As more and more of Hollywood’s A-list turning to television, Claire Danes hits something of a career high with Homeland. Paul Byrne gets out the polygraph.
As any actor will tell you, a good career is all about following the good work.
Sometimes it’s on the stage, sometimes it’s in the deepest, darkest recesses of the independent film world, and very, very occasionally – as with this week’s old-fashioned sci-fi epic John Carter – it’s in a big Hollywood blockbuster.
More and more though, the smart actors are turning to television.
“That’s where you can really find the most challenging, and satisfying, work,” says Claire Danes, an actress who has extensive experience in all four thespian options listed above. “You can flex a very different muscle with television, because, suddenly, you’re being given hours and hours to tell a story. So, you know, you don’t have to introduce and fix a major life problem in just 93 minutes.
“It’s a really liberating experience, knowing that you can just take your time, and get so many little nuances, so many of life’s complications, across without worrying about whether or not people are getting numb buttocks.
“With TV, the people watching you are sitting in their favourite armchair, or spread across their favourite sofa, so, you know, their buttocks are okay…”
Yep, there are plenty of reasons why TV has become the new drug of choice for many actors, relaxed buttocks being merely one of the more basic ones. As cinema proves to be an expensive night out, especially for those with a brat or two who will need looking after, television has become the drug of the nation all over again.
Luckily, this recessionary shift comes at a time when TV stations have been upping their game, pulling together some of the best writers, directors and actors Hollywood has to offer. It’s a development triggered by the American cable network HBO, with shows such as The Sopranos and Sex & The City proving that a high-quality franchise can attract the sort of audience figures Hollywood movie producers can only dream of.
It was HBO who were behind Danes’ recent TV offering, Temple Grandin (2010), a biopic about the noted autistic scientist winning the actress a slew of awards, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
“There was a time when an actor would think twice about signing up for a TV movie, most seeing it as very much a B-list world,” she says. “Fine if you’re just starting out, and you’re trying to make your way up onto the big screen, but to step back to do TV was seen as a sign of career struggle, of career failure.
“Now, it’s almost the other way around. Agents are all searching for the next Sopranos, the next Wire, Boardwalk Empire or Mildred Pierce. It’s hilarious. But it’s also, as I say, very liberating. I had to readjust my mindset, having made so many movies, and it’s like I’ve just discovered albums for the first time, having grown up listening to singles.”
Nicely put. Danes’ latest adventure on the small screen, Homeland, has produced possibly her best work (and another Golden Globe win), playing determined, and possibly delusional, CIA officer Carrie Mathison, convinced returning Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) doesn’t deserve to be treated as a war hero. Brody returns after eight years in Iraq, and Carrie believes he turned whilst being beaten, tortured and imprisoned by jihadist extremists, and he’s now working as a secret agent. Having made a bad call over 9/11, Carrie’s determined to redeem herself this time, even when her superiors question her sometimes wild theories.
“What’s so fascinating here is that the audience is never quite sure,” says Danes. “You’re given a lot of information, and then you have to factor in the emotional state of the two main characters. Everyone’s hiding their real emotions when they’re going through any kind of trauma, and it becomes almost impossible to figure out what it is that they’re hiding here, and why. It’s a hall of mirrors, and that’s just endlessly fascinating to me. Some people will have made their conclusions early on, but Homeland keeps on surprising its audience.”
For most actors signing on for a new project, a lot of trust has to be placed in the script, the director and the producers, but with Homeland, Danes and co. had the distinct advantage of being able to watch the show before their cameras rolled.
Back in 2009, Homeland’s blueprint Hatufim (The Abducted Ones) ran on Israeli TV, its central captured soldier seen by many there as a reference to the real-life Gilad Shalit, captured as a 19-year old by Hamas fighters near the Gaza border and released only three years later, in October of 2011.
“What’s remarkable is that the series had the same impact in both countries,” says Danes. “Well, it’s not that remarkable really, given that we all feel the same way about our children going off to war, the fears of one of our own being captured and tortured, and worse, turning against us.
“I think Homeland is a more muted affair for Americans than Hatufim was for Israelis, but the core emotional and intellectual responses are the same.”
On this side of the pond we’ll be able to see how the original compares when Hatufim debuts on Sky Arts in May. For now, Danes is happy to play a character that she happily describes as “a mess”. There aren’t that many TV shows being led by a female bipolar obsessive with a secret drug dependency. If you don’t count the recently deceased Four Live, of course.
“I like the fact that Carrie isn’t entirely likeable,” finishes Danes. “There’s a tendency to make your lead have a few flaws, but only a few, so the audience can always root for the good guy, in the hope that they get the bad guy. Well, here, you’re never quite sure about the bad guy, and you’re certainly not sure about the good guy. And being TV, it could go either way.
“We don’t need you to walk out of the cinema ninety minutes later feeling that everything is all right in the world. Everything isn’t all right in the world right now, and that’s a large part of the appeal of Homeland. For me, and for the audience out there…”
Words – Paul Byrne
Homeland is currently running on RTE2 Fridays 9.40pm and Channel 4 Sundays 9pm