Every year, during their “Homeland” hiatus, executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, director Lesli Linka Glatter, and stars Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes go to spy camp. Over seven seasons they’ve developed relationships with intelligence professionals, think-tank heads, and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors who fill them in on what’s going on in the government and the world, and what’s worrying them the most.
The “Homeland” team memorably interviewed the likes of Russian president Vladimir Putin (“He wouldn’t stop proselytising,” said Patinkin) and whistleblower Edward Snowden, via closed-circuit TV in Moscow. “No one’s supposed to know,” Patinkin told me. “Are you kidding? Everybody’s listening in. Moscow was probably right outside the door!”
In the penultimate Season 7 episode (filmed in Budapest for Moscow), Patinkin’s National Security Advisor Saul Berenson huddles with Dane’s Carrie Mathison and her team under a hotel-room tent to block prying ears — designed per State Department specifications. “It was like a Buster Keaton movie,” said Patinkin. ”There’s no safe place to talk. It’s the only place you can have a private conversation.”
Sometimes they learn more than they want to know, Patinkin admits. In 2016, Patinkin was sitting down with two customarily cool intelligence executives, Michael Hayden and David R. Shedd, when they jumped up with their phones buzzing with the news that FBI Director James Comey had damaged the presidential hopes of Hillary Clinton.
“I could tell it was a moment,” Patinkin said. “Comey had let Hillary off the hook, but made it worse for her; he condemned her. They were in a state. I had previously been with them and their wives, briefing us about the most horrific things, Kim Jun Un, North Korea vs. the Cuban Missile Crisis, Putin and his messianic nature, but I had never seen them lose their cool.”
The actor is not interested in the details and facts, he said: “The writers are, that’s the ball game. I’m only after their behavior, their temperament and nature, seeing these guys get hot and their temperature rise.”
The infamously volatile Broadway musical star (“Evita,” “Sunday in the Park with George”) has found his own serenity playing CIA operative Berenson over seven seasons, a perfect match of activist liberal and a series that is committed to reflecting the dire state of the world back to its audience. (After Season 5, Showtime greenlit three more seasons; the eighth may be the last.)
For Season 7, the focus was the state of democracy, not the easiest thing to dramatize. At the start of the shoot, when an ex-CIA operative visited the set, Patinkin asked if he still felt calm, eight months after Trump’s inauguration.
Patinkin recalled him saying: “‘I was calm because I’d spent my life in the Oval Office every morning briefing the president. I was completely aware of the difference between the candidate and the president and the effect that the room has on an individual. No matter what concerns we had during the electoral process, I was certain that once that individual would arrive into that room the weight of the world in their hands would change the human being — and it hasn’t. Now I’m frightened and genuinely concerned.'”
The global success of “Homeland” has changed Patinkin’s life; he uses his fame “to give a voice to people who have no voice.” After each season wraps, he heads to Uganda and the United Jewish Congress to fight for refugees around the world. “It has given me a gift, even more than singing, and I love singing more than anything,” he said.
Playing Berenson has also affected Patinkin in other ways. Berenson taught Patinkin “how to listen better,” he said. “My wife and children are so grateful for this character. I take him home with me.” On set, Patinkin’s mantra is to keep listening. “If I lose it in any way, I lose everything — lose my temper, lose my clarity, lose my cool, inappropriately become angry, stop listening. If you lose it, you lose it.”
Why does Berenson trust Mathison, despite her wild bipolar mood swings? “He knows, because he’s a human being, that she’s never let him down at the end of the day. Sometimes during the day it can become questionable, but he knows where her heart lies. He trusts her even when he’s protecting her.”
And Berenson is a true optimist. Patinkin engaged in a long campaign to persuade showrunners Gansa and Gordon to use “Homeland” as more than “reality TV and a Polaroid of the moment;” by the Season 7 finale, he succeeded. “We are fiction,” he told them. “Your job is to create a poetic, heightened, dramatized version of reality, to offer at the end of the day something that is a possibility, and an option for change for the broken world.”
When Patinkin read President Elizabeth Keane’s game-changing resignation speech in the Episode 12 finale, he was thrilled. “This year, Alex did it! Oh my god, that is everything I wanted.” But actress Elizabeth Marvel expressed to Patinkin her concern that “people are going to say I’m a woman, they’re going to miss the point of the offering.”
“Talk to Alex,” Patinkin urged. “Don’t hesitate.”
She did. In fact, Gansa fretted and worried about how to deal with that issue. One morning while out for a run, a homeless man threatened him. Gansa hightailed it home under high duress, and suddenly found the right line for the speech.
Even when the “Homeland” cast and crew are running and gunning 16-18 hour days on location in freezing conditions, when all the 65-year-old Patinkin can do is return to the hotel and collapse in bed, he loves the gig. Through seven seasons, they’ve become family, he said: “In the simplest, deepest way you learn about each other and trust each other: your vulnerability, fear, exhaustion points. You nurture and care for them and push and lead them when you know they are not at their best and help them get there. The privilege of that time together can’t be bought, it’s irreplaceable. We breathe together.”
Patinkin loves the idea that the Washington, D.C. and intelligence community watch “Homeland” like “it’s a bedtime story,” he said. “You never know what gets in people’s minds. Our job in this business has never been more important. You need to tell your stories right now with a loud voice.”