The more screwed up the life of Morena Baccarin’s Homeland character becomes, the more she likes it.

Thus far the 33-year-old Angeleno has spent a season on Showtime’s acclaimed series playing Jessica Brody, a Marine wife contending with the return of her presumed-dead P.O.W. husband (Damian Lewis)—a seeming war hero possibly turned into an Al Qaeda sleeper agent—after a romance with his closest friend, while her family is under surveillance by a suspicious CIA agent (Claire Danes), who ultimately seduces said husband. Messy, challenging, and sexy, it was an irresistible role.

“I was immediately attracted to the strife of this woman who married a military man and had to deal with his disappearance, and the fact that he was never coming home,” she says. “Suddenly the rug is ripped from underneath her. It was a wealth of emotional stuff to go through as an actor.”

As far as she’s concerned, the writers can keep piling on complications, which they’ve done for the second season. “She’s getting excited about being in political life—being a congressman’s wife,” she says. “She’s hobnobbing with D.C. celebrities, the vice president’s wife has become a good friend, and she’s getting swept up in suddenly being someone who matters. It’s fascinating to see that ambition come out.”

But performing wasn’t always Baccarin’s ambition, despite being the daughter of Brazilian actress Vera Setta. “I grew up around the arts and thought that was what normal folks do,” she chuckles. “I was going to be a scientist or a soccer player.” She attended New York’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performance Arts, but not for its arts programs. “On my first day, we were doing acting exercises. I just thought to myself, Oh my God—this is what I want in my life every day, always. My mom was like, ‘Well, duh.’”

After graduating from Juilliard and landing breakthrough roles on sci-fi cult favorites Firefly and V, making her a geek “It” girl (“I love science fiction fans,” she declares. “They don’t let you get by on the street without saying hello!”), she landed Homeland, a role that requires her to get more than emotionally raw, frequently playing partially nude sex scenes.

“It’s very daunting,” says Baccarin. “I felt those scenes were handled incredibly well, [with] a lot of integrity and [taste]. It wasn’t easy—it’s easier though when there’s a reason behind it.” But even artistic justification can’t calm every jangled nerve. “Like everyone else faced with having to take off their clothes, I go into panic mode and just diet. I would love to be the kind of person who says, ‘I don’t give a shit—I eat a burger and a beer every night for dinner!’ But that’s just not true.”

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