The other day a conference call was held by NBC for one of their new shows premiering next week, Life. Press from around the world got the chance to talk to the creator of the show, Rand Ravich, and the star of the show, Damian Lewis. Last year, NBC had tremendous success promoting Heroes in this manner. They weren’t so lucky with The Black Donnellys, but hopefully Life will be given more time to breathe and be given a legitimate chance.
Life is a new drama about a detective who is given a second chance. Damian Lewis stars as complex, offbeat Detective Charlie Crews, who, thanks to close friend and attorney Constance Griffiths (Brooke Langton), returns to the force after serving time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The cast also includes Sarah Shahi (Rush Hour 3) as Charlie’s skeptical but demanding partner, Robin Weigert (HBO’s Deadwood) as their hard-hitting lieutenant, and Adam Arkin (Chicago Hope) as Crews’ former cellmate Ted Earley.
Here is some more background information on Rand Ravich and Damian Lewis:
Rand Ravich (Creator/Executive Producer) –
Rand Ravich serves as executive producer and writer of Life. Ravich’s versatile career has spanned all facets of the entertainment industry. He wrote the feature film The Maker, and wrote and directed the 1999 SCI FI thriller The Astronaut’s Wife starring Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron. With producing partner Far Shariat, Ravich executive produced the George Clooney-directed feature film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as well as a number of pilots, including The French Connection based NY-70 for NBC.
Rand grew up in New Jersey and moved to Los Angeles after attending Haverford College. After grad school at UCLA, he moved to New York City for a brief happy time only to return to LA to work in television.
Damian Lewis (Detective Charlie Crews) –
Damian Lewis stars as complex and offbeat Detective Charlie Crews in Life. British actor Damian Lewis is best known for his Golden Globe-nominated performance as an American WWII hero in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers and for his portrayal of Soames Forsyte in the acclaimed ITV/Granada production of The Forsyte Saga: Series I and II.
Born in London, Lewis was educated at Ashdown House and Eton College before attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After leaving the Guildhall, Lewis joined the British theatre community and appeared in a number of plays between 1993 and 1998, primarily as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. During that time he was in Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet on Broadway, and played Hamlet in London. He returned to the London stage for the 2003/04 season opposite Helen McCrory in Five Gold Rings at the Almeida Theatre and starred in the 2005/06 National Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community.
Other television appearances include the BAFTA winning BBC mini-series Warriors in 1999, BBC’s Hearts and Bones series in 2000, and portraying the title character in Jeffrey Archer The Truth for the BBC. In 2005 he starred with Sophia Myles, Thomas Hardy, and Jason Priestley in the ITV/Granada/Power World War II mini-series Colditz and portrayed Benedick in the BBC’s updated Shakespeare Retold version of Much Ado About Nothing. Damian has starred in three films that were at the Cannes Film Festival, Brides, Chromophobia, and the critical hit Keane, directed by Lodge Kerrigan. He has also starred in The Situation directed by Philip Haas, Stormbreaker, Dreamcatcher, The Escapist with Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes, and The Baker, which he also produced.
And now here are the highlights of what was said in this conference call for Life with Damian Lewis and Rand Ravich…
What is the genesis of this show and Damian being cast in it?
Rand Ravich: The genesis of the show is I’ve always been wildly interested in police shows and I’ve done a police pilot for NBC a couple years ago, a period piece. So I’ve done a lot of police research. And this season, when I was thinking about a pilot, I really wanted to start with the character. And I found this character of Charlie Crews, a man who is getting a second chance in life, a man who had been falsely accused and who has spent 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit but instead of it breaking him and instead of it being dark and dour and depressing, it made him very aware of how precious life is, and it is a chance to have a show that exists in some light instead of darkness given the back story.
I’ve just always been a huge fan of Damian. And when I was finished writing it I thought of him for the part, and I was lucky enough to get him in the time when he was willing to come over here and do American television.
Damian Lewis: The genesis of it for me, as it always is for the actor, is a phone call from some people who have been working on a project for a year, two years, three years, maybe half their life. I don’t know. But it was very tempting from the outset because of the strength of the script and that’s the only place you can ever start from as an actor. It’s a big commitment signing up for American network TV show, but I felt very comfortable doing it because I enjoyed the script so much.
