Claire Danes: Playing Bipolar Is Serious Business
The second season is about to start for the Showtime series Homeland, a show whose cast and crew are up for numerous honors at the Emmy Awards Sept. 23.
One of them is Claire Danes, who plays a CIA agent who's become obsessed with the idea that an American hero — a Marine returned home after years of captivity in Iraq — has secretly become an operative for al-Qaida. Danes spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep about preparing for the part, finding the character's body language and being "a big fat ham."
On playing a bipolar character
"I had to do a lot of research for this role. And actually, I found great material on YouTube. There was a lot of footage of people who recorded themselves when they were in manic states. I think they were probably up in the middle of the night and lonely and, you know, needed to talk. So they talked to the camera. So I gorged on sort of manic confessionals on YouTube.
"They talk at a very fast clip. But, you know, it's not a strictly unpleasant phenomenon. A lot of people are reluctant to treat themselves because they're so protective of those manic highs."
On her on-camera physicality
"I focus on the intention of the character and whatever thoughts and feelings she's having, and they seem to kind of naturally communicate themselves on the face. But I have to say that my dad's face is very malleable. He's barely got any cartilage in his face. I think I maybe inherited that Play-Doh-like physicality from him."
On starting her career at a young age
"I got an agent when I was 12, and I started working in more amateur productions well before that. But even as a kid, I never felt like a kid actor, you know? I always took myself kind of absurdly seriously. My first offer was when I was 12, and it was for a soap opera. And I turned it down because I knew that I was an unformed actor, and I didn't want to develop bad habits."
On taking herself seriously
"I've been performing since I was about 6. No, with real artists. I worked with people who took their work seriously, so I really cared about that stuff.
"Yeah, well, I mean, gosh, everything seemed so important as a teenager. So frickin' serious, are you kidding? I mean, that's why teenagers especially are so funny. But I mean, I have to be clear, too, when we talk about my being serious, I was also a big fat ham.
"And, you know, what we do is to play professionally, and I think I knew that. I didn't know how much I knew that as a kid. And I had to learn that there is real honor in being a total goofball."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The second season is about to start for the popular Showtime series "Homeland." The first season is up for numerous honors at this weekend's Emmy Awards. "Homeland" - if you haven't seen it - is the story of a CIA agent, played by Claire Danes. Her character, Carrie, has become obsessed with the idea that an American hero, a Marine returned home after years of captivity in Iraq, has secretly become an operative for al-Qaida. She tells her agency mentor that she doesn't want another 9/11.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "HOMELAND")
CLAIRE DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) I'm just making sure we don't get hit again.
MANDY PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) Well, I'm glad someone's looking out for the country, Carrie.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) I'm serious. I missed something once before. I won't - I can't let that happen again.
PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) It was 10 years ago. Everyone missed something that day.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Everyone's not me.
PATINKIN: (as Saul Berenson) I understand that. I doubt a grand jury will.
INSKEEP: A grand jury might not understand because Carrie has had surveillance cameras installed all through the Marine's house.
Though she's just 33, Claire Danes brings decades of experience to "Homeland." Her face became familiar to TV viewers back in the 1990s, when she played a teenager in "My So-Called Life." She was growing up in New York in those days, the daughter of parents who'd worked in photography and painting.
DANES: I got an agent when I was 12. But even as a kid, I never felt like a kid actor, you know? I always took myself kind of absurdly seriously. My first offer was for a soap opera, and I turned it down because I knew that I was an unformed actor, and I didn't want to develop bad habits.
INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute. You weren't even thinking about being stereotyped as an actor; you were thinking about the habits of acting itself?
DANES: Yes. Yes.
INSKEEP: OK. You were taking yourself pretty seriously.
DANES: No. I mean, actually, I've been performing since I was about 6, you know, with real artists. I worked with people who took their work seriously. So I really cared about that stuff.
INSKEEP: "My So-Called Life" didn't last long but was critically acclaimed, and Danes has continued reaching for serious roles. She starred in a big-screen adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet." She won an Emmy for her portrayal of a woman with autism. And now, she is that CIA agent breaking many rules in search of a mole.
Even as she's trying to expose other people's secrets, she's got a secret.
DANES: She does. And she's finally outed as being bipolar, which is not tolerated in this line of work. And she had rigged it in such a way that she was able to conceal this.
INSKEEP: So what's it like to try to get inside the head, and express the feelings, of someone who has that condition?
