The lady spy who ate me for lunch: Homeland star David Harewood on the CIA agent who debriefed him

The lady spy who ate me for lunch: Homeland star David Harewood on the CIA agent who debriefed him

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UPDATED:

00:02 GMT, 7 September 2012

When David Harewood landed the role as a tough, do-it-by-the-book CIA spymaster for the Golden Globe-winning drama series Homeland, he arranged to meet a real-life spook to learn how to make it authentic.

After all, as a former barman from Birmingham, he could hardly be expected to know much about the highly classified world of America’s fight against terrorism.

And who better to turn to than the glamorous woman who — as a professional veteran spy — was advising the show’s writers, and on whom the main character, CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is based

Spymaster: David Harewood, centre, with Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison

Spymaster: David Harewood, centre, with Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison

But Harewood — cast as CIA boss David Estes — found himself being given a full-on interrogation. ‘It was supposed to be me pumping her for information,’ he recalls. ‘Instead, I suspect I told her far more about myself than I wanted to — or realised I was doing. If I’d been a terrorist, she would have had a confession out of me within minutes’.

They met for what Harewood had hoped would be an informal briefing over lunch. ‘She was in her 40s and had been working for the CIA since she was 18. That much I got out of her. There was a hint of cleavage, and to anyone watching, we would have seemed like an ordinary couple.

‘But the moment we sat down, she fixed her gaze on me and not once did she avert her eyes. I was aware that she was forensically examining me, making a mental note of any habits or flaws, storing away everything about me.

‘On the surface, it was all very affable.
But I was unnerved. I tried looking away, but she kept her eyes locked
on to mine. She was very, very good at not giving anything away. I knew I
was being given a highly professional once-over, and I was never going
to penetrate that hard outer shell.’

Private lesson: David Harewood got a one-to-one with a CIA spy in preparation for his Homeland role

Private lesson: David Harewood got a one-to-one with a CIA spy in preparation for his Homeland role

So what did he learn from her ‘That these people are very intense, ruthless in their determination to hunt down the bad guys, and they never take anyone at face value — they are burrowing deep inside your psyche.’

He says the CIA’s attitude permeates the Homeland set. ‘Normally, I’m looking for a bit of fun when the cameras aren’t rolling. But everyone is so consumed with the stories that it’s as if we really are immersed in a very serious fight.

‘The script calls for me to be closely analysing everything that’s said and done, never taking anything for granted, and I find myself doing it off the set, too.’

Homeland, shown here on Channel 4, follows the story of Nicholas Brody (played by another Brit, Damian Lewis), a U.S. Marine captured in Iraq by al-Qaeda, and presumed dead. When he returns home after eight years, he is greeted as a hero. But one CIA operative, Carrie Mathison, suspects he has been brainwashed by his captors and will carry out an attack on U.S. soil.

It is Estes’s job to remain neutral at all times, which adds to Carrie’s frustration because, while she’s trying to persuade him to take her suspicions seriously, she’s struggling to hide her bi-polar disorder from him.

It’s unmissable stuff, generally held to be authentic, and President Obama’s favourite TV show.

‘He really enjoys it’, says Harewood, who was made an MBE in the 2012 New Year’s Honours. ‘He sneaks off to watch it in his own room at the White House when Michelle and the kids are busy. It’s great to know it’s not far from the truth of what could happen.’

The cast know this because Lewis was told by none other than Obama himself, at a White House dinner this year. Says Harewood: ‘Even in that cordial atmosphere, there was a whiff of how seriously they take the threat of terrorism. Damian made a joke about it, but the President remained impassive. He immediately changed the subject as if nothing had been said.’

As the two resident Brits — albeit playing Americans — Harewood and Lewis have bonded. ‘We are both a long way from home for almost six months a year, so it’s natural to try to overcome the homesickness by sticking with one of your own.’

The series is filmed in Charlotte,
North Carolina — almost 4,000 miles from Harewood’s home in Streatham,
London, his wife Kirsty and their daughters, Maize, nine, and
six-year-old Raven.

‘It’s
not as much fun as working in TV at home, and although I’m enjoying the
experience, I’m finding it all a bit cut-throat. The US has a different
attitude to celebrity and publicity, so Damian and I feel we are not
fully plugged in.’

Previous adventures: David Harewood stars as Tuck in BBC's Robin Hood against Jonas Armstrong as Robin and Lara Pulver as Isabella

Previous adventures: David Harewood stars as Tuck in BBC's Robin Hood against Jonas Armstrong as Robin and Lara Pulver as Isabella

Harewood, 46, feels that his landing the role in Homeland was due to a divine intervention.

‘My best mate Louis, who I’d known since I was eight, died in 2009. A routine operation on his knee went wrong. He was the life and soul of the party and a cartilage removal operation ended it.

‘It destroyed me. I didn’t know what to do, so I took a year out. I couldn’t work, I was broke. I felt the crushing of reality.

‘Eventually, I did a show at the National, but I felt very vulnerable the first time I was on stage since his death.

‘When I was sent the script for Homeland, I didn’t think anything of it. Three months later my manager rang and said: “They are interested in you”. I read it and I realised, yes, I do want this. Then I got an email saying I’d got it. My wife said: “You know what day it is It’s Lou’s birthday.”

‘He always used to say the one job I always wanted I was going to get. Whenever I was down he’d say: “You’re going to make it.” So this happened on his birthday.’ He’s lost for words, choked up. ‘I like to think it was him.’

Harewood got his big break after leaving RADA in 1989, playing a bisexual murderer on stage in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. Some of the audience walked out and he was criticised by the black community for setting a bad example.

He said at the time: ‘It’s like having a gun to your head. There was a huge pressure of being the ultimate black man. I started turning up to the stage drunk.’

After that he would have episodes where he would forget who he was. He ended up in a psychiatric ward and then had to retreat to his parents’ house in Birmingham for a few months. Therapy saved him, but he found relationships with women destructive. After seven years he got a grip on himself and in 2002 met Kirsty.

Did he know Homeland would be groundbreaking ‘It was very different. I love the serious nature of the plot, and the personal dynamics. None of us know how it’s going to end until we get a script three or four days before filming. It’s very exciting. We just found out that one of the characters with us in the first series got shot. None of us saw that coming.

‘The way the stories unfold, no one is sure who’s next in line for a bullet. Claire Danes is probably safe, but anybody else could go. Could it be me I’ll have to wait and see.’

Homeland: Season 1 is released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Monday. Season 2 starts on Channel 4 on October 7.