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‘Homeland’ Boss on Season 7’s Trump Inspiration, Alex Jones and RIP Peter Quinn

“It’s going to be an interesting Homeland season,” warns Alex Gansa, showrunner of “Homeland,” which returns for its seventh (and penultimate) season on February 11.

Last season ended in an ominous, cataclysmic fashion, with Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) sacrificing himself to save then president-elect Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) — who then went on an all-out mission to protect herself and root out her would-be assassins. That meant her former ally Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) was frozen out of her White House access, and Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), among others, was behind bars.

When the new season picks up, it’s nearly two months later, and the situation is ever more dire with Keane increasingly paranoid.

Gansa says he was inspired by the headlines coming out of Washington, D.C. and the election of Donald Trump.

“I’m just addicted to MSNBC, Fox and CNN every night,” he says. “Donald Trump didn’t win an Emmy for ‘The Apprentice,’ but he should win an Emmy for this because he’s responsible for some pretty unbelievable television on a daily basis. And he should get props for that.”

Given the swirl of news about the Administration’s war with its own intelligence community, “It was just hard not to do it,” he says. “It was hard to say ‘OK, let’s go tell a story in Paris. Let’s go tell a story in South America.’ Something very significant is happening in all our lives right now. And ‘Homeland,’ we’re just in a very unique position to comment on it in one way or another. And it proved a temptation impossible to resist. What’s going on right now in the intelligence community is exactly what we’re dramatizing. And to run away from that would feel it a little cowardly and a little false. So we dived in.”

Here, Gansa opens up to Variety about Carrie’s ever-more-fragile mental condition, this season’s Big Bad, and the fallout from Peter Quinn’s death.

“Homeland” is set to wrap its series run with next season. Did you approach this season as a two-season finale?

You know, we were originally thinking that was going to be the case. But since we decided to do Season 7 as a direct continuation from Season 6, that has become the two-season arc, and Season 8 will be a standalone to end the series.

Do you have a plan in mind for the final season?

More of a hope than an idea. This show began in Israel [as “Prisoners of War”], and there’s something poetic about going back to that part of the world in the show. So we’ve been thinking, just in a thematic way, that it might be nice to end the show set in Israel.

So going back to this season then, why did you make the decision to make this a continuation of last season?

It was wholly as a result of Donald Trump being elected president. And I honestly think that if Hillary had been elected, we wouldn’t be doing Season 7 set in Washington, D.C.. That’s what’s going on 24 hours a day on cable news. And that’s what we’re thinking about all the time. So it seemed crazy not to explore and to delve into Washington politics and to find a president who is opposed by the deep state and to try to tell a relevant story to what is actually happening in the real world. So all those things fed into that decision.

Do you see this this season as a parallel to what’s going on the real world or more of a counterpoint?

It’s a different story but a lot of the same issues arise. And so we’re able to comment in an indirect way on what’s happening in real life. It’s definitely not an alternate reality; it’s not really a parallel reality. It’s a “Homeland” fiction that is hopefully relevant to what we’re seeing in real life in Washington.

It’s a pretty dark reality we find all the characters in. Is that inspired by what you’re watching and reading yourself?

Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of free flowing anxiety around. And we’re definitely tapping into that and that’s an attitude that “Homeland” has copped for a number of seasons. That high anxiety certainly carries over into this season especially when we have our protagonist in direct opposition to an administration that she believes is abusing its power. And abrogating civil rights etcetera. So we’re going right into the belly of the beast in that way.

Are there specific themes that you wanted to tackle this season?

A lot of themes carry over from last season — the idea of fake news and how people can be manipulated by it, and most importantly the way that any country that finds itself divided also finds itself vulnerable to attacks from a foreign power. And the theme of the season this year is the fracturing of America right alongside the fracturing of our protagonist, Carrie Mathison. So as her mental condition deteriorates, so does the condition of the country.

It does seem like we find her back in a manic place this season.

We definitely do. We definitely deal in that. And watching the premiere episode the question is, is her mission righteous or is it misguided?

You normally go to D.C. at the beginning of the season for a field trip to do research and have conversations with experts. What came out of that trip?

We were there in late April, early May. Trump has been president for three months. And when we were there, there was a lot of saber rattling going on about North Korea. Every intelligence officer that you talk to was genuinely afraid that they would wake up one morning and Seoul would be gone. I mean, literally, that was the conversations that we were having. What was remarkable about it is that there is a traditionally adversarial relationship between the Fourth Estate, journalism, and the intelligence community. In past administrations, in past decades, journalists have always been trying to get to at what the intelligence community is doing and what secrets they are trying to keep from the American people. But what was interesting this year is that there was a real meeting of the minds. In other words, there was a strange partnership that had developed between the intelligence community and the Washington Post, The New York Times in which these two entities, once adversarial, were now joined to try to combat a non-fact based administration. In other words, the intelligence community and newspapers and journalists traffic in what’s true. And now they were joining forces to combat an administration that they felt was not doing that and that was a very interesting alliance to watch. In previous years we would have to separate our high level intelligence officers during these field trips from journalists who would come in. You’d have to send one in one door and one out the other door so that they didn’t meet because there was so much animosity. And this year there was a real feeling of fellowship in the face of what they both considered a threat to democracy and to the nation. So that was interesting to witness.