The character is a wonderful character. There’s a little bit of wish fulfillment, a little bit of fantasy in there. We join the character, as Rand says, after a horrible, horrible central incident in his life, and we join the character at a time when he is reborn, liberated, and freed from his previous life; and that gives you tremendous scope. And as Rand says, the chance of tremendous joy and optimism; and I thought that was a new take on a cop show. So I was all too happy to jump on.
RR: Damian has the unique ability, which I’d wanted in this character, to ultimately be a tough guy because of his time in prison – you know, having really seen serious things, but also not being afraid to be warm and open; and I really want those two sides in the character and in the stories he embraces. It was very difficult to find. It’s very difficult to find an actor like Damian, who has that ability to embrace both those parts of his personality.
A lot of actors who play cops do research by shadowing their real-life counterparts, but given how unconventional Charlie is and his tactics are, would it even be useful for you to learn the proper way that police do work?
DL: It’s all there. You can never do enough research. It’s a question of time often and access to the LAPD and to divisions in the LAPD. For example, getting ride-alongs with cops as they’re out on patrol has been, I think, quite hard to do because the LAPD’s stopped offering that quite so much for various political reasons. But, you know, in terms of other research, there was research into the Zen Buddhism philosophy that was very helpful for this, and research into what it’s like to be in a maximum security prison. And I go about that the same way I always go about researching a role, which is through literature, through videotape, documentaries, footage, and interviews with people who might have had some experience there. Research is always important. I enjoy that aspect of it so I always do it.
RR: With our Technical Advisor, both with the Writers and in production, we always ask what would the cops really do? And whether we stick true to that or we twist it for emotional reasons, we always want to know how it really happens; but then if we can get more emotional satisfaction by bending it slightly, we usually go that way.
Damian, talk about what you bring to this role and talk about your relationship with the writers.
DL: I’ve have a very confused and complex psyche as a result of some strange and extraordinarily profound events in my early childhood, which I can’t go into now. But I hope I bring some craft, which I’ve learned along the way; and a little bit of instinct to the role. It’s fantastic. It’s actually a really great privilege to have the creator of the show and the producer of the show be the writer as well. Often you find as an actor you want to get access to the writers. With no disrespect to directors and/or producers, it’s often the quickest and most direct way to get information about the script. So having Rand around daily or at the end of the phone has made the whole job a lot easier and has enabled me to access Charlie Crews that much quicker.
I think we have a really good relationship, and it’s in both of our interests to maintain that. We were talking the other day about the symbiotic relationship of writer and actor over the course of a TV series because I think you both find the character and each one of you informs the other person. It goes hand and glove. You can’t work without the other. So I suppose if the relationship is not functioning well, that could be a hindrance; but if it does work well, then hopefully it broadens your bases with which to work from and it enriches the process. I think Rand and I have that and that’s actually what’s tremendously exciting about going forward into episode 10, 11, 12, where we are heading now, and hopefully into episode 17, 18, 20, 22 is just where we can go with it. Neither of us fully know the full potential of that. Rand, I hope, is at least steps ahead of me at this point.
How do you expect the relationship between Charlie and Dani, and between Charlie and Constance to play out this season?
DL: Well, you know, just referencing what I just said, you should talk to Rand after I’ve just spoken briefly. But it’s at the outset at least, Dani Reese is a by-the-book cop. She has her own particular story, her own secret. She’s recovering from an addiction or two that she suffers from, and she’s been put down the bottom of the ladder, and she has to go by the book.
She has to be seen to be doing everything perfectly. She has to be whiter than white, and then she’s thrown together with this guy who’s a bit of a maverick; he’s an eccentric. He’s had an experience that no one certainly in her life she’s come across before has had that experience; and he throws her curveball after curveball. So they have a combative relationship to start with, but they find a mutual respect for another.
They find a mutual respect in the way that they both do their police work; and through that, I think a friendship is burgeoning. And whether that goes beyond that with amount of time you spend with somebody at work, that can take you into interesting places. We’ll have to see what happens there. His relationship with Constance Griffiths is really one which is far more idealized. She is in some way a saving angel to him and I think he loves her very deeply, but they honor their relationship in a rather old-fashioned and rather noble way. The friendship is too precious to ruin. So both of those characters, I think, are scared to act for now.
