How 'Homeland' Turned New York Into a Makeshift Middle East

7:00 AM 4/19/2017

by Bryn Elise Sandberg

TV pros give the Big Apple exotic alter egos in series such as 'The Americans' (Manhattan doubles as Washington) and 'Madam Secretary' ("We've pretty much shot every continent except Antarctica").

Courtesy of Ronen Akerman/Showtime

While cities as far flung as L.A. and Toronto often substitute for New York in film and TV (albeit inadequately, in the eyes of city natives), Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs do their share of faking it. "Most viewers don't realize that in Madam Secretary the Georgetown home Tea Leoni exits is actually a Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, carriage house, or that The Americans similarly cheats Brooklyn for Washington, D.C.," says New York City film commissioner Julie Menin. And even as some locally set series have decamped (including Showtime's The Affair, cashing in on California's revamped incentives), current productions in and around Gotham are capitalizing on its versatility to go global.

  • Staten Island

    'The Blacklist'

    Courtesy of Will Hart/NBC

    New York stands in for D.C. and other foreign locales on NBC's The Blacklist. "We've cheated for Jakarta, Iran, Switzerland, Cuba and even the East Congo," says production designer Nick Lundy. One spot plays many of these roles when the filming isn't at Chelsea Piers' soundstages. "We refer to Staten Island as our foreign unit because it seems to have all these strange, interesting areas that are super industrial and just other," he says.

  • Manhattan

    'The Americans'

    Courtesy of Ali Goldstein/FX

    Among the iconic NYC spots used as Washington stand-ins by the '80s-set The Americans, the spy drama starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys: Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Columbia and Grant's Tomb. The FX series has also used Forest Hills in Queens to double as West Germany.

  • Orange County

    'The OA'

    Courtesy of Jojo Whilden/Netflix

    Creator and star Brit Marling intended to shoot the Michigan-set The OA in L.A., where she lives, but production designer Alex DiGerlando convinced her otherwise. "They were looking for that Middle America exurb culture where there's lots of empty space and developments pop up out of nowhere," he says. "When I got the script, I was like, 'I don't think you're going to find that in L.A.' " Without even looking to the Midwest, DiGerlando found what he was searching for near an outlet mall in New York's Orange County, 50 miles north of Manhattan.

  • Queens


    Courtesy of Ronen Akerman/Showtime

    Homeland has filmed the bulk of its past seasons in South Africa, Israel and Germany — but with the exception of eight days in Morocco, the Showtime drama shot entirely in New York this season. In order to film two scenes that took place in the Middle East, director/executive producer Lesli Linka Glatter used Fort Totten in Queens to substitute for Iraq and Red Hook Terminal in Brooklyn for Iran. "You didn't see a huge amount of scale, but you saw enough that you firmly felt like you were in the real place," she says.

  • Brooklyn


    Courtesy of HBO

    In the fourth season of Girls, Lena Dunham's Hannah gets accepted into the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, which prompted the HBO drama to try and relocate to film at the actual University of Iowa. But when school administrators decided the project was too "risky," the show's production team had to get creative and turn Brooklyn into Iowa City. Girls also migrated north to Harrison, New York, for segments of the show set in Hannah's hometown: East Lansing, Michigan.

  • Long Island

    'Madam Secretary'

    Courtesy of Sarah Shatz/CBS

    Madam Secretary films its Oval Office scenes in studio space at Silvercup East, but the CBS drama often finds a way to make the Big Apple look like far-off lands. "We've pretty much shot every continent except Antarctica, and we've done it all within the New York zone," says executive producer Sam Hoffman, who points to Africa, South America, Israel and India as recent examples. Last season, the production team found a pink building near the ocean on Long Island, brought in palm trees and old cars, and called it Cuba. Among other exteriors that have doubled for international locales: Sleepy Hollow as Switzerland, Rockaway Beach as Africa, Brooklyn as Southern France, and an industrial part of Bushwick as war-torn Syria. Says production designer Tania Bijlani of setting up the latter: "We painted over the existing graffiti, changed signage, strewed furniture on the street and had some burned-out cars." Locations manager Steve Weisberg, tasked with scouting the destinations, has developed a good sense of the region's topography: "If it's a desert we're aiming for, we move toward the beaches and flatlands out on Long Island; if it's mountains, we go north into the Harriman and Northern Westchester region."