British Actors You Should Know: Damian Lewis

Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod sitting at his desk looking smug in Billions Season 7

Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in Billions Season 7

Christopher T. Saunders/Showtime

Damian Watcyn Lewis, born in St. John’s Wood, London, in 1971, defines himself on his website as “an actor, dad, redhead, and ping-pong champion.” He’s the son of Charlotte Mary (née Bowater) and J. Watcyn Lewis, a City broker. His illustrious paternal ancestry includes a former Lord Mayor of London, Ian Frank Bowater, and his maternal ancestors include Bertrand Dawson, 1st Viscount Dawson of Penn (Doctor to the Royal Family in the 1930s), and philanthropist/shipbuilder Alfred Yarrow, who was of Sephardic-Jewish descent. He is proud of his Welsh ancestry on his father’s side and has an affinity for the Welsh language and culture.

Growing up, he attended boarding schools, making an early debut in a school production of The Pirates of Penzance at Ashdown House School, later forming his own drama club at Eton. At the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, his contemporaries included Ewan McGregor and Joseph Fiennes. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) where his roles included Laertes to Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet. 

Stephen Spielberg remembered that performance when he was casting for Band of Brothers, which led to Lewis’s big break in 1999, where he was nominated for a Golden Globe. It wasn’t the career path Lewis expected. He told The Guardian:” All my heroes and aspirations were in the theatre; I didn’t watch much TV growing up because I wasn’t allowed to ... So I went to the RSC and thought I was going to miss that moment. I thought I’d always be too big and fruity, too red for the camera.”

Despite his self-confessed size, fruitiness, and redness, Lewis’s extraordinarily versatile career has included thrillers, comedies, and historical dramas. He switches effortlessly between UK and GB accents. He is also a musician, singing and playing acoustic guitar, and tours between acting/filming gigs. Let’s take a look at his varied roles over the years!

'Romeo and Juliet'

Directed by Carlo Carlei and adapted from Shakespeare by Julian Fellowes, the 2013 version of Romeo & Juliet was a fairly conventional production of the play and unfavorably compared to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 interpretation. In this clip, Lewis, with an atrocious yet historically correct hairstyle, plays Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father, who rages at his daughter’s reluctance to marry Paris, the family’s preferred suitor. 

Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth (Pip in Great Expectations) were the star-crossed lovers, but it was the senior players who stole the show: Lewis, Natascha McElhone (Hotel Portofino) as Lady Capulet, Paul Giamatti (who went on to play Lewis’s nemesis in Billions) as Friar Lawrence, and Lesley Manville as the Nurse. In its favor, the film was shot on location in Verona and looks gorgeous.

Romeo and Juliet is available on Tubi

'Band of Brothers'

Created by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for HBO and telling the story of Easy Company,  506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army, Band of Brothers was the first of their World War II series that most recently included Masters of the Air. Based on soldiers’ journals, letters, and the book of the same name written by Stephen Ambrose, it speaks to how much the industry has changed since its debut 25 years ago. Masters of the Air was a cast of nearly all Brits, with the occasional American. Lewis, who played Lt. Richard D. Winters, the respected and even-tempered leader of Easy Company, who becomes conflicted by promotions that pull him further back from direct command of his men, was the only Brit in the cast, and the only unknown name in the cast at that. 

The series also stars Adam Sims (Private Zielinski), Ron Livingston (Lewis Nixon III), and David Schwimmer (Lt. Nobel). The actors had to undergo a 10-day basic training, which Lewis survived relatively easily, claiming it was thanks to the public school culture in which he was raised.

Band of Brothers is streaming on Netflix, Max, and Hulu.


Showtime's acclaimed series Homeland starred Lewis in one of his “American” roles as Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody for the whole run of the series 2011-2020, alongside Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Brody returns home following eight years in captivity in Afghanistan, during which he was presumed dead, and is now given a welcome as an American hero. But Carrie suspects he has been turned by al-Qaeda and is planning a terrorist attack on American soil. Carrie is bi-polar, and Brody has PTSD, so you know there’s trouble ahead

Lewis told The Guardian: “I loved playing Brody. I’m extremely proud of who we all created together. I think he’s a tragic hero for our time. He himself embodies a cautionary tale, going right back to the beginning, about sending young men to war and the damage it can do.”

All seasons of Homeland are available on Hulu.

'The Baker/Assassin in Love'

And now for some silly stuff, a tribute to Wales and a Lewis family affair, written and directed by Lewis’s brother Gareth. In the 2007 black comedy, The Baker, hitman Milo “The Baker” Shakespeare has second thoughts about his career and seeks refuge in a rural Welsh village, Gwynfyd, thanks to his mentor Leo (Michael Gambon). When it turns out that his new home is the defunct village bakery, Milo decides he should learn to bake. 

He bakes very badly, and his cover is blown early on. Soon virtually the whole village find they would quite like to get rid of a neighbor or two. The villagers decide they should use a code to request a hit, and Milo starts receiving lots of orders for chocolate sponge cake. Milo falls in love with local veterinary Rhiannon (Kate Ashfield), and they officially open The Shakespeare Bakery together. The Baker was renamed Assassin in Love for its US release.

