He’s bared his soul in lonely studios, sung to crowds at packed festivals, and dodged explosions in Second World War epics. But still, nothing scares Damian Lewis more than press night in the West End.
The Golden Globe-winning actor sat down for an exclusive interview with The Independent’s editor-in-chief, Geordie Greig, after recording a Music Box session where he performed songs from his recent debut album, Mission Creep.
“There’s always a fear of imposter syndrome, but at the same time I felt very relaxed and I think I was enjoying it so much, I didn’t stop to think whether I should or shouldn’t [go for it],” Lewis said of his foray into the music industry.
“Life is short – it took a pandemic for me to sit down and write some songs. And that was a lot of people’s experience, I think, wondering what life would be like after lockdown.”
Lewis, 52, first got a taste for live music performances while busking around Europe in his early twenties. But he knew that it was acting he wanted to pursue first, so music became a hobby while he rose to fame as one of Britain’s leading actors across TV, film and theatre.
He broke through as Major Richard Winters, in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 drama series Band of Brothers. Many will know him as Nicholas Brody, the former US marine and prisoner of war in the espionage thriller Homeland, for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
“I think it’s important to say, I don’t expect to suddenly become Bruce Springsteen,” Lewis joked. “I haven’t given up acting – I love it and I’ll continue to do it. But [music] does feel different, and I’m having tremendous fun doing it.”
He admitted that his first attempts at original songs were torn up – “they were so terrible” – but he eventually found inspiration and is now working on a second album.
“The kernel of an idea of a song can be buried quite deeply, and you extrapolate from that first idea,” he said. “You can be surprised where it ends up.”
Lewis was understandably nervous, going on stage as a professional musician for the first time. “There’s an opportunity to create a persona or be entirely yourself, so there’s a different sort of pressure,” he said.
“I will say there is still nothing more terrifying than a press night in the West End, or at the National Theatre. Even doing this for the first time.”
When it comes to critics, though, Lewis is a seasoned pro, and understands that an artist – whether in film, TV, music or theatre – is never safe when “a critic sharpens his or her quill, and dips the ink”.
“Even an attack on your performance alone can be as devastating as a detailed evisceration of your own words,” he said. “If you want to offer it to the world, you have to stick your head above the parapet and say, you can like it or you can take a shot. And in that moment you’d better be clear about why you’re doing it.”
He revealed that “two or three songs” on Mission Creep were inspired by his “beautiful, gorgeous” late wife, Peaky Blinders star Helen McCrory, whom Lewis described as an “incredible” actor whom everyone “adored and admired”.
McCrory died of breast cancer, aged 52, in 2021, having enjoyed success on stage and screen in productions such as The Queen, James Bond film Skyfall, and the Harry Potter franchise.
“I wrote around the time of her illness, so there are definitely two or three songs suffused with Helen, with the memory of her, and the idea of death and grief,” Lewis said.
“Songs and albums are a bit like journal entries – they reflect the time you’re writing. So it would have been odd if there was nothing on that album that reflected that time of my life. But this is categorically not a sad album, or one about grief.”
He added: “There are a lot of fun, uplifting tunes on it, which is what I wanted – that variety, different types of musicality. And people have been kind enough to [notice those things in] there.”
Lewis’s album Mission Creep is out now – his Music Box session will air in December. You can watch all of the live sessions so far on Independent TV.