Homeland is by far the best new television show of the fall, and to my mind, one of the best characters in it is Virgil, the surveillance expert who acts as CIA agent Carrie’s exasperated colleague and big brother figure as they spy on suspected terrorist and former prisoner of war Nicholas Brody. I spoke with David Marciano, who told me about Virgil’s backstory, his motivations for acting, and what Virgil has in common with the cops he played on Due South and The Shield. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell me more about Virgil’s relationship with Carrie. He appears to be very loyal to her, even when he’s chewing her out for crossing a line.
We discussed, prior to shooting the pilot, we had some rehearsal sessions, and there was a meeting with [writer] Michael Cuesta, [showrunner] Alex Gansa, and Carrie [Claire Danes] and we went over a lot of issues. We decided that Virgil went to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and studied engineering, and when he graduated, he wanted to work for the CIA and he applied for a job, and Saul was the guy I interviewed with, and he turned me down. And he hired somebody from MIT. So I just kind of was on my own, doing my own sort of freelance audio-visual surveillance, I met Carrie, and we became friends, and I sort of became, over time, like her big brother. My guess is, because I studied a little bit of behavioral psychology, Virgil was an outsider as a kid. And he grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey where it was brawn over brains, and Virgil was a little bit of a tech nerd. And he was a brainiac and he had a sharp tongue, and you take a few beatings. You take a few shots to the ego and shots to your manhood, so to speak. And therefore, when you get older, you want to take care of people who are being abused or being ostracized. So it makes sense that Virgil would look after [Carrie], because she is an outsider, she is an outsider in this community. Also, everyone had someone to answer to. Saul has to answer to someone. Estes has to answer to answer to someone. Virgil has her back. Virgil’s going to look after her and take care of her. He doesn’t want what happened to him to happen to her…
As an actor, I have to justify how I’m behaving in the present. Everything we do as human beings in the present is the result of things that have happened to us in the past. People who become nurses are usually people who had to take care of their father or their mother. Archetypically, if you’re a caregiver, you’re a caregiver from a very young age. We choose these professions subconsciously.
Is that true for you, in terms of deciding you wanted to act?
In terms of me choosing acting, I needed to be recognized. As a child, I wasn’t recognized by my parents. My parents were divorced by the time I was 3. My father was around, I could never get his approval. My mother, she was a single mom. I was also an only child. So I had to make a lot of noise in order to be recognized. And as an actor, we choose acting because it’s an opportunity for you to hear me and to be recognized…when I first came to town, I would interview with agents, and I would say “I didn’t come here to go swimming, I didn’t come here to go fishing, I didn’t come here to get laid. I came here to win an Academy Award, an Emmy, and a Cleo. So let’s get to work.”
Do you feel like you’ve gotten the recognition from your parents that you were looking for?
The last time I went looking for my father’s approval, I was 31 years old, and I’d had a modicum of success. I was on a TV show called Civil Wars, which was created by Steven Bochco. I was a bicycle messenger. And my father came out [to visit] and my father taught me how to garden, and I wanted to show him my garden. And I took him to the back, and I presented my garden to him, and he looks to the left, he looks to the right, he looks up to the sun, and says, “What did you plant the peppers on that side for?” That was the last time I went looking for his approval. It had nothing to do with career…My father did the best that he could with the tools that he had. He just wanted me to be able to provide for myself. My father wasn’t being critical in his mind. He was trying to be helpful, but he didn’t know how to verbalize that in a manner that wouldn’t be offensive. He didn’t know how to say “This is beautiful, this is amazing. You should rotate your stuff. Maybe next year, move stuff around.”
Do you think that dynamic comes across in Virgil’s relationship with Carrie?
He is the voice of reason for her. He’s very compassionate and understanding. I believe in her. And I trust her. I love her unconditionally. There’s no reason for me to put a condition on her because she’s no threat to me. Her behavior is a threat to Estes, her behavior is a threat to Saul.
I also appreciate that Virgil’s one of the only male characters on the show Carrie hasn’t put the moves on yet. What does that say about their friendship? Could we use more relationships between male and female characters that are just strictly friendly or professional?
