Original article at WSJ
Inside the Mind Games of ‘Homeland’
Damian Lewis and Claire Danes in a scene from “Homeland.”On the new hit Showtime drama “Homeland,” actor Damian Lewis plays U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, a former POW suffering from a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder following eight years of captivity in Afghanistan. Brody, who may or may not be working for al Qaeda, is being covertly followed by a paranoid CIA agent played by Claire Danes, as the series explores complicated issues such as the price of freedom, the psychological scars of war, and the post-9/11 limits on privacy.
The interplay between Danes’s character, Carrie Mathison, and Lewis’s Brody is a “very strange love story, or a story about a relationship of two broken people who come together in the context of hunted and hunter,” says co-executive producer Howard Gordon. “It felt like very rich material.” (It is: Showtime just ordered a second season of the show, which had the most watched premiere in the network’s history.)
Despite being an Eton-educated Brit, Lewis, 40, seems to have developed a niche playing American war heroes. In the 2001 HBO series “Band of Brothers” about the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, he was cast as Maj. Richard Winters.
As Lewis finished shooting the 90-minute “Homeland” finale this week in North Carolina, he caught up with Speakeasy to discuss the war on terror, the ambiguity of the two heroes in “Homeland” and his all-American looks.
There are so many unanswered questions in this show, and we’re already in the fourth week. Could you talk about some of that ambiguity, and the historical context that sort of causes it?
I think the world 10 years on from 9/11 is a very different place. We committed to a war on terror which from an emotional standpoint I don’t think anybody would have disagreed with after the atrocity of 9/11. But the way in which western governments have gone about it has come under criticism. Certainly people on the more liberal side of politics think we attacked the wrong people. Then the way we conducted ourselves during the war hasn’t been entirely ethical. We have a world in which people don’t know who to trust. They aren’t so clear about boundaries of right and wrong, good and evil.
This show comes out of that. I think that you have two central characters—Carrie Mathison, played by Claire [Danes] who is suffering from an extreme mood disorder who has taken it on herself in a slightly irrational way that she was somehow responsible for not stopping 9/11. She’s brilliant and maverick and volatile, and her sense of danger is acutely honed and turns out to be right.
Her problem is that she only has circumstantial evidence, she only has her instinct and intuition as proof. So she herself she is an ambiguous character. She’s driven, she’s selfish, she’s obsessive…yet we are asked to believe in her as a force for good. She’s the person who can save the United States from another attack from this guy who seems to have undergone some extreme change while he was a prisoner of war in the Middle East.
What was it that drew you to playing this highly-disturbed former POW?
I think why I was drawn to playing him is, what the show doesn’t posit is that the idea of just being a Muslim makes you violent. If that was the show’s central thesis I wouldn’t do it, because I think that’s irresponsible. What happens to Sergeant Nicholas Brody is that he’s broken psychologically and physically, tortured and reaches out for some sort of salvation. The light he finds, the god he finds, is Allah because that’s the one available for him. That in itself is a difficult pill to swallow for a lot of people who quite rightly see there’s no greater symbol of the defenders of our freedom and way of life than a U.S. Marine. They represent everything we hold dear and close to us, and that which we think is important to a free way of life. They defend those principles on our behalf…so to see a young marine soldier embrace a religion whose radical side of the religion are violent extremists is difficult enough but to imagine that this man was radicalized himself and turned in some way for violent means is controversial. And I like controversy in my drama. I like drama that has something to say. I like art that challenges and promotes debate. This show isn’t pious in any way. It’s a thriller and it’s addictive, and that’s because we want to know what happens.
There are so many questions. Is he a terrorist? Is she crazy or paranoid? Will there be an attack? And nothing’s resolved by the fourth episode.
Nothing will be fully resolved until the final episode. You just have to stick with it. I think there’s been in the last 10 years and I’ve read articles on this subject, people have commented on how heroes now in films and TV are flawed, complex, not always immediately likeable. I think they play with that idea. Carrie isn’t immediately likeable. It’s testament to Claire’s acting skills and lack of vanity that she commits to this character entirely in her obsessiveness and driven qualities without worrying if she’s nice or not…similarly Brody is a guy where it’s suggested right at outset of series that this guy might be a threat to homeland security. He might be the guy to commit the next great atrocity in this country. At the same time the show spends a lot of time humanizing him, showing him with his family, showing him loving his children, whilst at the same time not avoiding the complex issue of what it’s like for returning soldiers to reintegrate with their families. It’s not easy.
