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Homeland star Mandy Patinkin's journey from fictional chaos to refugee advocacy

It was William Shakespeare who wrote the purpose of playing was "at the first and now, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of time his form and pressure".

Such was the strange relationship between the critically acclaimed television series Homeland and the real world of America's vast intelligence industries, until the events of the last turbulent year have twisted that into an unexpectedly dark reflection.

"If we were to hold our mirror up to the nature of current events, I think it would send the viewer fleeing from the television," says actor Mandy Patinkin, who plays former director and Middle East division chief of the CIA Saul Berenson in the show.

Though the fictional reflection is now entering its seventh season, the realpolitik of American government, the intelligence agencies and the complex relationship which has emerged between the two, has become "the gift that keeps on giving," Patinkin says.

"The real world is far more like the fictional world [and] the fictional world has become, in my opinion, far more [like something] we actually wish the real world would be, because it seems to be anchored in some realistic possibility," the 65-year-old, Chicago-born, actor says.

In the daily news cycle, Patinkin sees "an unleashed insanity ... filled with immorality, unethical behaviour, [confirmation] that truth is no longer important, no longer an ethic, or a goal, or a moral, no longer necessary in the function of government".

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He adds: "Lying to get whatever you wish has replaced leadership and policy and goals."

The seventh season begins with Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) having left her job at the White House and planning to take on the administration of President Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), who has ordered the arrest of hundreds of key intelligence staff, including Saul Berenson.

For the actors, producers and writers, Patinkin says, work on the season begins some time before that point when they meet with members of the real-world intelligence community in Washington D.C.

"That's where we begin; sometimes the writers step off from that platform and write, and sometimes the writers go in a different direction and just make a judgment call," Patinkin says. "Hopefully, coupled with the fictional license of being a non-reality entity, we figure out some way in our storytelling to create the possibility of a moral, ethical tale within the world of espionage."

Patinkin is a respected actor in Hollywood, with a reputation for giving and taking little quarter. He quit the top-rating drama series Criminal Minds because he found the tone of the work – it focused on serial killers – simply too dark for his taste and peace of mind.

That he has stayed the course with Homeland for seven seasons is testament to a number of things, not least his working relationship with the show's lead, actress Claire Danes. Such relationships, Patinkin says, are like family: "some of them you're married to, some are your children and some are relatives you want to see."

Give grace and kindness and attention to your fellow human beings.

"Claire's grace and kindness toward everyone on the set is every bit a gift and of value to me as any single thing that the writers have given me," Patinkin says. "She has taught me so much about how to be kind and graceful at my older age, it took me longer to learn than she acquired at a more youthful time."

Patinkin's longevity in the role is also a testament to the show's stunning writing. Since its premiere in 2011, Homeland has won eight Emmys, five Golden Globes, awards from the Writers, Directors and Producers guilds and the Peabody Award for excellence.

Homeland's success in in part due, Patinkin says, to both "its mirror to current events, but more so because of the nature of how they framed the current event in a dramatic story that has a kind of simplicity for me as a consumer, even though I'm also in the kitchen, that allows me to marry it to my imagination," he says.

"If I rely on just the current real state of events, which is in sort of a state of chaos and fear and hate-mongering to make you avoid paying attention to the most vulnerable among us all over the world, who really need attention, both at home and abroad, then we've lost the reason to be alive."

It is for that reason that Patinkin has for the last couple of years spent his summer production break in Greece working with the waves of Syrian refugees who have engulfed parts of the Greek islands on their way into Europe as they flee the devastation of war in their own homeland.

It began, Patinkin says, with a very simple thing: "Pay attention to the accidents of your life," he says, reflecting on the serendipity of finding himself filming an episode of Homeland set in a refugee camp at the same time as 150,000 refugees were making their way across the Balkan route through Europe.

"We were filming, I'm in the fictional world, I'm watching the real world go around me and my body, my mind and my soul just wanted to be with those people to walk with them, to hold their hands, to give them water, because they innocently reminded me of my ancestors who I never met that were in the exact same position," he says.

Patinkin says his role with refugee advocacy is simply to be "a listener".

"The singular, most needed medication right now for everyone in this world is not give me the fix, give me the solution, just listen to me, just hear my side of the story with your heart open, whoever you are, whatever side you're on," he says. "Give grace and kindness and attention to your fellow human beings."

The experience has, he add, changed his life. "Why?" he considers. "Because of Homeland. Why? Because, the privilege and the accident of being cast in Homeland and the success of Homeland, hitting a nerve globally, gave me a platform to be able to talk about things that I cared about."

Patinkin's body of work is broad, in the theatre, where he originated now iconic roles including Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George and Che in Evita, and on the concert stage, where he still performs the work of Stephen Sondheim to critical acclaim.

And he is – thanks to the peculiar alchemy of art that transforms a single performance into an enduring work of magic – still revered as Inigo Montoya in the 1987 film The Princess Bride, the master swordsdman who vowed to find his father's murderer and avenge him with the words: "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die."

The Princess Bride survives he says, because of "the simplicity that is the lucky part of life. The artist isn't lucky every day of their life. If they're lucky once in their life, that's good enough. But some of them get to be lucky many times. If they hit a nerve of universal simplicity, in all of us, in all different countries, that's the magic moment."

Patinkin recalls trying to unravel the magic of The Princess Bride – William Goldman's book within a book, a gently comic fantasy story about princesses, pirates and giants – and struggling.

He called the film's director Rob Reiner and asked him to explain the film in a sentence. "He said, 'that's easy', he didn't even think about it," Patinkin recalls. "It's simple he said: a little boy is sick and his grandpa comes over to read him a story to tell him the most important thing in life is true love."

Homeland's seventh season premieres at 8.30pm, February 16, on SBS and SBS On Demand. For more information on Patinkin's work with refugees visit facebook.com/mandypatinkin.