Anatomy of a character


I am amazed at how much detail goes into creating believable characters.  From the book “Homeland Revealed,” Creator/ showrunner, Alex Gansa  actress, Claire Danes share.

Gansa: I am a writer. My title says Executive Producer, but I am, at the end of the day, a writer. And there is no greater feeling for a writer of television than to deliver fifty or so pages every few weeks to an extraordinarily talented group of actors and filmmakers and to watch them transform those pages into an episode better than he could have ever imagined. Such has been my privilege for three seasons on Homeland.

Every successful television show is a miracle. So many forces conspire against its survival from the very start, and so many hard choices must be made—narrative choices, casting choices, staffing choices, programming choices—any one of which can prove fatal. I know that people don’t like to hear success explained away as luck, but in the case of Homeland’s debut, there is simply no other explanation. Everything that could go right did, and everything that usually goes wrong didn’t.

Carrie Saul

Character study:  CIA AGENT CARRIE MATHISON WANTS only one thing: to prevent terror against American citizens. But her complex, driven personality can make her appear as an incredible asset to some and a risky liability to others. She is driven, whether she likes it or not—and she not only likes it, she lives for it.

Carrie didn’t start out quite as colorful as we know her today. In fact, she didn’t start out as “Carrie.” At the time they were writing the pilot, Gordon and Gansa had just seen Danes’s Emmy-winning performance in Temple Grandin. “We were very specific in our minds that the character was of a certain age, with a certain energy and intelligence and vulnerability,” Gordon recalls.  “We created a character who was very much like Claire Danes—in fact, we called the character Claire.” Gordon and Gansa sent the script to the actor, who, by good fortune, was available and liked what she saw.

“She was incredibly capable, smart, and had a lot of authority, but also this really interesting vulnerability,” Danes says. “It’s always interesting to play somebody who has a secret. But here was a secret agent who had another secret buried beneath all of that.” Interestingly, that secret—Carrie’s mental illness—was not originally part of her character. After the pilot had been picked up by Showtime, Gordon and Gansa were called in for a meeting. “They were tremendously excited about what we’d done,” Gansa recalls, “but there was a sense that Carrie was not a cable-worthy character yet. She was always a pariah. She always had an unpopular view. But there was nothing that anchored it.” The network had successful shows about a drug addict, a multiple personality, and a serial killer. “There were all these bigger-than-life pathologies. They wanted something to make her richer or deeper.” On suggestion from Gansa’s wife, the concept of a bipolar disorder was added. “We had gone through every possible pathology. But being bipolar excused her unbalanced and erratic behavior, in a strange way, because she had a condition that she was fighting. And there was an aspirational quality to her actually overcoming it at some point.”

Danes, who came onboard after that decision, also liked the way the writers made use of it.

“I never wanted her condition to become a gimmick. And nobody on the show ever made it ‘cheap,’ which is why it’s so special.” Both the writing team and Danes did research on bipolar disorder, utilizing Kay Redfield Jamison’s book An Unquiet Mind as a key resource (as was Jamison herself). In addition, writer Meredith Stiehm also happens to have a sister who suffers from the illness. “Meredith was often the voice of Carrie, particularly with regard to bipolar disorder,” Danes notes.

“She knows how the illness works, so that was a serendipitous gift for us to have her onboard.”

Danes herself also spoke with another author, Julie A. Fast, interviewed friends who knew of the psychology of the disease, and studied YouTube videos to get a sense of the unique physical behavior bipolar patients have. “Carrie is what’s known as bipolar 1,” the actor explains. “They tend to be more manic than depressive and have a more rapid cycle than bipolar 2 people.” Mania is also a bit more interesting, for storytelling purposes, than the depressive side. “They have a hard time with personal boundaries when they’re manic, and they’re very charismatic. They’re attractive and attracting. And they are often very promiscuous. They self-medicate with alcohol, tend not to sleep, and talk at a faster clip. And they’re very imposing. There’s a point on the continuum when they are high-performing, in fact out-performing everyone around them, something they always strive for and try to maintain.” Patients like Carrie, when they can, will tend to reject the medications that are there to help prevent the up-down swings of the disease, writer Chip Johannessen notes.

“It tones them down. They feel it takes life that was Technicolor and makes it black and white.” His colleague, Alex Cary, likens Carrie’s behavior in such instances to that of a German shepherd he once owned. “I had a house with one of those invisible electric fences and a collar for the dog. I would see her go through it and grit her teeth; I would see the determination and courage just to break free. I’ve always thought of Carrie that way.”


Carrie is also a fan of jazz, again, something not originally considered when her character was created. “It’s very improvisational and symbolic of her inner life,” says director Michael Cuesta, who first brought up Carrie’s affinity to the genre. “It’s complex and unpredictable, just like Carrie.” Its place in her work first appears in the pilot, when Carrie, having picked up a man in a bar, has a sudden realization about Brody’s apparent signaling to his handlers via finger tapping signals.

Production designer Patti Podesta first came up with the idea, she recalls. “Cuesta and I were talking, and he said, ‘How would she figure that out from looking at the jazz band?’ I said, ‘She’d be watching the fingering of the musicians, and it would make sense to her, because that’s how her brain works,’ and everyone went, ‘Yeah!’” Her drive to pursue terrorism—and Abu Nazir in particular—is considered to stem from an experience in Iraq, where she served as a case officer. “I think she came of age there, really,” Danes notes.

