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Sarita Choudhury on Getting Involved in the Spy Side of ‘Homeland’

Sarita Choudhury on Getting Involved in the Spy Side of 'Homeland'

The interview below contains minor spoilers for “Homeland” through the November 17th episode “A Red Wheelbarrow.”

In the latest episode of “Homeland,” Mira Berenson, the character Sarita Choudhury plays on “Homeland,” finally went from a domestic figure to one entangled in the Showtime series’ mess of spy intrigues. The wife of Mandy Patinkin’s wise and wearied Saul Berenson, Mira returned to her husband’s side this season after the CIA was bombed, having left him for a job in Mumbai and the possible end of their decades-long relationship. Tagging after her was a lover, Alain (William Abadie), she’d taken while in India, one who revealed himself to have some unclear espionage agendas of his own after she broke things off with him and he planted a bug in Saul’s computer.

It was a welcome if not entirely unexpected development — Choudhury’s too interesting an actress to stay on the sidelines, even as the show’s depiction of her loving but stressed-to-the-breaking-point marriage to Saul attested to the tolls of being in the CIA. Since her 1991 debut in Mira Nair’s interracial romance “Mississippi Masala,” Choudhury’s career has involved plenty of challenging and provocative parts, from her turn as one of two friends-turned-rivals in “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love” to playing one of the lesbians in search of a sperm donor in Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me.” While her storyline in “Homeland” seems set to build in the final third of this season, the London-born, New York-based actress also recently wrapped a role alongside Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in Isabel Coixet’s upcoming “Learning to Drive.” Indiewire caught up with Choudhury by phone to talk “Homeland” and why she was still waiting tables even as her acclaimed debut alongside Denzel Washington was in theaters.

One of the themes of “Homeland” is how isolating and taxing it is to work in the CIA, with the stress and the secrecy. What’s it like to play the other side of that? Mira seems to really love Saul, but his job just seems to have worn her down over the years.

Saul and Mira meet when they’re young, and they’re both ambitious and full of hopes and dreams — and then who those two people become 35 years later… I think of my parents, and of women who are equally strong and intelligent and have the same potential trajectory as a man, but in that generation they give up a little more than a man does, that I would nowadays. And I think for Mira, it was never that big each time.

The sadness for her is in giving up small increments that she looks at now and so much has been given up that she doesn’t even know where it began. You can’t even get mad, because it was your doing. I’m sure Saul never asked her specifically along the way to give all that up, but she did, because she believed in him and wanted to, and they don’t have children. You used the words “worn down” — I think, pre this affair with Alain, she was a woman who was worn down and didn’t recognize herself in the mirror anymore.

Mira was absent for basically a whole season — how much do you think about, or discuss with the writers, about what she was up to while she was gone?

There’s that scene in the kitchen where I say to him “I did have a life and I give it all up to to come back.” And anyone who knows Mumbai and if you’re going to work somewhere like the Red Cross, it’s so all-encompassing and so alive. I did think a lot about it, because I thought she must have been so happy being part of the hustle bustle, in a life that people needed her, and to come back to Washington which — it’s very empty. I think Mira is someone who will give that up willingly, not complain, read books and do her own thing, somehow keep her life going.

She came back, but she didn’t end things with Alain. Do you think she was undecided about giving her marriage another chance, or did he represent an opportunity to provoke Saul into a conversation about where their relationship stood.

When she came back to Saul it was unexpected, the whole bombing. The biggest decision was “I’m coming back,” but I think beyond that she couldn’t make any other decisions. Sometimes we keep something a little bit just to keep our egos strong enough to handle the move back, but it’s not even on purpose. She really believed she was going to be with Saul, but when you’ve been hurt so much and left alone so much, I think not breaking up with Alain initially was more just like, “I can’t make another decision, I’m just going to go forward with this one, which is to go fast, that’s all.”

It seems like your storyline is going to be intersecting with the spy world, what with Alain and the computer. Was that something you hoped for for your character?

