Mandy Patinkin has a way of getting involved in great and memorable projects. His roles in Yentl, Chicago Hope, and of course the Princess Bride are unforgettable, and he has a long and acclaimed background performing and singing on stage. But his latest role, as CIA agent Saul Berenson on the Showtime hit Homeland, is what he’s become known for now, above all else. He stopped by the SiriusXM studios this week to talk with Ron Bennington about this Sunday’s season finale, which he promises will be shocking. Excerpts from the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: Here’s what I worry about, Mandy, right off the bat. Saul’s going to get killed, Carrie’s going to get killed, Brody’s going to get killed. I’m just worried that this is going to turn into a bloodbath.
Mandy Patinkin: (laughs) Well I can’t tell you anything to calm you down right now or I’d have to kill you myself.
Ron Bennington: Seriously, don’t you find the show to be almost too tense? Just constant worry.
Mandy Patinkin: I have to tell you, all I can tell you and your listeners…cause I don’t let the writers tell me what’s going to happen until 7 to 10 days before we shoot the episode. Cause obviously I have to get the script and learn the lines, but I like to turn the page, and find out just like you find out on Sunday nights. And when I got the script for the finale, I could not get over what they did; what they achieved; where they brought so far this two year journey to. I will guarantee the listeners that they will not be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t, I couldn’t get over what was on those pages.
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Ron Bennington: There’s no way they could have known that the audience would feel for Brody. You can’t write that down and know, that here’s a guy who is planning a terror plot against the United States, and the audience is going to want the guy to be okay. So that had to be crazy off the bat.
Mandy Patinkin: Well the work that Claire and Damien have done is extraordinary, but you can’t be extraordinary if you don’t have good words to say. So what these writers have achieved is monumental. They have created these two characters– in my opinion somewhat like Romeo and Juliet– where the world around them is in complete turmoil, not wanting them to be together. And they are in love with each other. Maybe. And maybe not. Maybe it’s all usury.
Ron Bennington: Even if it’s a sick kind of love. A hurting kind of love…
Mandy Patinkin: Even if it’s for selfishness or lies or using someone. You really can’t be certain because these people are human beings first and foremost but they’re also extremely addicted to their jobs and what their identities are. But I think, as my son Isaac said, “you know it’s an extraordinary piece dad” and he is not a fan of a lot of television. When he started seeing it at the beginning he said, “It’s an extraordinary piece dad. The potential of it’s extraordinary, because it’s asking questions that people rarely ask in life let alone on television and its in the hands of these masters of suspense who did 24 so they have that ticking bomb going all the time. But at the same time asking, what is it about us as a human community that broke? Why are we broken? How have we lost the art of listening? How do we fix it?”
Ron Bennington: See this is what I think is kind of – about Saul– is such a heartbreaking characters. He always seems to be the smartest guy in the room, and he can see just what a world of shit the room turns out to be. No matter what we’re looking at, this is really bad stuff.
Mandy Patinkin: But he’s also completely addicted to optimism and hope for the world. But you could make that comment about anybody in the piece. It’s like– I don’t want the writers to show me the scripts ahead of time. I only get them 7 to 10 days beforehand. And people have asked me, well don’t you need to know? Don’t you need to know if you’re the bad guy or the good guy? My answer is, bad guys and good guys behave the exact same way. They usually – unless you have a screw loose and walk into a theater in Aurora Colorado– most bad guys and good guys in the world believe what they’re doing is to make the world a better place. So whether you’re Hitler or Ghandi, if you’re private with them in a room, they believe their philosophy is the right philosophy. So it’s up to you as an audience, to make the choices. And what I said to [Homeland co-creator] Alex Gansa before we shot the first scene in the pilot, I said, ‘we really have an opportunity here to do something extraordinary in terms of telling a story that you can only in my opinion, do in a drama, that you can’t do in a documentary. Cause as a documentarian I try to interview you, you say oh, he declined to be interviewed. So at the end of the day it’s really manipulated by the filmmaker. But in a well constructed drama like in Shakespeare or like these guys in Homeland are doing- for the most part you can really show both points of view, and then you leave it for the audience to decide- who is wrong. Who are the terrorists? Who are the enemies? Who got us into this situation? And the real thing, I think, that has hit a nerve all over the world, is all of this is going on in the midst of a family. And there’s a variety of family scenarios going on. There’s the family of Saul and Carrie and boss and father daughter. There’s the Brody family and his family and then also his daughter. There’s the family of the CIA and there’s the world family at large. And all within this family is the struggle to be heard.
