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Claire Danes on Homeland, My So-Called Life, and the Joys of Cursing

Sixteen years after her debut as an adolescent on My So-Called Life, Claire Danes has returned, all grown up and paranoid as hell, in Showtime’s Homeland. This time she’s fighting terrorism — as well as her character Carrie Mathison’s mental illness, not to mention her irresponsible sex drive. As far as Obama-era war-on-terror TV heroes go, she’s the perfect antidote to the killer certitude of 24’s W.-era Jack Bauer. We spoke with Danes about the series, her feelings on spoilers (and be warned, there are a few to follow), and her knack for cursing. 

Do you have to have a top-secret Showtime clearance to know what’s next on the series?
Thanksgiving was funny, because my family was just trying to extract information from me. And I can’t give away anything. It’s fun and frustrating to sit on the secrets. Everybody thinks Saul is guilty now. That seems to be a common insight, but, uh, no. He's not, to shatter everybody's dreams there. But yeah, it's fun that people are are engaged with it. Hugh [Dancy, Danes’s husband] started watching the show, but he wouldn’t even allow me to talk about what I was doing at work that day because he didn’t want to have the story be spoiled. I was like, But I need to share my experiences with you! The nice thing is that the writers don’t really know either, [laughs] so we’re safe; we can’t spoil it even if we wanted to.

Are you spoiler averse in your own TV watching?
No, actually, I’m very happy to know what happens next. It doesn't bother me. I think it's interesting to see how it's executed. That's plenty for me. I used to have nightmares when I was a little kid that I woke up prematurely and opened all the Christmas presents. And then I would be so relieved when I woke up and I realized that I hadn't done it.

So you had nightmares that you had ruined the surprise of your Christmas presents, but you've grown up a person who wants the surprise ruined.
Yeah, basically. But it's that same anxiety, that I won’t be able to maintain discipline.

Do you watch this kind of show? Have you seen 24?
I still haven't seen 24; I'm a bad, bad girl. I love The Wire. That, I guess, could qualify as being in the same family as Homeland, but yeah, I'm not like a spy aficionado or geek or anything. My new favorite thing is The Only Way Is Essex.

It's the Jersey Shore but in England, right?
It is, but so much better. So awesome. It's on Hulu, and if you take anything from this conversation it should be that. They're definitely tacky and a little, I don't know, maybe, morally questionable, but they all have a kind of charm, too, and a sense of humor that I just really appreciate. They're very amusing people.

Had you been thinking about coming back to TV?
Not really. I was aware of it being a potentially good environment for me, but I wasn't chasing anything specifically. And when they came to me with this I had my reservations just because it is such a profound commitment, and she's tough, this Carrie Mathison lady. I didn’t know if I wanted to be tortured for a decade. But as distressed as she is, she's also really, really fascinating, and I don't have many opportunities to play people this surprising and this complex. She's a nutter. But, I was joking with Alex Gansa [one of the creators], and he said, "Can you believe what we've asked you to do this season?" and I said “No, I feel like somebody on Canal Street with a trench coat full of watches, like, "What do you want? I got this I got that I got this I got that." I get to experiment with a lot of different kinds of acting. Just that diversity is really exciting. She's really tough. This season kind of kicked my ass; I was exhausted by the end of it, but it was also a lot of fun.

You say she's a nutter, but are we actually going to get to see more of her mental illness?
Crazy Carrie, yeah. She does actually get sick, that I will say. So she's not just kind of pill popping. I'm glad, because it's not a gimmick and they really did explore it. That stuff has always interested me, people who are wired in a different way; I find it really compelling.

My So-Called Life has had such a long afterlife. Did that make you think more seriously about the next TV project you did?
You know, I love the show and I'm still very close with Winnie who wrote it and the two Devons who were in it. It was a momentous event for me, and so I don't feel dogged by it and I'm incredibly flattered that it continues to resonate. I loved Saved By the Bell, but it wasn’t like that; it was a very special show. I’m not remotely embarrassed by it. I got a little bit annoyed when people were saying that, you know, Carrie Mathison is just Angela Chase grown up. That is preposterous.

Were you surprised about the extent to which romance has been a part of the show?
No, I knew there was definitely going to be an element of that. Any story is better with a little love in it, right?

I think so. I like that story line a lot.
Yeah, I mean you're a girl.

But Carrie cares about her job tremendously. Do you think she really would have started sleeping with Brody, a guy she thinks is a terrorist?
Well, I’d say it’s complicated, because yes, she is dead serious about her job. It’s the only thing in her life that seems to have any value. But they both kind of recognize each other; it's kind of Casablanca, you know.

Damian Lewis, who plays Brody, also described it as Casablanca like. Was that how it was described to you guys?
Yeah, Alex started talking about it in those terms. They're very isolated; they're broken in similar ways and for similar reasons. There aren't many people who have that kind of reference. I think they do kind of fall in love. I think it's surprisingly real, and still all the other stuff is also true. It's perfectly fucked up.

You curse wonderfully on the show.
Oh God, I’m cursing so much more! Hugh is so embarrassed because I’m saying fuck left, right, and center. It’s a bad habit! It’s very enjoyable to do. I take great pleasure in it. It’s probably why I’m at all capable.

Photo: DAVID CROTTY/PatrickMcMullan.com