'Homeland' Star Damian Lewis: 'The Walls Close In' During Season Two

'Honestly, people are going to be surprised again,' says Lewis. 'It's pretty accelerated.'

damian lewis emmy awards
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Damian Lewis at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.
By |

Homeland star Damian Lewis didn't want his character to send the wrong message. When the British actor was up for the role of secretly traitorous Nicholas Brody, he told producers: "Look, if you're asking me to play a U.S. Marine who discovers Islam and then wants to go kill a lot of Americans because of Islam, I'm not interested. Because I think it would be irresponsible." So far, Lewis is happy with the way the character has walked that fine line – not to mention the Emmy he won for the role. But for Brody, things are only getting worse in season two.

Did you have to go on some kind of extreme diet to play Brody at his thinnest?
No, I didn't, actually. In fact, the times that we've seen Brody slim, I wish I had been skinnier. I'm a skinny bastard usually, so I usually have to go to the gym to put muscle on.

Well, you pulled it off. 
It's debatable. That's the whole thing. When you see Brody at the beginning of the show and you see him naked, you think, 'Well, maybe he should be a bit skinnier than that.' And there was a lot of discussion that went on, actually, over how long Brody actually was a prisoner of war, and at what point he was under house arrest and living some sort of normal life within his new community in Syria where they moved him to before he's moved back to Afghanistan for the overall plot. And the backstory was that he would have been put back in the hole for six to nine months in order to grow the beard long and to get the skin disintegration and stuff like that, so that when they find him it would be authentic. There was always a conversation of 'Therefore, what would his weight be like?' 

Voluntarily going into the hole for that many months was one of his biggest signs of devotion to the cause.
I think there's a lot that happens between Abu Nazir and Brody. I think Abu Nazir never successfully radicalizes Brody in the conventional sense. I don't think Brody straps on the suicide vest in the name of Allah, you know, against the Western infidel. I think it really becomes a more personalized act of vigilantism, if you like, as a soldier. And against Walden, the vice president, but certainly Abu Nazir knows how to use that for his gain, to manipulate Brody to use him as a weapon for his own cause.

Was Brody brainwashed by Abu Nazir?
It's not a Manchurian Candidate. People liked to draw that comparison early on before they'd really seen it. You know, he hasn't been hypnotized or brainwashed in that sense, but it has been a mind-altering experience, and he has been abused by a man who is really a father figure in his life. He looks up to this man as much as he fears and recoils from this man who's brutalized him and harmed him. So Brody is made extremely vulnerable and unstable by the way he's been treated.

There are hints of Stockholm Syndrome – him sympathizing with his captors.  I think that is something you can legitimately say has happened to Brody. And so he's predisposed to anger towards the perpetrators of the violent act, and loses his– for all intents and purposes, he loses his second son in that drone attack when he loses Isa. And because he's vulnerable and unstable and possibly irrational, a confused young man, an abused young man, he acts in a volatile way, and that's what turns him into a terrorist. The one thing we can be unequivocal about is that he does try to commit an act of terrorism.  In whatever name, he straps a bomb to his chest and is prepared to blow people up. So that is certainly true of Brody. He's confused enough to act that way: manipulated, influenced. But I would resist saying brainwashed.

You make an important but subtle distinction. He is a Muslim but his terrorist actions are not connected to his religion. They're connected to a terrible event he experiences.
In the end, arguably, we didn't get an opportunity to really explore it in quite enough detail, because it's a thriller.  There was a lot of story to get through, and to keep people guessing and to keep people excited.  So I always thought it was a more subversive idea that a young marine would turn to Islam and that Islam would be a sustaining and nurturing positive force in his life, and that it would be something he actively chose, not that he was brainwashed into believing. It was a personal choice and I thought that was sort of more frightening to a lot of Americans, I think, they would find that an even more radical decision.

I guess we haven't seen his moment of conversion to Islam.
You know, we haven't, and honestly there just isn't enough time. No stone is left unturned and if something isn't there it's because a decision was made not to have it there for some reason, and in the end you have to respect that. It was about midway through the season when they revealed to me the methodology of Brody's attack and that was something that was always up for grabs and wasn't decided until the last moment. And they were discussing it until the last moment and then they presented the idea to me that he would strap on a suicide vest and try to blow himself up. And my initial reaction was resistance. Having this finely balanced line that I've just been discussing with you, that Brody actually wasn't a Jihadist sort of Islamic warrior. That's such a potent image, but it was by far the strongest way to end the season. It's a political image, and it was the right one, and I came out to seeing that. But I was initially concerned.

