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I was whisked to L.A. to hang out with Tom Hanks..I just wish my mother had lived to see me in the series; EXCLUSIVE: OLD ETONIAN STAR OF SPIELBERG EPIC.

Byline: KEVIN O'SULLIVAN

IN just 48 hours, Damian Lewis's life was changed forever.

The handsome Old Etonian shakes his head in disbelief as he remembers how he was plucked from obscurity to the inner sanctums of Hollywood's two most powerful men.

One moment Damian was just another hopeful actor enduring another tedious audition.

The next, he was in Los Angeles, an honoured guest in the homes of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, chatting about football and movies.

The 29-year-old Briton's meteoric rise to fame began after Hanks and Spielberg launched a worldwide search for a man to star in the most expensive TV series ever made.

The part called for an American, but the dynamic duo - sticklers for finding exactly the right people - had given up on their homeland.

Worldwide auditions were held, and, on a cold and wet November day in London, Lewis joined thousands trying to portray US Second World War hero Major Richard Winters.

Despite his Royal Shakespeare Company pedigree and success in TV series such as Hearts And Bones and Warriors, Damian was pessimistic about his chances. In fact, snowballs and hell came to mind.

He was astonished to land the starring role in Band Of Brothers, the pounds 80m epic about the crack young paratroopers from Easy Company, the US 101st Airborne Division.

The BBC2 blockbuster, which has gripped the nation for the past nine weeks, follows Winters and his men as they fight their way towards Hitler's Bavarian Eagles Nest HQ.

Damian says: "I had no idea of what role I was going for. I simply went along and read.

"Imagine my amazement when, 48 hours later, I found myself in Los Angeles, meeting Tom Hanks.

"I was picked up that afternoon, and flown first-class to LA. There was a limo waiting and I was whisked off to this amazing hotel.

"I spent the weekend hanging out with Steven and Tom at their homes. I was nervous at first, but they were really laid- back and friendly and we really hit it off.

"It turned out they had both seen me in Hamlet on Broadway a few years ago.

"We talked about London - they both have homes here - and football, as Tom's son was playing that day and he was off to watch him.

"He didn't know anything about football and had to rush off quite early as his wife had been nagging him to go and get a Christmas tree."

The spectacular drama - unveiled in Normandy on June 6, the 57th anniversary of the 1944 landings by Allied forces - took nine months to film in often gruelling conditions and is Damian's finest hour.

But his excitement over the premiere has been put into perspective by a personal tragedy.

While on holiday in India in February, his father Watcyn and mother Charlotte were in a car crash and his mum was killed.

He says: "Dad had to pull Mum from the car. That's what this year has been about.

"Mum was a beautiful, gorgeous woman and a very loving and giving mother, and we all miss her terribly.

"She was very proud of what I was doing and I'm just sad she's not around to see it all now.

"She came on set and was tickled pink, but she didn't want me to go off to Hollywood. She was keener for me to do work in the theatre."

It was Charlotte who encouraged Damian to act.

HE recalls: "She said: `Look, don't go to university and chase girls, play sport, do no work and come out with a nothing degree. Go to drama school and we'll support you'."

Damian grew up in London but it was at boarding school in Sussex, that he discovered his love of acting.

"From the age of eight, I started acting in school plays and Gilbert and Sullivan musicals," he recalls.

"My first role was as a policeman in The Pirates Of Penzance."

But, acting apart, Damian admits that he didn't enjoy school.

He says: "They were keen to drum into everyone how to behave well in any situation, which is a very British upper- class way of thinking.

"I used to get sick and tired of it. The most rebellious things I did always involved girls. I often used to get caught in the girls' dormitory in the middle of the night. I got caned an awful lot for other things, too, like talking after lights out.

Later, Damian was packed off to Eton, but he had already decided on his chosen career.

"Everyone else was off to Oxford and Cambridge, but I'd made up my mind that acting was what I wanted to do," he says.

He went to Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where his contemporaries included Joseph Fiennes and Ewan McGregor.

As well as Hearts And Bones and Warriors, Damian had television parts in A Touch Of Frost, Poirot and Rik Mayall Presents. But it has taken Band Of Brothers to put him firmly on the map.

US film bosses offered him a role in the blockbuster Black Hawk Down, but he turned it down to do ITV's forthcoming series The Forsyte Saga, in which he plays Soames Forsyte.

Damian admits that working with Spielberg and Hanks was a really tremendous experience.

"Steven is great and he'd happily sit talking to you about films all day," he reveals.

"Tom was brilliant. When I took my parents to the set he was absolutely charming.

"He collects old typewriters - he's got about 40 - and he typed me a lovely letter, telling me what a great job he thought we were all doing. I thought it was really special."

Before filming started, the cast were sent to a British army base in Hampshire, where former US Marine Corps officers put them through their paces for a gruelling 10 days.

"They created a whole world for us. We weren't allowed mobile phones or contemporary literature and were put through 1940s training. We were addressed in character names and had to speak in American accents," says Damian.

"We were up at 6am, made to do dozens of sit-ups and go for long runs, and because my character is an officer and a real athlete, the main trainer thought I should be a bit better than everybody else - and he certainly let me know that."

MANY of the cast had met the men they were portraying and were inspired by their heroism.

Damian says: "We often crawled through mud 15 times to get it right. But there was minimal whingeing, because we'd talked to these guys and we'd heard how their friends had been blown up next to them.

"Anyone who did moan was frozen out pretty quickly."

And meeting the real Richard Winters was an important moment for Damian.

He says: "He's 82 now and I met him and his wife Ethel. He was a brilliant soldier and people would have followed him on any mission.

"We spoke a couple of times a week during filming."

Band Of Brothers was filmed at the 800-acre former British Aerospace site at Hatfield, Herts, which was also used for the blockbuster movie Saving Private Ryan, directed by Spielberg and starring Hanks.

Damian is proud of the way the series has turned out.

"I genuinely think Steven and Tom have done everything they can to be faithful to the history book," he says.

"There's nothing sensationalised about it, there's nothing elaborated on. They were an amazing group of men who did some incredible things."

k.osullivan@mirror.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

LIFE-CHANGING MISSION: Damian, left, and, inset, in Band Of Brothers, the pounds 80m TV epic which has made him a household name LAID-BACK: Hollywood director Spielberg and Damian hit it off
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 28, 2001
Words:1289
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