Morena Baccarin and Damian Lewis in "Homeland." (Kent Smith / Showtime )
Damian Lewis has played a vast range of characters, from emotionally racked fathers to villainous aristocrats. But his recent television projects suggest that he's developing a specialty: prisoners who find life outside to have its own considerable challenges.
In NBC's quirky series "Life," Lewis played an ex-cop released after years of being wrongly imprisoned. And now in Showtime's "Homeland," which premiered Oct. 2, Lewis takes on the role of Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody, who is rescued after spending eight years in Afghanistan as a POW. Although he returns home a war hero, he is obviously troubled. A CIA agent believes Brody may actually be planning a terrorist attack against America.
"These two men do seem to have similarities," said Lewis recently by phone during a break in the filming of the drama, which is winding up production of its final first-season episodes in North Carolina. "They both seek revenge. There's a vigilantism to both of them."
Brody in the initial episodes is ominously quiet, conveying a turmoil beneath his haunted expressions, highlighted by strikingly blue eyes. "He's a controlled explosion," Lewis said.
The British actor, who makes his home in London with his wife and two daughters, has been delighted with the twists and turns in "Homeland." It stars Claire Danes as driven CIA agent Carrie Mathison, who is battling her own demons as she obsessively pursues her suspicions about Brody. The series also features Mandy Patinkin as Mathison's mentor.
"I'm surprised by the honesty of the writers — they have remained true to what they had originally pitched to me," said Lewis, who undertook extensive research, including talking with former soldiers, reading firsthand accounts about post-traumatic stress disorder, and studying the Koran.
He's invigorated by the complexity of his character and the series' post-Sept. 11 perspectives: "This is really an explosive and controversial character. And what's important to me in this piece is that any preconceptions about who's bad and who's good are challenged. The world is revealed as less black-and-white than some people believe."
Executive producer Howard Gordon said he and fellow executive producer Alex Gansa (they previously worked together on "24" and "X Files") felt that Brody was the most difficult of the main characters to cast and the most difficult to play. "Part of it is not knowing who he is and knowing who he is." He called Lewis "an extraordinary actor with an all-American face, which is astounding because he's British. He takes the role very seriously, and he's done his homework."
Brody is the latest in a career of critically acclaimed performances for Lewis. He won numerous accolades for his turn in the 2004 movie "Keane," in which he portrayed a grief-stricken, mentally ill father wandering around New York in search of his daughter. He also played the villainous British aristocrat Soames Forsyte in "The Forsyte Saga."
Audiences are most likely to remember him as the heroic Richard Winters in HBO's World War II epic "Band of Brothers," however. Winters became the miniseries' central character as he rose through the ranks to become a major. Lewis said he still regularly hears from fans of "Band of Brothers," which just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
A more bittersweet experience for the actor was "Life," which ran from 2007 to 2009 and was canceled after two seasons despite a devoted fan base and critical support.
"It was outrageous that 'Life' was canceled," Lewis said. "It was bad decision-making by NBC at a time when bad decision-making was the norm there. The creators of the show deserved better — the American Film Institute called it a transcendent show. I feel very nostalgic for that show — I thought it was exquisitely executed."
However, the series also took its toll personally. His wife was pregnant with their second child, the family had just moved into a new house and he was overseas shooting. Because he was the central character, the schedule was relentless.
"From a personal point of view, I bit off more than I could chew, so two seasons was probably about right," he said. He added with a chuckle, "And I'm still with my wife."
"Homeland" is turning out to be a more rewarding experience: Lewis said he "loves" working with Danes and Patinkin.
"I feel incredibly lucky," he said. "The shows are big commitments, and there's nothing more discouraging than knowing you're not reaching creative points where there's so many opportunities to really fly. It feels great to be here."