Damian Lewis, Homeland's Dark Heart
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Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger

There are 316 million people in the United States of America. About six million of them watch 'Homeland,' Showtime's thriller about world terror, paranoia, and bipolar disorder. That's about 2 percent of the population; roughly what the guy with the beard running on the Libertarian Party ticket gets when he runs for Congress.

But it's the right 2 percent. It includes CIA analysts, spooks, and at least two United States presidents – something 'Eastbound & Down' can't claim.

Two percent love is how Damian Lewis, who plays Marine–quadruple agent–Muslim convert Nicholas Brody, found himself shaking Barack Obama's hand last year before a White House state dinner with British prime minister David Cameron. Resplendent in a tux, Lewis led with a joke.

"Mr. President," he said, "the writers had asked me to say, if we're going to go into Iran, would you give us a heads-up, because we'd like to keep the show as current as possible."

"That's enough," he told Lewis. "Move down the line, sir."

He did as he was told.

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Lewis thought that was it, so he was a bit surprised when he was ushered to his seat for dinner and the guy across from him was the president. They made small talk about what a fanboy Obama was before Lewis asked him a question that had been nagging him all evening: How the hell did he find time to watch Homeland?

Lewis, whose red hair is buzz-cut short, tells the story well, slipping into a better-than-SNL Obama imitation.

"Well, Damian, on Saturday afternoons, Michelle takes the girls to play tennis, and I say I'm going to the Oval Office to work, and instead I watch 'Homeland.' "

Everyone had a good laugh. After the dinner, Lewis cheekily signed a DVD for the president: "Mr. President: From one Muslim to another."

A week passed. Lewis started getting nervous.

"I panicked after I wrote that," says Lewis. He arches his auburn eyebrows for comic impact. "So, a week later I wrote [White House press secretary] Jay Carney, whom I'd become friendly with." (I told you the show was connected.) "I said, 'Hi, Jay; I hope the president liked my present and has a sense of humor.' Jay wrote back and said it was totally cool and he loved it."

International incident avoided! (Lewis' encounter with Bill Clinton was less risky, if longer-winded. The former president gave Lewis the two-handed handshake and went into a Clintonian monologue about the importance of the liberal view on the consequences of terrorism being represented in popular culture. Lewis nodded a lot.)

But it's not presidents who hold Damian Lewis' future in their hands. That would be the 'Homeland' writers. It is the morning after the show announced to the Television Critics Association that Lewis, the man who just won an Emmy playing Brody, would be MIA from season three's first two episodes.

"With Brody, I feel like I'm on a stay of execution with each episode," says Lewis, scarfing a three-egg omelet in L.A. before a flight east to the 'Homeland' set in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He's not joking. Homeland's co-creator Alex Gansa keeps Lewis apprised as to whether Brody is still breathing on a weekly basis. It's a day-by-day existence that you can't imagine James Gandolfini or Jon Hamm living with during his show's heyday. The weird thing is the only guy who doesn't seem to care if Nick Brody comes or goes is Damian Lewis.

He has his reasons.