Confessions of a Fangirl: A Weekend with Damian Lewis
Where do I even start with a retelling of the events of October 10, 2015, my first time seeing Damian Lewis in person? Seems like my experience was clouded by a fangirl fugue state that started when he first walked into the theater for his interview with Lauren Collins, reached a new crescendo with the Cleo play reading, and didn’t let up until days later, when I could sit and recall it all in a moment of tranquility. As we were wrapping up our immersion into The Weekend with Damian Lewis provided by the New Yorker Festival, my blog partner, Damianista, wanted to talk about how we would write about the events, who would write what, and when. Truthfully, I said, I could take that 90 minute interview and churn out a post about every 15 minute chunk of it. And that’s not even including the Green Room time, which in my murky state felt like 5 minutes, but, in reality, I’m assured, was much longer. Such was the richness of the experience.
Granted, for the hard core Damian fans, there were several things we’d already read or heard him say before. But even those topics that had been touched upon over the years in one forum or another (eg Damian being told he got the Dick Winters role when he was still drunk from a night carousing in Santa Monica and his visit with President Obama) were retold under a fresh light. And how fresher a light can there be than when the subject of the interview is sitting less than five feet in front of you. Blazing light, to be perfectly honest.
As we waited at the head of the line to enter the theater we would glance over at every black car with tinted windows slowing at the entrance. After many false alarms, we turned and there he was, hurrying towards the entrance. Folks shouted his name, he turned, recognized Damianista (they had met before a couple times) and gave us a wink and a smile before he walked into the building.
Next, we’re inside, front row center, exactly where we planned to be. He walks in, the crowd is hushed and I’m wondering whether anyone is going to cheer or clap or whether such things are not done at these New Yorker things, and the expectation, instead, is for us to remain civilized and casually detached. Maybe the room is wondering the same thing, because apart from exhalations of “omygod, there he is” coming from the rows behind me, there is not a sound as he ascends the stage. He’s the first to speak: “Hello, everyone”. Those two words immediately cut through the tense anticipation, and we know we can take a breath and start enjoying ourselves.
The most lovely aspect of Lauren Collins’ interview was that she touched on every one of Damian’s big projects. She started a segment off by showing a clip. Now, as a rabid fan, I’d seen all of the clips she showed us, some many many times, so as they were playing, I was focusing on Damian watching himself on the monitor. He doesn’t watch with any particular emotion, just a detached concentration. You hear of actors who are unable to watch themselves, who cringe as they second guess every thing they didn’t do right in the scene. But Damian doesn’t seem to do that at all. He simply seems casually satisfied with his work. The clips of his past works all elicit these similar satisfied expressions, except for one: the Homeland clip. They show a clip of Brody’s “confession” tape. And, in the shadows, I see Damian get a sort of pained look on his face. Goodness knows I may have been imagining it, it was pretty dark, but, what I can say with certainty is that Damian watching Brody was somehow different than Damian watching Soames or Winters or Bobby or Henry. The clip: “I have a wife and two kids, who I love”…the barely swallowed back emotion. “People will say I was a terrorist, taught to hate my country, I love my country”…the dogged determination to communicate lucid sincerity. Could it possibly be? Damian watches Brody like we watch him? Does he feel his pain viscerally the way we do? I think he does, probably even more so.
So I’m in rapt attention the entire time, trying to absorb it all, all senses attuned, not wanting to miss a word. He starts talking about his time in the White House. He speaks of where he and Helen were seated for dinner: “We walked around the whole room to arrive at top table, at table one, to find our places, with me realizing that I was sitting closer than I am to this lady here”. He gestures towards me in the front row and continues “across from the President of the United States.” Mind you, my senses were already all in overdrive and when he said this, I felt my chin drop even further to the floor and I momentarily stopped breathing. Frankly, I don’t think breath really returned to normal until several days later. Of course, he is a human aware of the other humans in the room. We’re all just humans. But, this one human whose work I’m been examining with a forensic eye to detail, noting every breath and nuance of the remarkable characters he brings to life, watching and rewatching his interactions with other characters, this human has noticed me, a stranger lady in a red dress. Nothing remarkable about it all, and at the same time breathtaking.
The interview ends, the Q & A starts, and Damianista rushes to the stage right mic to get in line to ask her question. Unlike her, I haven’t prepared anything to ask, so I wonder if I can think of something that I can ask without making too much of a bumbling fool of myself and taking up everyone’s time. I finally arrive at a question and I trip on over to stage left and get at the back of the line well after the Q & A has already begun. Lauren Collins nearly stops the session right before Damianista’s turn, and seeing her disappointment, I exhale an “Oh, no, just one more.” Lauren apparently sees Damianista crestfallen too, and agrees to let her ask her question, and it’s a great question and there it ends, with me left standing unable to ask my question. Can’t say I’m overly disappointed, I know I got up too late and my question wasn’t a great one anyway. So, I’m just happy Damianista got to ask hers. I see she’s caught Damian’s attention and he is leaning over from the stage and talking to her.
