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Actor Damian Lewis Explores A World 'Of Ego And Power' On Showtime's 'Billions'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest today, actor Damian Lewis, has become something of a staple of hit American cable TV series. He played a World War II hero in the HBO series "Band Of Brothers." In the Showtime series "Homeland," he was an American Marine sergeant who returns from captivity in Syria with ties to terrorists, a role that earned him Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy awards. And in the Showtime series "Billions," he plays the ruthless hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, who's pursued by an ethically challenged federal prosecutor played by Paul Giamatti. By the time the fourth season ended last night, twists of plot had radically altered the relationship between the two, turning them into strategic allies. The show has been renewed for a fifth season.

Despite his convincing portrayal of Americans of blue-collar origin, Lewis is a classically trained British actor who attended Eton, the historic boarding school known for educating British aristocrats and royals. I spoke to Damian Lewis last week.

Well, Damian Lewis, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DAMIAN LEWIS: Good morning. Hi.

DAVIES: Let's talk about "Billions," the series on Showtime which you are starring in. And I thought we'd begin by hearing a clip. This is from Season 4, the current season. You played Bobby Axelrod, this tough-as-nails hedge fund manager. You came up from the streets and made it in the financial world. And you're on an airport tarmac where a Russian oligarch, who's played by John Malkovich - who's been an adversary of yours - is getting on his private jet 'cause he's been ordered out of the country by the state attorney general. And as it happens, you, Bobby Axelrod, actually engineered this. And you've come to the tarmac to have a final word with him as he's dealing with this defeat and humiliation. And as it opens, we hear you tell your adversary that you have a parting gift for him.


LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) The few billion that you have at Taylor Mason Capital will be unfrozen and released back to you once you land back home.

JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Grigor Andolov) That's something, but it is actually my money you're giving back to me. I'm not sure how much gratitude that buys.

LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) Do you want it or not?

MALKOVICH: (As Grigor Andolov) Yeah, sure. Will I get it?

LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) You will - the moment you land, as I said.

MALKOVICH: (As Grigor Andolov) Good.

LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) Grigor, listen. Here's the thing. After the cash hits your account, you may start feeling that you didn't get your satisfaction, that you have some further score you want to settle with me. You're going to want to tamp down that feeling. Sure, it's true; I didn't have you do my killing for me. But don't let that trick you into thinking that I don't have the will or the ability to do it under different circumstances, like when I'm threatened. You send someone after me here, they're going to find that I'm a very insulated, protected and powerful man in these [expletive] parts and there is nothing that I won't do to defend what's mine.

DAVIES: That is our guest Damian Lewis on the series "Billions," speaking there with John Malkovich.

What appealed to you about this role?

LEWIS: When I came over to talk to the guys about whether we'd move forward with this - and by the guys, I mean Brian Koppelman and David Levien - I wanted to know what their worldview was 'cause it seemed clear to me that that is the direction that the show would go in. And what we have at the outset is we have a mythic context of a sheriff and a cowboy, a sheriff and a gunslinger. The sheriff is played, in this case, by Paul Giamatti, the U.S. attorney. And I play the gunslinger, who is a hedge fund manager here in New York.

And what the guys wanted to explore was the way in which the politically and financially powerful here live and operate and the different moral code by which they seem to live by. And what became clear was that this was going to be a world - and what has become clear over the last three or four years - is a world that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and even the good guys do bad things; the bad guys will occasionally do good things; loyalty is paramount. So it's a world of ego and power.

And Bobby Axelrod was sent up as a guy who was, in some ways, the embodiment of the American dream, a blue-collar alley cat, a scrapper, with a mid-ranging university education. They make a big deal of the fact that he was at Hofstra. He is not an Ivy League guy. And he has become a billionaire.

DAVIES: I read that Andrew Ross Sorkin, the New York Times' financial writer who was also, I guess, a co-producer, co-creator introduced you to some hedge fund executives. What did you want to learn from them, from those meetings?

LEWIS: It would be too simplistic just to lump them all into one group. They were all very different characters, some with an explicit vanity in, you know, the cost of their haircut to the suits they wore to the winter jackets they had and the offices with priceless works of art on the walls. But I found - with every single one of them, probably the one thing I could say is they were all incredibly focused listeners and were all keen to impress on me that this was not a Wall Street environment anymore - this was not a Gordon Gekko environment anymore. It wasn't dog-eat-dog. It was much more a risk-intolerant, analytical, scientific world where risk was removed from the equation before a bet is made, before an investment is made.

