LIVING ON THE EDGE
As she returns in the thrilling new series of Homeland — which is set in New York, in the run-up to the presidential inauguration — Claire Danes discusses the febrile phenomenon of Donald Trump, the feverish state of modern politics, and the powerful inte
Claire Danes on the unknowns of the Trump era and the new series of Homeland
The first time her husband, the British actor Hugh Dancy, took Claire Danes to a London pub, she was surprised to find that they spent several hours sitting at the same table, drinking. After a while, she found herself thinking ‘Really? We’re still here?’
She laughs. Danes, who was born and raised in New York, struggled to understand the concept. ‘In New York, we don’t have that,’ she says, talking from the home in the West Village she shares with Dancy and their four-year-old son Cyrus. ‘We don’t park ourselves in the pub at noon and stay in the same spot till seven, with no other activity. In America, you play pool or you watch the game or some other event. Not so in England! You sit there, you drink, maybe you have a sandwich, and you talk. For an eternity.’
She’s telling me this story in an affectionate, joshing spirit. In truth, she loves England: ‘the sense of humour, the self-deprecation, the irony, the wordplay… And teatime! That’s fabulous. I love tea.’
And yet, as an actress, Danes is indelibly associated with the politics of America; with all its internal confusion and division as it attempts to shore up its place in an increasingly fractious world order. Her critically acclaimed performance as Carrie Mathison, the transgressive CIA agent with bipolar disorder in the hit American series Homeland, has not only won the 37-year-old actress a clutch of Emmys and Golden Globes, but has also been instrumental in charting the way that America sees itself – and is viewed by others – in the 21st century.
Throughout the course of its five seasons, Homeland has seemed eerily prescient. The narrative arc has taken us from a focus on the rise of Al-Qaeda and homegrown suicide bombers in the first series to a fictionalised attack on a European capital by an Isis terror cell in the most recent. Again and again, its scriptwriters have presaged real-life events with astonishing precision. The result is that, as viewers, we feel as though we are getting a glimpse behind the closed doors of insider Washington politics.
It remains to be seen how the producers will deal with the election of Donald Trump as President – a turn of events that not even the boldest of fiction writers could have made convincing four years ago, when he was still just a reality-TV star with a wildly inappropriate Tweeting habit.
‘I do think that England and America are so closely affiliated that it’s not terribly surprising there’s this parallel phenomenon occurring between our two countries,’ Danes says. ‘The Brexit and Trump phenomena are informed by similar forces and social and economic movements. I think it’s been really stressful; it’s been really scary. I think we’re in a fever state and we’re all really anxious about how we’ve gotten here and why we’ve gotten here.’
In fact, the sixth season of Homeland, which Danes is currently filming, features a female president-elect ‘who is kind of a composite of the two major candidates of this election: some of Clinton and maybe the smallest dash of Trump. She has the kind of tenacity of Hillary but is a little rogue and more intensely liberal.’
After her posting to Berlin in season five, Carrie is now living in Brooklyn, New York, while working at a foundation to provide aid to Muslims living in the US and acting as a sort of informal adviser to the new president. The entire season takes place between election day and the inauguration – a febrile time during which old certainties begin to crumble and new orders emerge from the silt. Although the gender of the president is off, Homeland has once again managed to pinpoint our modern anxieties surrounding race, nationalism and religion, and our existential angst about where post-election America might be heading.
Carrie is at the heart of this subtle balancing act, a character who has revolutionised the way complicated, difficult women are portrayed on screen. For many of us, the debut season of Homeland – in which she obsessively followed a hunch that a returning military hero (played by Damian Lewis) was actually a double agent for an al-Qaeda-style cell – was the first time a major show had featured such an unapologetically dark heroine.
Prior to Carrie’s blazing arrival in 2011, television dramas had been reliant on nice, colourless girl-next-door types or overly sexualised female predators. But Carrie Mathison was different. She lived with bipolar disorder, had a messy personal life and frequently acted in unlikeable ways. Yet we still rooted for her.
She was a profoundly important cultural invention: she allowed us, as women, not to be tidy or neat or well-behaved. She gave us permission not to make sense.
‘You know, I don’t think of her as “female”,’ says Danes. ‘I’m playing a person. She’s just not defined at all by her sex. She is defined by her ideals, by her patriotism, by her commitment to righting wrongs, by her relationship to her mental condition [but] it’s just really beyond the more conventional stereotypes about what it is to be a woman in this world.’
From the beginning, Danes inhabited the role with a startling physical intensity. She watched countless YouTube videos of people in the grip of a manic episode and is one of those rare actresses who refuses to be precious about her own appearance. Her face is beautiful, but interesting: grey-green eyes, blonde hair, the strong angles of her jaw meeting at a sharp point on her chin.
On the red carpet, she can look radiant. Yet on screen, her features are malleable. In every scene, her thoughts play across her face with such clarity that several pages of dialogue discussing the moral ambiguities of drone strikes can be conveyed with a single expressive crinkle on her forehead.
I imagine Danes must find playing the role all-consuming. ‘I guess I’ve been doing it so long and have internalised her pretty
The debut season of Homeland was the first time a major show had featured such an unapologetically dark heroine
thoroughly, so I’m capable of moving between me and her.’ She pauses. ‘I think it’s made me quite disciplined as an actor, because if I allowed myself to be swallowed up by the experience, I would not be able to function.’
