Has the major star of a TV series ever spent so much time off-screen for strictly creative reasons? Damian Lewis only appeared in one of the first seven episodes of Showtime’s Homeland season 3 this fall. Then, on Sunday, his character Nicholas Brody came back to the foreground in a riveting hour. The episode depicted Brody withdrawing from heroin and then was getting built back up by a special-ops team charged with preparing him for a dangerous assassination mission in Iran. Despite winning an Emmy for his role on the show last year, Brody’s off-screen time reflects the conundrum faced by Homeland writers after they spared Brody’s life last season: How best to fit a falsely accused terrorist who fled the country into a Virginia-based story about a CIA case officer?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were you told about your involvement in this season ahead of time?
DAMIAN LEWIS: It was actually only decided right at the very last minute. They always knew they’d need to tell some stories without Brody. They felt the flip-flopping between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody couldn’t go on forever. As much as people love that story, it will only be loved as long as it’s compelling. They needed to give themselves some time to write another story and develop some plot.
There is varying opinion among fans, even those who like Brody’s character, how long his story should continue and whether he should have been killed off last season. What’s your take?
Lewis: I’ve rarely played such a controversial character. There’s certainly an argument for Brody to have been killed in season 2. Equally a lot of people watching season 3 miss Brody. So he does divide opinion. When I took the job it was really intimated to me very strongly there was only so much of a storyline for Brody. So even though, like everybody else, I signed on for 6-7 years, I had no expectation of getting even halfway through that. So any extra time I have with the show I relish because it’s been such a fantastic show. Brody is such a conundrum for the writers, they’ve been slightly hijacked by the brilliance of their own creation. I don’t think anybody quite knew how Brody was going to work and I don’t think anybody anticipated how compelling the Carrie-Brody relationship would be. I don’t think they knew how people would respond to a Marine who’s prepared to commit an act of terrorism against his own country. In spite of his dastardly act, people liked him and were rooting for him. He’s a brilliantly complex and unpredictable character and he survives desire of that. He could still be there in season 7. Who knows?
How did you feel about being left off stage through most of the season?
Lewis: I was very happy, very pleased with it. But that speaks to the personal life of [working on] a show like this. I’m British, I live in London. It’s not particularly interesting for you to hear this, but it gives me more time with my family, which is great.
How did you prepare for the heroin withdrawal scenes?
Lewis: I saw this extraordinary video on YouTube where a guy charts his withdrawal at different intervals. He charts his stages as he goes cold turkey. But I found it more interesting to speak to a friend of mind who’s an ex-heroin addict who deals with people with addiction, and he put me in touch with ex-addicts — or I suppose, addicts — who are now working with people. I had a fascinating hour with a guy working in a Charlotte, North Carolina addiction unit at a hospital there. Fairly conventional modes of research — talking to people, getting anecdotal evidence, watching video and trying to reproduce that.
What did they tell you?
Lewis: There’s a strong physical element — the cramping of the muscles and the way it contorts your body and the anger and the rage. But mostly people were referencing flu. Everyone just said it was like the worst kind of flu.
What was it like to shoot those scenes?
Lewis: They were great. Fascinating, interesting and exhausting. I feel added responsibility when portraying real-life conditions because they’re people out there living with these conditions and you owe it to them to represent it honestly. There’s the added burden of trying to get it right and not letting a community of people down who suffer from this addiction. You want to represent them faithfully.
You had a strong scene with Morgan Saylor (Dana) last week. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the online reaction to her character. What do you think about that?
Lewis: I’m inclined to think it’s tall poppy syndrome. I live in a country where we’re experts at that. I think everybody is entitled to their opinion. I retain my right to disagree strongly with them. But I think it comes with a sense of ownership of something. Popular TV shows engender the same kind of fan base as soccer teams do here. People get very attached to their teams and their TV shows. And when they feel something is being done they don’t like, they feel a very keen sense of betrayal. The vehemence of disagreement when things aren’t going their way is palpable and everybody hears it. But I disagree with all of them. Don’t pick up the reviews and read what everybody thinks of what you’ve done, know yourself what you’ve done. That’s the important thing. We know where the weaknesses and strengths are in Homeland, and the strengths massively outweigh the weaknesses.
I know you can’t say if your character survives this mission. But I’ll ask this: Does Brody think he’s going to come back?
Lewis: I’m not sure by this stage if he’s thought that far ahead. Having recovered from his condition and being a part of something bigger than him, seemingly doing something for good, is what mostly preoccupies him. I think he’s happy to be involved in something that he can atone for some of the mistakes he’s made in his life. But yeah, sure, somewhere deep in Brody’s head he hopes one day that he can stand in front of his family and tell them he’s done a good thing; to be with Carrie and tell her he’s succeeded. Of course, the extent to which he’d be allowed to ever be public with what he’s done is a moot point since it’s an act of intelligence work.
What can you tease about the last three episodes?
Lewis: He’s going to go on his mission, which will be far from straight forward. It will be fraught with problems and doubt and hurdles, both personal and physical, that he will have to overcome.