DANES: Very interesting. I had to do a lot of research for this role and actually, I found great material on YouTube. And there was a lot of footage of people who recorded themselves when they were in manic states. I think they were probably up in the middle of the night and lonely and, you know, needed to talk. So they talked to the camera. So I gorged on - sort of manic confessionals on YouTube.
INSKEEP: What was helpful about it? Was it the facts of the stories, or simply watching the expressions and the mannerisms of people?
DANES: Watching the expressions and the mannerisms - and the cadences. They talk at a very fast clip. But, you know, it's not a strictly unpleasant phenomenon. I mean, a lot of people are reluctant to treat themselves because they're so protective of those manic highs.
INSKEEP: You can get a lot done.
DANES: You can get a lot done. And actually, you know, I also played somebody with autism - Temple Grandin, who talks about the value of that condition. It's not just a detrimental thing. There are advantages to seeing the world from a different perspective. And I think it's risky, and it's dangerous, if it's untreated. But there are certain insights that you can have, that are extraordinary.
INSKEEP: In fact, as we watched some of the episodes of this series, we end up wondering if perhaps it's almost beneficial - or at the edge of being beneficial - for someone in that particular career path; of trying to learn everything about some terrorist group.
DANES: It absolutely is. You know, the problem is that they can make these leaps of logic - these wild epiphanies. But it can very quickly disintegrate into chaos. And what was wonderful about the show is that, you know, her partner - Saul Berenson - is able to create some order, and make some sense, out of her frenetic ramblings. And together, they sort of put this puzzle together.
INSKEEP: Let's listen to another scene from "Homeland," in which your character is actually getting a man to collaborate with her, in setting up illegal surveillance on this suspect Marine.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "HOMELAND")
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Was I supposed to say something?
DAVID MARCIANO: (as Virgil) Just tell me I'm not out here risking federal prison, on behalf of a crazy person.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) I am crazy.
MARCIANO: (as Virgil) That's not funny. If anybody at the agency finds out about this...
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) I've got a mood disorder, OK?
MARCIANO: (as Virgil) I looked it up, Carrie. Clozapine's an anti-psychotic.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) I'm dealing with it. I've been dealing with it since I was 22. Don't act so shocked. I mean, it can't come as a complete surprise.
MARCIANO: (as Virgil) You know I love you, Carrie. But I've got to be honest. None of this is making me feel any better.
DANES: (as Carrie Mathison) Well, maybe I am, you know. Maybe it is all in my head. But you're in it now, Virgil, up to you (bleep) neck. So is your weird little brother, so don't even think about bailing on me.
INSKEEP: You know, when you talked about watching the mannerisms, and the expressions, of people who are bipolar - on YouTube - I'm thinking of a number of mannerisms and expressions of your character. There's a scene in one of the early episodes, in which this suspect that she's been following has finally showed himself - perhaps - to be playing the hero, trying to get public sympathy, maybe working his way into the public consciousness before doing something terrible. And when she is telling someone on the phone about that discovery, her face - your face - changes, it seems to me, four or five times; smiling radiantly, and then she's frowning and anxious, and then she smiles again, and then she frowns again. It's happening so quickly - it's really impressive. And I wonder, did you consciously do that?
DANES: No. There's no way that I could be conscious of that. I focus on the intention of the character and whatever thoughts and feelings she's having, and they seem to kind of naturally communicate themselves on the face. But I have to say that my dad's face is very malleable. He's barely got any cartilage in his face. I think I may be - I inherited that Play-Doh-like physicality from him.
INSKEEP: I just want to ask one question about the second season that's about to begin. I don't want to make you give it away, but as I watched episodes of the first season, as you learn more and more about this suspect Marine - and it is revealed that in fact, he does have dealings with a terror group - I wondered, at some point, when you guys are going to run out of things to do with that guy. I mean, sooner or later, he has to be caught or he has to be killed, or he has to get away with some terrible act. Something's going to have to happen...
INSKEEP: ...in order to come up with another plot.
DANES: Yeah. Thankfully, that's the writers' job.
DANES: Ha-ha. They're burdened with that. No, but they've done an incredible, incredible job of finding new and inventive ways to make this storyline work.
INSKEEP: Well, Claire Danes, thanks very much. I've enjoyed this.
DANES: Nice taking to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: And we know now that she can imitate a laugh from "The Simpsons." The new season of "Homeland" starts September 30th on Showtime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.