For all her imperfections, Danes says she admires Carrie because ‘she gets shit done, you know? It’s really great because, boy, am I not that in my true self ’.
We are talking on a day Danes has set aside to tackle a build-up of life admin. The filming schedule for Homeland has been intense, although she was able to take time off to go trick-or-treating with Cyrus at Hallowe’en. He went dressed as a germ: ‘He’s a science guy… He’s obsessed with germs, not in a phobic way. He likes good bacteria and he wants to be a doctor… That’s his jam.’
By contrast, there was never any doubt that Danes would pursue a more artistic life. Her parents, Carla and Chris, met at the Rhode Island School of Design. Carla, a printmaker and sculptor, supplemented the family income by running a daycare centre for children from the family home in SoHo, New York. Chris, a photographer, also worked as a building contractor.
Both parents were keen to foster creative expression in their two children (Danes has an older brother, Asa) and she recalls her upbringing as being full of ‘serious play. I’m really grateful for that. I got to have a lot of fun.’ By way of example, she tells me about a swing that was hanging from the rafters in their childhood home. ‘It was the best! Swinging out towards big windows looking out over Lafayette Street. My parents were great. I’m so much more conservative [as a mother]; in some ways, I wish I was more like them.’
Danes attended several schools, including a ‘really progressive’ one where there wasn’t much structure. ‘So I think the kids compensated for that by creating a really strong social structure. It was cliquey as eff. That was hard for me.’
She struggled to fit in. Her best friend at the time – who is still her best friend today – only allowed herself to raise her hand three times a class: ‘She knew how critical it was to remain discreet and inconspicuous and, for some reason, I just didn’t know how essential that was.
‘I would just get targeted, I think because I was a little too myself, maybe? I don’t know… too expressive, or something?… I just retreated and became pretty isolated.’
Danes describes herself as a ‘goof ball’ but I also get the impression she was preternaturally old for her years: her parents always encouraged her to sit at the adults’ table and engage in discussion. At the age of four, when a hairdresser cut a fringe she didn’t like, Danes turned angrily to her mother and asked: ‘Why did you let them do that? It’s my body!’
Her favourite childhood films were Wall Street and Sophie’s Choice ; she preferred Grimms’ Fairy Tales to Disney movies. ‘I guess I have always liked intensity,’ she says, by way of an understatement.
By the time she was 10, Danes was studying at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. At 12, she auditioned for a new TV show about American teenagers, and beat Alicia Silverstone to the part of Angela Chase in My So-Called Life. The series, about an angsty adolescent and her struggles to fit in, was ‘just a big, fat diamond dropping from the sky’, says Danes. ‘It resonated for me very strongly.’
My So-Called Life not only gave Danes the voice she had been longing for, but also prompted a move with her parents to Los Angeles. Danes was taken out of high school and tutored ‘on the road, in various trailers, in various costumes in a very perforated way in 20-minute intervals’.
She went on to star in a wide variety of films, from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet (her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio recalled that ‘she was the only girl that looked me in the eye in auditions’) to Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, in which she acted opposite Meryl Streep, and the romantic fantasy Stardust, directed by Matthew Vaughn.
For a long time, because of her school experiences, she had ‘a phobia of girls’. It was only when she took two years out of her career to go to Yale and study psychology in 1998 that she overcame that wariness. Today, she has a close-knit group of female friends who form part of a monthly book club.
‘They all do their different things. One’s a therapist. One’s a doctor. One’s a graphic designer. We could be a great non-profit organisation. I don’t know what I would offer though!’
The group ostensibly meet to talk about books. ‘Really it’s an excuse to be amongst each other… There’s an energy shift when it’s all women. It feels so replenishing. I mean, I love men obviously, but it feels really good. I think we do start talking a little differently. We’re allowed to say we have certain grievances, that we’ve had a hard time because we’re women. It’s also just really fun.’
When I ask whether, as a female celebrity, she finds the attention paid to her body and appearance particularly tiresome, there is a long pause. ‘Well…’ she starts. ‘Yeah. It’s like… it’s a really complicated question to think about and answer. I think I swallowed a lot of prejudiced values and I have to fight to remain conscious of that…
‘Look, I like being healthy, I like being fit, I like being able to wear the clothes I want to wear, I like having a lot of choice in that respect, but I don’t know… I think my body is changing as I’m getting older and that’s immediately liberating…
‘I think of it in terms of managing my own anxiety of what’s desirable. Because it’s so easy to get in an obsessive loop. I just return to the basics: I have a partner who is attracted to me. I’m able to be expressive in my work and I’m physically able. That’s so beyond good enough, and the rest is just noise and nonsense.’
Has she become happier the older she’s got?
‘For sure… But I think that the mission is not happiness. It’s a really nice experience when it happens but it’s fleeting. If that’s your sole focus, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.’
Carrie Mathison couldn’t have put it better herself.
The new series of ‘Homeland’ will air on Channel Four in January.
Homeland has again managed to pinpoint our existential angst about where post-election America might be heading