RR: Just going with the last thing Damian said. The most interesting part to me about the Constance-Charlie relationship is that she had him all to herself during those years in prison when she was his conduit to the real world. She was the only part of life that he saw. And now that he’s out and learning to walk, where we find him in the pilot, the relationship will be changing. He’s not all hers anymore. He belongs to the world and he’s rediscovering himself. And so it is a relationship that was forged in prison as very intimate with just the two of them, but now it is changing. Every day Charlie spends in the world; their relationship will change because of it.
And the most interesting part about writing that relationship is that it is in motion. It’s not stagnant.
What are your expectations for this season in terms of the competition between the two shows in your timeslot?
RR: We’re just writing our show. I mean I saw the pilot for Dirty Sexy Money. I thought it was good. I mean it was a beautiful-looking show, but we’re doing a show of a different order. You know? That show is a sprawling canvas. Our show is very about one man’s rebirth, one man’s re-entry into the world; and it is taking up so much of my time to explore that that I honestly haven’t given much thought to the timeslot. So I guess I’m just saying that we’re just making our show and I think it will find an audience. The writers and myself, we’re writing the shows that we like to watch and I like their taste; and I like the shows they like and they like the shows I like. And so hopefully we’re making a show that we like to watch and other people will want to watch as well.
Damian, do you get some real freedom to play with this character and really make him as eccentric as you want him to be?
DL: Yes, although there are pretty rigid parameters in there as well. He’s not an anarchist. He’s one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, when people come back from war zones, they have this sort of sense of ownership that they can behave however they want. No one has seen what they’ve seen; and therefore, they can behave as anarchically, as violently as they want at times, and they cause a lot of distress. Crews, he’s a remarkable character because he’s managing although he is seeking a revenge of sorts. We don’t know how that will exact itself, but he at least wants to know what happened. But his life view is so optimistic. He’s so generous and so giving. He’s so full of joy; he’s so quick to see the joy in each moment. He so wants to intensely live his life moment-to-moment and get the most from it. He’s desperately trying to claw back those 12 years.
If this was another type of show, he could be destructive; but he isn’t. He loves being a cop as well. I think it’s important to remember, yes he came back on the force to get himself closer to the conspiracy and be close to his enemies; but he also loves being a cop. It’s what he always wanted to do. And before he went to prison I think he was an Average Joe who just would’ve been there for 25-30 years and got his pension, and he’s just someone who’s been radically altered by his experience. So he comes back on the force to be a cop because he enjoys the working day. He enjoys the structure that it gives him. So in playing him, those choices have to be made. It’s a fine line. He can’t just be wild and crazy for the sake of being wild and crazy because that would be uninteresting over a period of time.
RR: The one thing that Charlie Crews character has, as far as being unrestricted, is that he’s been through enough that he realizes that if it’s going to defy his social conventions to say something that will make you feel better, or to say something to get to the truth. So often we go through the day and we’re not honest with the people right next to us because of social convention. What he’s been through, the experiences he’s had has ripped that filter away so what he desperately needs is to get close to other human beings. So he will say the honest thing if it’s going to help or if it’s going to get to the truth. As far as being unhindered, just as far as the LAPD is concerned about him is that he does not have a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s that they are watching him more carefully because what they would like nothing more is to get him back off the force because he knows he’s back to make trouble. So even though he is somewhat unbridled and unhinged by his experience and looking for the joy, he does have to walk the line very carefully because the LAPD wants him out.
Damian, how did you became an actor? What made you fall in love with it?
DL: Wow. How long do you got? No, it’s pretty conventional actually, I’m afraid. I was acting at school. I loved doing it at school. I went to what you would consider a slightly antiquated and quaint little English boarding school, slightly Dickensian in its outlook. It was about 1980 and they used to put on a Gilbert & Sullivan musical every year; and I that’s really what I was doing. I was singing in Gilbert & Sullivan musicals slightly eccentrically for four or five years and I loved it. And then when I was about 16 at my secondary school, I got to go with some friends and we set up a little theater company and put on a show. And I went to drama school.
