Damian Lewis: ‘We had a sadness in our family’

The Billions star on his character’s big twist, and his career after Helen McCrory’s death

Damian Lewis as Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod in Billions. Photograph: Sky Atlantic

Damian Lewis as Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod in Billions. Photograph: Sky Atlantic

 

This article includes spoilers from last Sunday’s season-five finale of Billions

One of TV’s last great antiheroes departed on Sunday night on Sky Atlantic’s Billions. Bobby Axelrod, the proudly venal hedge-fund titan played by Damian Lewis, flew off into the sunset in the season-five finale, slipping the grasp of the law and his chief nemesis, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), one last time on his way to a less punitive future in Switzerland.

Although the character’s final scene was somewhat open-ended, with Axe (as he is most commonly known) being welcomed by the Swiss authorities after fleeing the United States, Lewis confirms that he is leaving the show. “There’s an opportunity maybe for me to return,” he says from his home in north London. “But for now, broadly speaking, Axe has been vanquished.”

Lewis’s exit ends what amounts to “easily the most time I’ve spent playing one character”, he says. The actor was previously best known for his three-season stint on Homeland. It also comes just months after a personal tragedy. Lewis’s wife, the acclaimed actor Helen McCrory, died in April, not long after Billions returned from its pandemic production hiatus. Lewis shot much of his final stretch on the show remotely, from England.

Damian Lewis is not an actor who’s scared the audience is going to dislike him. He is willing to play the character in as caustic a manner as the character requires, and he has faith that if he’s true to that, it will connect with the audience

Over five seasons on the pulpy markets-and-machers drama, Axe embodied the culture’s often contradictory feelings about the super-rich. A self-made, self-described capitalist monster, he shamelessly destroyed anything – careers, lives, entire towns – that got between him and his next billion. But he did so with enviable audacity and panache, with an equally alluring penthouse-and-private-jet lifestyle.

“When I’m walking down the street in New York it’s, ‘Axe, you the man!’” Lewis says. “He’s a really despicable human being, but no one seems to care.” That’s owed largely to Lewis, who from the beginning imbued a character who could have been a sneering caricature with emotional depth and a predatory physicality. (When he was developing the character, his acting exercises included moving about on the ground like a cheetah.)

Much as Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston made Don Draper and Walter White irresistible even when they were awful, Lewis made Axe’s financial marauding fun to watch.

“Damian Lewis is not an actor who’s scared the audience is going to dislike him,” says Brian Koppelman, who is a showrunner along with David Levien. “He is willing to play the character in as caustic a manner as the character requires, and he has faith that if he’s true to that, it will connect with the audience.”

Damian Lewis: played one of TV’s last great antiheroes in Billions. Photograph: Sky Atlantic
Damian Lewis: played one of TV’s last great antiheroes in Billions. Photograph: Sky Atlantic

But after 60 episodes of elaborate, at times inscrutable schemes, and of Chuck and Axe squaring off in various configurations, Lewis is ready to move on. “It’s difficult to keep mining, creatively,” he says. “We know who he is.” And after six years of spending months at a time in New York filming Billions, he plans to stick close to home and to his two teenage children after “we had a sadness in our family,” he says, referring to McCrory’s death, at 52, from cancer.

It’s a subject he’s reluctant to talk about, his normal expansiveness giving way to terse responses. He wants to remain in London for the foreseeable future for “obvious reasons”, he says. “It is self-evident.”

Lewis says McCrory’s death does not explain his departure from Billions. He initially signed on for five seasons and “always just assumed that would be enough”. Koppelman says the show, which premiered in 2016, has been building toward Axe’s departure for several years.

We wouldn’t ask him to come to America in that situation – right after the love of his life passed away, who was a remarkable, incredible artist and human being

But it does explain why Lewis spent much of the past few episodes appearing remotely. Actors and crew flew to England to shoot scenes that were framed within the show as a stint for Axe in Covid quarantine. (Lewis did return to New York for part of the final episode.)

“We wouldn’t ask him to come to America in that situation – right after the love of his life passed away, who was a remarkable, incredible artist and human being,” Koppelman says. “It’s Damian’s private life, so it’s not really ours to comment on,” he continues. “We just feel truly, unbelievably lucky to have had five years with Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti together.”

From the beginning the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Axe and Chuck has been the show’s defining dimension. (A close second: the abundant awkward cameos by real-life financiers and Manhattan luminaries.) When the show returns in late January for its sixth season, Corey Stoll’s Mike Prince, who arrived this season, will be the master-of-the-universe foil for Giamatti’s ethically ambiguous lawman. The finale found Prince literally taking Axelrod’s seat, after buying his company in an offer Axe couldn’t refuse.

Damian Lewis and his wife Helen McCrory, who died earlier this year. Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage
Damian Lewis and his wife Helen McCrory, who died earlier this year. Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

With his carefully cultivated image and world-saving rhetoric, the Prince character has more in common with the current crop of rocket-riding billionaires than with the mercenary hedge-funders Axe channelled in the wake of the Great Recession.

“A long-running show has to evolve,” Levien says. “So it’s like a reload in a great way, at the right time.” Showtime, the US network that makes Billions, has not yet committed to a seventh season, but Gary Levine, the network’s president of entertainment, says, “From what I’ve seen of season six, I’m very encouraged.”

For Lewis, who is preparing to shoot the British cold-war series A Spy Among Friends, his departure from American television comes almost exactly 20 years after he starred in the second World War miniseries Band of Brothers, in September 2001. An Eton-educated Brit, Lewis has displayed a remarkable knack for playing blue-collar Americans. (Axe wears his Yonkers roots on the sleeve of his cashmere hoodie.) But he isn’t sure when, if ever, he will seek out another American series. “I don’t like closing chapters,” he says. “But it does feel like it’s the end of that for now.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times