After eight seasons and multiple Emmys, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin discuss their partnership and their struggle to accept that it's really over.
On a chilly January afternoon, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin arrived safely at the Library at the NoMad Hotel, a book-lined coffee and cocktail space in midtown Manhattan. No one had been kidnapped on the way. Or forcibly institutionalised. "But it's still early," Patinkin said.
For nearly a decade, the Emmy-winning Showtime espionage drama, Homeland, which began its final season February 10, has subjected its characters to most imaginable horrors and privations. Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a brilliant CIA officer with bipolar disorder, alongside Patinkin as her recruiter and mentor, Saul Berenson. The show itself, developed from an Israeli series by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, has survived its own vicissitudes, including the departures of two leading men, Damien Lewis and Rupert Friend. It has persisted through new administrations and shifting attitudes toward the intelligence community and American interventions abroad.
At the start of each season, cast members and writers attended what they call "spy camp," a week of interviews and discussions with experts and intelligence workers — a "massive, terribly unnerving download," Danes said, "about what's really happening and what is likely to happen" while the season is on the air. The download helped Homeland to mirror and seemingly anticipate real events even as the series wrestled with criticism that its depictions of mental illness were simplistic, its portrayals of Muslims Islamophobic. (During production for Season 5, graffiti artists hired to decorate a refugee camp set sprayed "Homeland is racist" in Arabic, which made it on camera.)
On that afternoon, Danes and Patinkin still had some additional dialogue to record and neither knew how the final episodes would be edited. But they had shot their last scene together — "When that last moment came, we just fell into each other's arms and didn't let go," Patinkin said — and had begun to explore what their lives would look like without Homeland.
With tears, expletives and an order of shrimp cocktail, they discussed their relationship, the evolution of the series and how to let it go. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
As the show has progressed, the relationship between Carrie and Saul has become its centre. Why?
These are two patriots, these two people. They would give their lives for this country. When we met people through spy camp, that was the enduring quality — a love of this country with all its complexity.
CLAIRE DANES: I didn't quite appreciate how real that was — I grew up in New York in a community of artists, and people who question and often resent authority. It was very humbling.
What makes them such a good team?
DANES: Well, he is more measured, a lot more sane. He is grounded. And she is flying. They're both wildly intelligent, but they're kind of at different frequencies and those frequencies complement each other. Carrie, if she lost Saul, she would be really, really disoriented. He is her ultimate ballast. She was really grounded and emboldened by the strength of that relationship.
PATINKIN: All I can tell you is at every point, I had only one desire, which was I wanted Claire to know she could do anything she wanted. That she was that safe.
DANES: And I did. I thoroughly did. Each year that passed, our relationship became that much more established and the trust continued to grow, and it would be just such a relief to get to play with my partner and I could really relax into it — even though they tended to be very stressful scenes. That is one of the things I will miss the most, because when will I have that again? When will I be able to work with somebody consistently over eight years?
PATINKIN: It's the time.
DANES: It's the time. You can't cheat that. And we've done this work in how many countries in how many circumstances?
PATINKIN: This 30-something kid taught me the meaning of grace, which took (expletive) forever to learn, that you just be kind and graceful in the worst moments. She showed it to me.
You started shooting in 2010 and the first episode was broadcast in 2011. Did the show change as the world changed?
The emphasis has always been on the intelligence community, which is a sort of neutral entity, actually. It's a place in government where those two cultures really coexist. There are as many Republicans as Democrats working within that field, and it felt kind of amazing to be in a space where that was the case.
PATINKIN: The question was, at times, Who is the terrorist? Is it a person in the State Department? In a mosque? Is it a white man? An Islamic man? And that responsibility is so interesting. We took a lot of heat — and I'm not defending anything, because people were bothered. As politicians use terror and fear to get elected all over the world, they love a show like ours to some degree, because it can help generate fear. That is what sells tickets. But our show is a novel of 12 chapters over eight years. In fairness, you can't read just this chapter when the politician is the bad guy or the religious person in the mosque is the bad guy. You have to take it as a whole.
