Elizabeth Marvel on Homeland, Donald Trump, and Playing the President

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

Elizabeth Marvel is a veteran of stage and screen who’s appeared in many films and TV shows over the years, including Burn After Reading, Lincoln, the second season of Fargo, and Law & Order: SVU. You may know her best, though, for her role as Heather Dunbar, the politician who challenges Frank Underwood for the Democratic presidential nomination in the most recent season of House of Cards. Now she’s playing a president-elect, Elizabeth Keane, in the current season of Homeland. She joined the Vulture TV Podcast to talk about that role, the political climate, and why she’d prefer Frank Underwood to Donald Trump. Listen to the conversation, and read an edited transcript below.

Jen Chaney: How much did you study the transition process to prepare for your role on Homeland?
I read a lot. I contacted a few people in D.C. that I got to know during Cards, because it was something that I knew nothing about. Honestly, I don’t know if most Americans were that highly attuned to the transition period. It’s usually a time that happens quietly, and it’s mainly about a lot of people being lined up for a lot of jobs. Really, the only thing that we tend to tune into are the hearings for the cabinet.

Matt Zoller Seitz: What are some particular little things that you learned? Little oddities and stuff?
One thing is the PDB — that is the Presidential Daily Brief — and how it transforms depending on the individual that’s coming into office. I learned a lot about the different styles and the ways the intelligence community adapts to the individual. Which is fascinating, because I just assumed there was a standard set of behaviors and traditions for how that kind of information was given, but it’s not true. For instance, George W. was very physically restless, couldn’t really sit still. They eventually got one briefer to deliver the information, and often that briefer would go jogging with George W., or go to the gym. That’s how he received the PDB.

MZS: Who would you rather serve under in an administration, Donald Trump or Frank Underwood?
Frank Underwood in a heartbeat.

JC: He’s so much nicer. Doesn’t he seem nicer?
He’s so much kinder and such a more decent human being.

MZS: This the most specific kind of role that I’ve seen somebody play twice in a high-profile way. What are your feelings about that?
It absolutely fascinates me. I don’t look presidential. I don’t wear, you know, three-piece suits and have my hair perfectly coiffed. I can’t speak to why that is my current commodity, as it were, in this industry that I’m in. I’m unbelievably grateful that it is, because it’s fascinating playing the leader of the free world and it’s a wonderful moment to be doing that. But why? I think there is a certain gravitas about me. My energy can be very big and yet contained. But, you know, I’m not sure.

JC: I really think you have an authoritative quality, even in your voice. If you told me to do something, I’d feel like I should do it.
Would you please talk to my son? Please? It would be so helpful. Because I use the big, low, scary voice at home. And it doesn’t work.

MZS: He’s like, “Oh, Mommy’s just playing the president.”
Well, yes. He’s like, “That may fly at work, but the suit is off.”

JC: I was reading that you based Elizabeth Keane a little bit on Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African-American woman to serve in Congress, and a little bit on George W. Bush. How did you settle on those two figures?
Well, I approach characters in very odd ways. They are a mosaic project for me. Sometimes it’s a painting that I see at MoMA. Or it’s music that I tune into. Often, it’s a mesh of many things. For this one, because there’s so much political rhetoric involved, I really wanted to find some sources. I began with Shirley because she’s always been a great inspiration to me in general, as a woman on the planet. She’s someone who was dignified and disciplined, and those are qualities I really wanted to use for this individual that is Elizabeth Keane. But there also is something very untethered, and energetic, and impossible to contain or predict about her. In doing my research, I found that there was a lot of that when W. first took office. That was very, very useful. I also read a lot about Bobby Kennedy and his facility with language. I read a lot about FDR and his sort of natural charm offensive with people. So I’ve pulled from many different sources to create this animal that is Elizabeth Keane, because she is a true maverick. We have never seen anyone like her on the political stage. She’s full of surprises, as you guys will see.

JC: When the actual election took place, at what point were you in shooting?
We’re still filming.

MZS: Have there been any adjustments as a result?
Well, it’s interesting. The conversation at times has been a little reductive, because there’s been an immediate association with me portraying Hillary Clinton. That’s not that story that we’re telling. It never was. When they were casting, I even think they were looking for men and women — that it wasn’t a gender-based choice. That it was just looking for the right person.

MZS: That’s interesting.
I know that writers are still in the writing room. They just keep going at it. So, sure. I have no doubt that current events are feeding their brains.

JC: I’m wondering how it affects your performance. In terms of the common ground with the real world, Elizabeth is questioning a lot of things that are happening in the intelligence community.
I’ve been mapping this person as we go. On this show, they do not give you the information ahead of time. On Cards, they talked me through the entire season before we started shooting. This one, you learn as you go, so it actually has been very helpful and useful for me. This is someone who is stepping into a situation of international whack-a-mole, so getting these scripts and having to go on first impulse is actually very useful and right. But has what is happening on our national stage affected what I’m doing? Not so much. Because I’m not playing our president-elect, per se. I’m playing someone who’s in many similar situations, making different choices.

