Claire Danes, CIA Agent, Protects The 'Homeland'

Claire Danes' latest role has her hunting terrorists in the Showtime series Homeland. Troubled CIA analyst Carrie Mathison believes an Iraqi war hero might be part of an Al Qaeda plot. Danes explains why the role appealed to her, and what she hopes the series can accomplish.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Haunted by 9/11, the CIA's Carrie Mathison debriefs an American hero, a U.S. Marine who's just been rescued after eight years as a prisoner of al-Qaida.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")

CLAIRE DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) As you know, the first 72 hours after a soldier's capture are critical. What he knows can be used by the enemy during that period to devastating effect. The point is Sergeant Brody stopped being a source of actionable intelligence fairly quickly, and yet, he was kept alive for almost eight more years. I'd like to ask him if he knows why.

DAMIAN LEWIS: (as Nicholas Brody) I often wondered that myself.

CONAN: Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in a scene from the first episode of "Homeland," which debuts on Showtime Sunday night. It's produced by some of the people responsible for "24" and focuses on the agent's beliefs that the Marine may be al-Qaida's man now. Is she right? Is she crazy? Or both? If you'd like to talk with Claire Danes about this part or her earlier work, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Claire Danes joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

DANES: Thanks so much...

CONAN: And...

DANES: ...and it's great to be here.

CONAN: Thank you.

DANES: Yeah. Yeah. Home for a second, in and out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: "Homeland" centers on counterterrorism like "24" did, but if I may say so, you're no Jack Bauer.

DANES: Well, do you know what? I've actually never seen "24." It's a horrible confession given the company that I'm keeping currently, but, yeah, I - in a way, it's kind of nice to be ignorant of that just because I know, there's - that's - that has a lot of weight.

CONAN: Well, let me put it this way. Jack Bauer did not have a lot of doubts.

DANES: No. OK. Well, yes, Carrie is - she doesn't have many either, but a lot of other people have them for her.

CONAN: Because she is obsessed with the idea that this Marine who spent all that time as a prisoner of war has been turned, has become an al-Qaida agent.

DANES: She's pretty sure about it. The problem is that she is the only one who is at all remotely sure about it, so, yeah.

CONAN: And I don't mean to be giving anything away, but we see flashbacks of his time in Iraq, and it sure looks to us, the viewers, as if he's an agent.

DANES: Well, I'm, you know, I'm biased because I'm playing Carrie, but I have to say, I'm on her side.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DANES: No. I think, you know, it's an interesting show because there - it's wildly complex and full of ambiguity, and it's a cat-and-mouse game, and no one is entirely clear who's the cat or the mouse at any given moment. So the perspective shifts and, you know, but, hopefully, she will reign victorious.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: She is described by one of her colleagues early on as intense. Later, we learn that she's taking in antipsychotic and, indeed, has more than a mood disorder that she tries to pass off. This is an aspect of the character that makes - it adds a considerable part to people's doubts.

DANES: Yeah. She is the ultimate unreliable narrator, really. And I'm interested in the show because her personal experience of monitoring this condition is serious, and she can never take her own well-being or her own safety for granted, and that extends to her relationship to the country at large. So she's in a constant state of emergency, personally and professionally speaking, and, you know, other people can afford be more casual.

CONAN: You - we got to know you in series television, most of us, "My So-Called Life," and then you went off and made movies. And what brought you back to series television?

DANES: Well, I think television is on fire right now. It's a really exciting medium at the moment, and I've gotten really turned on by it in the last 10 years. And I was - I loved "The Wire." I loved the original "Office." I think "Breaking Bad" is incredible. "Mad Men" is wonderful. You know, there are these really imaginative series that have captured all of our imaginations. So I think, you know, I wanted to be a part of that Renaissance. That's kind of an exaggerated term, but I think there's something to that. But more specifically, I, you know, I'm always in pursuit of interesting storytelling, and I don't really care what medium it finds itself in. And I wasn't actively pursuing a series necessarily, but this script came up and this character appeared, and she was incredibly seductive.

CONAN: Carrie's mentor at the CIA is Saul, played by Mandy Patinkin, and there's a scene - I just wanted to play this part from another excerpt from the first episode. She sets up her private monitoring operation, installs cameras and microphones in the Marine's house, and then arrives home one day about to monitor the barbecue that he's holding for his buddies and finds Mandy Patinkin's character sitting on the couch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMELAND")

MANDY PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) And get a lawyer because you're going to need one when you report to the (unintelligible) first thing in the morning.

DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Saul, please.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) I don't have anything to say.

DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) I'm just making sure we don't get hit again.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) I'm glad someone is looking out for the country, Carrie.

DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) I'm serious. I missed something once before. I won't - I can't let that happen again.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) It was 10 years ago. Everyone missed something that day.

DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Yeah. Everyone is not me.

PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) I understand that. I doubt a grand jury will.

CONAN: And one thing your character does have in common with Jack Bauer I will say: Stop at nothing to protect - do what she thinks is right for the country.

DANES: She's committed. She may be committed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: She's certainly running, doing things that are highly illegal. As a reporter, if I found somebody from the CIA doing that, it would be front page news.

DANES: Yeah. And, yeah, for - that's for sure. Yeah.

CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. Our guest is Claire Danes. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's get Jenny(ph) on the line. Jenny is calling from Ann Arbor.

JENNY: Hello. Hi.

DANES: Hi, Jenny.

JENNY: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Hey, Claire. First of all, I just wanted to say you're a wonderful, wonderful actress...

