“I’ve really screwed up my hearing,” grimaces Damien Lewis. “I should have had earplugs in.”
The mud-spattered Lewis, in a World War II paratrooper uniform, has spent the morning shooting blanks (24 for each take) from an M-1 rifle at a crowd of extras dressed as German soldiers.
It is a deafening business, and everyone else on set either wears earplugs or covers their ears whenever director Tom Hanks yells “action!”
The temporary ringing in his ears, though, isn’t enough to spoil Lewis’ morning--and certainly not his year. In “Band of Brothers,” he has secured the leading role, that of the great American war hero Richard Winters, a platoon leader. It’s quite a coup for a virtually unknown English actor.
“It only became clear to me when all the cast were at boot camp before shooting,” says Lewis, 28. “I thought, my God, I’m playing one of America’s own, still-living heroes. And they’ve given it to an English guy. I started to realize the enormity of the task.”
Lewis, wiry and red-haired, talks intensely and articulately about being chosen for the role: “I did three auditions, four screen tests. You make a list, and of young actors in London, there were about 30 of us. And they saw about 130 in America. After my fourth screen test in London, I had to wait, then I was asked to fly to Los Angeles to meet Steven [Spielberg] and Tom [Hanks]. That was my big Hollywood moment.”
Until then, Lewis’ main claim to fame was as part of the ensemble cast of two British TV series: “Warriors,” in which he was also a soldier, and “Hearts and Bones,” a drama about a group of twentysomethings.
A former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he had also played in an acclaimed production on Broadway, as Laertes opposite Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet; when Lewis met Spielberg, it transpired that Spielberg had seen the production twice but failed to connect Lewis as the actor playing Laertes. He got the job, and stresses that Hanks and Spielberg were unconcerned about his low profile and his Englishness.
“Hollywood loves change, the new sensation, the next big thing,” Lewis notes. “But certainly, the buzz going on around this project makes me realize what a big deal it is.”
In the early days of shooting, Winters himself, now 82 and a retired major, came to London, but fell sick and did not visit the set. Lewis went to see him in his hotel room.
“It was fascinating,” he recalls. “Dick Winters is an exacting man who demands the best from people. You win his respect. There’s still a charisma about him.”
Lewis has read extensively about Winters: “His ability to think quickly and presence of mind made him a hero. He had a force of will and personality. His great cry was: ‘Follow me!’ And people would.”
Hanks concedes that Winters was the hardest character in “Band of Brothers” to match with an actor: “The trick was casting this very enigmatic man, of whom there’s a substantial amount of mystery involved. You never know where you stand with Winters. But when we heard Damien read, we’d found our guy. Maybe it’s his delivery, a kind of ‘less is more’ thing.’ ”
For his part, Lewis makes no attempt to conceal his pleasure at landing the role. “It’s been incredibly rigorous for me, but it’s thrilling too,” he says. “And playing Winters--that’s an honor.”