Interview: Mandy Patinkin on 'Homeland'

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Gabriel Tate talks Carrie, Brody and 'The Princess Bride' with the 'Homeland star'

Mandy Patinkin is a man of many faces. And many beards. Right now, the 59-year-old Chicagoan is playing Clare Danes’s mentor, CIA wonk Saul Berenson, in C4’s superb and multiple Emmy-winning US import ‘Homeland’ (read our review here from Tuesday morning). But showgoers revere him as the award-winning light tenor who played Che in the Broadway premiere of ‘Evita’ – complete with guerrilla-chic goatee – and, more importantly, helped the great American composer Stephen Sondheim to bring his last masterpiece, ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, to the stage. And who can forget his breakthrough movie role as the young, seductive and mustachioed bandit Inigo Montoya, whose quest to avenge his father’s death featured the endlessly quotable line, ‘My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father – prepare to die!’ and who enchanted a generation in Rob Reiner’s 1987 postmodern bedtime story ‘The Princess Bride’?

In one unforgettable sequence from ‘Homeland’, Saul takes a polygraph test, and scrapes through. As he talks to us during a break in filming season two of the show, I wish I had access to a lie detector  myself – or possibly to The Machine, hideously inventive torture rack from ‘The Princess Bride’. No one is giving much away: secrecy has always been central to the appeal of ‘Homeland’ and the press releases resemble redacted CIA documents. Will he crack under my own fearsome interrogation technique? Like a pro, I toss him a deceptively easy opener, and the tussle begins.

What are you able to tell us about season two of ‘Homeland’?

‘Nothing [laughs]. Shall we go over my favourite food or places I love to travel to instead?’

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in 'Homeland' Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in 'Homeland'

You’ll have to do better than that…

‘Okay, well, we’re a few months on [from season one]. Saul is in Beirut, and Israel has just bombed five nuclear sites inside Iran. Then we’re off and running. The second series is a continuation of the first, but it takes a different course: it becomes a profound metaphor for the world. I’ve just finished shooting the eighth episode and I’m learning my lines for the ninth, but I have no idea about episode ten. Since the start, I’ve never wanted to know what’s happening. I don’t know what’s going to happen in life, so I don’t think it’s fair that I know what’s going to happen in “Homeland”.’

Don't you think that knowing about Saul’s destination would help you build the character?

'Not at all. The core value of this man is crystal clear. He's alive for Carrie Mathison – he genuinely believes that her gift, her savant-like nature, is the key to peace on earth. He would give his life to keep her at the forefront. Her qualities and senstivities towards the human condition are to him equal to an Anne Frank.'

Is Saul the terrorist mole?

‘It’s irrelevant to me. As an actor, I’d make the same choices if Saul was a bad guy or a good guy – both of those people believe that what they’re doing is for the greater good.’

It’s bold for a drama to have a potential traitor as a potential vice president, when some on the right still question the patriotism or legitimacy of Obama. And it’s Obama’s favourite show…

‘That [suspicion about Obama] is the epitome of madness. There are much greater issues that need to be addressed: why should we sit and listen to our leaders when they can’t even speak to each other? “Homeland” rekindles the lost quality of listening. Brody and Carrie might be destined to be starcrossed lovers but, like Romeo and Juliet, they’re in the middle of a profound conflict.’

Your other man on a mission was Inigo Montoya. Do you get tired of people quoting the film at you?

‘Never! Not a day goes by when people don’t ask me about it. I don’t get how I got to be the guy who was in the “Wizard of Oz” of my generation. I still have the sword of Inigo Montoya – it’s mine!’

Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in 'The Princess Bride' Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in 'The Princess Bride'

What did you get out of working on ‘The Princess Bride’?

‘A million memories. I’m not a writer, but a year or two afterwards, I tried to write something myself and it was all over the place. My mentor [director-librettist] Gerald Freedman told me to find that word at the heart of that character or that story. So I said to Rob [Reiner], how on earth could you do that for “The Princess Bride”? Rob didn’t miss a beat: “That’s easy. It’s about a little boy whose grandpa reads him a story to tell him the most important thing in life is true love.” Every frame of the movie is about those characters’ quests for true love. After all the nailbiting and the perching on the edge of your seat, I think the same is true of “Homeland”.’

And so, too, something like ‘Evita’. Most West End musicals seem to be revivals or film spin-offs now. Is there any engaging new musical writing out there?

‘If I saw it, I’d be there in a heartbeat. There’s nothing new that I’ve seen come across that I would have stopped everything to go and do. It’s no accident that I’ve been assembling musical evenings – about 50 a year for the past 25 years – taking material from everywhere to create new shows.’

Although you were in ‘Paradise Found’ in London in 2010, a new musical that went down badly…

‘It was a complete critical failure, trying to write new lyrics to old music [Johann Strauss waltzes]. I think it works the other way round: first you write the story, then you write the music. The songs I love to sing are story songs, from Yiddish songs to Tom Waits. Sondheim might say I’m full of shit, that they write the music first. But I’ve never found a good story where the music didn’t match it or support it.’

Are you happier on stage or on camera?

‘I belong on the stage. I love how the day’s events, whatever you read in the newspapers or watch on the TV, are reflected in the performance and how its received. I often wonder why certain performers become attractive to an audience, and I think it’s because they have a way to feel alive and bring an audience to life.The great thrill of my life has been to work with two people who have these qualities: Claire Danes [on screen] and my younger son, Gideon [on stage]. Working with them is like a drug.’

You’re nearly 60 now – do you have any ambitions left?

‘Everything I haven’t done. Even on the very long days on “Homeland”, when the big challenge for me is not to pass out in the fourteenth hour – I’m not thirtysomething like some of those guys – I feel alive. And I don’t mean to be corny, but we’re not alive very long.’

What else did you learn from the CIA?

‘I met the real Saul – the CIA’s Middle East chief – and it was only when we sat down with his daughters in his lounge and chatted about growing up in that environment, that the nickel dropped. This piece is about nothing more than a family: the father-daughter relationship between Saul and Carrie, the Brody family, the CIA family and the world family. If there’s one image I’d choose to represent the show, it’s Brody on the roof of his house, arm-in-arm with his daughter. Two fragile human beings, holding on to each other for dear life.’

‘Homeland’ starts Sunday October 7, 9pm, C4.


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1 comments
Ben
Ben

Lovely interview. What an insightful actor