'Homeland's' Secret Weapons: Inside the 30-Year Friendship That Stuck Together

 Joe Pugliese

THR is on set and in the writers room of TV's hottest drama as its co-creators -- Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon -- reveal a tale of reunited friends, ripped-from-the-headlines drama and, oh yeah, all of those shiny awards.

In a bid to make it more premium cable-friendly, Nevins' team, which included longtime programming exec Gary Levine, made some major tweaks to the script, including replacing original actress Laura Fraser, who played a more vulnerable version of Jessica Brody in their first crack at the pilot, with V's Baccarin. Among the others: making Carrie a more deeply troubled character (she didn't have a mental illness in the first iteration). "The original conception was, 'Brody's the bad guy, and it's a one-season story for this tough chick in the CIA,' " says Nevins, acknowledging that Brody wasn't intended to survive the first season. "We slowed it all down, making it a long evolution of an interesting relationship. We wanted to be sure that she was much more complicated and unreliable than just your traditional good guy; and that he was much more nuanced and reasoned and thoughtful than your usual bad guy."

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Danes, 33, had been Gordon and Gansa's first choice to play Carrie, so much so that the character's name in early scripts was Claire. And while there was some external concern that she would be too young to be believable as an intelligence officer, she was offered the role. "I didn't know how risky it would be to tell a story that was so relevant to what we're experiencing now socially and politically," says Danes of her reservations about her first regular series role since the mid-'90s drama My So-Called Life. "But the quality of the writing was so exciting, and this character was just so specific and compelling."

Lewis was a tougher sell at the network and studio, which had circled such names as Kyle Chandler and Ryan Phillippe for the part. "Given the material and the platform, we just thought we could get anybody in the world," acknowledges Salke of a scenario that didn't play out as planned. Several involved note that the red-headed Lewis lacked the traditional leading-man look -- and more specifically, one of an American hero -- that they initially had envisioned for the part. Similarly discouraging: his previous series, NBC's well-received 2007 drama Life, was a flop with viewers. But the execs' minds were changed when they watched his compelling performance in Keane, an independent film in which he plays a mentally disturbed man trying to come to terms with the abduction of his daughter. "It was just so deep and moving, and it really gave a sense of the layers Damian can play," adds Salke. "From that point on, we never looked back."

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Spend time with Lewis on the Charlotte set, and it's clear he's been able to replicate those layers with this role -- as have his co-stars, who have gone to great lengths to prepare for these parts. Patinkin, whose Saul Berenson is named after Saul Bellow and CIA thriller writer Alex Berenson, spent time at the CIA, while Danes was paired with both a CIA officer and a bipolar woman who has authored several books on the subject. Lewis took his preparation a step further: reading the Quran, befriending folks at the Central London Mosque, watching a series of war documentaries and spending time with soldiers and victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Between scenes, the actors can be found rehearsing lines in their trailers or pacing about the set with a script in hand. The writer of the episode being shot traditionally flies to North Carolina to be on hand during long days of filming, with director/executive producer Michael Cuesta -- who is credited with creating Homeland's cinematic feel -- the constant on set. Off camera, the cast has grown close, with many living in the same apartment complex and getting together often. Being removed from the showbiz-centric scenes of New York and Los Angeles has proved an advantage, says Danes, whose pregnancy will not be written into the show: "All of the noise is really very nice when it's on the periphery. By being here, we get to just focus on putting the show together."

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Today, Gordon and Gansa are back on the Fox lot, grabbing lunch at the commissary during a break from the writers room. It's immediately clear that Gordon is the more extroverted and effusive of the two -- and yet, there is a kindness, an enviable work ethic and an intellectual curiosity that bonds the men. "Our partnership has always been informed by a very intense -- and sometimes very emotional -- dialect of testing and poking and a 'this isn't good enough' process that, bizarrely enough, has remained the same all these years later," says Gordon, who still is struck by how quickly the duo fell back into step after so many years apart.

Gansa will tell anyone who asks that Gordon provided him with the best working experience he had ever had on 24 and that he has tried to model the Homeland writers room after the collaborative one Gordon ran on that show for four of its eight seasons. With Homeland, Gordon has had to take a back seat to Gansa because of a long-running and sizable deal with 20th TV that requires him to spend a portion of his time running or developing other series, including NBC's short-lived drama Awake. The arrangement might have bruised the ego of someone else, but Gordon is too busy being genuinely thrilled for his best friend's success.

"That's who Howard is: He's a cheerleader for other people's work," says 20th TV chairman Dana Walden. "Running a show is exhausting and demanding, so when he finds someone else's work that he admires, he's the number-one fan. Almost to the point that you would think that he couldn't do it himself."

That mutual adoration was on display for the 13.2 million viewers who tuned in for the Emmy telecast Sept. 23. As Hayden Panettiere read their names for the outstanding writing in a drama category -- the first of the pair's wins that evening -- the men stood up and threw their arms around each other. "They said only one of us could talk," said Gansa, seconds later from the podium. "But writing partners don't do that," noted Gordon, completing the thought. Added Gansa: "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Howard." And Gordon replied: "And I wouldn't be here if not for Alex."

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