WASHINGTON – Members of the cast of TV’s “Homeland” call it “spy camp.” It’s when they travel to Washington to pick the brains of top U.S. intelligence officials.
And it’s where Hollywood meets real-world intelligence and both sides realize that not everything is as it seems. The two worlds blur and it’s hard to tell where today’s national security and political events stop and the fictional drama begins.
“I guess the challenge of the show is that it is constantly adapting to what’s happening in real-time,” said actress Claire Danes, who plays Carrie Mathison, a former CIA operative turned senior national security adviser who suffers from a bipolar disorder.
Danes and other members of the cast and crew of “Homeland” appeared Monday night at the National Press Club to talk about espionage in popular culture. Several hundred people attended the event, which was sponsored by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security at George Mason University. Its namesake, the former CIA director and National Security Agency director, served as moderator.
In the Showtime series, Russians manipulate the news. In real life, Moscow meddled in the presidential election. In the show, the president axes employees. In real life, President Donald Trump shuffles his Cabinet and threatens to fire folks.
Early in its seven-season run, the show portrayed a U.S. serviceman who was held captive by al-Qaida, released and then turned against his country and planned an attack on U.S. soil. Militant-inspired attacks have been carried out in U.S. cities in recent years.
Actor Mandy Patinkin, who plays Saul Berenson, a career official at the CIA who becomes national security adviser to the president, remembered one spy camp where they had a video conference with Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked documents revealing extensive government surveillance. The experience was a letdown, Patinkin said.
“We were all on pins and needles,” Patinkin said. “It was the least interesting person who ever came through the door. I’m all for the truth. A lie is a cancer to my soul. But that guy was just proselytizing his manifesto.”
Patinkin said that during the video conference, the cast kept passing notes to each other under the table, urging one another to try to get Snowden to talk about something personal. Patinkin said he looks to spy camp for information about what makes intelligence officers human so he can replicate their private soul-searching on camera.
“I’m looking for their heartbeat,” he said. “How they deal with terror in their own lives. Who do they talk to when they are frightened?”
Spies in popular culture are not new. British author Rudyard Kipling wrote one of the first spy novels, “Kim,” at the turn of the 20th century, Vince Houghton, historian at the International Spy Museum in Washington, said in an interview earlier Monday. A lot of fiction about espionage was written during World War I and even more was published during World War II and the Cold War. British agent James Bond has appeared in published fiction since 1953 and on movie screens in more than two dozen films since 1962.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the spy genre exploded and today there are multiple television dramas, feeding a seemingly insatiable demand for all things related to spying.
With the number of intelligence stories in the news, there are an abundance of plot lines. WikiLeaks. Intelligence leaks. Insider threats. Cyber warfare. Black sites. Russia accused of poisoning ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent.
“I don’t think we can compete with the reality,” said Lesli Link Glatter, executive producer and director of “Homeland,” who meets regularly with intelligence professionals. “I don’t want to say it’s fact-based. It’s a story.”
She admitted the show sometimes doesn’t mirror reality. CIA operatives, for instance, operate abroad, not in the United States as they have done on the show. The staff, however, regularly confers with intelligence pros.
Laurence Pfeiffer, who had a three-decade career in intelligence and directs the Hayden Center, said he watches the show with his wife, who also worked in intelligence. “We say, ‘Well, that would never happen.’ Or, ‘Oh my god, we’d get shot if we did that.'”
At the International Spy Museum, Houghton said Hollywood has a responsibility to portray the spy world as honestly as it can because few people get a look at the real one cloaked in secrecy.
“No one takes Bond seriously, right? People realize that the suave secret agent jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with a cocktail in one hand and a stupidly named blonde in the other is not reality,” he said.
Houghton spent two years writing a weekly column for The Wall Street Journal, highlighting what in “Homeland” was authentic and what probably would never have happened in the real world.
“‘Homeland’ comes across as being closer to reality so people get really wrong ideas about the intelligence world by watching shows like that,” he said.