Damian Lewis, Homeland's Dark Heart
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Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger
Now 42, Damian Lewis has played two of the most indelible soldiers in the history of American television. First it was Dick Winters, the stoic hero of HBO's 'Band of Brothers,' and now Brody, a Marine sniper held for eight years by Al Qaeda before returning home. Brody's public image is superficially all-American; his motivations are instantly questioned by an unstable-CIA-agent-off-her-meds blonde played by Claire Danes, who thinks he is a lethal terrorist. (Their adversarial roles don't preclude the two from fucking each other's brains out now and then.) Lewis' actorly transition from Winters to Brody is a televised look at a country saying goodbye to the Greatest Generation and hello to the Paranoid Generation.

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The great cosmic joke is that the man leading us through America's twilight is British. And when I say he's British, I mean he is bloody British. His grandfather was Lord Mayor of London, a ceremonial but influential position. His sister worked for Prince Charles. He grew up near Abbey Road and went to Ashdown House, a boarding school near where A.A. Milne set Winnie-the-Pooh. Lewis and his chums would go to Pooh Corner and toss Poohsticks. I'm not making this up.

Lewis then went on to Eton, a 573-year-old British boarding school that has produced 19 prime ministers and one George Orwell. He appeared in five Gilbert and Sullivan musicals by 13. He is not immune from slipping into aristocrat lingo. When he mentions that he wants to direct one day, he quotes fellow Etonian buddy Dominic West, of 'The Wire' fame: "Oh, darling! The power! The power." I had to check to make sure that wasn't a paraphrase from an Evelyn Waugh novel.

Maybe the trips to Pooh Land and Eton sound like an idyllic childhood, but they didn't come without moments of cruelty and ass-clenching terror. "I was caned – they still caned back in the 1980s," says Lewis matter-of-factly. (A cricket bat once was broken on the backside of a classmate.) His father traveled through the Middle East for much of his youth. Eventually, Damian and his younger brother, Gareth, told their mom she should stop her regular Sunday visits to school.

"It was kind of weird just having your mom appear, just be with you for an afternoon," says Lewis at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, the ultimate signpost that the Etonian was now an American star. "You had to try to cram all your experience into an afternoon with your mother, who was desperate to know everything. And then you'd be saying goodbye to your mum again before you went back to school, into a dormitory, into a sort of Dickensian setting."

The fact that Lewis is so posh makes his turns as quintessential Americans Winters and Brody all the more remarkable. And his note to Obama suggests he's not the English gentleman in the bowler hat catching the 5:15 back to the home counties. He's a likable bloke with a wicked sense of self-deprecating humor. I ran into him in the boarding line at LAX as we both headed to the Homeland set in Charlotte. He was wearing a blue newsboy cap and T-shirt. There was no ascot.

I mentioned that I was downloading 'The Baker,' a comedy Lewis starred in, directed by his brother, Gareth, and grievously renamed 'Assassin in Love' for the American market. Lewis just laughed. "Someone else I know is watching it, so that will make five in America."

Lewis settled into a window seat in first class and was quickly joined a row behind by a harried blonde rassling with a baby. It was his co-star, Claire Danes. For much of the flight's five hours, Lewis ignored the chatty Hollywood executive next to him and spun around in his seat making googly eyes at six-month-old Cyrus while shooting the shit with British actor Hugh Dancy, Danes' husband. It wasn't an accident: Dancy is between shoots for 'Hannibal' and has been spending a lot of time playing house daddy in Charlotte; spouses on a set can feel like they're never in on the inside jokes. Lewis wanted him to know he was welcome and that, uh, things between him and Danes were strictly professional.

"I take it very seriously if someone's husband is coming into a situation where his wife is doing intimate work with another man," Lewis told me the next day. "I go out of my way to make friends and to reassure him he has nothing to worry about. That just seems to me like a good common courtesy."

Hey, I said he was a likable bloke – that doesn't mean he isn't still freakin' British.