In anticipation of ‘Homeland’s’ season finale, the actor talks about his active imagination, affection for Claire Danes & connecting with his characters.
Mandy Patinkin’s four-decade career has been the kind that most performers could only imagine: several stints on Broadway, parts in seminal films like “The Princess Bride” and a starring role on the Emmy-winning series “Homeland.” But even with all of his success in show business, Patinkin is partial to another life — the one inside his head. “I’ve been ruled by my imagination from a very young age,” he says. “In general, I’d have to say I prefer my imagined world.”
To talk with Patinkin — who admits that he’s “pretty over the top in general,” and regularly bursts into effusive soliloquies on topics ranging from Middle Eastern politics to solar power — is to get a glimpse into that imagined world, one he describes as an “optimistic place, where the best things can happen, even when hopeful things get shut down.”
He traces its genesis to his childhood on the South Side of Chicago. “There were some things in life I wasn’t fond of on an everyday basis, like school,” recalls Patinkin, 61. “Then I discovered plays and my life changed. I found a world where you could express yourself, imagine yourself into another place.” He carries on with increasing zeal: “I fell in love with performing because I love looking out into the house of a dark theater. It’s like looking out into the night sky. You can see everything you ever wanted to see — things that did exist, that didn’t exist, that were once here and aren’t anymore. It’s a very comforting feeling for me, because in that darkness, I see everything.”
Patinkin has reached into that darkness to inhabit every one of his iconic roles, particularly that of Saul Berenson, the incisive yet tenderhearted CIA agent he plays on Showtime’s “Homeland.” In fact, after three seasons as Saul, Patinkin’s consciousness is fused so deeply with the character’s that it’s difficult to detach the two. “I have to find an appropriate thing either in my life, my history or my imagination to connect to the material … so it’s an impossible task to separate my imagination from Saul’s,” he says. “I can’t do it, I won’t do it — they’re one.”
On the series’ third season, which concludes Dec. 15, Patinkin has had to dig particularly deep into his mental reserves; the first several episodes alone had enough plot twists to dizzy even the most unshakeable actor. One particular surprise (in the fourth episode, for those familiar with the show) moved Patinkin so deeply that he burst into tears. “There’s nothing that makes me feel more than seeing a creative act, and the cumulative nature of those four episodes was such a monumental wonder to me that I got emotional,” he says. “When I see something creative or beautiful, a piece of music or a painting or a dance or a play or a piece of writing or acting, it gets me in the kishkes. I lose it.”
Constantly craving the impact of such surprises, Patinkin begs the writers not to share future plans for Saul and “Homeland” until he needs to know them. “That’s what I wake up for,” he says. And he won’t ruin the season’s remaining revelations for his fans — all he’ll say about the finale is that it’s “a very satisfying conclusion to the three-year journey.”
Patinkin’s own journey began on the South Shore, where he attended Kenwood Academy High School, acted and sang in countless local productions and “made out” with his girlfriend next to the planetarium (“That was the choice spot; I’ve been there since with my wife”). At 17, he left to pursue his passion for performing. His big break came in 1979, when he originated the role of Che in “Evita” on Broadway, earning him a Tony Award. But he most memorably captured America’s attention in “The Princess Bride,” playing the swashbuckling Inigo Montoya. “That was one of those jobs that you felt you should be paying them, it was so much fun,” he recalls. Despite performing all of his own sword-fighting, “the only injury I sustained was laughing off-camera with Billy Crystal, who was doing 13th-century jokes 10 hours a day,” Patinkin says.
Patinkin went on to star in films like “Dick Tracy” and “Alien Nation,” record several solo albums and win an Emmy for his work on the series “Chicago Hope.” In 2005, he landed the part of criminal profiler Jason Gideon on the CBS drama “Criminal Minds.” But two seasons in, the show’s dark subject matter began to take its toll on Patinkin’s sensitive psyche, and he decided to leave. He now recalls that decision as the “watershed event” of his life. “I had to look really closely at myself, try to figure out who I was, what I thought was important, what I felt, what I wanted, what I believed in,” he says. Ultimately, he decided he would believe in the world that had always existed in his mind — the one filled with hope and possibility.
Cutting ties with the series paid off, leading to Patinkin’s eventual casting on “Homeland” in 2011. The show’s runaway success put him back on the A-list, but Patinkin actively dismisses the trappings of celebrity. “My job when I get in front of the camera is to connect,” he says. “It’s not about being a star or being famous. The goal is to connect, because that’s what everyone on the planet wants to feel … when you’re connected, you’re alive.”
That idea lies at the heart of Patinkin’s next project, a stage musical called “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville.” The whimsical show sprung from the minds of Patinkin, theater artist Taylor Mac and director Susan Stroman and is set to debut Dec. 14 at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City. Its offbeat plot follows Patinkin and Mac, the only survivors of a great flood who connect once they discover that they’re both vaudevillians. “They don’t speak … I wanted all communication to be through song and dance, through vaudeville,” Patinkin says.
When he needs to wind down from the active internal life that dictates projects like these, Patinkin heads to his New York City digs or his country home in upstate New York with his wife of more than 30 years, Kathryn Grody. In fact, he’s resting at the latter during our conversation, waxing poetic about the mountains and the trees. Whenever possible, Patinkin flies his sons Isaac, 31, and Gideon, 27, out to join him. “You only get so many visits,” he says.
