How 'Homeland' Finds Humanity in Terrorism

A conversation with Damian Lewis, who plays conflicted returning POW Nicholas Brody on the Showtime series


"An American prisoner of war has been turned." With that sentence, the events of Showtime's hit political thriller Homeland kicked into gear—and so did the next career phase of British-born actor Damian Lewis, whose nuanced portrayal of P.O.W. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody helped make Homeland the most suspenseful show on television last year.

Homeland's first season followed CIA analyst Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) as she investigated the possibility that Brody was the man planning the next major terrorist attack on the United States. In the end, the answer—spoiler alert—was yes. Circumstances conspired to keep him from carrying out his plan, and Brody ended Homeland's first season as an embedded (and conflicted) sleeper operative within the United States. Homeland's second season, which premieres Sunday night at 10 p.m. Eastern, begins at least six months after the first season ended, and plenty has changed; Carrie is now out of commission and Brody is now serving in the House of Representatives—with a chance at a major promotion in his immediate future.

It's been a big week for Lewis, who earned a deserved Best Actor award at last Sunday's Emmy telecast for his layered portrayal of Brody—and an even bigger week for Homeland, which also earned Emmys for writing, Best Actress (Claire Danes), and Best Drama. As the countdown to Homeland's second-season premiere begins, The Atlantic talks to Lewis about the upcoming season, the never-ending process of playing Nicholas Brody, and the surreality of starring in President Obama's favorite TV show.

In Homeland's first season, you had to play the ambiguity of whether or not Brody was a terrorist for most of the season. Now that there's a definitive answer, do you think about Brody any differently?

I think Brody has many different realities. He's essentially an abuse victim. Abused by a man who he loved, and who tortured him, which would be very confusing for anyone. The crux of his problem is that he came back wondering whether he was going to commit some sort of act in the name of Issa, this little boy who was murdered. But he also has the alternate reality, where he's integrating with his family in civilian life—which is happening now, to soldiers as they return from the Middle East.

How did you manage to make both aspects of his character so convincing?

I think my choice as Brody was to play each reality to a tilt—but to play it fully, and display each reality for a time. Really, the mercurial quality and the ambiguity came from the shifts between the two realities.

Brody is such a troubled, fragmented character. You have so much to play in every scene—his anger at the United States government, his reluctance to commit a terrorist attack, his love for his family, his attraction to Carrie [Claire Danes]... How do you make it all come across in your performance?

You have to do a lot of work. You have to do a lot of preparatory, imaginative work—it's been going on for the last year. You carry it along with you, and you stay with it.

Even when you're not filming?

I'm always lamenting the time that I have off. I think, "Oh, great, I'll write my novel in my days off," or whatever it happens to be. But the strange curse of acting is that you have to stay engaged with it, even in your days off. You can't really drop it, so it remains with you. [...] You know, I joke with Claire sometimes, she's disconcertingly professional. She has the facility to turn it off. Goes back in her chair and play "Words With Friends" or whatever. It's just an instant turnaround. It's really extraordinary to watch.

Homeland's second season picks up at least six months after the first season's finale, and Brody is already serving as a congressman. How did you prepare for his new public role?

I spoke to [former NFL quarterback] Heath Shuler, who is the Democratic congressman here for the 11th district in North Carolina. His story is not dissimilar to Brody's. He had massive recognition and a public profile before he went into office. And these guys who have a high public profile and who make it known they want to go into office are courted ruthlessly by both sides.

Homeland has never made it clear whether Brody is a Democrat or a Republican. What do you think?

You'd think, in terms of Brody's DNA, where he comes from... He's a blue-collar Virginia boy who signed up to go to war in response to 9/11. It sort of sounds like he'd be a Republican. [...] But American politics is in such a strange place at the moment. A massively strange place. People talk about the polarization of the two political parties—and yet we have two presidential candidates who are fighting over the middle ground. I think Brody represents that. I think he represents something similar in that he... [hesitates] He's a liberal, after his experience of war. I think he's a liberal. And a patriot. That may sound surprising to you, given what he tried to do in first season.

No, I actually agree with you. If Brody wasn't so damaged from his time as a prisoner of war, I think he'd be a great politician.

I think he wants to be a good congressman. I think he wants to represent his constituency to the best of his ability. He just has a particular grievance with the vice president's American foreign policy. Politically, I think Brody is similar to a lot of people out there. Similar to me, for that matter. I'm a swing voter, and I always have been. President Obama's been talking about "the politics of pragmatism" a lot in this presidential election. I really subscribe to that theory.

You've put a lot of thought into American politics.

The show has always been overtly political. It went straight to the heart of the drone argument. We have a left-center or liberal president, and yet we seem to be sending in more drones than ever before. That's a decision that the current president has made—though obviously none of these decisions are easy to make. And then we heard that President Obama watches the show, and that it's his favorite show. I can only imagine what he must be thinking when he watches a show like ours that explicitly deals with the collateral damage of drone strikes.