I recently went to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and it was fun to see the real celebrities of the world—the people who really matter, versus the actors,” says Homeland actress Morena Baccarin. But she was taken aback to discover just how deeply her provocative Showtime series really matters to DC’s power elite. “Apparently, in his Monday-morning security meetings, Vice President Biden will talk about the show, how realistic it is, how much fun it was to watch. And I was floored by that—here are the leaders of our nation talking about our show!”

Of course, it’s not all that surprising that Homeland (this season nominated for 11 Emmy Awards) is a big hit with the Beltway crowd, given that the critical darling’s tense, gritty war-on-terror storylines percolate with real-world anxieties, twists that surprise yet feel torn from the headlines, and characters that feel startlingly relatable, even fragile, despite their extraordinary surroundings.

And while Baccarin’s costars, Claire Danes—playing an obsessive, bipolar intelligence officer with boundary issues—and Damian Lewis—the presumed-dead Marine POW-turned-political rising star who’s been “reconditioned” as a terrorist sleeper agent—get the lion’s share of intrigue, her character, Jessica Brody, is easily the audience’s most accessible touchstone: a quietly strong woman holding her family together until her husband [Lewis] unexpectedly returns as an alienated, brooding stranger who, over two nailbiting seasons, becomes romantically entangled with Danes’s dogged CIA agent, murders the vice president (the show’s fictional VP, not Biden), and goes on the run once his divided loyalties are made public. Left to face the harsh, white-hot media spotlight, how will Jessica cope with the fallout? “I think she’s just screwed, no matter what!” laughs Baccarin, who earlier this summer received her first Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. “The father of her children is now the most-wanted man in the world!”

Despite the onscreen drama and Emmy nod, Baccarin’s experiencing a more serene moment in time in her personal life. Enjoying a one-episode respite early in the show’s third season, she’s back from shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina, and ensconced in her Silver Lake home for 10 days of welcome reconnecting with her husband of two years, filmmaker Austin Chick. The time together comes at an especially precious time in the couple’s life: They’re expecting their first child.

“I am not going to be pregnant on the show,” the 34-year-old actress—several months along and still deceptively svelte—points out, scuttling any juicy speculation that Jessica might be carrying (Nicholas) Brody’s child, or that of his best friend/her renewed lover, Mike Faber (played by Diego Klattenhoff). In fact, Baccarin had been given the impression that she might not be as front and center in season three as she’d been previously, “so I thought, ‘Well, this is a good time...’ Cut to [Executive Producer Alex Gansa] calling me saying, ‘By the way, we found a way to put Jessica into the story!’ ‘Oh God.’” Only about eight weeks along at that point, she spilled her secret and was thrilled when the producers didn’t balk at accommodating her—they made similar efforts during Danes’s pregnancy the previous season. “I can’t express how nice it is to be in a work environment where you are nurtured as a pregnant woman,” she says. “Everybody’s allowed me to have my space, do the work I need to do, but at the same time, they’re really taking care of me. And I’m sure I’m making a lot of people’s jobs harder, but nobody’s made me feel that way.”

If the producers were especially eager to hold on to both Baccarin and Jessica, it’s perhaps because they had such a hard time finding the right person to play the role. Another actress had initially been cast for the pilot, but “what we needed was somebody with a little bit more confidence, a little bit more sexuality, and a little bit more strength,” Gansa recalls. “We looked and looked, and we literally got down to the 11th hour and had not found anybody. It was kind of a terrifying time,” admits Gansa.

“Then, about three days before we were scheduled to reshoot all those scenes with Jessica, Morena came in the door and gave just a knockout audition,” he says. “There was something about her that was just so compelling, so we hired her, and she had a very difficult job: She had to come into a show that we’d already done and she had to fit in with a group, and she did it in just the most professional and joyful and confident way.”

“It was a very fortuitous time,” admits Baccarin, then just coming off two abbreviated seasons on ABC’s reboot series V, playing the outwardly charming and beautiful but inwardly cold and literally reptilian alien conqueror Anna—her second effective stint in sci-fi, having made her TV debut as the space-faring “comfort woman” Inara in Joss Whedon’s short-lived but beloved Firefly. “It was not a genre that I gravitated toward or tried to work in—it just happened by default, and to be honest, I didn’t get it at first,” she confesses, “and then the more I worked on it, I was like, ‘Wow, this is so imaginative, but at the same time dealing with real issues without beating it over the head.’”

Conversely, Homeland offered the kind of character she innately understood, and she jumped at the opportunity. “I just happened to have qualities that I infused this character with that they really responded to. They didn’t want her to be the victim—[Nicholas] Brody is the one you should sympathize with when he first returns—and that really stuck with me. She had to be stronger than him in many ways, and she couldn’t allow her emotions to get the best of her. I really grasped and held on to that, and every choice I made came from that position of strength.”