I think I did hope for [it]. If you talk to anyone like [showrunner] Alex Gansa, they think on that level for every character. I knew there was no way they were going to leave me in a kitchen.

It feels like no one’s safe on the show.

It’s funny, last night was the first time where I felt that. In your head you don’t know if your trajectory is to be kidnapped and gagged for five episodes coming up — you have no idea. It’s the first time I thought, wow, it’s nice. It’s vulnerable and exciting.

How far ahead do you see scripts?

Not far at all — ten days before. Alex Gansa will sometimes call you and tell you one piece of information because he cares about actors and he doesn’t want you to be acting out of nothing, so sometimes he’ll tell you something that’s going to be happening three episodes down. But it’s so little that it entices you but you have no idea what it is.

One of the things I find both gutsy and terrifying about the show is the way it engages with real international tensions — like this season, which is turning out to be about Iran. What’s your take on that?

I think that’s happened because real life has become a bit fictional to everyone, in that now situations and revolutions are happening every week globally. I think because we can’t keep up with the real world it’s almost okay to talk about it — even if we wrote exactly what’s happening, we couldn’t keep up with it anyway. No matter how much I read the news I feel slightly ignorant all the time.

What shocked me most about “Homeland” is when Saul says to Fara [Nazanin Boniadi], “If you are going to wear that headscarf, then you better by the best analyst around for your co-workers to deal with you.” It’s a very bordering-on-politically-incorrect thing to say, and fantastic, because what he’s doing is just saying, yes this is how people think, and this is why I’m saying it — I don’t have time to be politically correct, because that’s not how people are living right now. That’s what I find exciting about ‘Homeland,’ walking that line.

“Mississippi Masala” was such a great debut — and alongside Denzel Washington, no less. It must have opened some doors for you — how would you describe the choices you’ve made and the paths you’ve taken in terms of roles since?

It’s interesting. because “Mississippi Masala” was so warmly received, but it was also at a time where I don’t think they knew what to do with me. It opened doors, but not much happened.

As in you got attention but not offers?

Kind of — the movie came out and because of Denzel it was widely received, but I remember going to L.A. and I would have these meetings. I would come in and people would talk about the movie and then I could see they didn’t know where I was from — could I play Mexican?

It wasn’t an easy time for me. I was so excited, then I realized — no one knows what to do with me, and so actually it was then that I went back to England and I joined the Shakespeare Company. I didn’t know what to do — I was getting all this attention but… nothing. And I remember thinking, oh my God, I’m going to have to become a waitress. I did for a while, because I had run out of money. It was a very awkward time.

Oh, and you must have been recognized for the film?

Now enough time has passed that, you know how you look back on things fondly because they made you stronger? But it was so tough. I remember waitressing and the film was playing at Angelika, and I didn’t have another job. I remember I actually had to give up the job because it was too much.

Throughout your career, you’ve also worked in television and theater in addition to film — have you always wanted to move between those worlds?

I wanted to move between film and theater — I never felt like I fit into TV. And I very anti-TV, like “I’m never going to do TV” but also TV didn’t want me either, so it was kind of perfect. And then of course cable happened and suddenly it was like, “Oh, I could do that kind of stuff.” It made sense, and TV became almost more similar to theater because the writing was so good. Now i’m really enjoying it.

Is there something enjoyable to that aspect of TV of being able to stay with a character for a longer period of time?

I really like it — the only thing is I can feel a little vulnerable, because the more people get attached to the show the more they feel like they know you and are invested in your character and become almost more critical of you. You have to try and forget the audience and go back to what you were doing when you first started the show. When you do TV, people will say to you right on the street how they’re feeling, with no reservations.

You’re been shooting “Learning to Drive” with Ben Kingsley. Can you tell me anything about the role?

I love her so much, Isabel Coixet. I had seen “Elegy” and loved it, so when I had the meeting with her I was so excited. When she asked me to do the movie, I was like, “Yes.” I didn’t even care what the role was. But it was a beautifully written piece — Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, and then I come in for the third act as Ben Kingsley’s arranged marriage wife. When you have a good director, it’s just wonderful.

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