Claire Danes talks “Homeland” and how her character came to be so complicated

For fans of the Showtime hit series Homeland, one of the vital components that made it such a huge success is that at its center is 32-year old Claire Danes, who plays the less-than-perfect Carrie Mathison. As a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations officer assigned to the Counterterrorism Center, Carrie is the kind of TV character who doesn’t have much under control in her professional and personal life. She is secretly taking medication for being bi-polar, doesn’t always handle the usual on-the-job pressure well and has a habit of falling into bed with those she’s actually supposed to be investigating. In other words, she’s human!

At a recent Academy of Television Arts & Sciences event for the Showtime series Homeland, Danes talked with great enthusiasm about her complex character by saying, “It’s pretty wonderful in that it makes her an unreliable narrator, which is really interesting. I am very curious about what it is to be a person who is wired in a fundamentally different way from most people, I just find that compelling but in terms of structure of the show she’s sort of a ticking time bomb. I thought it was very clever, too, because she has to be hyper vigilant in protecting her well-being, her health, her insanity and I think that extends to her relationship to her country and her work. I just think that that was pretty powerful and really effective and I had a lot of research to do.”

Had the series gone to network TV (which is where the producers first took Homeland before it landed at Showtime), Executive Producer Alex Gansa said the character of Carrie might have ended up being quite different. “It’s true that Claire’s character was not bi-polar in the original drafts,” Gansa explained to the auditorium filled to capacity with Homeland – and Claire Danes – fans. “She was a reckless character. She was a pariah in the intelligence agency. She was something that went off the reservation but she didn’t have a pathology.”

After shopping the series around, Gansa and co-creator Howard Gordon found a supportive partner in Showtime. “[President of Entertainment] David Nevins at Showtime was a great champion from the minute he read the script,” said Gansa, “and we owe everything to him and one of the things that we most owe to him was his insistence that we take Claire’s character and we turn her into somebody that could exist on cable but not on a network show.”

Claire Danes and David Nevins

For Danes, who won a Golden Globe in January for her portrayal of Carrie, research was a vital point of being able to take on the challenge of playing her character so effectively. “I was lucky enough,” she said, “to meet a woman who Howard and Alex knew and introduced me to who held a fairly senior position at the CIA and took me to Langley, so I talked to her about her experiences, she introduced me to her colleagues and I grilled them and they were actually incredibly responsive and forthright, which was amazing.”

Her research also took her into finding out what it was like to live with being bi-polar. “I worked with a woman called Julie Fast who is bi-polar and has written a lot of books about it,” Danes explained. “I happen to have a lot of friends who are psychologists and a best friend who is a psychologist so I learned about what their clients were like and it was really fun. We diagnosed Carrie together and decided what meds she was on. It was really like playing Barbies in a most perverse way.” Danes also found an unlikely amount of research in a popular spot on the Internet. “I actually did a lot of research on YouTube,” she said, “because I think there are a lot of people who are at manic states and are up in the middle of the night and need to talk and so they talk to the computer. And I think, also, they’re eager to share their experience. I watched a lot of YouTube.”

Claire with co-star Damian Lewis

Although she’s acted in other film, television and stage projects throughout her career, Danes is well aware that fans still hold her first series near and dear to their hearts. “My first true breakthrough was with My So-Called Life, which has followed me like a very eager dog for the rest of my career. [Laughs] I’ve done a lot of different kinds of work and have been very fortunate to have those opportunities but Angela was just really resonant. I understand why and I love her, too.”

“I had an incredibly positive experience on that show,” she added, smiling when talking about the short-lived ABC series that aired from 1994-1995 and for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama. “I’m still very, very close with everybody involved and it was such an auspicious start for me, such a fortunate start in so many ways, creatively but also psychologically because I was a kid and very vulnerable and I just happened to fall in the hands of incredibly responsible, wonderful bright people.”

During the panel, the Homeland group was asked about their first roles in television and Danes mentioned an unexpected role she had well before My So-Called Life made her a star. “I’m a New York actor,” she said, “so, of course, my first gig was on Law & Order. I was 12 and I played a teenage murderer. It was pretty exciting. I was convinced on the subway the next day everybody was recognizing me.”

She’s also heard talk of people who connect her past role to the one that’s keeping her busy today. “For a while people were saying [Carrie] was Angela Chase grown up and, ugh, that is just a little too convenient! I don’t know. This has been profound, too — and really rigorous and it took me a long time to start to feel kind of stable and sane and kind of energized again.” Danes made it clear that the hard work is personally rewarding for her. “It’s absolutely the kind of challenge I always dream about happening so it’s been great — there’s more and who knows where they will take me next?”

Season 2 of Homeland kicks off on Showtime on September 30.