DAVIES: It's not that they're ripping people's throats out; it's that they're smarter and more analytical than everybody else.

LEWIS: Before they rip someone's throat out.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Right.

Any mannerisms or personality traits that you kind of integrated into Bobby Axelrod's character?

LEWIS: Brian and David had written something of a something of a rock star, something - a guy with swagger and confidence. I wanted to give him a sense of the street so nothing too refined. He is a guy who's committed to wearing, you know, thousand-dollar sneakers and jeans and cashmere hoodies - that's his thing - rather than an expensive Italian suit. And so I wanted to find a prowl in him, something predatory in him. And ever since I was trained as an actor, I've always enjoyed using animals, finding that sort of anthropomorphic quality between human beings and animals. And I sort of found a cheetah quality in him that I have used, you know, from the get-go.

DAVIES: Right.

When you were filming the first season, it was probably during the 2016 election. And I'm wondering how, you know, Trump and the Trump administration have influenced your thinking or the plotlines as this has developed.

LEWIS: Well, it was fascinating having a president in the White House who tore up the political and diplomatic rulebook and said, no, what's king here is the transaction, is the deal. And I will go, and I will make deals for America. Bobby Axelrod is entirely a transactional human being. This is not unlike the current president. So it's been a happy thing for us that he's been there, weirdly, because it does make our show even more, I think, contemporary, more current - even more explicitly a commentary on contemporary America. That might seem pessimistic because the show is quite a bleak worldview. But these things go on, so...

DAVIES: You know, I'm wondering what it's like to act in these scenes with Paul Giamatti where you're really going mano a mano, and you really are guys with two very different kinds of power. He's the law enforcement guy. You're the economic power - kind of how that played out.

LEWIS: Paul's become a power. He's just - he's an absolute delight to work with. He's a powerhouse of an actor, and I love how present he is in every scene. Initially, they were so climactic - the scenes when Axe and Chuck would come together - that I think we had to resist - we had to kind of just calm ourselves down (laughter). We did, I think, a couple of takes which were big, really big. I'm going to out-act you. And then we would calm down and just let the story take care of itself. You know, in mythic terms, he's the sheriff. I'm the gunslinger, you know? And - but they're as equally corrupt as each other. And, you know, it's a story about shysters being shysters, and there are no two bigger shysters than Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod.

DAVIES: My guest, Damian Lewis, stars in the Showtime series "Billions." Here's a scene featuring one of those confrontations he was talking about between Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund manager played by Lewis, and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, the federal prosecutor who's gunning for him. Rhoades is bitter about what's happening in his marriage. His wife, who works for Axelrod, has left him.


PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) My wife kicked me out.

LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) Good for her. She's not here, either, if you're trying to find her. We've both lost her.

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) Oh. Well, then maybe you have a sliver of my pain 'cause you've stripped away everything that matters to me.

LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) You came at me.

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) Because you're a criminal, Bob. And it's my job to shut them down and put them in jail.

LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) Well, if that's true, you're not very good at it.

DAVIES: We'll hear more of my conversation with Damian Lewis after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Damian Lewis. You'll remember him from the Showtime series "Homeland," now starring in the series "Billions," which has been renewed for a fifth season.

You didn't grow up in a background like Bobby Axelrod, but you didn't come from humble origins. Tell us a little bit about your family and your schooling.

LEWIS: No, I'm a privately educated Brit. I couldn't have come from a further away world than Bobby, I guess. I grew up on Abbey Road, actually - any fan of The Beatles will know where that is - in north London. I went to boarding schools from an early age, from the age of 8, and came out of school at the age of 18 and knew by that stage I wanted to be an actor and went about trying to do that and auditioned like everybody does for drama schools. I was at something I called the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which was a music conservatory, as well as a drama school. And I continued from there.

I had very supportive parents. My father was in the city - was, I guess, a city gent in London but an actor manque in many ways, loved the theater is really responsible for my love of the theater, took us all to the theater a lot when we were kids - often big, Western musicals. He had lived himself in Chicago for five years in the '60s and so loved and felt a great affiliation with all the those old-school, American, 1930s, '40s musicals - "42nd Street," "On Your Toes," "Guys And Dolls." And whenever there was a revival, we would go. And I always acted at school. I went to schools where theater programs were very active. You were really encouraged to get involved.

DAVIES: Did it ever occur to you that you had a particularly interesting face?

