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

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By EL­IZ­A­BETH DAY

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

PHOTOGRAPHS by ALEXI LUBOMIRSKI STYLED by LEITH CLARK

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