Toward the end of the first season of Showtime's "Homeland," CIA agent Carrie Mathison has a meltdown. She's off her bipolar meds, her bosses have just stormed into her home and are removing documents, and she's essentially been pink-slipped. And after 12 episodes of Claire Danes as the driven Mathison, operating in constant yet controlled motion, it's almost a relief to watch her just let all that energy out. Her expressive face contorts into an exquisite agony; her anger and madness coalesce into a ball of fury that should burn up everyone else in the room. She's Cassandra, telling truths that no one will listen to.
Being Carrie has been wearying, Danes acknowledges. "The pitch she's on is so high, and to maintain that hyper-vigilance is exhausting," says the actress. "But it's fun. I like her -- she's smarter than I am, and definitely more bad-ass than I am. It's fun to wear her cape."
Carrie's cape has helped "Homeland" become Showtime's prodigal child after just one season. The series, about a returned POW from the war in the Middle East, who may or may not have turned to the enemy's side, and the dogged CIA agent who pursues him has drawn record ratings to the network, averaging 4.4 million viewers -- one of whom is President Obama -- for the season. But it's not just about numbers for Showtime; played right, "Homeland" and Danes could propel the network into the rarefied atmosphere of drama series winners at this year's Emmys. Thus far, the network has four drama series nominations, all for "Dexter" -- and that's it.
"Homeland" has a fighting chance, and a big reason for that is its star. Danes spent two decades in Hollywood running through a selective gamut of feature roles but mainly drew award attention from her small-screen work -- which is rare. She's largely steered clear of TV roles other than her iconic (and Golden Globe-winning) performance on "My So-Called Life" and 2010's "Temple Grandin," which won her both a Globe and an Emmy. She returned to series TV with "Homeland," a show whose premise was not initially easy to embrace.
"I was a little apprehensive about the intensity of it," says Danes. "I wasn't sure about sustaining that level of Sturm und Drang for possibly seven years; I was unsure if it was almost too relevant and would be exploitational and confronting and too distressing -- but, ultimately, I had not encountered a character that was so dynamic and specific for a very long time."
Maintaining Sturm und Drang for years on end has become the signature of "Homeland" creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. The pair met at Princeton and have remained friends (consistent) and writing partners (with breaks) for three decades for such shows as "Spenser: For Hire" and "The X-Files." Gordon struck out solo with "24," and Gansa joined him in the series' seventh season; once that ended, the pair decided to start up a show on their own and loosely adapted an Israeli show ("Hatufim," translated as "Prisoner of War") into "Homeland," a show that can feel like "24" with a little less adrenaline.
Not that there wasn't some hesitation: "We looked at each other and said, 'Do we want to wade into this same water again?'" recalls Gansa, who serves as show runner today. "But with '24' you were always up against a real-time attack against America; we thought this might be an interesting way to investigate those same issues, but do it in an adult and complex way."
Once Danes signed on, the other challenge was in casting the remaining key roles: Mandy Patinkin came onboard as Carrie's mentor and supervisor, Saul, and the actor says he responded to the script immediately.
"It hit a nerve with me," he says. "A very private, personal nerve
The well-known Danes and Patinkin were one thing, but choosing British actor Damian Lewis as the all-American Marine POW was risky. "We went back and forth about whether we should cast a square-jawed Marine or someone who isn't so stereotypical," says Gansa. "You wanted him to be believable as someone who had a Norman Rockwell quality to him."
Lewis manages to make his character both sympathetic and horrific at the same time. But even he wasn't always sure where Nick Brody's loyalties were. "That was probably the one thing they were a little coy with me about, is he actually a terrorist or not," he says of the production's early days. "Once we were filming, it became clear I needed certain facts to portray the character in a certain way, so I wouldn't be acting in the dark."
That the show has been criticized by both sides of the political aisle, says Nevins, is a good sign. "I've heard people pretty far to the left say this show is an indictment of harsh interrogation tactics, and I've seen people to the right who say this shows the danger of Muslim jihadist ideology," he says. "But I think most people just see their politics reflected in the show, and I like that."
It's not the politics that has Danes feeling the strain, though. "All that CIA-speak," she says and chuckles. It's a lot of lines to learn, she says. "The good thing is that Carrie's under pressure a lot of the time, so if I'm under pressure it's useful. But still, there are times when I just want to jab a pencil through my ear."