'Billions' Star Damian Lewis on 'Wolf Hall' Comparisons, 'Goodfellas' Accent

The role marks Lewis' return to Showtime after his Emmy-winning turn on 'Homeland.'
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Damian Lewis is back on Showtime with the new Wall Street drama Billions. However, when the former Homeland star appeared at the Television Critics Association summer press tour Tuesday, he was asked about a different TV role.

"I think the king analogy might be apt," said Lewis about the comparisons to his role as Henry VIII in the miniseries Wolf Hall. "But I think [the characters] came from different places."

The series explores New York City's power politics and finance through two ultra abrasive and influential opposing figures: hard-charging, blue-blooded and politically savvy U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and the brilliant, calculating, blue-collar billionaire hedge fund king Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Lewis).

"What's going to be interesting about this story is specifically this story," said Lewis. "So who will Bobby Axelrod turn out to be? And what is he prepared to do to retain power?"

Lewis pointed out an important difference between the two larger-than-life figures. "Henry VIII was born into quite a lot of power," said Lewis. "And Bobby is a blue-collar guy who, if you like, is nouveau riche, new money, and I think lives by a code of honor, a set of street rules, if you like, a little bit more. A kid from a blue-collar community where loyalty is fiercely protected and people are dispatched ruthlessly if they don't adhere to that code."

Co-creator and executive producer Brian Koppelman, who hails from Long Island like Lewis' character, described Bobby as "somebody who didn’t have certain advantages and wasn't admitted to the club."

The role marks a departure for Lewis in multiple ways. His Billions character hails from Yonkers and subsequently boasts a bit of a New York accent — a new challenge for the British Lewis. "I just wanted to go all Goodfellas with it. I thought, 'This is going to be great. I'm going to have a fantastic time pretending to be be some gangster from the Bronx," said Lewis with a laugh. "The guys repeatedly said, 'That’s awful, can you stop that?'"

The key to his New York accent? The vowel sounds, according to Lewis. "You just tighten it up a bit and I'm trying to just concentrate on that," said Lewis. "Having seen the pilot, I was struck by how little I thought I was doing and different my accent is in this show than … Homeland or anything else. So they're small little shifts, but they read large."

Also helping him get into character are Bobby's clothes, which include jeans (instead of suits) and a Celtic cross. "All these things just help make him be a guy from his neighborhood who happens to have a lot of money, and that empowers him," he said. "I think Bobby is one of these guys who's quite empowered by his sense of himself anyway without the money."

Billions premieres on Sunday, Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. Watch the trailer below.

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