Next thing I know we are out in the hallway, and a crowd is gathering in the lobby, holding cards for him to sign, waiting for more glimpses of him, pictures. I haven’t taken my phone out once this entire evening, so determined was I to truly experience it and not just document it with pics. Also, I didn’t bring anything for him to sign. Of course, I see other fans more prepared than I and start to rethink my decisions. I must have spoken briefly to some of the fans who knew our blog and I tried to engage as much as I could. I know I must have come off as somewhat snooty and detached. Blame it all on the blood pounding in my ears and the thoughts racing over what was happening. All I could think was: were we going to have a chance to talk to Damian, just the two of us, me and Damianista? It was a thought I couldn’t wrap my head around. (and, if you know nothing else about me, know that my one source of pride is my insistence on being able to wrap my head around every single minute thing)
Whatever Damianista had said to him lead to Damian inviting us to the green room. As we walked over, one of the house people stopped us and said something like “Only one.” Truth be told, my mind was a dull combination of disappointment and relief. I knew Damianista would do great talking to him, she’d done it before, he already recognized her. I was the new one in the picture, so I was totally content to wait it out and hear all about it when she was done. I put my coat on and backed up to the edge of the room to wait. I exchanged some words with Lewisto about how engaging a speaker Damian was and how he kept the audience’s attention the entire time, but mostly we stood quiet and waited as the lobby crowd grew bigger. (Who’s Lewisto, you ask? Why, he’s Damianista’s husband, partner in crime, and general great sport about all this craziness) Soon, there was a lobby full of people between us and the door to the green room and we kept looking at that door, watching for Damianista to come out. The door opened, she peeked out and looked around. She saw me and waved me over and Lewisto said “Go, go, let me take your coat”. I slipped it off and practically threw it back at him while I elbowed my way into the crowd and finally into the door. The room was really green (sort of a retro metallic avocado green) and there was Damian in that green room along with several other people milling about.
Okay, let’s take a break here and let me tell you what this was NOT. When I lived in NYC several years ago as a single 20-something, I would often go to hear music. I’d just take off after work and head downtown to wander the streets and shell out the $10 it took to hear some really good local bands, small indie stuff mostly, musicians I’d heard of from internet’ing with like-minded music lovers. At one such event the band I’d gone to hear had invited an old 80’s big hair band guy to perform with them. Now, I won’t mention any names (actually I don’t even remember his name) but this was a guy who I knew had said some pretty shitty things about gay people back in the 80’s. The band, I knew to be very non-mainstream, belonged to a gay-friendly indie record label. Who knows, they may have really been friends with this guy, and maybe the guy was in on the joke too, but the overarching feeling was that they had invited him on ironically. (Indie folk love their irony!) So this guy had gone up on this tiny East Village stage, taking himself so seriously, looking ridiculous in his platform heels and whipping around his hair like he was at some big arena show. After the show, the real band was somewhere else and this guy was alone leaning on a wall across from the bar with a posse of squeaking giggling girls around him. He was obviously holding court, basking in their attention.
So, friends, I’m here to tell you: Our time in the green room with Damian Lewis was not THAT. We weren’t squeaking sycophantic groupies and Damian Lewis was no jerk has-been rock star, on the wrong side of history, basking in groupie attention.
On some level he may have been basking in the attention, but much more than that, he seemed genuinely interested in hearing from us, about us. Maybe he was practicing the actor’s trick he recalled Laurence Olivier “uncharitably” accused of: that he only befriended people to get a read of their ticks and speech patterns and mannerisms in order to collect data he could use for a role. But, we all do that, don’t we? Collect experiences, not necessarily to use for some end purpose, but simply to educate ourselves, to improve and evolve in some way. And don’t we collect those experiences because we know it makes us generally more attractive and fun to be around, therefore allowing us to eventually give as much as we get? He may have been basking and enjoying being the lord of that room, ignoring the other folks there, particularly the house security people who probably didn’t get the big deal (and possibly saw us the same way I saw those giggly girls crowded around the rock star years ago). They simply wanted to do their job and move everyone along. He ignored all of them and kept talking to us. He kept wanting to talk to us, and, clearly, more than the basking, he was collecting an experience. And, as this essay is my witness, so were we.
As soon as I walked in, he remarked “You weren’t able to ask your question?” Chin meet floor. Again. I brushed my question off as something quite silly: What would you do if you weren’t an actor? If someone told you tomorrow you could no longer act, what would you do? He said, “Ah…well, what can I do really” It was time for pictures and while I positioned myself next to him I answered the question for him, “You could write, you could direct, you could do anything you wanted really.”