Virgil is married. And that hasn’t been tested. It’s never been tested. And I think that’s true. That there isn’t that dynamic going on there. And now on a larger scale, I am the Virgil to her Dante. Virgil, in Dante’s Inferno, is the character that helps Dante navigate his way through the labyrinth of hell. I’m the Virgil to her Dante. Any time she gets herself into situations that are hellish or hell-like, I’m there.
Do you guide her through or get her caught? I worry about Virgil and Max knowing about Carrie’s medication.
We’ll just have to see.
On Due South, The Shield, and now Homeland, you’ve played characters who aren’t averse to bending the rules and taking aggressive action to crack down on people who violate the law or are threats to the United States. I’d be curious as to what the persistence of those themes mean about our fears of crime and terrorism. Do we not trust the people who are supposed to protect us? Do we really think our laws are too restrictive?
It’s very interesting. I’ve been very, very fortunate. My first series was Civil Wars, and my second series was Due South, created by Academy Award winner Paul Haggis. The difficulty, I’ll talk about each one individually and try to make a summation. The interesting thing about Ray Vecchio [his character on Due South, about a Canadian Mountie paired with an American cop] is I didn’t like him at first. I had a very hard time playing the foil…The Mountie’s the hero, he’s the hero archetype. In order for him to be the hero, he has to solve the case, he has to get the girl. Which means the foil cannot solve the case, the foil cannot get the girl. So I was getting very frustrated with the role because it wasn’t very satisfying. And I called my very first acting teacher, Ingrid Sonnichsen, she teaches at Carnegie Mellon now, and I said, “I got a dilemma.” And I said, “I don’t like playing the character I’m playing.” She said, “That’s a problem.” And I said, “I know. This could run for five years.” She said, “You need to find the one thing, the one thing about him that you like.” And she said, “What’s the best quality that he has?” And I said, “He’s a true friend. He will take a bullet for the Mountie. he will give his undying allegiance to helping this outsider.” Again. An outsider. Help find the murderer of his dad, and just be his friend in a land where no one else will be his friend. That’s the parallel between Vecchio and Virgil. They both serve that same function.
Now, [Detective Steve] Billings, Billings on the other hand does not fall into either one of those characters. Billings was very self-serving, but every character was on The Shield. Self-preservation was the major theme running through The Shield. Every character had to make a choice over you or me. Vic Mackey or Ronnie. Who’s going down? Ronnie’s going down. Lem or Shane? I’m sorry Lem. You’re gone. Me or anybody else? That pervert that I planted the information on. Playing jokes on Dutch. What I did to Dutch with Alex O’Laughlin’s character…What was great about The Shield is they tapped into a side of me, which I like to play jokes on people, I like to rib you, I’m an instigator, and they understood that when they hired me. So the thing about Dave Marciano and Billings that was in common was being this little instigator, this jerk. But he does it with humor. This guy’s a ball-buster. And I am. And they tapped into that side of me.
Do all of these shows suggest that we shouldn’t trust the government?
I think we make commentaries. I didn’t mean to avoid your question earlier about that. Here’s the thing about The Shield. When I became Acting Captain, there’s a big riot…and they ask me to make a decision, and I’m like ahh, and they’re like, you’re George Bush. Just think of yourself as George Bush. The liberal Hollywood likes to point out the faults and defects of the current administration. Isn’t that what’s theater is all about? Theater was created to show the powers that be what the masses were unhappy with. And I think that what happens, when we tell stories, even in the modern day, because this is our mythology. Television and film are our mythology, in which we tell stories to the masses so they know how to behave, and it’s a mirror held up to the government or the police. We like to show the general public what the powers that be are doing to you. And we like to show them in inept ways because people want to stick it to the man. There is a lot of waste. There is a lot of ineptitude in our government, there is a lot of ineptitude in our police force. There is a lot of corruption…Dirty. Everything’s dirty. It’s not so slick. It’s very real. All these other shows are very slick. Look how slick our cops our. Look how slick our lawyers are. It’s dirty. It’s in the trenches. That’s what I loved about Michael Clayton. Michael Clayton was amazing. Here’s this big lawyer who’s helping bring down law firms…It’s always a moral dilemma. The thing about The Shield is there’s a moral dilemma every episode. That’s the whole thing that just happened with Penn State. That’s a moral crime. And a sin to morality…they’ll overlook shit for greed and power.