There were plenty of ways the second season of "Homeland" tested the patience of its viewers, with its text messages to terrorists, teen lovebirds in hit-and-runs and helicopters in fields.
However, no one's patience was more tested than the character of Saul Berenson, the gruff but compassionate CIA veteran and mentor to "Homeland" heroine Carrie Mathison. And, as the show's most steadfast, sympathetic and likeable character, it is his devotion to Carrie that anchored the audience's faith in the gifted but bipolar CIA agent.
"She is his dybbuk, she's his mythical soldier, but she's also human and she's frail and he is aware of that," says Mandy Patinkin, who plays Saul, in an interview with U.S. News. "He is aware of her ego, her nature, her stubbornness, her rebel, her renegade-ness and all those are gifted qualities that can either drive them to success or run them into disaster."
Before playing Saul on "Homeland," Patinkin was most well known for his for roles on "Criminal Minds" and in "Princess Bride," as well as his extensive theater work. His stage training comes through when he talks about filming the show, explaining that he wishes the audience could see their rehearsals. But it's even more evident in the way he talks about his character Saul. Judging by the way Patinkin extensively fills out the details of Saul's psyche, he is by no means an actor who relies simply on the script.
He is particularly verbose when discussing Saul's relationship with Carrie, played by Claire Danes. Patinkin goes as far as to describe a hypothetical backstory to better explain their bond.
"He meets this young person, this person he feels is an extraordinary human being — that she's incredibly gifted, unbelievably smart and has a heightened sensitivity to human nature," Patinkin imagines. "He finds her and pours his heart and soul and education — everything he's learned -- into her and she drinks it up like a sponge. She's faster than he can ever imagine."
He continues on with the gusto and flare not out of place in a theatrical monologue.
"[Saul] realizes that now that he's 60, his main dream has been to find a way to keep this world more peaceful and stop so much killing and he feels like this is the child he discovers that might make his dream live on," Patinkin says. "And so he lives for her. His existence is to keep her existence going and he will sacrifice other lives — and especially his own — to keep her heart beating."
To help him research his role, "Homeland" creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon gave him a number of books written by former CIA officers and spies.
"You read all these books and they quickly homogenize into the same stuff. They're disgruntled, they bitch about the organization, they say benign things, et cetera," Patinkin says. "I am interested in the emotional lives of these people and the way that their hearts beat and the way the temperature of their bodies is and the way they sweat and think and fear and pray."
He recounts an intelligence officer at CIA headquarters in Langely, Va., who he met with to further research his spy role. Patinkin says he was struggling to get what he needed from their conversation until the officer mentioned he had three daughters. Patinkin asked to meet with them.
"In the minute those women sat down, the nickel dropped for me and I was home because I understood at that second that it was a story about a family," Patinkin says.
While the show's title most obviously refers to homeland security, it is also a play on "home" in the family sense, and for better or for worse, the show often exhibits all the ingredients of a family drama.
"Everything fit into that order: the family of the CIA, the Brody family, the Carrie-Saul family, Mira and Saul as the family, the family of the United States of America, the family of the world at large," Patinkin says.
Earlier in September, before attending a screening of Season 3's first episode for Washington D.C. media and political types, Patinkin traveled with some of the cast and crew to CIA headquarters where he was able to meet CIA Director John Brennan, the real-life counterpart to his character.
Patinkin says seeing Brennan among all the young people at the CIA made him think of Brennan as a "papa bear."
"It was his care for these people -- for the ones who lose their lives, and going to meet them and their families, and the responsibility he felt -- and you really felt the weight of an individual's heart in his hands," Patinkin says. "Those are the things I look for: the ordinary joe things. They're universal, that we all relate to. And if the show has had any success, I have to say why, and I think its because with all of us, it's about family."
For all the affection viewers have for Saul Berenson, a papa bear in his own right, Patinkin has played the character with just enough ambiguity that has bred all sorts of conspiracy theories. Many guess Saul is the mole in the CIA upper ranks that has been hinted at since the first season.
Even Patinkin's family includes one such Saul truther.
"My 27-year-old son and my wife, my dear wife, they come storming in the bedroom and Gideon's screaming it, 'You're it! You did it! You're the mole! I knew it! I knew it!' And Kathryn is screaming at him, 'Don't say that! Don't say that about your father! You don't know that,'" Patinkin says, "It was f-cking hilarious."
Even if he wanted to, Patinkin wouldn't be able to settle his wife and son's argument. He asked the writers not to tell him what is happening in the future.
"In real life, Mandy doesn't know what's going to happen five seconds from now, nor does Saul Berenson."