No matter your political leanings, it’s accurate to say that the 2016 presidential election has affected American popular culture — and Hollywood — more profoundly than any in U.S. history. From Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy’s brash portrayals of Donald Trump and Sean Spicer on SNL to Kathy Griffin’s controversial severed-head-of-POTUS photo moment, the results of November 8, 2016, left the entertainment industry desperate for an answer to: What now? And perhaps no series was more directly impacted than Showtime’s Homeland, whose sixth-season production cycle fell squarely in the middle of the chaos, forcing the Emmy-winning drama’s creators to ponder, to what degree can truth really be stranger than fiction?
In early April, Vulture sat down with Homeland’s creators and cast — including executive producer Alex Gansa; executive producer and director Lesli Linka Glatter; and actors Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, Elizabeth Marvel, and Rupert Friend — in front of an audience of TV Academy voters to discuss how fact and fantasy intermingled in season six, what informed the decision to move the story to New York, who received physical threats from talk-radio host Alex Jones, and what Gansa says is his writers’ first order of business to end the series for good.
Alex, what went into your decision to move the show to New York for the first time?
Alex Gansa: We had been a road show for a long time. We shot the first three seasons in Charlotte, the fourth in South Africa, the fifth season in Germany. I think all of us wanted to come home — Claire especially wanted to be back in New York. But it was tough trying to come up with a story about an ex–intelligence officer living in the city. How were we gonna fashion a narrative around that idea?
Right. After Berlin, why would Carrie logically be in New York?
AG: Yes, all of that stuff proved difficult. We take a research field trip to Washington, D.C., every year, and during that time we meet with intelligence officers, White House staffers and State Department people. We heard a lot about this idea of a presidential transition and what a fragile time that is for a democracy. And this was more than 14 months ago, when everyone assumed Hillary Clinton was gonna win the presidency. So it made sense to tell a story in New York about a junior senator who gets elected president, who Carrie Mathison was advising, and have that happen organically in New York City.
Claire Danes: We wanted to come home as a company. It was challenging, but fruitful to go back to the origin of it. Literally ground zero. It was an interesting season to film because we were trying to imagine the outcome of the presidential election that had yet to occur, but that we knew would have occurred by the time our show had aired. That’s tricky. Thank goodness Alex was at the helm of this.
AG: Claire, you didn’t see me on Election Night. [Laughter.] I was storming around my house saying “We’re completely irrelevant!”
CD: But you know what, I actually think being in New York was particularly relevant to this election. Clinton and Trump … I mean, the arrows were pointing there.
Lesli, you’ve directed and produced dozens of dramas, from Mad Men to ER. What would you say is truly distinct about making Homeland as compared to other series on your résumé?
Lesli Linka Glatter: When we were starting season six we asked ourselves, “How does this never get any easier?” And we’re like, “Oh right, we never do the same show year to year. We’re never coming back to the same sets, the same cast; not even the same subject matter. I mean we’ve come back to our core people, but the context is always very different. So the thing that is so unique that we’re always starting again. And of course, that’s absolutely thrilling because you can never get complacent for one second. By the end of each season, we’re working on fumes, but it’s always thrilling — but we’re dealing in a world that lives in the shades of gray. A great Homeland moment to me is when two people who have completely opposing views are in the same scene, and they’re both right, but their views are completely opposite.
Rupert, what toll did this season take on you physically? No actor in the series had more demanded of him or her than you. It’s an understatement to say that Quinn suffered immensely before he left us.
Rupert Friend: Quite a large chiropractic bill. [Laughter.] That’s true actually. One of the things I really applaud about the team here is the risks that they’re willing to take. When the scripts come in, you see those risks are always rooted in reality and truths. And then you feel people wanting to say, “What if we just pushed it all the way to 11?” And I get the script, and it says, “And then Quinn turns into a monkey.” And, you go, “Okay!”
That was a scene we definitely had never seen before.
RF: Right, and that’s the kind of thing that puts a fire under my ass. You double me, and I double you back. I love that. Toward the end of last season we talked about, if Quinn comes back, we can’t shy away from the reality of a returning modern veteran. What does that look like? I spoke to a number of people who were this guy. And the theme that seemed to link them was this idea of being abandoned by the society they’ve returned to; the idea of being used and then chewed up and spat out. What does that do to you psychologically? I was honored to be part of telling that story.
This season we gained new insights into Saul when he visited his estranged sister in Israel. Mandy, how did this change the way you see your character? We didn’t know much about his family before that story line.
Mandy Patinkin: Alex and I had been having discussions for quite some time about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Our show sort of began there, and I feel it’s the epicenter of the ethical questions that the world struggles with. I’ve always wanted to address it in some way in this fictional tale that we do. So having that opposing relationship, as Lesli was just speaking about, with my sister who I haven’t seen for some time, both believing deeply in what our opposite points of view was for me an incredible privilege; to put that out to the millions of people who watch this all around the world, to just continue that discussion.
Did you hear from people who felt strongly either way about how you presented those scenes?
MP: Oh, yeah. I heard from people who were very grateful that that discussion was out there, and also from people who sent me articles that the right-wing Jewish community was enraged that we put out that sympathetic point of view for the Palestinian cause and the unsustainability of the occupation. “How dare you do that with Homeland?”
