BEVERLY HILLS — At least "Homeland" actor Damian Lewis comes by his identity crisis honestly.
On "Homeland," his acclaimed Showtime drama returning Sunday night, he plays a man of many shades: devoted father, cheating husband, former prisoner of war, vice presidential candidate, war hero, Muslim and possible brain-washed terrorist.
For Lewis, it's easier just to wake up every morning talking like an American, maybe because it will be the least of the transformations he'll have to make that day. He says he loses his natural British accent out of "self preservation."
"I don't come out of my American accent until someone yells 'wrap!'" says the 41-year-old London-born Lewis, who plays U.S. Marine platoon sergeant Nicholas Brody, for which he won the 2012 Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series Sunday night.
"If I didn't keep my American accent all day, I'd end up sounding like Dick Van Dyke doing 'Mary Poppins,' half American, half Cockney accent."
The same night Lewis earned his Emmy, "Homeland" made history by being the first Showtime series to win outstanding drama.
Though the show is set in Virginia but shot in Charlotte, N.C., Lewis resists assuming a Southern accent. Two — his natural British accent and then Brody's nondescript American one — are enough for Lewis to handle.
"I would have to apologize to you if I did my Southern accent," he deadpans. "We would not want to hear that one."
Lewis has enough to juggle already. Brody is a man of constant twists and secrets.
"He would like to think he's in control of his own destiny," he says of Brody. "He absolutely won't be is my prediction for this season, and I think he will live in a state of heightened anxiety and paranoia and uncertainty.
"In the first season, he was a man just trying to re-enter civilian life. There was a degree of damage which elicited some sympathy from the audience, but at the same time he also was the menace. So people were terrified of him.
"He's more, I think, knowingly juggling balls this season."
Brody leads a double — or maybe it's a quadruple — life. To most Americans, Brody is a high-profile war hero who's worked his way into the national political spotlight. Unknown to most, he's had a torrid affair with CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who is assigned to the Counterterrorism Center.
Then there's an even bigger secret: Brody is suspected of working with terrorists.
During the first season, "There was one sort of outstanding question which was if Brody was to going act, how was he going to act?" Lewis says of the character.
"And (the producers) came to me midseason and said, 'Do you know you are going to strap on a vest, and you are going to go blow yourself up,' and I went, 'Really? Wait a second. I thought we'd been trying very hard to tell the story that he hadn't been successfully radicalized and created into a Jihadist,' and that seemed to undo all of that," he says.
"But in the end, it didn't, and it was a big political symbolic statement, Brody doing that."
Lewis is a bit more grounded. Raised in the Abbey Road area of North London, he had a stable childhood. His middle-class parents lived for 30 years in the house where he was raised. Lewis now lives only a few minutes away from there with his wife and two children — a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
At age 16, he decided to become an actor and did small theater work and Shakespeare productions.
While working his way up, Lewis took other jobs to pay the rent, including working as a telemarketer for a car alarm system, a job he hated.
But doing "Hamlet," playing Laertes opposite Ralph Fiennes, changed his career. Steven Spielberg saw the show and cast Lewis in HBO's "Band of Brothers," his first role of several that required a credible American accent.
In 2008, he landed the lead role in the acclaimed-but-little-seen NBC crime thriller "Life," about a former convict turned law enforcement officer.
"Homeland," though, has put Lewis in a whole new realm. Affable, accessible and charming, he's taking its success — and the critical praise of his work in particular — in stride.
Even President Obama has said he's a fan of "Homeland" and Lewis's character. Lewis says Barack and Michelle Obama watch the show on Saturday afternoons in the Oval Office.
Not everyone quite gets what's going on.
"There's one slightly hairy moment down in Charlotte, N.C., quite early on in the season. There was a barbecue going on and there was a bunch of Southern boys there drinking beer, eating fried chicken, eating steak," Lewis recalls.
"(One guy) came up to me and he said (speaking in accent), 'So, you're playing a terrorist?' And I said, 'Well, you know, maybe. I don't know.' "
What: Second-season opener
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Who: Emmy winner Damian Lewis returns as Nicholas Brody, a war hero of many secrets that makes CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) suspicious
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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