If there’s one good thing about being an actor – aside from securing the best tables in restaurants – it’s who you meet when researching a role. Take Damian Lewis, the 45-year-old British star of Band of Brothers, Homeland and Wolf Hall. For his new TV show, Billions, he hung with financial aficionados, while prep for Our Kind of Traitor, a new movie adaptation of the John le Carré novel which launches in Australia on July 14, saw him lunching with real-life “spooks”. Money talks, it seems… and so does Damian.
What did you learn from playing a hedge fund manager in Billions? It became clearer to me
on the job that these hedge fund guys really feel set apart from Wall Street. The conventional CEOs of the big banks, they have bat phone protocols – a shiny red telephone! If they get a phone call from an activist, a hedge fund guy who says, “We’ve been analysing your company and we think your share price is under-valued and we don’t think you’re performing well,” within an hour – or that day at least – there will be an emergency board meeting. These guys aren’t set up in Wall Street; a lot of them are mid-town, the rest of them are out in Greenwich [New York]. And they’re sort of like snipers.
Who did you meet from the financial world? A few guys, including [hedge fund billionaire] Jim Chanos. He is very much an intellectual billionaire – a very successful hedge fund guy, he lectures at Yale. And he’s committed to the idea that hedge fund guys are like market investigators. They patrol the market, and they’re essential to a healthy economy.
Did you begin to understand what they do? There’s lots of technical stuff you get into; they take two per cent management fee of the money ongoing, whether they’ve lost you money or made you money. But you don’t have to invest with a hedge fund guy, that’s fine. But then if you do make a sh*tload of money, they’ll take 20 per cent of it. So this ‘two-and-20’ model is something that I think other fund managers or asset managers, people who invest your money, baulk at a little bit. But the hedge fund guys will say the risks are greater and the rewards are greater too.
After the financial crisis, many people viewed hedge fund managers as almost parasitic. What do you think? I don’t take that view. Having read quite a lot about it now, and having met these guys, the financial industry now is a big casino. A big casino. You can create any bet you want, just like you can create any bet you want at [online bookmakers] Ladbrokes. And that’s essentially what these guys do.
You’ve worked on TV and film, what are your thoughts on the current golden age of TV? I feel very lucky to have come of age as an actor at this time, as the whole creative model shifted. There were talented people in TV always. Always. But suddenly there was this cross-pollination. There was this real crossover and great film directors and scriptwriters and actors all wanted to be doing TV because the storytelling became so nuanced and complex, and suddenly there were characters being written like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Nicholas Brody, Don Draper and Jimmy McNulty. The Wire’s David Simon coined the phrase, ‘the novelised drama’, so you had these Dickensian dramas, stories being told over 12 hours, and then 60 hours if you did it five times. And everyone realising you could reboot each season, like The Wire did, like Homeland is doing…
How did you research your intelligence officer role for our kind of traitor? I went to Special Forces club and had a fascinating lunch with – for want of a better word – two ‘spooks’ working for the British government. They were brilliant and discreet, whilst at the same time being indiscreet [but] happy to share titbits. Obviously, they can’t breach the Official Secrets Act, but one of them… had worked in the city, and got to the age of 30, and thought, “Bugger this, it’s dull. Yes, I’m making lots of money but I’d quite like to try the Foreign Office.” Then he had a gentleman call him back to say: “You have an interesting profile. We’d like you to come and have an interview with this department. Now, the work we do here is slightly different…”
So that’s how you get into M15? Just like that! If your profile is appropriate, before you know what’s what, you walk out and go, “I think I’m being recruited!”
See the trailer for Damian’s new movie, Our Favourite of Traitor, below.