Claire, was there any sense of you wanting for Carrie even just a moment of joy this season or a connection with someone? It’s incredibly rare, and actually refreshing, to see a female protagonist on television written to have no romantic entanglements for that many episodes.
CD: Yeah, but actually I actually think there are a lot of romances at play with Carrie in the season. They’re not sexual, but there’s a deep intimacy. That’s one of the great gifts of this role and this job is that she is so much bigger than her gender, you know? She’s defined by her ethics, her moral self, her political ambition, and her bipolar condition.
Elizabeth, who were your influences and inspirations for playing Elizabeth Keane? There is an obvious inclination to compare her to Hillary Clinton, but we actually don’t know her party affiliation, and her politics aren’t clearly defined.
Elizabeth Marvel: Well, it’s interesting, I read a lot about [1960s-era Congresswoman] Shirley Chisholm and George W. Bush. It’s a bit of a public service right now that my character’s relationship to her office is purely that of a public servant and not self-interest. She’s also someone going through an evolution because you cannot be prepared for the tsunami that is that office. So a lot of playing her just finding it in whatever circumstance was written for me that day, which was unfolding as we went forward, and is true to whoever is in that position. Shirley Chisholm, for example, was truly a public servant; there was definitely an element of Bobby Kennedy in her facility with language. And I did some research on him, too. He was someone who had a vision and a mission in the way I think Elizabeth Keane does. But she’s going through an evolution because you can never be prepared for the tsunami that is that office.
Alex, at what point did you decide to pursue the so-called “sock-puppet” story line with the O’Keefe character? And what was the response from Alex Jones, on whom the character is clearly based?
AG: At one point each season, we are writing scripts contemporaneously with real events happening. That occurred this season around episode five or six when the election happened, and we realized that we were gonna have to change the narrative a little bit. The first thing we wanted to address was this idea that our election was influenced by another force; by fake news, which struck us as a very right topic to construct a story around. Sock puppets were actually already part of the story, then we introduced O’Keefe in episode five instead of eight, which we’d planned originally. The minute he got on the air, the real Alex Jones went on a bit of a tirade. First he accused us of stealing his identity, which I thought was kind of interesting. No, we didn’t have his credit cards. No, we weren’t charging his accounts. [Laughs.] But then, he challenged [actor] Jake Webber to a fistfight. And here’s the funny thing: What he doesn’t know about Jake Webber is that he’s been boxing for 30 years. I would like to see that fight! But anyhow, I’m sure that people are here of different political persuasions, but I will say that the election of Donald Trump made us all sit up in our chairs. It made us question fundamental things about what we would expect to happen and never expect to happen in America. It delineated this crazy situation in which a chief executive of the United States does not trust his own intelligence community — now what better subject matter for our show than a newly elected president at odds with her own spies? It gave us a crazy opportunity to become relevant in a way that I thought on Election Night was a lost cause.
Mandy, what perspective do you have on the world now that maybe you didn’t before the series?
MP: The show has taught me to care about the most vulnerable among us. Season five began alongside the real-life Syrian refugee crisis; 125,000 refugees were making their way across Europe in a great exodus from the war, and I was living in this fictional world night and day, but marrying myself, my heart, my soul to the words that Alex and the team were writing. The day after we wrapped season five, I was on the first plane to Lesbos. I needed to connect with reality. I needed to get into the real world, walk with families, hold children’s hands, give someone water. And let me just give you some simple facts: Since 1975, 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States. Since 9/11, 900,000 have been resettled in the United States. The vetting process of the United States is known as the gold standard around the world, and not a single terrorist incident has taken place in the United States in America since 1975 by a refugee who’s been resettled here. That’s a fact. So one of the greatest gifts of my life is to have been invited in this show to work with Alex and the team because it’s given me a platform to speak to people all over the world. We need kindness now. And for a job in show business, to give a voice to those who have no privileges right now is the greatest gift I can imagine.
AG: A lot of what Mandy said influenced our storytelling this year when we came back to New York, and one of the things that we learned on our field trip last February, 14 months ago, was that, according to our intelligence experts, there are no coordinated ISIS or Al Qaeda cells in the United States like there are in Europe. Yes, we have these lone actors, people who self-radicalize. But there are no actual terror cells. So when we sat down to talk about this season and being in New York, we didn’t want to dramatize any threat to the United States that doesn’t actually exist. We didn’t want to pile on. If you listen to Hillary talk, if you listen to Donald Trump talk in the election, there was a sense that ISIS is an existential threat to the United States, and you know, everything we learned from the people that we have come to trust in the intelligence communities were telling us that just isn’t true.
Well you have Dar Adal, so you do have a pretty solid villain.
AG: [Laughs.] Yes, we found a villain in our own company.
You have two seasons left. Do you know how the show ends? Do you have a vision of what you want to accomplish?
AG: In a very general way. One thing we have to do as a company, as writers and as actors, is to get Carrie Mathison back into the intelligence business. She’s been out of the game too long, and the game needs her back. So that’s our first goal.
Would you ever entertain the thought of a prequel or spinoff?
AG: No, we haven’t yet.
Perhaps a series centered on a young Saul?
MP: Hey, I am young Saul! [Laughter.]