The writers surmise that she was, at one point, close with a guide/translator, whom Carrie saw killed. “They had been separated in a crowd, in a flash mob in the streets of Baghdad,” says Cary. “He had been taken as a traitor and strung up on a bridge and burned alive, and she had been in the crowd, unable to do anything about it, and watched. For me, that’s what has driven her to fight terrorism.” Carrie remains a loner, much like her mentor, Saul Berenson, and other great members of the agency.

“She’s a little bit like Edward Scissorhands,” Danes says. “She’s afraid of getting the agency. “She’s a little bit like Edward Scissorhands,” Danes says. “She’s afraid of getting close to people, because she knows the kind of damage her condition can wreak.” Her relationship is truly with her job. “The best way she knows to take care of herself is to work,” says Cary. “When she’s working, she’s really on top.”

Despite her very human flaws, Carrie’s heart and underlying drive come from the right place. “She is a true patriot,” says Danes. “She makes huge personal sacrifices in order to do her work well. And we admire her for that—it kind of justifies all of her less charming qualities.”

Carrie Bipolar

Some of the most fascinating parts of Carrie’s personality come from the fact that she suffers from bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression. People who are bipolar experience distinct—and severe—mood swings.

“It’s not somebody who just feels lousy in the afternoon or gets irritated in the evening,” explains Carolinas HealthCare neuropsychiatrist Dr. Jay Yeomans, a consultant to Homeland. “These are distinct mood changes, not precipitated by any event, and last for days or months.” Untreated, bipolar individuals experience both severe depression followed by bouts of manic activity. The depression is much worse than for people who suffer from more common “unipolar” depression, Yeomans says. “They have to pull themselves out of bed, drag themselves around the house all day, and experience inappropriate guilt and remorse.”

They often experience disturbances in sleep, appetite, and sex drive, have a lack of interest, and are “anergic,” meaning they have absolutely no energy. The flip side is their manic behavior, characterized by unbridled energy. “They generally will multitask, doing two or three things at once, and tell you they ‘feel great.’ And they’re not insomniacs.

They don’t have trouble sleeping; they don’t want to sleep. They have no reason to.” There is also a sense of grandiosity with bipolars, a feeling of being unstoppable and having a “special mission,” which, in Carrie’s case, is actually true.

“There’s a feeling of ‘nothing is going to stop me from achieving my goal,’ an obsessive quality, a determination. Even though people tell Carrie to just drop it and move on, she won’t let go.”

Bipolar people will engage in incredibly risky behavior. “There’s a hypersexuality, but other kinds of things too, like getting into accidents, trespassing. They’re very outspoken, because, for them, there are no boundaries. They’ll say things in public that are just outrageous.” Carrie, he notes, is “mixed bipolar,” which means she has plenty of energy but then becomes dysphoric. “Classically, the person who is manic is really gregarious.  They can actually be very Carrie, he notes, is “mixed bipolar,” which means she has plenty of energy but then becomes dysphoric. “Classically, the person who is manic is really gregarious.

They can actually be very entertaining. But a mixed bipolar can have all that energy but be really irritable and dysphoric.” Bipolar disorder can be treated with several different drugs. On Homeland, Carrie is treated with lithium, a safe, naturally occurring salt that acts as a mood stabilizer, to level out the peaks and troughs of the patient’s mood swings. “It’s not used as much today as some other drugs, but it’s still quite effective.” Clozapine, which Virgil finds Carrie taking in the pilot, is more typically prescribed for schizophrenics, rarely for those who are bipolar. “It’s one of the ‘big guns,’” Yeomans says. If they don’t respond to medications, patients may opt for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), as Carrie does at the end of Season 1. Yeomans was impressed with Dane’s performance. “She did her homework. It is uncanny how well she portrays somebody with bipolar disorder.”

AFTER RUNNING ONE OF THE most successful thrill rides in TV history for eight years, where does one go next? Executive producers/writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel on Fox’s mega-hit 24. The show’s eighth and last season was in production when Gordon received a call in late December 2009 from his agent, Rick Rosen, who was on his way home from Israel. “He said, ‘I have your next show,’” the producer recalls. That next show was Israeli filmmaker Gideon Raff’s Hatufim (or Prisoners of War), created for Israel’s Keshet Broadcasting. Raff had begun the show with a three-page synopsis, after which he was given the go-ahead from network executive Avi Nir to write a full season’s scripts. Impressed by the results, Nir asked Raff to translate the first episode into English and gave the English translation to Rosen, before even a frame of footage had been shot. Upon receiving the script from Rosen, Gordon and Gansa were immediately impressed and wanted to see more. “America had been engaged in two conflicts for ten years, but there was no strong character on American television that really reflected the price of war,” Gordon recalls.


Source: Hurwitz, Matt. Homeland Revealed


About Diz

I was told that I was born with a pen in my hand. My mother was not amused. She still isn't. Five of six of us kids are in the Entertainment Biz -- five of us are closet-Leos. Website:
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3 Responses to Anatomy of a character

  1. Steven D says:

    More of these, please. You write the best lectures, Prof.

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