Once the writers saw the chemistry between you and Claire Danes in that scene in the rain, they decided to quickly escalate the romance plot. How did that work?
Um, yeah I did hear something along those lines. I have to say, you actually touched on something very interesting, because as an actor in these long-form TV dramas, I'm acutely aware that writers write to actors' strengths. And as a result, I think you end up playing this slight cat and mouse game with the writers, or at least I do. You don't want to show them too much of one thing in case they identify that and they write to that overwhelmingly. Which, in turn, will preclude you from exploring all sorts of other facets of a character. They just latch onto something that they love. And I think that's always an interesting sort of dance you do with the writers. You know, with Claire and me in that scene, I almost think it was their intention that there would be some kind of relationship between these two. You know, attracted to each other from opposite sides, and perhaps just in their minds they were braver with the kind of material they had for us. Maybe they could never have imagined writing things as daring or as intimate. I'm glad they did, because it was a hell of a lot of fun to play. 

I was fairly stunned when it went there so quickly – the show could have jumped the shark in that moment. 
You know, again you've just touched on something else I'm acutely aware of and I think everybody here is. TV audiences are so aware now. They're so analytical. They're so story literate that it's very hard in a thriller nowadays to stay ahead of them. 

I think people have generally said that Homeland was exceptional in that area, that people were consistently surprised. And that's a really hard trick to pull off, and people seem to be gratifyingly surprised. It never felt tricky or cynical, but it was always rooted in character. It's a hell of a trick to pull off, but, I think, once you do that, you run the risk of getting on the plot train, and once you're on the plot train, plot takes over. And it then becomes very difficult just to let the thing breathe again, to sit in a more psychological place with the characters that people are enjoying watching each week. Because once the plot gets going, the episodes will seem to drag, I think. The two things need to go hand in hand. Things like those two suddenly kissing in the rain at the end of episode three. It was an extraordinary moment. It's suddenly, 'Oh my God. Really?'

So you're filming the seventh episode of the second season right now?
Yeah. We're filming seven now. I have a rough sense of what's going to happen. I think, honestly, people are going to be surprised again. It's pretty accelerated again this season. Already in episode one you have that reveal in the Brody household. 

I think you're going to be even more staggered by the reveal at the end of episode two – you know, I couldn't blame you if you thought Brody's gonna be done by episode six. The walls close in much quicker than you would expect, and from Brody's perspective, it's gonna create a season of high level anxiety. Really extreme high level anxiety where, any moment he tries to wrest control for himself and have some sort of control over his life, the rug will be taken from under his feet. That's kind of Brody's psychological state.

To be able to keep this going for multiple seasons is not easy, plot-wise.
Of course it isn't. No. You're right. And you're probably thinking what I'm thinking, 'How the hell do they keep it going and make it satisfying and truthful?' That's been a hallmark of the show. For all of the extraordinary storytelling skills, the thriller aspect of the show, they've maintained the psychological aspect of the show and grounded it in reality and not beyond the realms of possibility. It's certainly a possible scenario, and you know they're managing still to keep it grounded in characters. What's rare about Homeland is often characters are defined by how they act.

You know that characters can be defined by their actions. So you give them actions. You give them plot, and then you see how people respond and how they behave. And in Homeland what they really cleverly did is, with the two protagonists in particular, you gave them psychological conditions that dictate the way they act. So everything they do, and this really goes for everyone in the show, everything they do is a response to their situation, to their psychological state or their emotional situation, and it's brilliant. So that every bit of plot, every bit of action is grounded in character, and that's what gives it its psychological realism, its truth and, in the end, this sort of edge over many other shows. 

It's pretty surreal that Obama came up to you and told you how much he liked the show.
Yeah, this now well-documented dinner I had at the White House, which was just a stunning and once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I was sitting opposite the President at his table and also opposite David Cameron. The President turns to David Cameron and he says, 'Have you seen the show?' And Cameron just said 'No, we're only on episode two in the U.K., so we haven't seen it yet, but Samantha downloaded it so we watched the pilot while we were getting ready for dinner. Very good!' He literally walked from his bedroom, fiddling with his bow tie, to come down to dinner having just seen the pilot. 

I said to both of them, 'Guys when do you watch TV? I'm fascinated to know, because aren't you supposed to be running the free world?' And the President said 'Well Saturday afternoon, Michelle, she goes and plays tennis with the girls. I pretend to go work in the Oval Office. I sit in my chair and I turn on Homeland and watch it.'

This is the guy that orders drone strikes himself. That's the part that blows my mind.
And by the way, for all the conventional wisdom that Bush was a warmonger and hawkish and that Obama is not, that he's more dovish – you know, he has ordered more drone strikes in his first term than Bush did in his two terms. I think by a ratio of something like every one in four days, he orders a drone strike to Bush's every one in ten days when he was in office. It's obviously his preferred method of attack, you know.

It's strange to think of him watching that episode that shows the drone strike's consequences.
Imagine being the guy pushing the button, and he knows that's what happens. Each president, each prime minister of my country knows that every time they sanction another strike they know that's what happens. By the way, I don't condemn them for that. It's a non-enviable position to be in. I'm not in the middle of making some grand political statement.  There is no perfect answer.  It's an unenviable position to be in, and the President can't help but have been stirred by that I can imagine.

There are idiots who think he's a secret Muslim, too.
Oh, yeah. Now, we can go for a beer and have that conversation.