LEWIS: (Laughter) I - well, there was a very brutal exercise that we were asked to do in - at drama school. We spent - one semester, one of our classes was on makeup. And they give you a piece of paper with a blank oval shape on it, which is your head. And you had to stare at yourself in the mirror for an entire semester and draw on this blank oval your face with all its imperfections. So you knew every imperfection on your face. And there is nothing that is straight or symmetrical or matching on my face. I can tell you that. So I - it's kind of a depressing exercise when you do it, but it's also incredibly useful when you're trying to - when you're making yourself up in the theater. But no, I never thought I had an interesting face. In fact, the opposite - I probably worried that I was - I didn't have the right kind of face.

DAVIES: The point of the exercise was to be aware of what you could do with your face on stage?

LEWIS: Really, it was a makeup exercise. If you've got a bent nose and you want it straightened, you know how to shade and highlight in order to do that. If you want to accentuate, exaggerate an imperfection - like, one of your ears is higher than the other or one eye is smaller than the other - all of which is true of me - if your mouth doesn't sit directly under your nose - which is also true of me - you know? And you might be playing a character. You might think that's useful. So let's exaggerate that. Let's use makeup to stick your mouth even further out of the way from under your nose or exaggerate your broken nose, which I have from playing cricket when I was 11 years old - that kind of stuff.

DAVIES: You did a lot of theater and did it well and got into television. I guess, you know, in 2001, you appeared in "Band Of Brothers," which was this great HBO series about a battalion in World War II. You've ended up playing a lot of Americans, particularly, you know, Americans of blue-collar backgrounds, and people have talked a lot about the authenticity of your accent. How did you get that?

LEWIS: It's been a big sort of 20-year-long mistake, this...


LEWIS: ...That I've been playing Americans. And you're right to pinpoint "Band Of Brothers." Something happened in the casting of "Band Of Brothers," I think, which caused such a frenzy amongst all the young acting community in LA when it was announced that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks were going to make this show with HBO. When they came to London - and they were always going to use some British actors. I'm afraid it was for no more romantic reason than for tax breaks because they were going to film it almost entirely - we filmed it almost entirely in a studio north of London and in the countryside around.

DAVIES: Again, transactions govern everything (laughter).

LEWIS: Transaction - I'm afraid so. So there were British actors peppered throughout Easy Company. I don't think they ever expected to find the hero of the piece in London, but the way they explained it to me was that these guys were 1930s men born in the first half of the 20th century. And there was something - as explained to me, there was something in me, something in my bearings, something in - I don't know - an upright way in which I walked, maybe to do with my theater training or something - that gave me an old-fashioned air that they said wasn't necessarily typical of a cool, hip, you know, Hollywood actor of the 21st century. And that's what they seemed to identify.

So totally by accident - and obviously, my American accent was good enough. And they cast me in it. And it was the happiest accident of my life. It was a great, great honor to play Dick Winters. And because he was an American icon - people didn't know about him then, but they've come to know him...

DAVIES: He's a real character, yeah.

LEWIS: ...And he is a true American hero - just a hero. But it just meant people identified entirely with me as an American actor, an American hero. And I have been offered American roles ever since. And I'm just very, very lucky. And, you know, the Hollywood machine whirred into action around me, and flights were booked right in front of me, and cars were booked and hotels were booked. And, you know, two or three days later, I was gone. I was in LA, sitting in front of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

And I was a young 28-year-old British actor who had just done two years at the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the Donmar Warehouse and played Hamlet in Regent's Park and our open-air theater, which is our Delacorte Theater in London. I was that guy. I was a British theater actor.

DAVIES: So how did it go with Hanks and Spielberg?

LEWIS: It was incredible. I got there, and Hanks was there. He was in the middle of filming "Cast Away," and he was in the middle of the break of filming "Cast Away," so they could give him the six months he needed - or nine months - to grow this beard. So by the time I got to him - I think I got to him at about month seven, so he was already just, like, a couple of eyeballs behind a lot of hair, you know, which just was - and he was just sitting in the room. Ron Livingston was there, who played Lewis Nixon so beautifully, who was Dick Winters' best friend. And Tom sat there, obviously having the time of his life playing all the other characters while Ron and I did our pieces.

