'Bill Clinton told me to keep Homeland going'

Mandy Patinkin stars in the wildly successful drama Homeland, which cleaned up at the Emmys this week. On the eve of the show's second season, he talks to James Mottram about life in an unqualified hit

A veteran of stage and screen for more than 30 years, Mandy Patinkin likens an acting career to panning for gold. "You pick up a lot of sand in the pan, you shake it, and a lot goes away, and every now and again there is something shiny that remains." It's an apt description, given that Patinkin's prospecting has brought him, along with co-stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, to America's most feverishly embraced new television show of the past year, Homeland.

A post-9/11 drama that has kept its viewers dangling by a thread, or several threads, it's surpassed even the fifth season return of Mad Men as the most talked-about show on television, proven earlier this week when it took a clutch of Emmys, including best drama. Tapping into American fears about sleeper cells, terrorists and Muslim radicalism, its juicy premise – US marine sergeant, Nicholas Brody (Lewis) is found in Afghanistan, only for CIA operations officer Carrie Mathison (Danes) to believe this all-American hero has been "turned" and become an al-Qa'ida agent – just keeps getting juicier.

Sitting in a North Carolina park, Patinkin – who turns 60 this year – is basking in the summer sun. With his bushy grey beard, he's instantly recognisable as Saul Berenson, the CIA's Middle East division chief and Carrie's confidante and mentor. He's just been for an early morning hike in Charlotte, where the show is primarily filmed. After a sojourn in Israel, which is doubling for Beirut, to shoot the first three episodes, the cast are now midway through shooting season two – which premieres on 30 September in the US before being broadcast over here in October on Channel 4.

A Tony award-winner for his role in Evita in a 1979 Broadway production, Patinkin is one of those actors who appears to have done it all – from guest-starring on The Simpsons to playing piano alongside Madonna in Dick Tracy to winning an Emmy for the long-running TV show Chicago Hope. Yet even he hasn't quite witnessed anything like the furore surrounding Homeland; earlier this month a glitzy season two premiere in New York was held in the shadow of the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, in an event that wouldn't have looked out of place in Hollywood.

Right from the pilot episode, Patinkin sensed the show's impact potential. "I remember having conversations that went, 'It doesn't get much better than this. This is as good as it gets'," he says. "This was before any episode was even edited, or anyone had even seen a single segment of film. We didn't know what it would be like when it was edited, or what the reception was like. But we knew we were having a unique experience."

Then came the dreaded PR buzz. "If you've been around for a while, or you've got a brain in your head, you don't trust it!" he laughs. "But then the show started and it hit a nerve. Not just in America but around the world. It was extraordinary." Even former President Bill Clinton, whom Patinkin ran into recently at an Obama fundraiser, confessed to being a fan. He watched the show in a two-day binge – even shouting to Patinkin as he left, "Mandy, keep that Homeland going."

The show is now stacking up awards like pancakes on a plate. Having already won best drama series at the Golden Globes – where Danes took best actress – along with the Critics' Choice award for best drama, this week's Emmys were significant. While Danes and Lewis took the acting honours, and co-creators Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and Gideon Raff shared best writing for a drama series (based on the original Israeli show), it also claimed best drama to deny Mad Men a record-breaking fifth straight win.

For Patinkin, the show – and his character – clicked when he was given time to sit with a real-life retired CIA employee, a former Middle East specialist like Saul. Asking him "emotionally based" questions, such as when he was afraid or if he prays, he hit big when the contact mentioned he had two daughters living in the area. They duly all met, close to CIA headquarters in Langley, and Patinkin quizzed them about growing up with a father in the spy business. "They knew an awful lot, these kids. You'd be shocked at how much the kids knew."

In the midst of their conversation, Patinkin was suddenly struck by a realisation about Homeland. "It's a show about family. It's a story about me being the father figure and mentor to Claire's character. It's a story about Brody and his family. It's a story about the family that is the CIA. It's a story about the family of our country. And it's a story about the world family – the whole world is affected by everything that is going on."

Certainly what makes Homeland so special is less the knife-edge twists and turns of the plot, about whether Brody does work for al-Qa'ida's high-ranking member Abu Nazir, as the emotional ties that bind. Be it the complex affair that Brody's wife Jessica had with his best friend Mike when she thought he was dead, Saul's fractious marriage with his estranged wife Mira or the lonely, bipolar Carrie, who becomes entangled with Brody.

Then there are the complex characterisations that suggest nothing is black-and-white; moments that plant seeds of doubt about each character – as in season one where Saul fails the lie-detector test. Not one for spoilers, Patinkin admits he hasn't even asked the show's creators where exactly his character's loyalties lie. "I don't want to know," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen five seconds from now, so why should Saul?"

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