upon his return, almost instantly raises the suspicions of Danes' character, Carrie Mathison, a CIA analyst who, as Lewis puts it, is "brilliant, maverick, dynamic, intuitive, but is also driven to a point of, I suppose you might say, selfishness and obsessiveness." Mathison finds that her suspicions aren't taken all that seriously, a problem that's compounded by the fact that she's been diagnosed bipolar. Carrie represents a sort of fundamental conflict, he says, in that she "sometimes is hard to like, but represents the hope for security."
It might surprise you to hear Lewis' British accent if you haven't before, but Brody isn't his first high-profile American. Many know him from the HBO series Band Of Brothers, in which he played an American soldier in World War II, or from NBC's Life, where he played an American cop framed for murder. Why so many Americans in uniform?
"Well, I think it's a ghastly accident," Lewis says, before allowing that it's possible that when casting was underway for Band Of Brothers, it seemed like a British actor would be "more straight-backed" than an American and more capable of portraying what was "slightly old-fashioned" about his character.
While Lewis is hesitant to make too much of political themes in what he says "is, at the end of the day, a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller," he does acknowledge that there's something about Brody's broken state that speaks to things that really happen in the world. "I think Brody does represent ... a picture of a young man who is victimized, who is damaged brutally by war, and therefore he is a comment on war and what we risk by sending young men to war."
Homeland answered some of its big questions in its first season, which began as an apparent conflict between Carrie's sense that Brody was a dangerous terrorist and Brody's insistence that he was precisely the rescued Marine he appeared to be. Still, with Brody now in Congress, there's another set of mysteries, and Lewis says there are still twists ahead that even the people who make the show didn't anticipate. "The writers often don't know entirely what the arc of the season is going to be. And, and they were pedaling furiously I think in the middle of the season, to change the second half of the season, so, just to give an example of, you know, the spontaneity of the writing room, but I don't think the end of season two has suffered. I think it's still very compelling."
Of course, it hasn't always been political allegories and awards. Before he was an actor, Lewis was in an entirely different line of work, as Simon points out: he sold car alarms, which he calls "not a happy period in my life." How unhappy was it? "I remember going to work with one of those enormous, brick-like Walkmans that we all used to have ... and I would get on the tube, go to work, and try and sell car alarms. Simba! Simba Car Alarm Systems. I used to say on the phone, 'Hello, sir, do you have a car alarm?' I wasn't very good at it."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Showtime's "Homeland" swept the Emmy awards earlier this week, winning the trophies for Best Drama, Best Writing, Best Actress for Claire Danes, and Best Actor for Damian Lewis, a British star who's becoming known for playing stoic, iconic, American men of arms.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")
DAMIAN LEWIS: (as Nicholas Brody) My name is Nicholas Brody, and I'm a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. By the time you've watched this, you'll have read a lot of things about me, about what I've done.
SIMON: Damian Lewis joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
LEWIS: Greetings. Thanks you for inviting me.
SIMON: Without giving away any plot points, what's going on inside Nicholas Brody?
LEWIS: Well, it's a good question. I think Nicholas Brody is an abuse victim, simultaneously abused and loved by a man who is a mentor figure in his life, who's responsible for torturing him and who is responsible for offering him some salvation as well.
SIMON: We'll explain for people who may not be familiar with this series that Sergeant Brody was held prisoner by al-Qaida for eight years. By the way, it's congressman Brody as season two opens. We've got a clip here with Brody at work. His mentor figure, Abu Nazir, has sent an intermediary to Brody's office with instructions for future operations. The intermediary's played by Zuleikha Robinson.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")
LEWIS: (as Nicholas Brody) I told Nazir I would influence lawmakers through my access. That is what I'm doing and that is what we agreed to.
ZULEIKHA ROBINSON: (as journalist) I know what you agreed to.
LEWIS: (as Nicholas Brody)I am not a terrorist.
ROBINSON: (as journalist)There's a difference between terrorism and a justifiable act of retaliation.
LEWIS: (as Nicholas Brody)I will not help you in the killing of innocent civilians.
I think Nicholas Brody's made unstable by that relationship, and so he's a confused soul. While his impulses might be defendable, his action is not. So, there's a lot going on with Brody. But I try to ground him in what's essentially an abusive relationship with this father figure.
SIMON: There's a CIA agent played by Claire Danes, who's kind of sniffed out the fact that he's supporting terrorist plots, but the problem is her perceptions are suspect. Did I get that right more or less?
LEWIS: Yeah, you've got it. You know, it's a series of plays with perceptions. Claire's character, Carrie, is brilliant, maverick, dynamic, intuitive, but is also driven to a point of, I suppose you might say, selfishness and the obsessiveness. And sometimes it's hard to like but represents the hope for security.
SIMON: How do you account for the fact that you've been cast, at this point in your life, between two seasons on NBC's "Life," where you played a police officer framed for murder, and, of course, "Band of Brothers," where you played World War II U.S. soldier, how do you account for the fact that you played so many American cops and soldiers?
LEWIS: Well, I think it's a ghastly accident. I think the casting of "Band of Brothers" was instrumental in the whole thing, obviously. And I think the reason I landed "Band of Brothers" is that perhaps because he was a World War II hero, because there was something slightly old-fashioned about Dick Winters and because young British actors might present themselves in a different way, in a more straight-backed way, if you like, in a less-hip street kind of way. I'm slightly grasping for ideas here. But it's been suggested to me that that might be a reason, and that seems like a good reason that a young British actor has something rather more old-fashioned about him still. But, yes, it's been fun. It's been a bit of an imposition. I apologize for that. But it's been fantastic.
SIMON: Mr. Lewis, could you sell me a car alarm?
LEWIS: Not anymore.
SIMON: But you used to do that, though, right?
LEWIS: I used to be, yeah. Not a happy period in my life. And I remember going to work with one of those enormous brick-like Walkmans that we all used to have, you know. And I would get on the tube, go to work and try and sell car alarms - Simba, Simba car alarm systems I used to say down the phone. Hello, sir. Do you have a car alarm? I wasn't very good at it.
SIMON: I was struck by something you quoted as saying in the L.A. Times that Claire Danes's character, Carrie Mathison, who I guess has been diagnosed as bipolar, reflects our country's deep political, economic and cultural divisions. What does Brody represent?
LEWIS: I think Brody, I think he's the strongest political message in the series, actually. I don't want to overstate, you know, the political themes because it is, at the end of the day, you know, a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller. But I think Brody does represent a picture of a young man - he is a picture of a young man who is victimized, who is damaged brutally by war and therefore he is a comment on war and what we risk by sending young men to war.
SIMON: May I ask, do you know how it all turns out?
LEWIS: I do. I can tell you, by way of a little bit of gossip and a bit of a teaser, that things had to change dramatically in the middle of the season. The writers often don't know entirely what the arch of the season is going to be. And they were pedaling furiously, I think, in the middle of the season to change the second half of the season. So, just to give an example of the spontaneity of the writing room, but I don't think the end of season two has suffered. I think it's very compelling.
SIMON: Damian Lewis, he Emmy Award-winning actor who plays Sergeant - now congressman - Nicholas Brody on the Showtime series "Homeland." The show's second season begins tomorrow night. Thanks so much.
LEWIS: Thank you. Very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.