And I went back to my very swanky hotel, Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, just thinking, oh, my God. This is it. This is Hollywood. This is LA. This is what happens. This is so exciting. And I went out. I have to say to you right now, I went out. I got absolutely trashed, slightly jet-lagged, very excited to be there and got pretty drunk. Came home about 4 in the morning to get a phone call, totally unexpectedly, at 8 o'clock in the morning from the gorgeous Meg Liberman, who was casting it - and said, Damian, Steven wants to see you this morning. And I woke up with four hours' sleep, sweaty and shaking and, you know, whiskey sort of oozing out of every pore. I had three showers, nine cups of coffee and ran in shaking to just have a chat with Steven and Tom again. And Steven videoed the whole thing, and we just had a great chat before he said, OK, I've got to go watch my kid play soccer. And he went.

DAVIES: And you...

LEWIS: (Laughter) And that was it. And I was left. And just after he went, Tom and Tony To turned to me and said, so boot camp starts in April. Congratulations.


LEWIS: And you know, that was as big a moment as I've had.

DAVIES: Damian Lewis stars in the Showtime series "Billions." After a break, he'll talk about playing opposite Claire Danes in the series "Homeland" and about what it takes to get an American accent right. Also, Soraya Nadia McDonald reviews the new Netflix series "When They See Us" about the Central Park Five case. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Let's get back to my interview with British actor Damian Lewis. He stars in the Showtime series "Billions," which ended its fourth season last night and has been renewed for a fifth. He's also known for his role in the HBO series "Band Of Brothers," for playing Henry VIII in the British TV series "Wolf Hall" and for his performance in the Showtime series "Homeland."

I want to talk about "Homeland," which was a big deal - the Showtime series that you were in for three seasons. Your character is this Marine who served overseas, was captured and held and tortured for years. And it's a wild plot. You end up becoming involved with American politics and intelligence. We learn that your character actually is a Muslim, is involved with terrorist groups. There's a lot going on with this character. How did you prepare for this role?

LEWIS: I sort of looked at three separate strands of it - what it was like to be a Marine. And I had some experience of soldiering through "Band Of Brothers," but I did a little bit of updating. I didn't go into a SEAL training or anything crazy like that. But I researched being Marine. I spoke to a couple Marines. I also looked at PTSD. And I went to a unit - a facility in England and spoke to them about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

And I also - and I read the Quran. And I went to the central London mosque in London, which is not far from where I live. And they welcomed me in there. And, in fact, when I was in North Carolina, I also spent some time in the mosque. It was a very small mosque there run by a nice cleric there, a mullah there who I think was from Lebanon, actually.

And there are about 10,000 Muslims in Charlotte, N.C. And so I spent a bit of time there just absorbing the culture and read the Quran. And that was it, really. That's how I prepared for it.

DAVIES: It's interesting because the series, you know, I think, was at times - drew criticism for demonizing Muslims and at other times being too kind to al-Qaida. Did any of that criticism affect what you did on the set or did - I guess a lot of it came long after you'd finished the episodes, right?

LEWIS: Well, certainly in the first three seasons when I was there, I was approached often by Muslims in the street who would thank me for a sensitive portrayal of being Muslim, of worshipping in the faith. And I think that's because whenever Nicholas Brody, although there were clear associations between having adopted the Muslim faith and wanting to blow people up, whenever he was alone and praying, I think people felt there was a sensitivity and an authenticity to that. And they thanked me for that.

And the thing that we - I think we were trying to establish in "Homeland" was that it wasn't that he had been radicalized by Abu Nazir It was that he was a deeply disturbed, vulnerable man after seven years of solitary confinement who turned to this faith through Abu Nazir as a sort of mentor father figure. But it was actually - there's a personal cost of the schools that he worked in and the loss of life to children because of drones from the U.S.

And that was kind of the politically radical thing about the show was that - was there a sort of state terrorism being enacted by the U.S. through the use of drones. And he felt motivated for personal reasons to come back and do something about it, rather than being a radicalized suicide bomber. That was a nuance that was, I think, was hard to convey, but that's what we were trying.

DAVIES: Right. It came out of his personal sense of outrage at that. Yeah.

LEWIS: Yeah.

DAVIES: Let's hear a clip. We're going to hear the CIA agent who's at the heart of the story, played by Claire Danes. And this is in the first season, when you've come back and are recognized as a hero for having, you know, been liberated after eight years of captivity in Iraq.

But she's convinced that your character - this Marine, Nicholas Brody - was turned into a terrorist operative by - serving by this commander, Abu Nazir, while you were in captivity. And as things develop, you - the two of you meet. Even though she's surveilling you, there - you develop a romantic relationship.

And this scene is at a cottage where you go together in the woods. And you sense her suspicion about you and ask her about it. And she just says - she responds, says yes. Let's listen.


CLAIRE DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) Abu Nazir's bomb-maker told me an American prisoner of war had been turned. He was coming home to carry out an attack.