He’s equally fond of spending time off set with co-star Danes, whom he describes as “a wonderful, generous, gifted human being.” Patinkin even admits to a bit of magical thinking when it comes to their relationship. “When you’re with somebody for 15 hours a day for three years, you get connected, and it’s there forever. … There’s a part of me that loves being with her because I don’t have a daughter,” he says. “I love the pretend-ness of having a daughter.”
The only trouble with such pretending is that the real world doesn’t always measure up. But sometimes, Patinkin admits, life surprises him. Case in point: During a live TV interview with Patinkin last year on “Good Day New York,” an anchor abruptly rushed off the set after learning his wife was about to give birth. Swept away by the joyful moment, Patinkin “flipped out,” gushing about the baby for several minutes after the anchor’s departure. “I forgot I was even on TV — I just thought it was one of the greatest moments I’d ever seen,” he says, laughing. “Even though I live in my imagination, and it’s my life and vocation, there’s nothing better than real life, when it’s good.”
For more Mandy, check out this writer’s very professional review of his recent performance in Chicago.
On his infamous beard:
“I shaved my beard 10 minutes after I finished the last shot of season three [in November]. Right now, I have no beard and hair that’s very short. I need to start growing it 12 weeks before [filming the next season]. The beard is so big in terms of a change to my look, and the character’s gotten so much attention because of the wonderful public receiving of ‘Homeland’ that I feel like I’m wearing this mask. I wanted to take it off and see who I am without it … My wife couldn’t wait for it to come off. What’s wonderful is the recognition factor. People have stopped yelling, ‘Hey Saul, hey Saul!’ ”
On his relationship with Claire Danes:
“It’s rather different than the relationship that Saul and Carrie have onscreen. That [relationship] is very adversarial and very volatile, very much the mentor, teacher-student, very friction-oriented, with great affection and care. That friction doesn’t exist off camera. We’re good friends. If you walked in the room, it’s not Saul and Carrie having a cup of coffee. It’s Mandy [talking about] her baby and hearing stories about her family, my wife and I boring her and her husband with our past as parents, our journey as a married couple in show business.”
“If you’re able to feel connected, to listen to whoever you’re with, to be present, be in the moment, you’re alive. For better or worse, you’re alive. … And that’s all we want to feel. We want to feel we’re not wasting one second of this precious life. And we all waste it all the time, and the goal is, how do we waste it less? The key is to listen, attend to others, attend to yourself, but pay attention and stay connected. If we can do that, I think we have a real chance.”
“The gift of our days is things happen to us for a reason in this life, so that hopefully we can learn, hopefully we can grow, hopefully we can change. I think it’s a waste of time to think, ‘Would I do it again?’ I did what I did. Relive it? I can’t take back anything I did, whether it was good or bad. And in general, I can’t repeat it either. Even in a performance, on Broadway or in a concert, or another take on film. Every one will have one change or some difference. You can’t repeat anything exactly. It’s impossible. And that I think is a gift.”
On his imaginary world:
“I think I had an involuntary imaginative life when I was very young. Meaning usually having to do with things I was terrified of that didn’t exist. Now I’m an adult terrified of things that don’t exist … My imagination has been my life preserver in this life. Sometimes it gets confusing, because I don’t often know, am I living in the real world, or my imagined world? … [My imagined world] is pretty wonderful. It’s a world where I believe peace can be achieved in the Middle East. Where I believe the Palestinian and the Israeli people can learn to live together in either one state or a state side by side, and that there can be harmony there. I believe in a world where people can stop being so revengeful to one another. I believe in a world where all of us all throughout the world can really, profoundly attend to the environment in every way possible.”
On playing Saul:
“There are things that sometimes I feel he would do or should do or could do, or I do on a take, and the writers or editors feel differently, and they cut it out, they leave it on the editing room floor. I sometimes feel sad about that, because a choice I offered might have been more interesting. But in the end, I don’t want to be a megalomaniac and get on the phone and scream, ‘Why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that?’ That’s their job. Let them do it. My job is to give as many choices as possible.
I really feel I owe a great debt to the editors and the writers and particularly Alex Gansa, who have edited my performances into the Saul that you see. There’s a good deal that’s been left on the floor, and I’m grateful for that, for the most part. Every now and then I wonder, ‘Oh, why didn’t they use this?’ But I don’t ask. In terms of the whole dinner, they’ve done a very great job.”
On his decades-long marriage:
“We got together in ’78, we got married in ’80. Our first kid was born in ’82. I attribute that to the choice I made. I picked the right person. The other good part is that we loved each other back then and to this day. Don’t think it hasn’t been a rollercoaster at times, and reality is reality, but the bottom line is, we love each other. I picked the right person to try this out with.”
On the importance of surprise:
“There are things I’ve been surprised on a creative basis in life — that’s what I live for. That’s what I wake up for. What’s gonna happen today? I don’t know. I don’t know the future. I’ve asked the writers of ‘Homeland,’ ‘Don’t tell me what’s gonna happen.’ Unless I have to put the green flag in the red jar, and I gotta know that. But if I don’t have to know, don’t tell me what’s gonna happen, because, why should Saul know what’s gonna happen in the future? Unless he has a plan like [this season], that’s a different story.
Mandy doesn’t know what’s going to be in Mandy’s future, you don’t know what’s gonna be in your future. You don’t know what’s gonna happen one minute from now. Nor do I. Nor does Saul Berenson. And you know what? Most days, nor do the writers. They figure it out. It’s like jazz improvisation, the way they write in that writer’s room. They’re making the music as they go along. They get an idea and it changes and morphs. It’s very fluid.”