Star of new TV drama, Billions, Damian Lewis, 45, plays am ambitious hedge fund manager who hails from a working class family. After the 9/11 attacks, and the sole survivor of the hedge fund, he pays the college tuition of his former colleagues’ children. At the same time, he uses insider trading and bribery to amass his firm’s wealth.
Off screen, he’s married to actress Helen McCrory (Harry Potter franchise, The Queen) with whom he is raising their daughter, Manon, 9, and Gulliver, 8.
Today in Los Angeles he talks about money, greed and how to get his kids to do chores around the house.
What’s your relationship with money? You may not have billions but you’re not poor. What do you spend your money on and how important is money to you?
That’s a good question. I spend money on my children’s school fees and I have just renovated my house and anyone who has done this knows it’s cost twice as much as I thought it was going to cost. (laughs) I don’t own a second home and I don’t have a yacht, nor do I have a share of a private jet.
We don’t need a lot of money and we don’t think it’s terribly important actually in my family, as long as there is enough money to go on a couple of nice vacations and my kids are in private school. We can go to the theatre and eat in nice restaurants and we are pretty happy. We don’t acquire many things. We live in one of those Victorian terraced houses, like a brownstone so with every inch of space you try to create light because otherwise they are dark, depressing, narrow Victorian places with very little storage. So we don’t buy lots of extra things to put in it. I spend a little bit on clothes maybe, but yes, it’s interesting isn’t it, how much money do you need?
And this is a question for anyone who is in a position to make a lot of money, to ask yourself the question of what will make you happy, what is sustaining and what isn’t? I don’t think a billion is necessarily for anybody, personally.
You’ve had so much success on TV with Homeland, Wolf Hall, and now Billions. Do you have a knack for picking projects or is it just good luck?
Well, you never know how a show is going to go. Every project you start you take on a hunch, whether it’s a film or a TV show, or your first day of rehearsal at the Royal Shakespeare Company, you have no idea. Normally at the Royal Shakespeare Company you know the writing is going to be pretty good. (laughs) but you have no idea how the show is going to turn out. And perhaps the risk is even greater in TV because they pitch a season to you, but you will typically only see the first hour of the script. After that you just have to go on instinct.
With Homeland I went on instinct and Billions, similarly, I went on instinct. I have to say, it was not my intention to be on long-running TV shows ever in particular. Certainly growing up in London, all my ambitions lay in the theatre and TV certainly wasn’t the expectation.
How do you deal with success?
There were a few moments right in the heat of the Homeland success where it was a bit overwhelming at times and quite aggressive at times. People become very proprietorial towards you and so there was quite a lot of grabbing you in the street and jostling you. But on balance do I enjoy my success? Yes, I do. Do I feel lucky for it? Yes I do.
The one or two moments when you think you might end up in a fight, are few and far between. But there is no telling day to day what kind of interaction you are going to have with the public and what kind of mood they are going to find you in.
With me, unfortunately I am mostly late wherever I am going. So they have to accept that I can’t sometimes just stop and have a picture because I am late. (laughs) And I have to keep going. Otherwise I am very happy to stop and give pictures and autographs. But what is interesting is when someone asks for an autograph, it’s very quaint and it’s very old fashioned to be asked for an autograph. So when I get asked for an autograph, I am very happy. I am always like well of course I can write my signature for you on a piece of paper and that is really lovely not being asked for a photograph. (laughs)
What’s the worst deal you ever made?
The worst deal I ever made was buying my first car. Which was an old Alfa Romeo, and I bought it for a thousand pounds, which was in those days money, about fifteen hundred dollars, and I bought it literally off the sidewalk in front of an old garage in a seedy part of London. I thought I had made the bargain of a lifetime. And it was great until I was pulling out of a parking lot at the Royal Shakespeare Company actually, where I was working at the time, and I just eased out of the parking lot and I looked left, I looked right and I put my foot on the brake and my foot just went bump, just straight to the floor. I just eased out across this road and I just went bang, straight into this brick wall, this seventeen century brick wall just right in front of me. And then shortly after, the gear box collapsed as well. So that was definitely the worst deal. (laughs)
It cost me more in insurance and keeping it on the road than to buy it, which was, as anyone will tell you, not a good business deal.
What do you teach your kids about money? Do you give them an allowance? Do they work for it?
If they clean the chimney well, (laughs) then they will get 50p. Yes. They are eight and nine so they don’t have an allowance, there is a bit of a negotiation over pocket money occasionally and in order to get them to help a bit more around the house, I did try to give them incentive with 10p tips for making their bed and they got 10p for taking their plate from the table and putting it on the side after meals. 10p for managing to remember their own school bag in the morning when they walk out the door, so one or two incentives. And then they became a bit cynical about hard fought negotiations and they said, ‘We don’t want your 10p anymore.’ (laughs)
So then we just went back to shouting at them, which seemed to work just as well. (laughs) But yeah we teach our children, I think they need to know that you have to earn money in order to live. Certainly that is a helpful explanation when I am walking out the door full of shame and guilt because I am not going to see them for three weeks as I go to film in New York or Charlotte or wherever you go as an actor.
So I haven’t introduced them to the concept of money and just trying to make the equation a bit simpler for them that daddy going to work equals nice holiday and Christmas presents. (laughter) So just to help them understand a bit why I am going off to work.