Margaret Thatcher once said that every prime minister needs a Willie, by which, disappointingly, she merely meant a confidant as calm and wise as her owlish deputy, William Whitelaw. More than ever, one might think, an American president needs a Saul — a Saul Berenson, President Keane’s national security adviser in Homeland. However febrile the action in the American spy thriller, Saul, with his Old Testament beard and steady gaze, is the balm. A man of few words, all of them wise, a healer who can reduce to regular even the heartbeat of the series’s brilliant but manic CIA operative Carrie Mathison.
And now I meet the man who plays him, the garlanded actor and singer Mandy Patinkin. He is absolutely nothing like Saul.
I am not contesting the wisdom of Patinkin’s words to me, only their plenitude and the volume with which they boom. Upstairs in a Soho club, I feel like Queen Victoria hearing out Gladstone, albeit a hirsute Gladstone in an open-neck grey shirt. I’m addressed as if I am a public meeting.
Now 65, Patinkin only really wishes to talk about the global immigration crisis and demonstrates great ingenuity in turning his answers to my unrelated questions back to it. In return I show the persistence of a Carrie Mathison in asking about Homeland and about Saul, the character we now tune in for (and tune in we still do: this seventh season is gripping). When will the show end? Could it get by without crazy Carrie, played by Claire Danes, a character surely careening towards the end of her storyline? Were the writers going to make Saul an al-Qaeda spy?
Patinkin’s head, however, is locked firmly in the real world. He is just back from a 12-day visit to Uganda with David Miliband’s International Rescue Committee, for which he is an unofficial and unusually undiplomatic ambassador. He has travelled with the charity since he visited the Syrian refugees of Lesbos in 2015. A year later he waded in to help a fleeing family to its shore. He explains he was drawn to the refugee issue through Homeland and his own grandfather, who escaped the eastern European pogroms by going to America.
“In 2015, when I was shooting Homeland in Berlin, the first episode was about a Syrian refugee camp. Watching this influx going across the Balkan route, I immediately saw my grandparents. It snapped into my head. I couldn’t wait until the shooting was over so I could walk with these people, give them water, support them, and let them know that I cared.”
Whereas much of Europe and America has, he believes, turned its back on refugees, he was moved to find that Uganda has welcomed the 1.4 million refugees who have entered it since 2016, mainly from South Sudan, but also from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. In Uganda, he says, they build welcome; in America, walls.
“They live on a higher moral, ethical plane that we do in the West. It’s as simple as that.”
And on which moral plane does his president live? “It’s his lack of compassion, empathy and ethical values toward his fellow human beings that I find nothing less than shameful.”
Without giving away Homeland’s series finale — still three episodes away for Channel 4 viewers — he says he implored the writers to leave viewers with a sense of choice, of salvation through democracy. The recent episodes have portrayed America in democratic Armageddon: trust in the presidency gone, a populist insurrection, fake news manufactured from Moscow. Patinkin could claim that the prescience of these plots (there is even a chemical poisoning) is a result of the “spy camp” Homeland’s writers and producers attend each January in Washington, where former and present national security officials share what is on their minds. Instead he says anyone who follows the news knows what issues are current. “You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out what the questions are.”
Traditionally Homeland seasons tend to conclude with the death of a significant character (most memorably Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody). Having lost so many stars, I wonder if it could survive the exit of Danes, whose Carrie doubles as a manic mummy and the world’s worst amateur spook.
“Well, not in my mind. I only know it in terms of the relationship that Claire has to the story in general, and for me personally as Saul. Her existence is my modus operandi, meaning, first and foremost, I must protect her because she’s this gifted savant figure who will carry on my dreams.”
The show’s greatest twist never happened, I say: the revelation that Saul was a spy all along, an Islamist infiltrator in rabbinical disguise. Patinkin says he was relieved, although he felt the writers were deliberately exciting viewers’ suspicions. It would have ripped the life out of the part, he says.
And been discourteous to the audience, I say. “And to its intelligence. And to my entire investment. My investment has been to marry myself to this man’s guidance on how to live.”