JC: When you were talking about building characters, you mentioned MoMA. I believe you were originally planning to be a visual artist, right? That was your initial interest before you got into acting?
That’s right, yep.

JC: How does that continue to inform what you do as an actor?
What a great question. That’s such a great question. I sketch people a lot. I’m a hypervisual person. By nature, my default place is a very introverted one, so it’s funny to be in such an extroverted profession. I’m a little inappropriately in it. But I’m in a highly visual medium. The first moment I go on any set, I check in with camera and the camera crew, and I get right in there. I want to see, I want to learn, I want to understand what it looks like.

MZS: What does that contribute to your performance?
It’s an eye that’s watching you. It’s not personal, but it is an eye that’s seeing you. I’m someone who came up in theater, which is a completely different canvas than television, and so to understand what the shot is, how tight it is on my face, will really give me parameters on what I can and can’t do.

MZS: How would you describe the differences between the eye of House of Cards and the eye of Homeland?
I would say Cards has a sheen to it. It has a gleam. There’s a sharp edge and a shine that’s constantly present. With Homeland, it’s much more documentary, natural light, faces moving in and out of shadow. The light is very different. And energy is light, light is energy. So it affects.

MZS: As an actor, how does that guide you?
It’s interesting, because a lot of it is based on the actors — and I’ve been given two casts of actors who are the best. I mean, just the best. On Cards, I got to work with Kevin [Spacey]. Most of the time, he was my acting mate, and it doesn’t get any better than that. It was fantastically fun. There was a wit and a focus on the language and wordplay with Cards. With Homeland, I work a lot with Murray and Mandy and Claire [Danes]. There’s an intensity, and there’s a conversationality, and there’s a spontaneity, but a constant containment that is really interesting and wonderful.

JC: If Elizabeth Keane and Heather Dunbar were in the same room, do you think they would find common ground? Would they like each other?
Oh, without a doubt, yes. They are two women that have found their seats at the table or, as Shirley Chisholm would say, have brought their own folding chair. I think there is an immediate recognition and respect for anyone that’s gotten in the room where the sausage gets made — it’s just that one got eaten alive by the process and one was the victor. Would Elizabeth Keane bring Heather Dunbar onto her team? Very possibly. Very, very possibly. She’s a smart, savvy woman. The criticism that I have of Heather Dunbar is she started to believe her own righteousness a little too much. She had no sense of humor, and I think that’s a really fundamental quality for all humans, certainly in the political arena. And it’s something that I’ve enjoyed very much about Elizabeth Keane. She is very cheeky.

MZS: If you were asked to play another president or another presidential candidate, would you say, “No thanks,” or …
How could I? I mean, it’s fantastic. It’s not every day that, as a woman, you get to run the show, you know? It’s a deeply satisfying experience. I get to say amazing things and do incredible things. And I can do different accents. So I can play the prime minister or the queen, or the leader of … I don’t know, France.

JC: There you go, globetrotting.
Whatever, bring it on.

MZS: Game of Thrones next for you.
There you go, that’s right. I’ll be the queen of … I don’t know, what do they do?

MZS: A poisoned realm.
There you go, of a poisoned realm. Or the queen of the vampires, or whatever. I just need to rule, wherever I am. Dominate.

MZS: Elizabeth Marvel as the queen of the vampires is a show I would very much like to see.
Right? Yes.

JC: We’ve seen a lot of female presidents and presidential candidates on TV recently, not only on your shows, but also on Veep and Scandal. Do you think that trend that will continue in the years ahead?
I do. There’s no doubt we’re going to need a lot of comedy, but yes. I’m a believer that if you can see it, you can be it, and messaging females in positions of political power is wonderful at this moment in time. It’s really important and really exciting. The more we normalize that on television, the sooner it’s going to come.

JC: I think we’re all trying to figure out how TV shows will directly address Trump. As you were saying before, Homeland is doing it in ways that weren’t necessarily intentional, but I think more creators are going to be doing it in intentional ways. Do you have any sense whether we’ll be seeing more of that?
You know, I really don’t. There’s no question that there are topics and parallels that reveal themselves on our show that are in alignment with things that are happening in our current environment. And yes, of course I think that dialogue will continue to happen in film and television as this landscape unfolds in front of us. Because that’s what we do. We respond to the world. We are responders. We’re the first responders, us artists. It’s in the DNA of what we do. We are the empaths. So, yes, I have no doubt that you will see these issues in the stories that are coming. The beauty that we have as artists is that we can take it, because we’re not the news. We take it, and then we get to make it something that brings us closer to our true selves and our hearts. We’re not trying to reenact. We’re trying to get at something deeper.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Elizabeth Marvel on Homeland, Politics, Trump