We have a more comprehensive system of drama schools, three-year diploma schools at home. They’re now full-degree courses, but they weren’t back then. I did three years at Roder and came out, and was lucky enough just to get going rightaway. I did all that horrible stuff, getting an agent, and then I was doing classical theater, a lot of classical theater; Royal Shakespeare Company and I worked on Broadway; and I was doing that.
And then I suppose in terms of you guys having any kind of idea of who I am, it really happened with Band of Brothers in 2001. So the last six, seven years. And I’ve been doing TV and film and theater and radio and mixing it up ever since then. That’s what I do.
Damian, did you actually do some research on police jargon or anything like that just so that you could sound like a police officer?
DL: Yes, but of course you can only sound as much like a police officer as the script will allow you. I mean this is not a documentary piece. I mean, this is a drama with great chunks of comedy in it and it should be entertaining. As Rand was explaining earlier, when there is an option to go to the heart of the emotion of a story that week, then that option is taken, and anything that is procedural and documentary in style I think will be just to put to one side at that point. But yes, you just put yourself around people that’s like me doing the show in an American accent. When I’m on set I speak in an American accent all day. I just stay there. It’s easier for me. It keeps me closer to the character. So one of our props guys, in fact, was a Sheriff in LA County, Kern County, and he flew helicopters for a long time. I speak a lot with him daily.
We have a technical advisor. I speak with him daily. When the SWAT team guys come on for scenes when we need SWAT team and they’re all retired officers, I speak to them. It’s just putting yourself next to those people who have had the experience and you just rub up against them and you hope some of it rubs off on you. That is often the best way of doing it. You can read as much as you want; you can watch as much documentary footage, but just standing in front of a guy who’s done it is always the most helpful.
Rand, if you look at the general trends on television right now, there’s only one show in the top 20 that revolves around one central actor. How do you feel about putting on a show that is really absolutely dependent on Damian? Does that limit you storyline-wise?
RR: It’s easier for the writing, it’s harder for the actor. I mean because this character came to me so clearly in one moment. I had been doing all this research about all these things, about witness protection, about prison, about cops; and the character of Charlie Crews, he just came fully formed to me. Very easy for me to write him exclusively and because he is my point of view, he is my entry point into the world. So as far as telling stories, I find those pretty interesting and easy to get into. As far as the workload on Damian, I think it’s a lot to be a single lead in an American television show. It’s a tremendous amount of work. And so I think it’s a blessing and a curse.
Damian, obviously there’s pressure for starring in a prime-time television show, but do you feel like your performance is going to make or break this show?
DL: Pretty much. It keeps my enormous and very fragile ego in check for a period of time, which is nice. It’s every actor’s dream to be offered a role of this magnitude, of this size; and the responsibility that comes with it. So I love it. The more complex answer is, yes it’s exhausting; yes, the hours are long; and it can create problems within production. Just how the hell do you keep your lead actor going? You want him on screen, but you don’t want to kill him or her in the process. In terms of what I think is what you’re angling at a little bit as well, in terms of maintaining an audiences’ interest in one person. There are many, many examples over he course of time where there’s been a single lead that people who fall in love with from Rockford to Kojak to Magnum to House, as you said.
RR: I think the secret to those shows, which I hope is our show, is that each week we need to tell and are telling a close-ended story. I love those ensemble shows, but those are much more sprawling. But I think the beauty of a show with a single-entry point character is that you find a story each week and you tell a little play. You tell the whole story with the beginning, middle and end. And that becomes the world for your 42 minutes and 24 seconds.
DL: Often with what you might consider to be a conventional procedural, there’s not much of an other story going on often and it’s a little cursory. It’s not particularly compelling. I think the reason is because it’s very satisfying to have a crime solved each week and seeing it done well, and it’s fun. I know I enjoy that as a viewer trying to work out who did it and why they did it. But the bigger and further-reaching story is the more personal story that centers around Crews, which is this conspiracy story. And I think that’s the grown-up section of this show. I would come back each week to find out how his investigation into the biggest crime of his life, which is him. That’s the biggest case he has going. It’s his own case, what the hell happened?
Rand, where did the idea for Charlie’s obsession to fruit come from?
