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It took 'Billions' to lure Damian Lewis back to TV

Former 'Homeland' star talks about his new Showtime role as a king of finance and insists he's not as good-looking as we might think he is.

10 p.m. Sunday, Showtime

In his new Showtime series, "Billions," he plays a hedge-fund mogul whose choices move the markets, but Damian Lewis is a bit of a ditherer.

So the decision to return to Showtime, where he'd won an Emmy for playing Marine-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody in "Homeland" didn't come easily.

"I do make plans. I try to make plans because I desperately try to create some sort of structure. But, of course, that's a fool's game," the British actor said in an interview last summer in Beverly Hills.

"TV's a big commitment, and it's always hard to say yes to. It's the truth of it. Especially if you live in a different country, like I do," Lewis said.

"I take a long time making the decision, I drive everybody mad by waiting and dithering and just working out whether I want to do it or not. And the one thing that always makes me do it, or has in the big American things I've done - I put 'Band of Brothers' to one side because that was a limited series - 'Life,' 'Homeland' and this thing, is the writing."

What also ties "this thing" to "Life," in which he played a police detective returning to the force after spending 12 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, "Homeland," and even "Wolf Hall," where he played Henry VIII, is that Lewis is playing a character with heroic qualities whose heroism remains in doubt.

Wall Street billionaires don't often get to be the good guys in TV and movies - that's what the money is for - but Yonkers-raised Bobby "Axe" Axelrod sure looks like a good guy. A working-class success story with an enviable marriage (Malin Akerman plays his not-to-be-underestimated wife, Lara), he's hands-on with his kids, generous to his friends and seems as interested in the nuts and bolts of the businesses he invests in as in wringing money from them.

You just might not want to cross him.

And, OK, there could be a reason, beyond orneriness and ambition, that U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) is out to bring Bobby down.

"The idea that you can still root for someone who's deeply flawed, who might compromise themselves in the actions that they take, but be no less appealing, is challenging to the viewer, and I enjoy taking on those characters. I enjoy daring them to not like me and yet maybe root for me at the same time," Lewis said.

"I think it's particularly true of the landscape of grown-up drama, storytelling at the moment, that people for the last 10 years have tried to write complex, ambiguous, flawed heroes. There haven't been too many Gary Coopers on the telly . . . recently. So starting with that great flawed hero, Tony Soprano, you know, the last 10 years has seen a wealth of these complex characters, which I'm very fortunate to have been asked to play."

The suggestion that, like "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm, he's also been fortunate not to have been pigeonholed by his own good looks, brought a hoot of laughter from Lewis.

"Jon! Jon would be terribly insulted if you put me in the same category of good-looking as him! I'm thrilled, of course," he said.

"I've never been that guy. I don't consider myself to be - I am in fact in no way that guy. I'm not sort of conventional leading man good-looking, and I've never been asked to play those roles, I think, as a result."

If Bobby Axelrod cuts a dashing figure, "I'm getting a lot of help. I've got billions, and they're putting me in nice clothes and spending money on expensive makeup."

"Billions," created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and New York Times financial columnist and author Andrew Ross Sorkin ("Too Big to Fail"), "is categorically not 'Wall Street,' a la Gordon Gekko. It's not 'Wolf of Wall Street,' a la Martin Scorsese. It's not coke and hookers. It's a much more contemporary world of political and financial power and the way in which these two forces are up against one another," Lewis said.

Because Giamatti's character and his "both wield so much power, who is preying and who is being preyed upon, I think will flip, sort of deliciously, through the season. So maybe a good way of looking at it is it's Foreman and Muhammad Ali . . . It's a 'Rumble in the Jungle,' and these guys will slug at each other using everything they have at their disposal to continue to flourish and succeed in their own worlds whilst taking down the other guy," he said.

"This is really fun to make," Lewis said. "And when I'm dithering at home, 'Oh, should I do this job?,' everybody is screaming at my head, going, 'You're insane! It's clearly the best piece of writing that has come across our desk in the last year!' And it's true."

Phone: 215-854-5950

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