It is clear by this stage in our encounter that, while Saul and Patinkin are temperamental opposites, they share a moral seriousness. Patinkin is just more pugnacious about it. I wonder if he got used to fighting his corner in childhood. Perhaps a boy called Mandy, like a boy named Sue, learns to take no nonsense. In fact, he seems to have taken his first name in his stride. Although he has never met another male Mandy (short for Mandel, “almond” in Yiddish), he says he has never struck anyone for mocking the name.
His moral belligerence developed, he thinks, out of his teenage nausea for the lies his family told his dying father. Lester Patinkin, a metal factory manager, was assured his pancreatic cancer was hepatitis. At 18, Mandy became party to the deception.
“When he died — and please try to understand the strange way I phrase this — he gave me one of his greatest gifts of life. He taught me, ‘Don’t wait a second for anything you believe in, and don’t ever lie.’ Lies became a cancer to me and to my existence. Because of lies, at those final moments with my dad I didn’t get to say, ‘Dad, let’s have a conversation.’ ”
Nevertheless, after studying drama at Juilliard in New York, he entered showbusiness, a profession so prone to lying that William Shatner once told me that you come to count on betrayal. Patinkin won early success in Broadway musicals, including Evita and Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, but despite his performance as the vengeful Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, his screen career faltered. He was replaced by Jack Nicholson early in the shooting of Heartburn and thereafter failed to land leading-man parts. Successful in Chicago Hope on CBS in the 1990s, he quit after one and a bit seasons, saying he resented the time away from his young family. Ten years later he walked out of the same network’s Criminal Minds in which he played a troubled psychological profiler — he could not take all the rape and killings.
Was his reputation for difficulty connected to his aversion to dissemblance? “No, I think my reputation and my younger years of being difficult was my immaturity, my lack of grace. Claire Danes has taught me so much about grace in eight years.”
Yet Danes’s Carrie is so off-kilter, and his Saul is so solid! “Right, but in the real world Claire Danes is not off-kilter.”
He recalls a tense shoot in which Danes’s crucial speech was interrupted by a passing car and a phone going off. “Now, a younger Mandy, or many an actor, would not take that easily and would lose their temper. She didn’t. She taught me that she doesn’t lose her temper, that she behaves with grace, that she doesn’t make people whose phone went off feel bad, that she doesn’t make the [assistant directors] who didn’t lock up the traffic in the background feel terrible.”
Does that mean the gossip that he demanded a personal hairdresser just to attend to his beard is untrue? Apparently not. Homeland granted him one originally, but later “every time I turned around a different person was touching me — either my beard or touching my hair.
“Then finally I just said, ‘Listen, guys, I’m not asking for the world, I just want the same person every day.’ So they arranged that. And I did not think that was being difficult whatsoever. I encourage every producer to try to create a comfortable, repetitive situation for actors. Just like a surgeon, a brain surgeon — you think they want a different surgical nurse there every time?”
I doubt if Patinkin will ever be an easy man, although he says he is better than he was, having learnt not only from Danes and his wife of 37 years, the writer and actress Kathryn Grody, but from, yes, Saul Berenson.
“I love playing Saul because he quiets me down. Saul is a thousand times quieter than me. Saul’s authority, I believe, comes with his heightened listening skills, which Mandy didn’t have so well seven years ago and all the years previous to that.”
Patinkin has an album coming out, his first in 16 years. His recordings of songs by Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright and Loudon Wainwright III demonstrate a singing voice of extraordinary emphasis and range, but it is the first track by a Faroese musician called Teitur that entrances me (later I play it to my family and they find it risible, but there you go). It is called I Have Found My Happiness. Has he found his through playing Saul?
“You know, I never imagined that getting another part in another TV show would change my life so profoundly, and the change wasn’t because of its success. Yes, there’s success, yes, the global embracing of the show, or whatever the global feelings are about the show, but I never imagined that it would give me a platform that would allow me the gift, in my later years of life, after having received more than I’d ever dreamt, of being the voice for the most vulnerable among us.”
