Showtime's terrorism drama has struck a nerve with viewers — and we can think of one so-called reason why

By Dave Karger
October 21, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • TV Show

Considering she’s starring on her first TV series since 1994’s dearly beloved My So-Called Life, Claire Danes should have seen this comparison coming. Told that a blogger posited that Carrie Mathison, Danes’ CIA-agent character on the new Showtime terrorism drama Homeland, was actually her So-Called alter ego, Angela Chase, in adult form, the usually placid Danes raises her voice ever so slightly. ”Of course they would say that,” she groans. ”No! It’s insane. It’s just my voice and my face. No. No f—ing way.”

She has a point: We don’t recall Angela Chase popping pills, coming on to a man twice her age, or spying on a couple having sex. Thanks to Danes’ exciting and unpredictable performance, Carrie — a mentally unstable agent convinced that a newly released POW (Damian Lewis) is actually a terrorist — could be the most fascinating character of the season. ”She’s at a very high register, the stakes are impossibly high, and there’s a lot of dialogue,” says Danes, 32. ”I don’t know if I’ve ever worked harder. I hear myself saying ‘I’m tired’ all the time. To whomever. To myself, to my dog.”

Homeland exec producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (whose last tour of duty was on 24) were so set on hiring Danes that they initially named the character Claire. ”She has to play somebody who is unbalanced and highly competent at the same time,” Gansa says. ”That is a tricky line to walk.” Seconds Gordon, ”I don’t think she ever has made a conscious nod to appear likable in any frame.”

For Danes, who toyed with majoring in psychology while at Yale, part of the appeal was delving into the mind of a mentally ill woman. ”My best friend from the age of 9 is now a therapist. So we talk about my character,” says the actress, who also met with patients and experts before filming. ”We diagnosed her together and found the appropriate medical cocktail to treat her. It was like playing with Barbies, but in the kinkiest, most perverse way.” So what’s her semiprofessional opinion of Carrie? ”She’s Bipolar 1, and she’s had a psychotic episode. She’s more manic than depressive, and she responds very well to the drugs. The drugs don’t make her fat, because it’s better for television.”

Clearly Danes has put a lot of thought into her character — and returning to TV. After a decade of focusing on films (Romeo + Juliet, The Hours), she moved to the small screen, winning an Emmy for her turn as an autistic scientist in HBO’s Temple Grandin. ”People are making fewer movies, and they’re either microscopic in scale or they’re about machines,” explains Danes, who hasn’t had a feature film in wide release since 2007. ”There are huge swaths of time where you’re just bobbing in the water and nothing’s biting. And that’s very frustrating.”

Not only is Homeland geographically convenient — the show shoots in Charlotte, N.C., a two-hour flight from New York City, where Danes lives with her husband, actor Hugh Dancy — but it’s also provided her with a professional opportunity juicier than any movie. It’s a good thing, given that she’s signed on for as many as six more seasons (the show is now four episodes into its initial 12-week run). ”As intimidating as it is to think about playing the same person for that long, I know that I get to play a really interesting person at least once a year,” she says. ”I like Carrie. I can chill with her for a while.”

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  • 10/02/11
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