Then, I saw Damianista continue to talk to him like a peer. Whereas I had a hard time even looking at him, because I felt like my entire body would go up in flames if I did. He’d be talking to her and look back to me, but seeing that I had nothing to say, he’d go back to talking to her. And I don’t think I ever looked at him directly, just at the aura around him. Self-preservation is such a bitch sometimes. Some part of me felt like it was a bit rude (or dangerous?) to engage too much and I was frozen…..flight or fight response kicked in, I guess. The beauty is that he’s so real, and such a nice guy. Under any other circumstances, like working with him, for example, he’d just be this fun co-worker who made the day a bit brighter at work. Instead of the freakin SUN that only a fool or someone much braver than I would look at directly.
So I continued gawking and while Damianista’s attention was turned, he asked me if I worked at the same job that Damianista did. So I told him what I do for work and we talked a bit about that and then where I lived and then the weather. At that point, I knew I was toast. Oh my god, I thought, I’m talking to Damian Lewis and we’re talking about the weather. Granted, both of our home towns have lots of interesting weather to talk about, great big sky weather where, from office windows, we can see majestic silent storms moving across the city, like an opera. But, come on: the weather? The whole time we were talking about this hot topic my inner voice cried “Oh, no, please, let’s not talk about the weather! Let’s us three, you, me, and Damianista, and the fourth member of the party waiting outside, Lewisto, and maybe one or two from your entourage blow this pop stand and grab cocktails somewhere and just chat and chat and keep chatting until last call.” He was genuinely someone I could see grabbing a beer with and chatting the night away.
And then he was telling someone about our blog, using words like “creative” and “journalistic” and “in depth”. I looked over at Damianista and I could tell it was her turn to go speechless. I didn’t even get the full import of what he was saying until later. He said something about us discussing the work within its historical context. He was describing us as “creative” bloggers doing an “in-depth” analysis of the relevance of the work in a “journalistic” way. Oh. My. God.
Rest assured, dear readers, this is NOT me bragging. This is me sharing the awe, the astonishment, the sheer joy of a fangirl inspired by her fan crush to actually create something out of the inspiration that he delivers with every role he gives to all of us. We, as fans, are consumers. And he’s providing the goods. So, how freakin remarkable that we, in turn, can produce something that he can consume and actually enjoy? Blows the mind. And makes this all so worth it. Yes, he’s got a product to sell (himself!), and we’re helping him sell it, fueled by nothing but a deep love for and abiding belief in that product.
Finally, I found myself flooded with a feeling of guilt that he was being so gracious, and really listening, and interested, and remembering us, while I was just gawking without anything to contribute, so I said “Well, thank you so much for your time and for talking to us” and I guess that was his cue to open the door for us to leave. As Damian opened the door, Norman Lear came in. Yes, the Norman Lear who wrote and produced all the great sitcoms of the 70’s: All in the Family, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude. He came in and went right up to Damian’s face and grabbed his lapels; Damian’s Brit sensibilities were a bit shocked but he laughed and said “Hello again, Sir!” and then cracked up laughing some more at whatever Norman Lear said to him. I just ogled in awe at that exchange and I heard none of Damian’s parting words to us. At that point, I was a bit like the fangirls in that Kirsten Dunst short film, (Aspirational by Matthew Frost). I hope I wasn’t quite as awful as those girls but I did sense a rush to get back to talking ABOUT Damian, simply because the prospect of talking TO him and WITH him was all just a bit too much. It was also my Jennifer Lawrence moment of plastering myself against the wall “No, no, stay cool, stop looking, no, stop it, seriously, I’m not good, nononono, STOP IT, omygod!”
Damianista came up with the perfect comparison between Homeland‘s “The Weekend” and our “Weekend with Damian Lewis”: while Carrie and Brody’s one pure immersive weekend came to a bitter end with Brody matter-of-factly stating “Fuck you, Carrie” as he drove away from the cabin, OUR weekend with Damian Lewis, ended with “I read you”. Also, I’m happy to report, no one went home to their house in the burbs and cried it all out.
Of course hindsight is 20/20 and I think now of all the intensely personal questions I should have asked him: What are you reading right now? What’s your favorite painting? If someone gave you an irresistible script for a Henry James novel where you play an American expat in England would you make sure it got made? I also think of really annoying questions that he would’ve hated me for asking and probably made a grand beautiful joke out of, like:
What’s next for drama? Where do you see the state of drama in 20 years? Where will you retire? And I could have added to this riveting dialogue with the suggestion, to please, if we never meet again, can you promise to remember to do Lear when you get to be that age? There are many many MANY things we need you to do before then, but, in the end, right before you retire, you absolutely must do Lear. Even if I’m not around to see it, the world absolutely needs Damian Lewis to perform King Lear.
And so on and so on, till last call.