WITH only 15 minutes on the clock to speak to one of Hollywood’s most diverse and interesting performers, Mandy Patinkin is happy to talk — about almost anything. From the benefits of daily hiking, his passion for Broadway, a recent trip to Israel, and why Saul Berenson (the role he plays on Homeland) has turned out to be one of the most interesting of his long career.
The one thing he will not initially talk about, though, is the keenly awaited season two. ‘‘I’ll say this much,’’ he says, laughing. ‘‘It’s basically the same cast.’’
The Emmy Award winning drama series stormed the US last year and was picked up by Channel Ten early this year.
One of Homeland's strengths is its evolving relationships between characters, such as that of Claire Danes' bipolar CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, and Mandy Patinkin's Saul.
Based on the Israeli series Hatufim, and developed by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, Homeland stars Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer with bipolar disorder who is convinced that a rescued Marine — Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis — is a sleeper agent plotting a terrorist attack on American soil.
This is what we do know about season two: after volunteering for electric shock therapy, a much calmer Carrie is living with her father and teaching English to foreign students. Meanwhile, rioters protest outside the US embassy in Beirut and a ‘‘vital assest’’ has information about an impending attack but refuses to speak to anyone but Carrie. In Washington, Brody, now a congressman, gets a visit from the vice-president, who wants him as his running mate in the next presidential elections.
Patinkin, 59, begins by talking about his character, Carrie's mentor, a grizzled CIA agent. ''First of all, it's the writers who delivered Saul to me on a silver platter, so they get the lion's share of the credit,'' he says.
Veteran actor Mandy Patinkin.
''When I found out about Carrie's bipolar, that struck a nerve with me. I have friends who struggle with the condition and I have profound empathy for anyone who has a mental illness.''
Patinkin read widely about the history of the CIA in an attempt to get a handle on his character but, ultimately, he preferred to collect his own intel firsthand.
''Most of the books I read were written by disgruntled guys, so I told the producers that I wanted to meet a real 'spook','' he says.
''I met an agent in New York and we talked for hours. He told me he was retired and I told him he was lying to me, because you can't lie to a professional liar; that's what actors are. We call what we do 'the search for the truth' but it's a manipulative lie and the intelligence community operates on a similar level.''
Their conversation eventually turned to family and ended with Patinkin requesting to meet with the agents' two adult daughters. ''We chatted about family life, being on the road with the CIA, their childhood, and about the secrets they knew - and that was the moment I knew I'd hit pay dirt because I found the 'nervous system'. When that happens, I know the performance will have a universal connection.''
A critical success in the US, even President Barack Obama- who appears in the opening credits making a speech that took place not long after the death of Osama bin Laden (''We must, and we will, remain vigilant at home and abroad'') - has declared he's a fan of the show. Homeland works on several levels; it's a compelling drama but is also a shrewd political thriller that challenges the way Americans see themselves. Its storylines are supported by the constantly evolving relationships between the characters.
''There's the Carrie-Saul father-daughter dynamic,'' Patinkin says. ''But who is the teacher and who is the student? Brody is an interesting one because he keeps slipping in and out of different spheres: his own family, the CIA and, of course, Carrie's. Working with Claire and Damian? Oh my god, I couldn't ask for more.''
Asked to define Homeland's success, Patinkin jumps in immediately. ''Homeland is unique because it asks: 'Who's responsible for where we are right now in the world? Who are the victims and who are the perpetrators? And why isn't the vice-president of the US considered a terrorist for bombing madrasas?' If you can construct the argument in a balanced way, it's up to the audience to decide.''
Homeland's exploration of good and evil is a theme Patinkin finds fascinating. ''People on both sides of any conflict believe they are right, whether it's on a TV show or in the real world,'' he says. ''They believe that what they are doing will make the world a better place.''
Patinkin and Danes travelled to Israel, which stands in for Beirut, to film the first two episodes of season two, and he says the experience was extraordinary.
''In my off-time I went and saw the real conflict - West Bank, Ramallah,'' he says.
''I have a cousin who lives in a settlement. I went to right-wing and left-wing groups and listened to all of these opinions and it confirmed for me that freedom, justice and dignity are qualities that are due to every human being.''
Aside from his legendary Tony Award-winning Broadway career, Patinkin's lengthy film and television career includes Yentl (1983), The Princess Bride (1987), Chicago Hope, Dead Like Me and Criminal Minds.
''I think it's fair to say I'm attracted to playing characters who are rather intense,'' he says.
''I'm an obsessive person. I like intensity.
''I like multitasking because it gives me energy. I'm an obsessive hiker and I do it every day for two hours and it really helps me when it comes to learning songs or scripts.''
Forty minutes later and one last attempt to extract even the smallest detail regarding season two prompts this: ''It's a real serial, so even though there's a time jump, viewers are invited to come with a good deal of information. Please tell your viewers, don't cheat and jump episodes. You really need to watch it from the start … It's so beautifully constructed. Watch it from the beginning.''
IN A canny marketing move, the US Showtime channel released the first 20 minutes of the keenly awaited Homeland premiere episode last week. As a way of whetting, but not spoiling, viewers' appetites, it's a brilliant ploy.
After a succinct recap of the first season's key plot points, it thrusts us headlong into what looks like a new geopolitical intrigue. It's giving nothing away to say that Carrie (Claire Danes) is lured back to the CIA.
Typically of Homeland, what matters are the reasons for that decision and the underlying state of her mental health. Brody's (Damian Lewis) political fortunes are on the ascent, while in another part of the world, Saul (Mandy Patinkin) watches angry protesters burn the US flag, sadness, anxiety and a growing sense of grave foreboding etched into his face.
He has received a cryptic message. What does it mean? Does it relate back to Abu Nazir and Brody's plan to avenge the death of young Isa? How much time has passed since we last saw Carrie undergoing electroshock therapy? We don't know yet, and based on the rousing first season the answers won't be revealed quickly or directly.
Homeland season two returns to Channel Ten soon.
Homeland season one is out now on Blu-ray and DVD. For a nominated period, 20th Century Fox will donate $1 to Legacy in support of their work.