When “Homeland” returns for its sixth season on Sunday, a few changes will be in store. Not only will the series be set in the United States for the first time, but the commander-in-chief about to be sworn in will be a woman. Executive producer Alex Gansa has said he didn’t, however, model the character on former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And Elizabeth Marvel, the actress who plays the PEOTUS, says she had some very different politicians in mind as she prepared for the role.
Here, Marvel tells Variety why she channeled former President George W. Bush, what to expect from President-Elect Elizabeth Keane this season, and why it’s important for our leaders to pay attention to the intelligence community.
What made you want to take on the role?
Who wouldn’t want to play the leader of the free world? It’s a fascinating compliment to play the president-elect. The show is one of the best. And to be a part of that is awesome.
How much did Alex Gansa and the producers tell you about Elizabeth Keane?
Alex gave me a pile of books to read about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, about policy, about this period we’re actually in — the transition period, the transfer of power from one president to the next. I did a bunch of research on that. And then we kicked around some ideas, because they have their idea of what it is, but they go with what they see happening. When they were casting this, I don’t think they were gender-specific. I think they were looking for the right actor. And so when they decided to work with me, then we began to create this animal that is Elizabeth Keane.
How would you describe Elizabeth?
She is an extremely unique political animal. She is a total maverick, someone we definitely have not seen in the political arena before. She also has dignity and discipline, which is what we all want in our officials. She’s a senator from New York. She’s a Gold Star mother. Her son was killed in Afghanistan. The people I focused on to research her, and this is a weird combination, were a lot of Shirley Chisholm, and a little bit of George W. (Bush). If you can throw that into a blender, that’s what I’ve been working with. I know it’s crazy. George W. is more about the energy. She’s a woman who’s always on her feet. She never sits down. She never stops moving. But she has vision and tenacity and bravery like Shirley Chisholm had. She is a maverick and a seer like Shirley was. She’s a powerful woman. And she has done the things that Shirley did which was to quote her, which was, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I think that sums up Elizabeth Keane.
She is not Hillary Clinton.
No, that was clear when I first met about the part. They were seeing men as well. The conversations I had them were definitely not Hillary-centric. I don’t think they would have cast me in the part if that’s what they were intending to do. That’s not what they were writing.
Without revealing too much, she does have a complicated relationship with the intelligence community.
Yes, she does. Because we at this moment in our country are so very attuned to the relationship between the president and the intelligence community and our military community. And what those different legs of the stool mean. They all need to be in balance — and how important that relationship is. So what I can say about that is the relationship is very important between the president and their intelligence community. I can’t get too specific. But I can say that.
The show was written before the election, but it takes on a different perspective after the election.
Yes, it does — it’s true. That’s the beauty of art, isn’t it. We’re not trying to be the news. We’re trying to write a deeper truth to get us closer to ourselves. It’s not the story of trying to play out what’s happening in real time. It’s writing about something deeper, something more urgent.
Are you getting comfortable playing political animals after your work on “House of Cards”?
Yes, but then I did “Fargo,” and this Noah Baumbach movie where I played this woman with a horrible social phobia. It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum. I get to play a lot of powerful, smartest women in the room. And that’s deeply satisfying. I have to say, it seems to be the older I get, the better the work gets. When has that been true? It’s amazing to be a 40-something year-old woman and have wonderful roles on wonderful projects. It’s a wonderful time to be messaging being a strong, powerful woman in charge. It’s a privilege to be messaging that right now, especially to my son, who is 10. This is what we have to leave behind when we’re gone.
What does it mean to you to be playing a female president?
If you can see it, you can be it. And I believe in that. The more we see it, the more we message it, the sooner it’ll happen.
What can we expect from president-elect Keane? What’s her agenda?
I can’t really talk about that. She is tenacious. She is a fighter. She is not to be screwed with. She definitely rises to the occasion. As we’re seeing lay out in real time, when you are transitioning to the Oval Office, it is the steepest learning curve imaginable. And it’s like whac-a-mole. And it never stops. She is someone who comports with herself with discipline and dignity and is extremely capable but she is complicated. She lost her son. So she is someone with deep vulnerabilities.
Do you think the male characters — like Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) and Saul (Mandy Patinkin) — underestimate her because she’s a woman?
To their detriment?
Yes. But any strong intelligent woman can tell that story. (Laughs.)