LEWIS: (As Nicholas Brody) And you believed this?

DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) He told me minutes before he was executed.

LEWIS: (As Nicholas Brody) So?

DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) So he was my prisoner. I interrogated him for months. He was cooperating at the end. There was no reason for him to lie.

LEWIS: (As Nicholas Brody) And you think I'm not POW?

DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) There's no one else it could be.

LEWIS: (As Nicholas Brody) You're telling me the [expletive] CIA thinks I'm working for al-Qaida?

DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) I think you're working for al-Qaida.

DAVIES: And that is Claire Danes and our guest actor, Damian Lewis, from the Showtime series "Homeland." You know what's interesting about this is, you know, you always think of actors as having to understand, you know, their character and their motivations. And what's interesting about this is, in the first season, we don't know for the longest time what's in your head, right?

I mean, even as clues are revealed, we're not sure whether you're a military hero, you're dedicated to your country or a secret al-Qaeda operative or a double agent. And I wonder what kind of challenge that is as an actor to present this enigma.

LEWIS: Well, first of all, you need good writing, which we had. It was beautifully wrote, the first season. And I enjoy playing ambiguity. And this was a fabulous opportunity to do that. I think there's something, you know, clearly solipsistic about acting. Actors create their own realities for themselves. You enter a different world, a parallel reality which is the world of the story.

And you - the first thing an actor must always do is empathize, advocate for one's character. If the story is an argument, you represent one part of the argument, and you play it with total conviction. So there may even have been moments through the first season where I believed Brody was a good man because I think I'd done so much research into the PTSD and the sense of wrong, the sense of injustice about what had happened to him.

And I think that's what made him compelling and likable. People weren't sure - is this guy a good guy, or is he here to do something catastrophic? And, of course, he doesn't actually fully know what he's going to be asked to do. And that doesn't happen until much later in the season, when he gets his instructions from Abu Nazir and he goes and meets the tailor who is the maker of the vest.

DAVIES: The suicide vest, yeah.

LEWIS: Yeah, the suicide vest. So, you know, the ambiguity remains for those reasons. And she's not wrong. And Carrie is not wrong, but neither is Brody wrong, if you see what I mean.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, the relationship between your character and Claire Danes take some pretty wild swings. I mean, you were sleeping together. She's trying to put you in prison. She's mentally unstable. You're suffering from PTSD. What was the off-screen relationship like?

LEWIS: Similar, very similar.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

LEWIS: No, Claire's a fabulous, lovely person and smart and talented. And you know, she's the backbone of the show.

DAVIES: Our guest is actor Damian Lewis, star of the Showtime series "Homeland" and the Showtime series "Billions," which has been renewed for a fifth season. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Damian Lewis. You'll remember him from the Showtime series "Homeland." He's now starring in the series "Billions," which has been renewed for a fifth season.

One more thing about "Homeland" - I read that President Obama - I think he was doing a state dinner for David Cameron. And he invited you and your wife, actress Helen McCrory, to attend. And you sat at the table with him. Is this true?

LEWIS: This is true. We were fully expecting to walk into the - this marquee for 400 people on the South Lawn at the White House and to be sat next to the restrooms. And we were shown to this table which seemed to be very close to the stage where a band was going to perform later. And then the president walked in with our prime minister and walked straight to our table and sat opposite us. And we were amazed.

And I had Warren Buffett on my left. I had an Afghanistan vet on my right who had won the Medal of Honor for an act of extreme bravery that I would wish we had long enough for me to go into and talk to you about now, but he had a bionic arm.

DAVIES: And you gave the president a gift, as I've read, right?

LEWIS: Well, yes (laughter). This was one of my more irreverent moments. I - I'm slightly blushing now to remember that I did it. But the Teamsters for the Democrats came to visit us down in Charlotte and said, would you - we've got a box set for the president; would you like to sign a message to him? And I'm a huge fan - always was - of President Obama and was of course very aware of all the accusations, one of them - some of them made by our present - our current president about his birthright, his nationality. And so I wrote ironically, from one Muslim to another and your great fan, Damian Lewis - and sent this off to the White House and then had a panic a few weeks later that - I just hope he has a sense of irony and knows that this is a joke and why the joke's been made.

And so - and I had become friends with Jay, who is his - who was the press officer at the White House at the time. And I sent an email and said, Jay, please tell me that my joke was understood. And he sent me an email back the next day reassuring me. He said the president thought it was very funny and says thank you. And so I felt relieved, but there was a moment when I felt my cheekiness...

