'Homeland' Showrunner Discusses Fake News, Timely Tweaks and Not Killing Off Rupert Friend

"As a staff, and as a showrunner on a series about counterterrorism, we do not want to dramatize any threats to America that don't actually exist."
JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME

Homeland barrels towards its April 9 finale, again mirroring so many current events that it's almost uncanny.

There's a newly elected president butting heads with the establishment, threats of homegrown terror far different than those across the globe and more fake news than your second cousin could ever hope to share on Facebook. Showrunner and co-creator Alex Gansa says the skeleton of this season's story was always there, but the writers have made abundant tweaks in the wake of 2016 election and the ensuing unforeseen political climate.

[Spoilers ahead for anyone not up-to-date on the sixth season of Showtime's Homeland]

One thing that was always planned for this season was a bigger role for Rupert Friend. His alter ego, once just a recurring guest, now officially fills the male lead void left by Damian Lewis' Brody — remember him? — and will be submitted for Emmy consideration as such. Gansa recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the new direction for Peter Quinn, after originally telling Friend he was going to get killed off, as well as the real-life roots for this season's fake news machine and shifting the villain de la saison from extremists to an egotistical C.I.A. officer.

How did you decide on really bringing Rupert's character to the front of the story?

The conversations began last season when I told him that his character would perish in the finale. There was another conversation later when it became clear that he wouldn't actually die. We really wanted to explore his character in a new way. And we talked about what Peter Quinn would look like this year and how transformed he would be. We did lots of research about stroke victims and PTSD victims. It ended up being a real collaboration.

Did you consult with medial experts about how the stroke and the sarin poisoning would physically affect his performance?

The sarin gas component is a difficult one to address. There are very few survivors of that kind of intense exposure to sarin gas. We really focused on the cerebral hemorrhage part of his recovery and on the PTSD. We talked to doctors and physical therapists. We watched a lot of documentaries — My Beautiful Broken Brain being among the most prominent among them. The thing we found is that the degree of damage and the speed of recovery varies so widely among victims of stroke. Some people recover quickly, and some never do. Some go in and out of recovery. We had a lot of elbow room to deal with his condition as we pleased.

What made you reconsider killing him off in the fifth season?

We thought that there was a profound, dramatic opportunity in taking a known and beloved character and altering him radically. That person could be a stand-in for all people who come back from war disturbed and damaged. We had an opportunity to dramatize what it's like for the audience. It invigorated the writers room, and I think it invigorated Rupert, too. He had played, for almost two seasons, this cold-blooded laconic assassin on the frontlines of the war on terror. All of a sudden we could bring him home in a completely different capacity.

With the New York shoot, were you able to spend more time on set this year?

I was definitely able to be on set more. It was less an issue of "Is there a crisis on set that I have to go deal with?" than I just enjoy being with the people that are making the physical show. It was great to be so much more proximate to the actual production. But ultimately my job is being in the writers room and supervising post-production here in Los Angeles. I wasn't there as much as I'd hoped, but I was certainly there more than I was when we were shooting in Cape Town and Berlin.

As always, the show seems to be quite timely. Did you originally plan to lean into fake news or is that a response to current events?

One of the most terrifying aspects of the show is also one of the most invigorating ones. At some point in the season, usually around episode five or six, we're writing these episodes contemporaneously. We're only a month or two behind what happens in the world. When Trump got elected, we realized that we had to make some adjustments to the story. We shaped the story to what we were seeing on the nightly news. So the fake news story, the Alex Jones character played brilliantly by Jake Weber, that really assumed a much larger part of the story than originally envisioned. That character always existed, but we didn't realize just how important he'd become until it became apparent what had happened during the actual campaign — and what was happening after the election. We adjusted the story and back-filled his role in a way we hadn't anticipated. He was originally going to appear in episode eight, but his voice appeared in episode two. That was who Quinn was listening to [on the radio] in those early episodes.

In your research, have you heard of anything like that data company manufacturing all of the fake stories and social accounts?

Nothing like that, no. I certainly hope there isn't a giant propaganda machine being financed and supported by the intelligence community on the Dulles Corridor. But that area of the country is just filled with private contractors and companies that have sprung up since Sept. 11. They're financed by the growing counterterrorism budget. It is just extraordinary how many entities are now feeding at that trough. There is some truth in it. There are buildings there. There's a fantastic book by Dana Priest called Top Secret America, which chronicles all these corporations and the huge industry that has grown up around counterterrorism. So there's truth in it, but I don't think it's that truth.

F. Murray Abraham has played a low-key villain since he joined the show. What influenced your decision to finally make him the primary foe?

We were coming back to the United States to tell a story here. As a staff, and as a showrunner on a series about counterterrorism, we do not want to dramatize any threats to America that don't actually exist. We were told over and over again that there are no coordinated al-Qaida or ISIS terrorist cells like there are in Europe. We didn't want to add to the fear or hysteria. And that required finding a new foe — coupled with the idea that we were telling the story of a newly-elected president. We thought it would be interesting to make that foe someone in her own intelligence community. By wild chance, after Trump was elected, he was immediately in an adversarial relationship with his own intelligence community — in a way we could have never known going into this season.

And now Carrie and Saul know where they really stand with him.

We're trying to figure out how to bring this show in for a landing, and we have two seasons to do it. We'll probably be overseas again for the majority of seasons seven and eight. We are faced with the task, again, of getting our lead character Carrie Mathison back into the intelligence community. She's been outside that business for too long. And I think we've exhausted the storytelling around that idea. We're going to have to get her back and we're hoping to send her on a mission overseas.

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