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In episode eight of Showtime's award-winning series Homeland, there is a poignant scene in which CIA officer Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, speaks with her boss and mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) about love and its close cousin, loneliness. Danes's character is secretly bipolar and has fallen hard for a Marine she also suspects of being a terrorist; Berenson's own wife has just left him. When she tells Berenson she has had an epiphany of sorts—"I'm gonna be alone my whole life, aren't I?"—the bereft Saul doesn't answer; they just look at each other in silence. The camera pulls back, and there is this brief but oddly affecting—and, as it turns out, completely unscripted—moment when Danes, whose legs are crossed, slowly lifts her right calf in a sort of absentminded stretch that the viewer watches through the vertical blinds of the office.
"It was so perfect," says executive producer and cocreator Alex Gansa. It also was one of the most internally debated gestures on a show in which there is an abundance of far more debatable actions and subjects. Chip Johannessen, the show's coproducer who wrote the episode, "had an hour-and-a-half-long argument with the editor about whether or not to keep [the move]," Gansa says. "Finally, after adding the final scene with [Sgt. Nicholas] Brody, they took it out, but we all agreed that something was missing." It was a tiny thing, he admits, but it sent a clear signal— and ultimately, it was put back in. "It was like, ‘Yes, I've had an epiphany, but it's not as heavy as all that.' Claire always finds something that's unique and signature."
Television is where Danes—whose film credits include Little Women, Romeo + Juliet, and The Hours—has always found her signature roles. At 14 she originated the role of angst-ridden teenager Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, the ABC melodrama that lasted only 19 episodes but became a cult classic. In 2010 she played the autistic animal scientist Temple Grandin in HBO's movie of the same name. Danes won an Emmy for the latter, a Golden Globe for both, and added a third Golden Globe this year for Homeland, which also won for Best Dramatic Series.
The complicated and occasionally unlikable role of Mathison, Danes says, was "impossible to ignore." It was also written with her in mind: Gansa and cocreator Howard Gordon, who worked together on The X-Files and 24, were "tremendous fans since My So-Called Life," says Gansa. "We had a wish list, and she was at the top of it; we even named the character Claire in early drafts."
Part psychological drama, part police procedural, and part political thriller, Homeland is almost relentlessly focused on character, and the fact that it airs on Showtime, rather than a commercial network, means that its writers have the luxury of developing what Gansa calls the "smaller, more personal stories." To get at Carrie's narrative, Danes studied up on two subjects previously foreign to her: espionage and bipolar personality disorder. "I burrowed into a lot of literature," she says, adding that she talked the members of her Manhattan book club into taking on some of her research materials at their monthly meetings. "I like nerding out and getting a chance to delve into something I otherwise wouldn't learn about."
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Danes, now 32, who studied for two years at Yale, jokes that as a native New Yorker, "I've been in therapy forever—I'm an armchair therapist at the very least." More seriously, she says, "Acting and psychology are not unrelated. They're both examinations of the human spirit.... I'm really curious as to how people work, particularly people with certain conditions that make them different to the rest of us."
Carrie's bipolar condition, for example, is defined by what Danes describes as its erraticism. "You can get some traction, but you're always on undulating ground. Most people can afford to be more casual in general, but there's a potential bomb inside Carrie, and she has to be hyper-vigilant." To get a handle on the more extreme phases of Carrie's illness, Danes discovered a surprising source: YouTube videos posted by manic-depressives while in their manic states. "I think they feel a strong urge to communicate their experiences, and the Internet is a great way to do that."
Slightly more daunting was the professional aspect of Carrie's character—her work at and knowledge of federal government departments and agencies, in particular the CIA. "I'm not particularly political," Danes says, adding that she has visited Washington only a handful of times, and never longer than for a couple of days. So before Homeland began filming last spring, Danes visited CIA headquarters at Langley, where a senior female officer assembled a broad group of colleagues for a discussion. "It was pretty amazing—they answered all my questions really honestly and directly. It is just such a fascinating culture and career," she says. "These are people who've dedicated their lives to doing this work. It's very demanding and high risk and isolating, and, therefore, often quite lonely. And they can't really talk about it with anyone, so there is not a lot of support."