What do you think Homeland’s role in all of this? To shine a line on that?

Our first goal is to is to entertain and to take Carrie Mathison on the next chapter of her life. And so that’s our first and foremost objective. And we’ve chosen to put her square in the middle of circumstances that slightly mirror what’s happening in the real world and watch how a character like that might engage in that world.

And it has its impact on everyone. We’ve got Saul in jail, and he’s as angry as ever.

Right now Saul is going to exact his pound of flesh in exchange for joining the administration. Definitely. But it’s interesting insofar as it puts Carrie and Saul at odds a little bit at the beginning of the season. He’s trying to change things from within and she is trying to change them from without.

You’ve always said before that theirs is the core relationship of this show. Are we going to see them come back together? Is that going to continue to play out over the course of the season?

Especially with Peter Quinn gone, that is the first and foremost relationship on the show. And that is really what we’re going to be exploring in season 7 and season 8.

But you don’t reference Quinn’s absence in the first episode. Is that going to come back and play a role?

Oh, he will definitely be referenced. He is not referenced in the first episode. But his absence will be addressed.

Keane was a candidate we were rooting for. And now she’s completely done a 180 on us. Is that the impact of the attempt on her life?

A natural impact of that attack. She can’t help but have some PTSD from that incident. She can’t help but be a little paranoid about people around her. A lot of people have assumed that she’s going to be a villain this season. And I would just say that we don’t really see her as villainous. We see her as isolated and we see her as genuinely afraid of enemies inside her own government.

So is there a Big Bad this season? Gen. McLendon (Robert Knepper) gets dealt with swiftly, let’s put it that way.

There is a Big Bad who appears and you’re going to have to wait a couple episodes for that to happen.

Any chance it’s Costa Ronin?

Well, you would be exactly correct about that.

Let’s move on to Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber). How much Alex Jones have you been watching to do research for this show?

Oh my God, I’ve watched way too much Alex Jones over the last couple of years! It’s just great to turn on Alex Jones and hear his voice before you sit down and write Brett O’Keefe. It’s just the natural thing to do. And my god, the things he says in front of the camera are just mind-blowing — truly, truly mind-blowing.

It’s an incredible performance that Jake is giving.

Jake is remarkable. And he has embraced this character in a way that just blows my mind. I mean first of all he’s put on 40 pounds. He’s invented a completely different way of walking. His physicality is 180 degrees different from Jake. He’s just completely created the character from the ground up. And he’s great to watch. Every time I’m in the editing room with Jake I’m really happy because he just brings so much to the part. And also a certain amount of energy and levity that we don’t often see on “Homeland.”

Have you heard from Alex Jones? Has he been watching?

Alex Jones challenged Jake Weber to a fight, to a fist fight and what Alex Jones doesn’t realize is that Jake Weber has been a boxer for the last 30 years. So I would not recommend getting in the ring with him.

Is Keane’s chief of staff David Wellington (Linus Roache) someone we can trust or should we be wary of him? What’s his agenda?

Well, you should definitely be wary of David Wellington. But what you should really do is watch Linus Roache and Elizabeth Marvel create such a fascinating duo in the Oval Office this season. The dance that they do with each other this season is really interesting. And just the level of acting that you’re watching in every scene, it’s just sometimes breathtaking. They have created a relationship and a partnership in the Oval Office that develops over the season and really winds up in a pretty extraordinary place.

And we’ve got Carrie in a challenging home-life situation. How much is that going to factor into her mental state and how she approaches what she’s got to face this season?

Carrie and Franny are now living with her sister back in D.C. and it was a temporary arrangement. And we start the show where Carrie and Franny might have overstayed their welcome a bit. And clearly the relationship that Carrie has not only with her sister but with her sister’s husband and her sister’s daughter becomes pivotal in this season. It is all centered around Carrie’s failing mental condition.

Executive producer Lesli Linka Glatter tweeted about scouting in Budapest. Is that where the story is going to heading?

The last two episodes will be largely shot in Budapest. I won’t tell you where they’re actually set. We are shooting Budapest for some country as yet to be named. And we’ll be there for a significant portion of the last two episodes. [But] if you know where Costa Ronin is from, you’ve got a pretty good guess.

Season 7 of “Homeland” premieres on February 11 at 9pm on Showtime.

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