Damian Lewis is in for ‘Life’

/ Source: The Associated Press

It wouldn’t be hard to feel jealous of LAPD Detective Charlie Crews.

He’s got millions in the bank, a huge house, no lack of female companionship — and a Zen attitude to keep him mellow.

On the other hand: Crews spent a dozen brutal years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit (his hefty cash settlement came from the state of California when his lawyer got him cleared). His marriage was over. And now that he’s back on the job, co-workers rudely speculate on why he returned — and don’t trust his motives. Nothing to envy there.

But Crews makes the best of life, and then some. That’s what “Life” is about.

“I wouldn’t wish anyone to go to jail for 12 years in order to have a life-altering experience, but that’s where it leads Crews,” says Damian Lewis, who plays him in the new NBC crime drama (10 p.m. EDT Wednesdays). “And it leads him to operate on a plane above everybody else.”

‘A fresh look at life’Crews, who (in the words of his ex-partner) used to be “a basic, by-the-book cop,” doesn’t cop to anything by-the-book now. He has a new appreciation for what the outside world has to offer — even the pleasure of a piece of fruit (which has quickly become the character’s trademark).

“He comes out with a fresh look at life,” Lewis says, ”and he wants to seize every moment.”

Daily life is a reliable surprise for Charlie Crews. And so it is, too, for Lewis, who, during a recent interview, voices surprise to find himself in Los Angeles starring in an American TV series.

The London-born Lewis, 36, has built a career largely identified by his stage work (lots of Shakespeare) and high-toned British TV projects (notably, as Soames Forsyte in a remake of “The Forsyte Saga,” seen by U.S. viewers on PBS).

Leading-man handsome, with ginger-red hair and penetrating blue eyes, he was cast in the big-budget 2003 thriller “Dreamcatcher” and, alongside Robert Redford, in the 2005 “An Unfinished Life.” But his film forte has been more on the order of art-house fare such as “Chromophobia,” “Keane” and “The Baker.”

And though he’s known to many viewers for his acclaimed performance as an American war hero in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” well, “that’s not TV, it’s HBO,” Lewis says with a laugh.

‘A 22-hour whodunit’He explains that he signed on for “Life” because, for starters, he was intrigued by Crews’ blend of mellow and intense, and by the dramatic challenge Crews seemed to represent: “Here he is, re-entering the world, putting each building block on top of another, gently and slowly, while he starts to feel human again.”

There’s an overarching lure, as well. Crews is trying to untangle the mystery of how, and why, he got framed for butchering three people, as the cover-up goes on. Along with weekly cases to solve this season, “It’s a 22-hour whodunit,” he says.

So he made the move, along with his wife, actress Helen McCrory (“The Queen,” “Casanova”), and their growing family (they have a year-old daughter and another child is imminent).

“We thought, we can have a lot of fun getting out of London and living in California for a few years,” says Lewis. “I’d never imagined committing to a project where they could option my services for a five-year period, but then circumstances changed, and it became a lifestyle decision as well as a career decision.”

Even so, the uncertainties of a new series aren’t lost on him. “I could be at home at Christmas,” he says with a laugh.

Jury is out on ‘Life’The future of “Life,” based on early ratings, remains to be seen.

“But I feel very lucky to be doing it,” says Lewis. “Although I do believe in art for art’s sake, there’s also something really satisfying about being in the mainstream. And there’s nothing more mainstream than American network TV.

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“It’s been an interesting experience,” says this first-timer, smack in the heart of what he calls “the dream factory.”

“I enjoy understanding how systems work,” he adds gamely, “and this is one of the most well-oiled and rigid machines you can be part of. I get a kick out of, and am frustrated by, it.

“But the antidote to this is to go and make an independent film for six or seven weeks, where you have a growing, artistic experience that nobody sees.”

That, of course, would only happen during his “Life” hiatus next summer. And during the hiatus the year after that, and after that, should the series score a long, successful run.

Lewis concedes it would be bad form as the star of his series to hope for anything less. But what kind of long-term satisfaction can he hope for, playing Crews for a five- or six-year hitch?

“In terms of creatively being engaged with a project for that long, I have no idea, and it fills me with great tension,” he acknowledges. “It might be difficult.”

Then he breaks into a mellow smile like Crews might wear on his best day.

“We shall see,” says Lewis. “We shall see.”