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Ron Bennington: But Saul has really seem to have even lost his personal life. This work that he’s done has kept him away from anything of a normal life.
Mandy Patinkin: His wife left him. Because he believes – Saul will die for Carrie Matheson. Because he believes that Carrie Matheson is the answer to world peace. He believes that her savant-like qualities in terms of understanding human nature, and her generosity toward the quote unquote enemy’s point of view, and where and what it came from. And her ability to draw the line in that ever-changing sand in terms of right and wrong– that she is the key to bringing world peace about. And were he faced with a situation– let’s say like the world trade center God forbid– and it were a matter of saving her life or 3,000 people’s lives, he would save her life, and let the 3,000 die, in my opinion. Because at the end of the day, millions would live because of her.
Ron Bennington: So he just believes she’s that good, despite all these crazy ass things that she does.
Mandy Patinkin: Yes. Absolutely. It is the bi-polar aspect that is one of the more moving aspects of the initial pilot scripts to me. Because, all gifted people that I know have this yin and yang nature. We pay for our gifts. There is this struggle, this dark and light side of all of us. So I thought that was an extremely interesting aspect, which Claire plays to the hilt. People from the mental health community have thanked me endlessly to tell me to say thank Claire for the way she’s portrayed this and the writers have portrayed this. And how important it is for people to have compassion and understanding for people that have struggles in the mental health world. And it moved me deeply. And I think at the end of the day, Saul’s M.O., his nature, is hope and optimism. And that he believes that the key to that hope and optimism is a young lady named Carrie Matheson.
Ron Bennington: She’s the only thing that’s going to save us all right now.
Mandy Patinkin: I think he believes that. I think before he met her, it was his hope that he could be this person. He, like me, is 60 years old. I was sixty on Friday. He was sixty very close to when I was sixty. And he wanted to pass it on. So he meets her at Yale, obviously in a recruiting situation, is what’s in my mind, and we’ve discussed it to some degree– finds that she has these extraordinary gifts, nurtures her, and then you’re in that situation; who’s the student and who is the teacher; who is the father, who is the parent who is the daughter?
Ron Bennington: It’s like when a chess master finds a savant and I can give them everything I’ve learned over these years and have a fresh start with it.
Mandy Patinkin: But even that savant needs a lesson now and then. Those savants make mistakes, we all make mistakes. So the masters and the students are all frail human beings at the end of the day.
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Ron Bennington: You said that the show is popular all over the world. When you get outside of America how do people view the show as far as what the CIA is doing. Are we seen as the bad guys in some of these places?
Mandy Patinkin: I don’t know, I haven’t traveled the world yet. I just know that there’s a certain kind of success. We started filming the second season– Claire and myself went to Israel for three weeks. They had just finished airing the second season there. And they were incredibly positive about it. I thought I was a rock and roll star– I’ve never had such attention in my life. Damien and David Harewood tell me that in England, it’s not on pay tv it’s on public tv and the entire country is addicted to it. And they are addicts to it. What their opinion on America is because of the show, that I don’t know. But I think to the credit of our writers, the show is both supportive and very critical of America’s place in history and in current event.
Ron Bennington: Well obviously the vice president was shown to be no different than the terrorists.
Mandy Patinkin: An equal terrorist. And payed the price for it, in last week’s episode.
Ron Bennington: Which I thought was interesting because we know a lot of people in Washington love watching the show.
