Introducing the new Homeland sidekick: Morgan Spector. Best known for playing Al Capone’s brother Frank in Boardwalk Empire, he’s now starring as FBI agent Dante Allen in the spy thriller – helping Claire Danes’ lead character Carrie Mathison bring down criminals from within the American government.
Homeland, now almost half way into its seventh series, has managed to stay strikingly relevant in the face of real-life twists that nobody could have seen coming: most notably the election of Donald Trump. In recent episodes it has dealt with fake news, right-wing shock jocks, Russian meddling – and has even made reference to Brexit.
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The show has certainly had its peaks and troughs but bravely killed off its hero Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in series three. Subsequent seasons – including what we’ve seen of the seventh – have offered up the kind of nail-biting thrills, high emotion and staggering insight into secret intelligence that writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa do so well.
“I think they really had to find a new voice for the show after Brody, and they’ve really succeeded,” Spector tells Radio Times.com. “They’ve managed to evolve over the last several years, not just with the change of characters but also with the changing realities of American foreign policy and the different changing presidents.
“The show has really kept its ear to the ground over the last several seasons.”
Homeland optimistically elected a female president in Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), with the writers anticipating that Hillary Clinton would be the one entering the White House in 2016. When that went awry, Homeland took a swerve and got right back on the pulse by making Keane a bullish presence in government, to better reflect Trump.
Spector acknowledges that the writers’ prediction of a Clinton presidency meant they had to “rejig” their portrayal of Keane in order to accommodate “the completely unexpected and shocking results of the 2016 election”.
Indeed, Gansa told Variety last year: “After Election Day we all came into the story room and wondered if Homeland had just become counterfactual to the point of irrelevance.”
One of my favourite pieces of Homeland trivia is that Barack Obama is a fan of the show – does Spector think his successor Trump watches it, too?
“I highly doubt it,” he laughs. “I think it’s probably not the kind of fare he enjoys. In fact, I doubt he enjoys fiction really of any kind.
“I don’t think he reads, and I don’t think he’s a man of much imagination. He’s the kind of man who, if the story isn’t about him, he’s not interested. He’s a reality star, he’s only interested in a world that is responding to his power.”
While the death of agent Brody – by public hanging – was a shock back in series three, that wound has healed. But the hearts of Homeland fans still bleed for Rupert Friend’s character Peter Quinn, who sacrificed himself when he drove into a sea of bullets to save Carrie in the last series.
Spector, too, grieved for Quinn. “I was really impressed with Rupert Friend’s performance. It was an extremely demanding season for him and I thought he was incredible.”
Quinn’s most distressing scenes involved him convulsing and frothing at the mouth after his sarin gas poisoning. “It must have been exhausting to play,” says Spector, “and I think he maintained it. To do that for six months straight and have those kind of demands placed on you for that long I think was really impressive.”
Some viewers may see Dante as Quinn’s replacement. While Spector accepts this, he hopes that he can be appreciated as a character in his own right. “It’s certainly a daunting concept and I hope people don’t see it too much as me stepping into his shoes,” he says.
“I think Quinn was a character that fans became attached to, myself included, over the course of the six seasons and there was a sense of, ‘I know this person and they are part of my imaginary life in some way.’ You can’t develop that over the course of a few episodes.
“He was a wonderful character and I think he afforded the show an opportunity to really portray the human cost of the war on terror and what it has done to some American soldiers and to many, many more people in the countries affected by it.”
When it comes to Dante, he admits, “Either the audience will get involved in [his] story or they’ll completely reject me.
“I just hope they do it based on the character and the performance, and not based on some perceived notion that I’m replacing Quinn, because I don’t think anybody could or will on that show.”
Spector also reveals his admiration for his co-stars Mandy Patinkin and, of course, the force of nature that is Claire Danes. “Claire is a magical unicorn of an actor,” he says.
“She’s never not credible, you always believe her no matter how far out or impossible her circumstances seem.”
It must be taxing, both physically and emotionally, to play a character who suffers from bi-polar disorder. “Claire has extraordinary stamina and focus,” Dante agrees, “and I think if she didn’t she wouldn’t be able to play that character.
“The writers put her through her paces – episode after episode they ask her to be right out at the edge of human emotional experience, and she goes there effortlessly. Or seemingly effortlessly.”
While very strained at the beginning of the series, Dante and Carrie’s relationship has since strengthened considerably. They have a special kind of understanding because Dante’s ex-girlfriend was also bipolar, and when they’re on missions together he is helping Carrie to keep track of her pills as she says she is not in the right mind to self-medicate.
Spector is coy when I ask him about what the future holds for Dante. “Carrie and Dante’s relationship certainly becomes more involved and more complicated over the course of the season,” he says carefully.
“What I began to realise about the two of them is that they have a lot in common. They begin to understand how deeply they could be connected.
“That’s about all I’ll say.”
Could Spector be hinting at a romance between the pair? We hope so. But he won’t say whether he’s attached for Homeland’s eighth – and final – season and, besides, he’s only got one job on the horizon, and that’s fatherhood.
“At the moment I’m manufacturing a little paternity leave for myself, because my wife and I are about to have our first child,” he says. “That’s my next project.”
Homeland is on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4