DANES: Thank you.

JENNY: ...especially for your role as Temple Grandin. It was beautiful.

DANES: Oh, thank you very much. Thank you.

JENNY: And I wonder, did you have a connection with autism because you played that role so magnificently? And also, I saw your husband's film where he played a young man with an Asperger's. I didn't know if you both experienced autism in a personal way.

DANES: That was just a wild coincidence. Yeah. We still kind of marvel at that. He did that movie about six months before I became aware of "Temple Grandin," and I got so spoiled because, you know, he - our library was already stacked with the necessary reading. No. Neither of us had a particular awareness of autism, but we certainly developed one. And, you know, I - the current character that I'm playing is not, I mean, she's obviously very different, but she's also wired in a very different way from most people, and I find that very interesting.

And I don't like thinking about these people who are different as - I don't like that they're often marginalized or dismissed. And I think that, yes, there are real perils of those conditions, but there are also real advantages that they have. You know, they do have a certain insight that we don't have and, you know, so I empathize with them, and I'm interested in them.

JENNY: Well, thank you. You're just a wonderful actor. Thanks a lot for just giving Temple humanity. I really appreciated that.

DANES: Thank you. You know what, I mean, she had it in abundance. I mean

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DANES: I'm just so glad that people connected with it, that movie got made. And - but thank you. I'm glad. I'm really glad you liked it.

CONAN: Thanks, Jenny.

JENNY: Thanks a lot. Take care.

CONAN: We're talking to Claire Danes. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I meant to ask you, you're getting Temple Grandin's motions right, her physicality right, the way she hold her face, that had to be different from anything you'd ever done.

DANES: Yes, it was. I mean, I'd never played somebody - I mean, I kind of sort of played a living person actually when I did "Shopgirl" because that was loosely modeled on a woman that Steve Martin had been with, but it was really very fictionalized and, you know, but I felt a certain responsibility, you know, but this is on a whole different level. And, you know, Temple is so idiosyncratic. I mean, I started thinking of her as a culture-of-one and, you know, it was kind of wonderful to draw from life in that way, and she was so generous and so permissive, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DANES: And she was really very gracious about being represented by this person she didn't know. But, yeah, you know, I mean, I worked with a woman who's a friend of mine who's a choreographer and I had danced in the past and, you know, that was the first thing I did, was recruit another set of eyes so that we could study her together and think about how autism manifests itself physically.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on. This is Zian(ph), Zian with us from Hartford, Connecticut.

ZIAN: Hello?

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ZIAN: Hi. I just wanted to say hi to Ms. Claire Danes.

DANES: Hi.

ZIAN: Just to let you know that I am a huge, huge fan.

DANES: Oh, thank you.

ZIAN: I've watched, I think, everything you've been in.

DANES: Oh, thank you very much.

ZIAN: And I'm really excited to see you get into television because I don't really watch much television. I'm more of a movie watcher.

DANES: Mm-hmm.

ZIAN: But with, you know, the movie - the shows that you started naming like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," you know, it's kind of bringing me back to television. And with this new show - like me, myself, I'm in the military, so I'm excited to see you take on this role of - and this, you know, this story.

DANES: Oh, wow. Well, then you know more about it than I do, but I hope you like it. I mean, I'm really excited about the scripts that are coming in. I mean, I'm in the process of filming the first season, so it's still kind of unfurling. I'm still kind of discovering what it is, but, you know, I think it's exciting. So I hope we don't disappoint you.

ZIAN: Oh, trust me, as long as you're in it I think I'll be fine.

DANES: Oh, you're so sweet. Thank you.

ZIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Zian, thanks very much for the call. Your character appears to live in an apartment complex in Washington, D.C. that my nephew actually lives in.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DANES: Really?

CONAN: So I was pretty interested to see that.

DANES: I moved in with your nephew. You didn't know that?

CONAN: Didn't know that. His wife is going to be a surprised.

DANES: Oh. OK.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from April. I hate to bring up the "My So-Called Life" thing, but I just wanted to tell Claire what an everlasting effect that wonderful, short-lived show had on her peers. My friends and I are all around Claire's age and also that of her character, Angela Chase. We still talk about how we were an Angela or a Rayanne, and Jordan Catalano is still the epitome of the unattainable boy. I've also noticed that the show is being embraced by a new generation of girls by being available on Netflix, which is proof of the show's timeless voice. I do have a question for Claire. What does she think that Angela and the other characters would be doing now?

DANES: Well, that's a fair question and it's one that I don't have an easy answer for. I kind of think she would be a writer of some form, and I'm probably saying because I associate her so strongly with Winnie Holzman, the writer of the show. I mean, she really was an alter ego of hers - Winnie, whom I'm still very, very close with and love dearly. But, yeah, I don't know what form that would have taken, but I definitely see her as being a writer.

CONAN: A writer of what, fiction?

DANES: I don't know. Maybe a journalist, but I'm totally making that up. You know what, we would have to ask the writer herself. We'd have to call Winnie and ask.

CONAN: Let's do that.

DANES: OK.

CONAN: We'll get her - no, actually, we're out of time, but

DANES: OK.

CONAN: ...next time you're on.

DANES: OK.

CONAN: Claire Danes, thanks very much and good luck with the show.

DANES: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Claire Danes, star of the new Showtime drama "Homeland," which premiers this Sunday night, and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

On Monday, the latest accusations against Pakistan's intelligence service. We'll profile the ISI, plus the Opinion Page. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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