Mandy Patinkin: Yeah yeah yeah. Well, I think like all of us, we love seeing ourselves portrayed and how other people interpret us.
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Ron Bennington: You never saw this coming, this kind of thing at this point in your career.
Mandy Patinkin: No, I didn’t. I was doing a play– I had been working on this play called Compulsion for a year and a half, doing a joint production at the Yale Rep, the Berkeley Rep of the Public Theater in NY. On my birthday, 2010, my agent called me, literally on my birthday, November 30, 2010 and said, you’re going to be offered this thing tomorrow, I’m sending it to you tonight, read it. I read it, I could not get over it. I knew the pedigree of the writers, I knew Claire, but I couldn’t get over what they created, and I saw the potential for it. I loved the bipolar aspect of her character, and everything that that meant in the midst of this world. But you know…like you meet the person that you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, you fall in love with them…you don’t know how your parents are going to feel about them, or your family or your friends. But you try to say, I know how I feel. And then when that moment comes and you introduce that person that you meet to your family and they feel the same way you felt, you go “oh my God, wow, that doesn’t happen every day.”
Ron Bennington: Even though you knew this, for like months and months, that oh, we’ve got something great. By the time it gets out there, you’re like, I hope….
Mandy Patinkin: Well we did the pilot and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Then they buy it and then we’re starting the first episode of season one. And then the scripts started coming in and we as a community of workers, from the guy who puts the air in the tires, to the camera people to the actors, everybody– the writers, everybody! We’re working 12, 14, 16 hour days–everybody went, this doesn’t come along every day. This is extraordinary stuff. Every script was more amazing than the next. We were in shock at the quality of everything, and nobody complained. We worked these long hours, and said, you want us to work longer? We’ll work longer. And we had no idea how…matter of fact, if you asked me at that time I would have thought, it’s too good, they’re not going to like it. Because that’s what you worry about. And then when it was embraced by everyone, the way it was embraced, you’re a bit in shock and beyond thrilled.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, it’s been really strange cause it was a great first season, then I’m like, but they can’t– Then you pulled off a second season, and you’re moving plot lines faster than I thought.
Mandy Patinkin: You will not believe what takes place in the final episode. I could not believe it. It is such a masterful feat that this team of writers has accomplished– not just for one episode, but for where they have taken us for the whole past two years and what they do to set up what…might…happen. I couldn’t get over it.
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Ron Bennington: You know, it seems to me you always love the challenges. Even in music. The music that you go out and sing. The fact that you can pull off the Stephen Sondheim, which not a lot of people can do. And I still don’t get how its done.
Mandy Patinkin: You know, people say that to me. They say, oh Stephen is difficult. I find him the simplest lyricist to learn. And I’m lyrically driven. I’ve never found that if the lyric or the story was good– whether its Steve Sondheim or Yip Harburg or Paul Simon or Harry Chapin or Tom Waits, if there’s a good story being told, the music always equals it. I’ve never found it not to equal it. And when I’m dealt a lesser quality lyric, much more difficult for me to learn. And the thing about Sondheim, the thing about Tom Waits, the thing about Shakespeare is there’s a simplicity to their ideas. And if there’s a wish I have for my life it’s to get simpler and simpler and simpler. And that is not easy for me. I’m the furthest thing from that. But when it’s achieved, the nature of that simplicity– the simplest situation seems to be able to reflect towards every situation. And that’s so easy to get into your brain.
Ron Bennington: I am now going to be obsessed with this because I’ve never heard of anyone say if you have a great lyric the music will follow…but I can’t think of an example…
Mandy Patinkin: You call me up. If you find a great lyric or a great story, and you tell me, but I think the music sucks. I don’t think you’ll find it, and if you do find it I don’t think you’ll give a shit.
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Ron Bennington: That’s great. Homeland is ending this season Sunday night at 10:00. It’s extraordinary storytelling, it’s an extraordinary show. Great acting, great writing, and of course, all the critics have answered it. Thank you so much for stopping in man, and we’ll see you next time through.
Mandy Patinkin: You bet.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.