Shakespeare on the BBC
Starts Monday 7 November on BBC ONE
This autumn, the BBC brings Shakespeare and
his stories to audiences with a variety of new
programmes and initiatives across its
services – television, radio, online and interactive.
Much Ado About Nothing - Damian Lewis
Actor Damian Lewis has love on his mind. The auburn-haired star has just been immersed in his role as Benedick in David Nicholls' witty adaptation, for BBC ONE, of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, in which Nicholls sets love protagonists Benedick and Beatrice (played by Sarah Parish) as sparring presenters in a regional newsroom.
And Damian has developed a close affinity with his character in what he believes is the most modern of the Bard's comedies.
"There's no conjuring of ghosts or spirits, no one goes into a metaphorical wood to be transformed," he explains.
"It's about two people living on their wits who have blocked off the idea of love in their lives, without knowing that the perfect person for them is each other – there's a rich comic vein in it."
The 34-year-old star of, among others, Band Of Brothers, Colditz, The Forsyte Saga, Hearts And Bones (in which he worked with Sarah) and the recent Chromophobia, adds: "In Benedick, I enjoy his childishness and his immaturity; the unreconstructed nature of him and then his transformation just through love – through the strength of his feelings for this woman, once he understands what's going on in his heart and mind.
"The conceit in Benedick is terrific because his vanity never leaves him fully," smiles the softly-spoken Old Etonian.
"Once he is led to believe that she loves him, only at that point is it possible for him to love, so he needs a little prodding.
"I think there are wonderful parallels with modern living – the way people have become. In the pursuit of careers, men and women, nowadays particularly, have often blocked themselves off to committed relationships in pursuit of their careers or in pursuit of some spurious notion of independence and, in doing so, can harden themselves unwittingly; harden themselves more than they think they are to the idea of love and a relationship with someone else.
"Often it's very typical that it happens in the mid-thirties, and I'm coming into my mid-thirties and so it felt relevant."
The third of four children – he has a sister and two brothers – Damian graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1993 and spent several years with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
He was enchanted by what he describes as Nicholls' "lovely wit and sense of comedy timing" and his appetite for research took him to the BBC's regional newsroom in London.
"What struck me was that nothing seems to happen until three or four minutes before you actually go on air," he muses.
"Then suddenly everyone is there – the presenters, the make-up artists – and it's a flurry of activity. It all comes together very quickly at the last minute."
Even though this version of Much Ado sets Shakespeare in the modern day, Damian believes there still remains a fairytale element.
"It's just the transforming power of love, so that what we see in Benedick and Beatrice are these two hard-bitten, rather cynical, self-involved, thirty-something news presenters, whose lives haven't quite gone the way they both anticipated," he declares.
"With a simple dramatic conceit, which is simply a bunch of friends duping our two heroes - fooling them into believing that the other person absolutely loves them – they just accept that.
"If you allow the fairytale elements of the story to work at that point, it's absolutely delightful to see their faces soften and open, and allow the possibility of this other person loving them into their world."
He continues: "Where a huge amount of the comedy comes from is that Benedick, at that point, resolves to love Beatrice without any reservations because she loves him.
"The challenge was making that witty, charming and endearing but also, for a modern audience, making it believable."
Benedick has treated Beatrice badly – so will viewers warm to him?
"We'll have to wait and see," laughs Damian. "He's not nice to her, but he's ridiculous at the same time, so the audience might not like him, but they will laugh at him."
Once under Beatrice's spell, "he behaves in a charmingly childish way, in a totally endearing way, because he becomes like a giddy teenager in love.
"I think there's nothing more lovely than seeing friends of yours just become gooey with love and I think that's what happens to Benedick.
"He scampers around after her trying to do the right thing; he changes his hair, he gets better clothes - all that sort of stuff, because he wants to please her."
Filming Much Ado was a lot of fun for Damian, who will be next seen at the National Theatre in Ibsen's Pillars Of The Community.
"I love working with Sarah Parish; I think she's a fantastic actress," he declares. "We had a great cast around us and there was a lot of laughter.
"There's a particular scene where I try to get in shape once I think that Beatrice loves me and Benedick gets a rubber ball into his dressing room and tries to do sit-ups on it.
"We found it very difficult to get through that scene without laughing, and Sarah kept opening the door to see me sweating there on the rubber ball!"
Damian, who received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Richard Winters in Band Of Brothers, enjoys the broad spectrum of his career, with no preference for film, TV or theatre.
"Except that when I'm doing one, I wish I was doing the other," he laughs.
Next spring, he's co-producing and starring in The Baker, written and directed by his brother Gareth.
Damian plays a sensitive hitman who turns his back on killing and, with the Mob hard on his heels, flees to Wales, where he is mistaken for the new baker and attempts to rebuild his life.
It will also be something of a home from home – the partly-Welsh Lewis family have had a house in Wales for 25 years.
Damian's career has embraced a plethora of characters and he's adamant that he doesn't have an ideal role.
"I like each role for different reasons," he explains. "I enjoy the challenge. In acting, there's something quite important about being asked to do roles.
"It's not something you might necessarily have thought of yourself but you're asked to meet the challenge in some way by a director or by a writer who thinks you'd be good.
"If you choose your own roles – line them up – I think you're in danger of limiting the stuff you do. It means that you have an idea of the way you would like to be seen, or you have an idea of the sort of role you would like to be playing. It's not an objective viewpoint and so I think that's a trap."
He adds: "There's something important, as an actor, about allowing yourself to be approached by people to do roles. People see different things in you."
As, indeed, did Steven Spielberg when he cast Damian in Band Of Brothers. So perfect was Damian's American accent that it was some time before the cast and crew believed that he was British.
The last time Damian starred in Much Ado was in 1998 at The Barbican.