David Harewood is the British actor who plays David Estes, the director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Centre, the the brilliant Channel 4 drama Homeland.
A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Harewood has been a fixture on the London stage for many years, earning praise for his work in such plays as Sam Mendes’ Othello at the National Theatre, which later went to Broadway.
Harewood appeared in Separate Lies, written and directed by Julian Fellowes; the 2004 screen version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons; and Blood Diamond, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly.
On British television, Harewood was a regular on such series as The Vice, Robin Hood and Babyfather. He was also seen as Mandela in the television movie Mrs. Mandela. Harewood also guest stars in a number of series including Doctor Who, Strikeback and Criminal Justice.
A surprising number of fans of Homeland don’t realise that you’re a Brit. Explain where you’re from…
I’m from Small Heath in Birmingham. It’s hilarious to me. I’ve been acting for 26 years, in everything from Casualty to The Bill to The Vice, I’ve played Othello at The National Theatre – it’s taken me 26 hyears to be an overnight success, as the old gag goes, and it’s hilarious that all these Brits think that I’m American. And here in America, whenever I turn up on the red carpet, they’re all stunned to find out that I’m British.
That’s particularly impressive that the Americans themselves are stunned. That clearly shows that you’re doing something right.
Well, yeah. It’s always something I try to do. I’ve always tried to put character ahead of personality. I’m really glad that, even today, people kind of recognise me, they kind of know where I’m from, but no-one’s able to place me. I think that’s because I’ve done so much stuff, and hopefully it’s a testament to my ability to act.
Growing up in Birmingham, you were a very useful goalkeeper, weren’t you?
Very useful – The Cat, I was once known as. [Laughs] I used to play a lot as a kid, and I had trials as an All England Schoolboy. But I was never going to do it too seriously. Whenever it rained, on a wet, windy Saturday morning, I’d stand there thinking “What on earth am I doing here?” My heart was never really in it. But I played with some fantastic footballers, and it was a huge part of my life.
You went to RADA at the age of 18. Did that open up a whole new world for you?
Completely! I’d never really paid much attention at school – I was always a bit of a clown, really – that’s why I started acting. I wasn’t particularly attractive, and I wasn’t particularly academic, so the only way I could really get any attention was to mess about and be a bit of an idiot. At the time it was fantastic, but I suppose it was to the detriment of my education. Then I turned up at RADA, and went in on my first day, and they’re all talking about Brecht and Moliere and Dostoyevsky, and I’m thinking “Who the hell are they?” It was a real eye-opener. I really started to appreciate literature, and it was a wonderful journey. I was very lucky, I had a wonderful few years there.
Did you struggle to find work after you left?
I was very lucky, I came straight out and got a job. I played Romeo for Temba Theatre Company, which was the biggest black theatre company at the time. I’ve always been really, really busy, I’ve been very lucky. I think I spent the first five or six years just not stopping. I didn’t have any difficulty – the difficulty came much later on, when I got older and started to play roles with more authority on stage, that there were fewer and fewer roles for me on screen to do. That’s when I started to struggle, because of the frustration of playing really authoritative, strong roles at The National, but really struggling to match that on screen. I’ve been really, really fortunate to fall into this role [in Homeland].
Landing the role must have been a great thrill – acting opposite actors of the calibre of Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin.
I hadn’t worked for a year when I got the gig – partly for personal reasons, and partly because I just couldn’t get a gig, and then suddenly to find that I was sharing a screen with them was just extraordinary. I’ve just had a wonderful year. I suppose it’s like football – you play with better footballers, you get better. I’ve really found that just by watching them and working closely with them, seeing how they prepare and how they execute, has been a real joy, and I can only hope that there are more roles for me of this calibre, working with this calibre of actor. It’s been an absolute pleasure, it really has.
When you’re filming something like Homeland, do you get a real sense that you’re making something that’s going to be really, really good, or can you never tell?
A bit of both. I think everybody was very surprised by the immediacy of the success of the show – we were still filming the show when it became a massive hit in America. It’s kind of a goldfish bowl filming here in Charlotte, North Carolina – I think people do watch it here, but I was really surprised when I went to New York how many people were coming up to me and saying they enjoyed the show. I think in LA it’s such a huge show – it’s on posters and billboards everywhere, and this isn’t that kind of town, where there are billboards for TV shows.