The Baker/Assassin in Love is available as a streaming rental on Amazon Prime Video.

'The Forsyte Saga'

Masterpiece originally launched in 1969 with The Forsythe Saga, telling the story of three generations of the upper-middle-class British family, the Forsytes, from the 1870s to 1920, adapted from the books by John Galsworthy. In 2002, ITV and Masterpiece came together to remake it. The new version boasts a terrific cast and great costumes, adapted by Kate Brooke. 

Soames Forsyte (Lewis) is a wealthy lawyer, cold and solitary, who falls desperately in love with Irene (Gina McKee), a penniless musician who must marry for money. Soames, desperate for her love, offers to build her a house and hires architect Phillip Bosiney (Ioan Gruffudd), who is engaged to Irene’s best friend June Forsyte (Gillian Kearney). Phillip and Irene fall in love, and Soames becomes violent and jealous. In this clip, he grieves for the loss of Irene after she’s eloped with Phillip, and then later finds happiness and humanity with his second wife Annette and their newborn daughter Fleur.

The Forsythe Saga is streaming on PBS Passport and the PBS Masterpiece Channel.

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The Forsyte Saga

A compelling drama of love, adultery, obsession, power and money in the Victorian era.
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Billions was a sleeper hit about billionaires you love to hate on Showtime that started before Succession made such shows the new hotness. Despite being a critical darling the entire time, it somehow never broke through to the mainstream. Lewis played Robert "Bobby" Axelrod, a hedge fund manager and popular philanthropist who is actually the worst person in the world, while Paul Giamatti is Charles "Chuck" Rhoades, Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, determined to take him and his empire down.

In a 2020 interview for Variety, Lewis made this perceptive comment about his role as the viciously predatory Axe, “... [it] feels––apart from the obvious deep-running theme of men and their fathers––almost Shakespearean. It’s pre-Freud. Evil exists. Badness exists just for the fun of it sometimes. Don’t ask too many questions. Just play what you have and play it with relish. Axe has a comic-strip invincibility about him, which is great fun to play... the thing going for Bobby Axelrod, always, is that he was a blue-collar guy, that he came from nurses and police chiefs and fire chiefs. I think that tells a particular side of the American story, a guy who made it big, who made a lot of money.”

All seasons of Billions are streaming on Paramount+.


Originally made in 2004, Keane was restored in 2022 for a new generation of filmgoers. Lewis is a tour-de-force as William Keane, a desperate father suffering from schizophrenia who suspects his daughter has been abducted in Manhattan’s Port Authority. Or has she? As Keane’s emotions and fears escalate, we’re never quite sure of his grasp on reality. He finds an ally in an impoverished woman (Amy Ryan) and her daughter (Abigail Breslin). 

SFGate reported, “...a  taut and suspenseful low-budget drama, Damian Lewis delivers a convincing, powerful and highly nuanced performance as a man who's fighting desperately to keep his illness in check and lead a normal life."

Keane is streaming on the Criterion Channel.

'The Silent Storm'

In The Silent Storm, an atmospheric thriller directed and written by Corinna McFarlane, Lewis plays Balor, a hardcore Calvinist minister who wields a vast amount of power over the population of a remote Scottish island shortly after World War II. When he and his mysterious wife, Aislin, (Andrea Riseborough), herself an outsider in the community, take a young offender, Fionn (Ross Anderson), into their household, you just know there’s going to be trouble. Aislin and Fionn taking hallucinogenic mushrooms together is just the beginning.

"Clearly barmy as a moldy Dundee cake, Balor is overcome with an irresistible urge to take off his shirt and dismantle the local Kirk..." Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter. 

The Silent Storm is available on Tubi.

'A Spy Among Friends'

A Spy Among Friends is an intricate and cerebral 2022 six-part ITV series based on Ben McIntyre’s book of the same name. It explores the relationships of the “Cambridge Five” spy ring, all committed communists during the 1960s, despite (or maybe because of?) their upper-class backgrounds.

Nicholas Elliott (Lewis) is not one of the spy rings, but an MI6 Intelligence Officer and lifelong friend of Kim Philby (Guy Pearce), who has been spying for the Soviets for years, and Lewis had no idea. Lewis is ordered by MI5 to hunt Philby down and bring him in. Things become awkward when Elliott is sent to Beirut to capture or kill him, and Philby gives him the slip and defects to Russia. Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin) is brought in to question Elliot because their colleagues believe her background (female, northern, abrasive) may intimidate him.

A Spy Among Friends is available on MGM+.

'Wolf Hall'

Lewis gave the character of Henry VIII in Wolf Hall an interesting twist, playing the King as a sophisticated, handsome, and athletic man (which, in his early life, he was, not the bloated tyrant of later life), creating arguably the hottest Henry VIII to ever Henry VIII. But he is still the most powerful and feared man in the land, made even more dangerous by his volatile, suspicious nature (he is, after all, trying to found a dynasty) and his surprising emotional neediness. 

The long-awaited sequel, Wolf Hall: The Mirror and the Light, a dramatization of the third book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, is finally in production almost a decade after the original aired. It is expected to be released in 2025.

Wolf Hall is available on Amazon Prime Video.

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Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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