There’s so much about Sergeant Brody that’s just bubbling beneath the surface, ready to boil over. In Episode 4, for example, he kills a deer in the middle of a dinner party.
It really becomes clear to him that his best friend has been having an affair with his wife while he was away. It’s never said explicitly but he clearly infers that. I think killing the deer is an act of violence that perhaps prevents him from doing something really awful to Mike or to his wife. This is typical of people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, which he does. There’s a recklessness, and an entitlement to violence and behaving any way you see fit because you feel you are entitled to it because of what you experienced and that no one else could possibly understand. If anyone were to criticize you for how you behave, your retort would be “You have no idea what I’ve been through. How dare you criticize me.”
I enjoyed the symbolism in it of killing the young buck. Faber is his best friend, but five years younger. He’s the young buck who has taken his place while he’s been away. It’s a little writerly conceit but I really enjoyed it.
Could you talk about that scene in Sunday’s episode where your character’s life literally collides with Carrie’s [the CIA agent who has been spying on him]?
I was talking to Alex just today. Something happens in the pilot between myself and the Vice President that set off a whole story line that they hadn’t imagined until they saw the rushes. I think something similar happened with Brody and Carrie in that scene. They saw a chemistry in that scene that I think brought Carrie and Brody together, maybe quicker than they thought they would be brought together…but something happens down the line that’s part of the ongoing story line. It intensifies from that moment in the rain, shall we say. I think that was a surprise to them as well. It’s a strange symbiosis doing TV drama like this. The writers seem to respond to what they see on the screen and story lines emerge. I think it’s an extraordinary skill to be flexible like that.
Maybe I am being insufficiently imaginative, but it seems that if this season is to end on a satisfactory note, your character is going to have to either be killed or kidnapped again.
The ending is extraordinary. I think your heart will be in your mouth. Firstly, before we get to the ending, motives are explained in a surprising way about why people do what they do, speaking about Brody in particular. I’ll say this: The themes of the show at the outset, the theme is really identity. Who are we? Do I know the person next to me? Do I know and trust the country I live in? Do I know the country we are at war with? It’s really a question of identity, the ways we tell lies, half-truths and the way in which we compromise our behavior because of how much we need and desire things…we constantly behave less well than we should. It’s a pretty bleak world view. And it’s a world that thrillers live in. They love to be in that world of deceit and isolation. But by the end of the series the overwhelming theme is that love wins the day…and that really happens on a personal level for the characters in the show. There’s enormous emotional violence toward the end of the show, more so than physical violence.
Was it important for you that the series resolved some issues for viewers and gave the audience closure?
It’s one of those deft tricks that writers have to pull off to give audiences closure but also to give a cliffhanger. What happens at the end of this series is that there are two surprising turns of events that involve Brody and Carrie.
You’re British but this is the second time you’ve played an American war hero. (Previously Lewis played Major Richard Winters in the HBO series “Band of Brothers.”) You have an American look I guess?
“Band of Brothers” was, Steven [Spielberg] and Tom [Hanks] didn’t know me from Adam. They’d seen me on stage, on Broadway. I don’t think they had any idea that the guy they’d seen on stage was the guy interviewing for the role because it was five years later. That was just needle in a haystack casting. It was worldwide casting. For whatever reason they settled on me to play this extraordinary soldier, Major Richard Winters. He was a man of action, a man of few words, a brilliant soldier. And he was an American hero. It was the first time I played an American. I certainly felt the pressure to deliver an American first and foremost. There’s nothing worse than thinking “that guy doesn’t look American, or sound American or feel American.” This guy [Brody] is different. He was a prisoner of war. The fact that he was a soldier is less important. What’s important is his mental state, his psychological state having been imprisoned by Al Qaeda for eight years of his life.
Do you think part of the reason why you got this role in “Homeland” was because you so convincingly played an American soldier in “Band of Brothers”?
No, I think actually it was because of a role I played in an independent (2004) film called “Keane.” I played a man deranged with grief and possibly schizophrenic, looking for his daughter in Manhattan. A bunch of people had seen it. That’s why I got my role. Which illustrates my point, it’s less about soldiering in this show than it is about psychological aberrations and an investigation of the human mind.