David Estes is a fairly ambitious character, intent on climbing the greasy pole. What are your feelings towards him?
To be honest with you, I really struggled with him during the first season – I just didn’t know who he was. I told that to the writers at the end of the season, and they’ve done a fantastic job of really filling him out this year and giving him much more of a personality. Last year he was just the authority figure in the background who was always anti-Carrie. That was difficult, because I didn’t know why he had such antagonism towards her, and I didn’t know who he was. I only really discovered that when I played a scene right at the end of the season, when I played a scene with Mandy Patinkin, when you realise that actually he is implicated, and inextricably linked to this whole bomb attack on Abu Nazir, and how much he’d buried all of that information, and how much he was linked to the Vice President.
I didn’t know any of that until the very last couple of episodes. It was a huge revelation to me that the reason why I’d been so antagonistic about Carrie finding out about Abu Nazir was because I’d been responsible for this drone strike. It was a huge piece of the jigsaw for me, when I read those scenes, and it’s been like taking a cork out of a bottle. This season has been fantastic for me, because now I know who he is, I understand him, I like him. Yes, okay, he may have sold his soul to a certain extent to get where he wants to, but who wouldn’t? A lot of us, to get where we want to be, would do what we can.
It’s fascinating being out here in the world of American politics during an election. You see the real dirty side of politics, with the ads they’re running. If you want to get where you want to get to, you might have to do things that are seemingly unpalatable.
Why do you think they went for two Brits in key roles in the series?
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? It’s what everybody’s been asking. And we’ve got a third Brit – we’ve got Rupert Friend joining in this series. The director just says that they were the most interesting tapes that he saw.
When you’re on set, between scenes, or when you break for lunch, do you keep talking in an American accent, or do you revert back?
It’s quite extraordinary – all three of the British actors have almost an unspoken rule that nobody’s ever mentioned – we nearly always stay in our American accents when we’re at work. Damian’ll come to work and I’ll be like [puts on American accent] “Hey, man, how’s it goin’?” And he doesn’t look at me and say “What the f*** are you talking like that for?” It’s just unspoken. Every now and again one might drop out of accent and talk about the Olympics, or about something political that happens in the country, like the riots last year, when you have to get out of the accent. But most of the time you just forget, it becomes second nature.
You’ve mentioned that it’s election year in America. I hear that Homeland is Barack Obama’s favourite show. Is that a great thrill?
Oh it is. He’s metnioned it several times in interviews – it’s a fantastic thrill. It’s unfortunate that we were on hiatus when he was here for the Democratic convention. I’m sure he knows that we film the show here in Charlotte. Apparently, because his big speech was moved from the stadium to indoors because of the weather, he might be coming back to the state just to do something for the volunteers. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get a visit from the President?
Dare I say that it probably wouldn’t be as much of a thrill to have Mitt Romney visit?
Not really! I am astonished it’s so close, to be honest with you. It’s just beyond me that people are even considering him. But there are a lot of people who aren’t convinced by Obama. A lot of people are saying they’re not even going to bother voting this time. That’s bad, that people feel that politics doesn’t mean anything to them. That’s the scary part, that he’s going to lose because the people who voted for him last time just can’t be bothered this time.
Season 2 is about to Premiere in the US. Are you excited?
I’m really genuinely excited. From a personal point of view, it’s great because Estes has been given a lot more to do in this series. But it’s just such a fantastic show, I think people are going to be really, really excited to see it. I’ve read so many tweets and blogs where people have said it’s just a one season show which they can’t take any further, but these writers are fantastic. They’ve managed not only to recreate the same amount if tension, but to ratchet it up again. I think fans of the show are going to be very, very pleased.
Are you allowed to give us any hints about what we can expect from the series?
I can tell you that the second season begins in Israel. And I can tell you that Carrie will be back in the CIA in some capacity, and that, from what I hear, though I still don’t know, the mole will be revealed. You’re all going to be very surprised.
You were awarded an MBE at the beginning of the year. How did that feel?
Absolutely tremendous. It remains, and always will be, one of the proudest days of my life. To have gone there and got that pinned on, and had my daughter and mum be at the palace watching me get that award, it’s one of the proudest things that ever happened to me. I’m really, really chuffed about it.
Series 2 of Homeland airs on Channel 4 in October.