DAVIES: Like, why did I do this?

LEWIS: ...Had maybe crossed the line. But I got away with it.

DAVIES: I wanted to talk a bit about a movie that you starred in called "Keane," K-E-A-N-E, who's the name of your character. And I thought we'd play a bit from the beginning of this film. Do you want to just say a little bit about the character before we hear it?

LEWIS: Yeah. This was a story based on an experience that Lodge Kerrigan, my dear friend, the writer and director of the film, had when he lost, for about five minutes, his young girl - daughter - in a pharmacy. I think they were in a pharmacy. And everything flashed before him in five minutes. And thankfully he found her. So this film was an expression of that. What would it be like if he hadn't found her? And if you then met up with this character, the father, six months later or a year later, what sort of condition mentally would they be in? And so we have the film here which is an exploration of grief and mental health. And yeah, that's it.

DAVIES: Yeah, so let's just - this is really the very beginning of the film. It's at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. And your character, Keane, walks up to the ticket window and asks to speak to one particular ticket agent to ask him something. He's also holding a newspaper clipping about an abducted girl, which he shows them as the scene develops. Let's listen.


LEWIS: (As William Keane) Excuse me. Do you remember me?

JOHN TORMEY: (As 2nd Ticket Agent) Can I help you?

LEWIS: (as William Keane) I bought some tickets from you last September on the 12th - Clifton. I was with my daughter. She was abducted downstairs on the lower level. She was 6 at the time. She has red hair, and she came up to about here. She was wearing jeans and a purple jacket, and she has a dark blue backpack. And the jacket has a hood.

LIZA COLON-ZAYAS: (As 1st Ticket Agent) No, I haven't seen her.

TORMEY: (As 2nd Ticket Agent) I'm sorry. We sell hundreds of tickets a day.

LEWIS: (As William Keane) I just thought she might have shown up or someone might have seen her.

TORMEY: (As 2nd Ticket Agent) I'm sorry.

LEWIS: (As William Keane) Someone might have seen her.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm sorry.

DAVIES: And that's our guest actor, Damian Lewis, starring in the film "Keane." It's a powerful film. And one thing I'm just noticing as I listen to that is how your voice is a register higher than it is here. Was that a conscious choice?

LEWIS: He was a man under duress, so yes, and clearly a man who's asking if they've seen his daughter who was abducted from, you know, Port Authority six months earlier is someone who is clearly unraveling. It's an irrational question. So yes, it was partly a choice. Although I will say something about performing in an American accent that phonetically, it places my tongue in a different place in my mouth just quite - just - this is just the technicality of speaking in different dialects. And it sometimes does force my register up a little higher because my tongue closes at the back of my throat a little bit. And even when I'm playing Bobby Axelrod, I notice that sometimes I'm a little bit high, and it's weird. So I tend to - I try to do vocal warm-ups and especially as I'm flying backwards and forwards a lot from London. And, you know, the voice is dried out from jet lag and airplanes and things like that. So I like to get it lower if I can.

DAVIES: You know, there's so many British actors that do terrific American accidents. Like I think of Dominic West, who was in "The Wire," who I think you were a schoolmate of, right?

LEWIS: Tom's a very good pal.

DAVIES: And I wonder, when Americans try to do British accents, do the British actors kind of laugh at them behind their backs?

LEWIS: I want to debunk this myth. Look. Part of America's imperialism of the last century has been cultural imperialism. And we all grew up watching endless American shows. You know, I, you know, I grew up watching, I mean, reruns because I was too young originally but, you know, "Batman" and then all those amazing TV shows from the early '80s - "Chips" and "Dukes Of Hazzard" and "Hunter" - works for me - and, you know, all those shows. And a lot of us English actors do manage to come up with a pretty good American accent. But I've had some English actors that don't, and I've also - I've heard some American actors do incredibly convincing English accents too. So, you know...

DAVIES: Fair enough. OK.

LEWIS: I suppose it sticks out when someone misses But I think we probably have a slight advantage because, you know, we're not France. We've welcomed American culture. We're the bridge between Europe and America. That's our special relationship. And we've grown up with a lot of American culture.

DAVIES: Well, it's been fun, Damian Lewis. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEWIS: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Damian Lewis stars in the Showtime series "Billions." It concluded its fourth season last night and has been renewed for a fifth season. Coming up, Soraya Nadia McDonald reviews the new Netflix series "When They See Us" about the Central Park Five case. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.