There were critiques of the show as anti-Muslim.
PATINKIN: Colbert did a big critique. And when the graffiti was on the walls and nobody saw it, those guys were right to do it. It was a great wake-up call for everyone.
Do you think the show was successful in addressing it?
DANES: I think we could have been more sensitive. I also think that the whole premise of the show, even from the very beginning, was that there were protagonists who were unreliable. Brody (played by Lewis) was this American hero, and maybe he was the opposite of that. Carrie at the end is completely parallel to Brody. We're not sure if she's been compromised or not. We are subverting typical ideas about what it is to be the good guy. So I think that's always been baked into it.
PATINKIN: I do think that we have tried to do the work. I think our writers have done the best they could.
How did it feel to return to the Middle East for the final season.
DANES: It felt appropriate in a lot of ways. Alex is a very elegant storyteller, and so it's really symmetrical. We're looking more directly at terrorism again.
Mandy, you said in an earlier interview that you wanted the show to end with a sense of optimistic possibility. Did the final season achieve it?
I prayed for that. I fought for it. And I hope that my prayers will be answered. I know how things can change in the editing room. But I'm hoping that that wish of an optimistic, positive possibility, void of terror for five (expletive) seconds, will be a part of our narrative.
DANES: I think the characters are taken to their ultimate edge, which they always are. I mean, how many times have we both been kidnapped?
PATINKIN: Sometimes I just wish I was in another trunk.
DANES: Yeah, it's been a lot of trunks.
PATINKIN: A lot of hoods.
DANES: We joke that Carrie, instead of a lingerie drawer, just has a drawer full of hoods. We've been pummeled in a profound way and an almost comical way. I mean you have to be a little detached from it, because it's often so extreme. But I think that we managed it without being too maudlin or saccharine or reductive or simplistic. That was always the trick, to honor the show's sense of daring, which is defining and exciting and rare, and also really honor where we've taken our beloved characters and our beloved audience.
Does this feel like the right time to end?
DANES: Alex just couldn't stand the weight of it anymore. I think it ended for him. The way this show is structured, it can be reimagined over and over again. It's flexible in that way. Every year it was a reboot.
Would you have done more if more had been offered?
DANES: I've been claimed by it. I had two kids over the course of the show, too. So I really didn't have many hiatuses. I think it's important for me as an actor to stretch myself in different ways. So in that sense, it's good for it to end, and this is as good a point as any. But I don't think that it needed to end now.
How were the last days on set?
DANES: We had a final scene together and I lost it at the end. After that, I didn't have scenes that were all that complex or critical. I was in a mild fugue state, strangely calm, a little dissociated. But when I had my final scene with Mandy, that's when I was able to feel the loss and the pride and gratitude for everything that we have shared. When we wrapped, for two consecutive weeks, I dreamed that we were filming. I'm still kind of struggling with this idea of it being truly concluded. But I'm cooking again. I'm de-Mathisoning by baking chickens and stuff.
PATINKIN: I didn't have the balls to not have something to do so immediately after, so I set up a concert tour of which I'm halfway through. (Patinkin, a musical theatre veteran, sings selections from his recent Diaries albums.) Over the Christmas vacation, I started walking around with my wife going, "What am I going to do?" I want to be free. But it's like, what am I good at? And who am I, and what am I going to be? I have never had an experience like this. I don't have a reference point.
DANES: No, me neither. Who does? I mean, I've never done anything as long. I've barely been married as long. I'm not going to find that again.
PATINKIN: Wait a minute, young lady: You don't know what you're going to find. I've been through a lot of things, and I never imagined that I'd have this opportunity. The blessed grace of our existence is we don't know what happens one second from now.
But you'll be in each other's lives?
DANES: Yes, there's not a choice.
PATINKIN: We're family.
Homeland season 8 airs on SoHo 8.30pm Mondays.
Written by: Alexis Soloski
Photographs by: Erik Carter
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES