Watching Damian Lewis’ gripping performance as a U.S. Marine on the drama Homeland, you might never suspect he spent his childhood in a top hat and tails uniform at Britain’s most exclusive boys’ boarding school, Eton College. But Lewis, who won an Emmy on Sunday for his portrayal of troubled American Nicholas Brody, is just one of a group of rising actors to have attended the storied institution.
Renowned (and frequently reviled) in Britain as a bastion of privilege, Eton, founded by Henry VI in 1440, has educated 19 British prime ministers and countless aristocrats, including Princes William and Harry. Today, it’s almost as well known for its film and TV-star alumni including A Week With Marilyn‘s Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston of The Avengers, and House‘s Hugh Laurie.
Historically, many of Britain’s great actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine, rose to stardom from humble roots. These days, however, British actors are more likely to be covering up their cut-glass accents than cultivating them. What is it about Eton, then, that’s spawned this recent band of thesps? There’s no doubt the school boasts an impressive drama program (the kind you’d expect given its $46,000 yearly fees). Its students have a 400-seat theater at their disposal, equipped with a flying system, orchestra pit and revolving stage. There’s also a wardrobe, dressing rooms, make-up studio and professional-level sound and lighting systems plus a coterie of dedicated theatre staff. The school stages over 20 productions a year, including such meaty fare as Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. And until last year, the school boasted a teacher, former Royal Shakespeare Company actor and director Simon Dormandy, who revolutionized Eton’s drama program and inspired admiration in his students. “He treated us like professionals,” Redmayne said of Dormandy in an interview with Time Out. “The facilities at that school were extraordinary and he really exploited that.”
But even with such a grand stage to play on, it’s hard to believe that the boundless confidence, experience and lighting design expertise conferred by an Eton education is solely responsible for its students’ success. There is the undeniable fact that Etonians, as many in Britain have pointed out, are likely to have the money and connections to launch an acting career. With tuition fees at drama schools in the U.K. hovering at a recently increased £9,000 per year, a degree in acting is a big financial risk. And then there are the months, perhaps years, of auditioning. That desert of rejection must be easier to traverse with a bit of parental cash at one’s side, an aid Downton Abbey actor Rob James-Collier, who plays footman Thomas, has likened to a “comfort blanket” that he and others from working class backgrounds never had.
Yet whatever the advantages of their silver spoon upbringing, Old Etonian actors are often keen to avoid being cast as toffee-nosed Brits. Still, some have found it doesn’t hurt to be a charming young Englishman. Eddie Redmayne, 30, got his big break when he landed the part of Colin Clark in My Week with Marilyn, a film in which he essentially played himself: a handsome, boyish Old Etonian looking to get into showbiz. After a stint as a pillow-lipped (and posh) young officer in the World War I BBC drama Birdsong, Redmayne is set to appear in the upcoming Les Miserables as the idealistic (and posh) Marius.
In the U.S., OEs have been rather more successful at playing against type: counter-intuitively, Old Etonians are regularly tapped to play gruff American characters. Homeland is not Lewis’ first foray into tough guy American roles — he also played U.S. battalion commander Maj. Richard Winters in 2001’s Band of Brothers. Another OE, Dominic West, made a name for himself in the U.S. playing the Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire. The phenomenon has even led Eton’s headmaster to quip in 2011 that “When HBO want a gritty, hard-bitten, authentically American character to head up a mini-series they instinctively think: Old Etonian.”
It’s unusual for OEs to tout their connection to the school, however. Damian Lewis went so far as to keep the fact that he had gone to Eton secret while he built his career. “It was really to avoid any typecasting in a floppy-fringed, public schoolboy kind of way,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row show this month. Dominic West, meanwhile, said in March on a British talk show that “Old Etonian is a stigma that is slightly above ‘paedophile.'” Still, he acknowledged that it hasn’t hurt his craft, either. “It’s an extraordinary place…it did very quickly nurture my acting,” he told the Telegraph in 2011. “It has the facilities and the excellence of teaching and it will find what you’re good at and nurture it.”