He expects the next, eighth season of Homeland to be the last, although nothing in television is certain. Earlier this week Danes replied “that’s it” when asked on an American radio show whether season eight was really the last outing for the show. “I mean, I’ll be ready,” she added. “She’s a lot, this Carrie-freakin’ Mathison character. It’s a workout, so I’ll be ready for a reprieve from that.”
What Patinkin can promise is that he will not run for political office when it ends. The thing is, he concludes in a final message to Times readers, to vote, and vote for politicians who reflect your ethical codes. “If there’s one thing I wish for the article to say, it’s for the reader to ask what they wish for in their politicians.”
And then, unexpectedly, he asks one final thing of me. Would I write that he wants his next job to be in a comedy? “I love being silly,” he assures me, thereby presenting an alternative image of Mandy Patinkin — neither Saul Berenson nor the man with whom I have spent the past hour.
Homeland continues on Channel 4 at 9pm on Sunday. Diary: January 27, 2018 is released by Nonesuch Records on April 27
If you like Homeland . . . watch these shows
The Looming Tower
Imagine Homeland without all the crazy-Carrie distractions and you have this measured, ten-part adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer prizewinning book depicting the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA and how it was instrumental in the failure to prevent 9/11. The bureaucratic squabbling is pumped up into thrilling drama largely by the outsized performance of Jeff Daniels as John O’Neill, the extrovert FBI head of counter-terrorism with several mistresses on the go. His CIA counterpart is played by Peter Sarsgaard, the terrific cast also including the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg. Intelligent intelligence. (Amazon)
The label “The Wire of the West Bank” isn’t strictly accurate, but it’ll do if it gets people watching a show rightly gathering word-of-mouth (not harmed by The New York Times voting it the best international show of 2017). If Homeland presents the ethical grey areas of national security, Fauda goes even deeper, showing the ineffable moral complexity of Israel-Palestine as it follows Israeli agents undercover among terrorists. The humanising of its characters, rather than presenting the usual stereotypes of mad suicide bombers and so on, hasn’t stopped a Palestinian pressure group recently calling on Netflix to “nix Fauda”, claiming that it legitimised Israeli war crimes. Luckily Netflix has no intention of doing so. (Netflix)
It’s a fact of screen drama, big or small, that you can’t go wrong with Mark Strong. The intense British actor here plays Max Easton, a former MI6 agent living the quite life with his wife and daughters in rural France. You can’t, however, keep a good action hero down, and when threats are made against his family he’s soon dealing with a nuclear threat in Iran. Unfortunately, everyone is spying on everyone. Strong has called Easton “the dirty James Bond” and he certainly has a way of pulling fingernails out of bad guys that would have made Roger Moore blanch. Homeland on steroids. (Fox)
The French Homeland revolves around the life and work of Agent Guillaume “Malotru” Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz), who returns to Paris and his family after six years undercover in Syria during which time he had an affair with a married woman. Alas, he can’t get her out of his head and when she arrives in Paris, he can’t help but re-establish contact. Since this leads to all manner of conflict, The Bureau proves that being subtle and labyrinthine is no obstacle to being addictive too. (Amazon)
A Cold War alternative to all the Middle East confusion is this 1980s-set thriller about an American couple in Washington DC suburbs who, unknown to their fellow parents, are not quite as wholesome as apple pie — they are Soviet deep-cover sleeper agents. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell pull off the conflicted couple nicely, and what initially seems to be all fist-fights and chases settles into an intriguing drama that can be watched as an allegory for our present mood of paranoia, secrets and lies. (Series six is on ITV4/ITV Hub; series one to four are on Amazon)
The popcorn option. With Kiefer Sutherland as a minor Washington politico thrust into the Oval Office after a terrorist explosion wipes out Capitol Hill, this has approximately none of the complexity of Homeland. President Kirkman has to convince the remaining top brass of his mettle, then choose whom to trust in the CIA as the hunt for the baddies hots up. As crisis piles on crisis and bombshells tee up cliffhangers, it’s so entertaining that you won’t care a jot that it’s so preposterous. (Netflix)