Gansa credits Baccarin’s interpretation as inspiring the writing team to plumb deeper emotional depths of the Brody family than they initially foresaw, and he savors a scene when Jessica admits to Brody that she was completely ill-equipped to handle their extreme circumstances.

“Morena just found that perfect sweet spot to play that tremendously,” says Gansa. “You empathize with her because she’s dealing with a situation that’s beyond her abilities.”

“Morena is an exceptionally grounded actor,” concurs Danes. “Her beauty is irrefutable, but it’s not something that she bothers to play into or against. She’s interested in understanding what’s essential to a scene and how best to enliven it.”

“She is very brave with her choices,” agrees her TV husband Lewis. “She never shies away from the more difficult emotional scenes.”

In fact, after playing a cold-hearted alien overlord, Baccarin embraced the emotional hurdles that the story threw in Jessica’s path—to a point. “It was just really cathartic and really nice to allow myself to go to those places,” she says. “And then it takes its toll. By the time the season is over, I can’t cry any more. Like, I just want to sit and watch comedies.”

Frequent nude scenes, with so much of the Brodys’ personal dramas playing out between bedroom sheets, were daunting. “I had my boundaries, and I had to have a conversation with myself about where I wanted to be true to the material and also to myself,” she admits. “There were things that I wouldn’t do and certain levels of nudity that I was not comfortable with, and I was really blunt with them about it. But the emotional vulnerability I thought was really important for this character to show, because she’s so strong in those vulnerable moments, like when Brody can’t be intimate with her, and it’s really devastating. I felt the nudity was appropriate, and it told a very sad story that I felt was necessary to understand the character.” Were there other, more camera-ready concerns? “Yes, I haven’t had a cheeseburger in… No, I’m kidding. I eat cheeseburgers all the time!”

That disregard for vanity likely springs from an acting education at Juilliard, as well as simple genetics: the daughter of Brazilian actress Vera Setta—whose family tradition in entertainment put “acting in her blood”—and news editor Fernando Baccarin—providing her an intellectual instinct to “dissect things and explore psychology.” Reared in Rio until first relocating to Queens, New York, at 7, then back to Brazil, then to Greenwich Village when she was 10, she suspects that her early outsider-ness also led her to where she is today.

“Being different is something that eventually helps you and singles you out,” she says. “I remember seeing a squirrel for the first time in school and not knowing how to say it in English, saying it in Portuguese, and everybody kind of looking at me really strangely. It rocks your world. Moving countries is a huge, traumatic experience, but at the same time it made me really adaptable and really fearless.” Despite her own expectations, she quickly surrendered to the allure of a life in the arts. “I thought I was going to be so different from my parents; I was going to be a scientist. And the minute I took my first acting class in high school I was like, ‘This is clearly what I’m going to do with my life.’”

As she entered the ever-hungry, ever-struggling actor workforce, Baccarin discovered her rigorous classical training was often at odds with her now much-extolled-upon beauty. “In the beginning, it was a hindrance,” she concedes. “I don’t look like a typical girl next door. It took Hollywood a little while to catch up to the times and how small the world is getting. I would really only go in for Latino roles in the beginning of my career, which was also something I didn’t really book because it’s not my forte. I was kind of caught in the middle, so it took a little while.” At first the slow start placed “a chip on my shoulder,” she admits, but “I’m grateful for my journey. I don’t run the risk of taking anything for granted.”

Indeed, Baccarin’s basking in her moment—and her maternal, nurturing side. She’s what Gansa calls “den mother” to the cast, who all reside in the same building in Charlotte, a sentiment Lewis seconds: “She looks after us useless boys,” he says. “She’s our Brazilian mama.” Danes concurs: “One of the great gifts of this show has been my friendship with Morena,” she says. “She will text me in the middle of the night to remind me to put my dishwasher on, so the dishes will be clean in the morning!” An avid amateur chef, Baccarin crafts a Brazilian seafood stew that Mandy Patinkin adores (“It’s his favorite thing I’ve ever made for him,” she says proudly); girl-bonds with Danes (“She’s my saving grace over there—it’s all mostly boys,” she sighs. “We do a lot of cooking and shopping for antiques”); and accepts a pleasant geographic perk of pregnancy. (“In Charlotte, they have this awesome parking space at the supermarket for expectant mothers,” she enthuses.)

And then there’s that juicy role on one of the biggest avoid-social-media-so-as-not-to-spoil-the-surprises shows of the moment. “You pinch yourself for a long time,” she says about the show’s success. “Every time our season comes out, I kind of feel like, ‘Okay–this is the one that everybody’s going to hate. This is where we go to, like, being the show that everybody doesn’t like…’ And then it doesn’t seem to happen.”

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