RR: Well mostly it came from a lot of research about prison, about what you don’t get in prison. I think some of the things we all know what you don’t get in prison. But reading a lot of biographies, a lot of the prisoners miss fresh fruit because what you end up getting is a lot of army surplus fish heads and Spam, and what you really miss is fruit. And I thought that was such a beautiful symbol for the juice and vitality of the natural world that he was deprived from unjustly for all those years. And so he was hungry for it all those years and his appetite for that sweet, juicy fruit of life is still in evidence as the series begins. And so he cannot get enough. I like fruit.
DL: Luckily, so do I, otherwise you would’ve had a problem.
RR: He eats a lot of fruit, this kid.
Damian, you have played a lot of intense roles. Are you that intense in real life?
DL: Well 10 years of boarding school in the English countryside, it’s like being institutionalized, a lot of repressed emotion in there; and really it’s just therapy. You might take that seriously and maybe it is true. Maybe I haven’t really fully examined that. I do answer this question quite a lot. I’ve done a lot of comedy. But I’m assuming you’re referring to Dick Winters in Band of Brothers, or possibly Soames Forsyte, in The Forsyte Saga, of which I know is played well out here on PBS. I think my view on that is that if you capture the essence of someone really conflicted at the heart of a serious drama with elements of tragedy in it possibly, I think they register with an audience just that much more strongly than lighter comic roles. I think you have to do sort of 10 comic roles for every sort of strategy role that you play. But I think if I am attracted to those sorts of characters, intense characters or serious characters, I think it’s not so much that they’re intense and serious. I think I’m interested in people who are conflicted.
That’s the most interesting character to play. It allows you to explore subtext. It means there is a subtext and those things that are in Rand’s writing are plenty. There’s all of that, but there’s also a wonderful comic touch in this and in Charlie Crews, and there really is the potential with Charlie Crews to play everything, to play the whole range of human behavior, which after all is all acting is. At its best it’s just behavioral. So I’m really just drawn to good writing, what’s concealed and not revealed. Perhaps that’s a particularly English thing, as the English don’t let their emotions out that much. But it’s those things, which are concealed, and I think it’s always far more interesting to watch an actor try not to reveal something than that moment of revelation. So I think also there’s that in Charlie Crews and in Rand’s writing too.
Damian, what made you choose coming to the American market in a television series? Was it this script, or would you have been making this move anyway?
DL: Wow, the American market. You just came right out and said it. I believe this is a creative and an artistic endeavor. Would I have come out? No. I touched on it briefly earlier. It’s a big commitment to say yes to a potentially long-running TV series. It’s a big commitment, seven months of the year, possibly nine, possibly even five or six years. You don’t know. Ever since I did Band of Brothers, I guess I’ve been on certain lists. I’ve never said yes to one of these things before because timing wasn’t right; but also, I never read a script that grabbed me enough. This script is really, really good, and the role is really, really good. I intuited as much as I could for over a few conversations with Rand and Far, his partner, what kind of guys they were. I’m sure they would tell you the same thing; and as best you can, you make an instinctive decision based on a few conversations, a few meetings.
I just thought Rand and Far were my kind of people and that they were truly artistic and truly creative, and we’re going to continue to be as creative and artistic as they’re allowed to be in, as you call it, the American market. I’ve been dipping in and out of the American market in films and TV for the last five or six years. It’s just nothing has landed in quite the same way that Band of Brothers landed. Let’s hope this does the same thing.
Rand, as far as the conspiracy theory goes, are we going to get a lot of answers this year, or is it going to be one of those things that’s dragged out like Lost is?
RR: No, you’ll get some answers. The show that we really like is on another network, but it’s 24. It’s a long-running show, but it gives you emotional closure. Every few episodes you get a piece of information that’s very helpful. And the shows that the writers and I are not particularly fond of are shows where you feel like you’re kind of wandering in the desert. And while this is not a serialized show, this is a close-ended episodic television show, which will tell a complete story every week. The conspiracy, it is Charlie’s biggest case, what happened to him and we will get definite answers on a timely basis because those are the kind of shows I would rather watch.
– Life premieres on NBC in the U.S. on Wednesday, September 26 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
– Life premieres on the Global network in Canada on Wednesday, September 26 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Sir Linksalot: Life