While she says neither the Langley trip nor the show itself has awakened any latent political interest, she does profess to have a new kind of appreciation for her citizenship. "I'm more aware of how many people fight so hard and risk so much," Danes says. "That's a big deal, and it's easy to forget or not think about at all."
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Watching Danes's nuanced handling of Carrie's personal and professional crises make it easy to see why Baz Luhrmann, who directed her alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, called her "the Meryl Streep of her generation." By the time we get to the heart-wrenching final episode of the first season, in which Carrie has opted for post-breakdown shock therapy, viewers have grown to understand or, perhaps, even love her. When the scene was shot, Gansa says,"Everyone was so uncomfortable on set. The sight of this brave character we'd created undergoing this procedure was so grim. It's a function of Claire's extraordinary performance that I kept checking to make sure the [electroshock therapy] machine wasn't plugged in. You have to throw every accolade you can at her because she made it seem so real." Equally impressive, he says, is that "very few actresses in LA, or in the world for that matter, would allow themselves to be photographed in that position."
Danes herself credits Homeland's success to the fact that it is so "beautifully written." Lawrence O'Donnell, the host of MSNBC's The Last Word and a writer on The West Wing for seven years, agrees. In Homeland's third episode, O'Donnell plays himself, interviewing the family of Sgt. Brody, the rescued Marine POW who is the object of both Carrie's affection and suspicions, played by the British actor Damian Lewis. "Knowing something about episodic TV and the way a typical third episode should play out, I thought it was a lost mess," O'Donnell says, laughing. "It just seemed like an impossible concept. As of the third episode, your two stars had barely been in the same room with each other. I didn't know how they could make that work, but as I saw it unfold, I had the same fun as everyone else as an audience member. And as a writer, I was just in awe."
O'Donnell's assessment—that the impressive dialogue and the "astonishing execution" of the performances ultimately enables the show to work—leads Danes to make note of her fellow actors, particularly Lewis and Patinkin. "I adore everybody I work with," Danes says. "But it's very intense; we're not whistling while we work." Patinkin, who has been described as difficult to work with on past projects, is "just dreamy," she says. "I'm in constant awe of what he can do. And if I'm nervous about a scene or I think it's particularly tricky, I just trust that he'll see me through. He's a very strong partner."
Patinkin's character (whom Danes describes as Carrie's "besty") has assigned himself the role of Carrie's protector; he gets her sympathetic, if not always lovable, side that the rest of us come to know over time. "Danes has been handed a character with a set of complexities that in the development process would seem unsympathetic, as in, ‘How can we have her as the star when no one is going to like her?'" says O'Donnell. "On commercial television, you watch a character because you know what she's going to do next and you know ahead of time that it is going to make you feel good. That's comfort TV. Here they've come up with a character and you don't know what she is going to do next, and that's what makes it so compelling."
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The question that fans are already asking, of course, is what Carrie and Brody and everyone else will do in season two. "I don't believe that Carrie Mathison will be welcome at the CIA in any shape or form, but there are things that she can do around the edges of the intelligence community that are profound," Gansa says. He adds that it is too soon to abandon the typically electric scenes, romantic or otherwise, between Carrie and Brody. "We're trying to keep that relationship front and center."
Danes's personal relationship is her two-and-a-half-year marriage to Hugh Dancy, the British actor who most recently played the lead in Broadway hit Venus in Fur, and who will join his wife on the fall TV roster as an officer from a different federal agency—he will star in NBC's Hannibal, as an FBI agent whose mentor is Hannibal Lecter. Danes, meanwhile, will head back to Charlotte, North Carolina, with the Homeland cast and crew to begin a new season of filming.
Danes, an always immaculate figure on the red carpet who counts designers Narciso Rodriguez, Zac Posen, and Valentino as good friends, says she is not averse to the more casual charms of her temporary home. "It's beautiful, and the people are almost unnervingly friendly," she says. "They have a kind of graciousness that I really appreciate." And there is, she adds, "a great fried chicken joint" three blocks from home. "There's a lot to be said for the Southern way."
Photography by Jason Bell; Styling by Inge Fonteyne at Jed Root Inc.; Makeup by Tina Turnbow at raybrownpro.com using Diorskin; Hair by Rheanne White at See Management
January 31, 2019