Homeland star Linus Roache decodes the complexities of David Wellington

Linus Roache is no stranger to complex characters, but his current role in Homeland is the TV equivalent of a high-wire act. Roache stars in the Showtime drama playing David Wellington, the White House Chief of Staff who’s now on his third President and despite his brilliance, is fast running out of options.

David is dealing with a bullish, narrow-minded chief executive (played by True Blood‘s Sam Trammell) and now a potential rival in the form of political operative John Zabel (Hannibal‘s Hugh Dancy). There’s no love lost in the White House at the moment, and Homeland season 8 is also the final season, so could this be when David Wellington’s luck finally runs out? And how did one of the greatest actors of our generation sink his teeth into a role that’s gone from potential villain to unlikely hero?

It started with being a fan of the series. “At the time, it was the only show that I was watching in real time,” Linus explained when we connected for our latest interview. “I remember I was waiting for the Sunday night episode to come out and that was in season 6…and I got a call on Monday saying, do you want to start on Wednesday? I said, what? What are you talking about? I was very excited.

“And then I had to get on the phone with Alex Gansa, the showrunner and [co-]creator, and try and get a sense of where was this going to go. Because Homeland, they have some sense of direction, but they’re open to change all the way along the road. So you could sign up and only end up in two episodes. And so I had a good chat with Alex, and he basically told me what his intentions were. He couldn’t promise anything and I had to trust in the process. And I loved the show so much I thought, what the hell, I’m in.

“Next thing I knew, there I was on Wednesday in the Oval Office, talking to Claire [Danes], saying this is really weird, because I’m a big fan and now I’ve got to be a hard-nosed politician to you.”

After an intriguing introduction, Linus spent Homeland season 7 playing Wellington as someone we weren’t sure if we should love or hate. For a fair portion of the season, David was a challenging character and a potential suspect – then it turned out he didn’t know he was caught up with a Russian agent and he was fighting tooth and nail to keep Elizabeth Keane’s (Elizabeth Marvel) administration together.

It was a remarkable 180 for the character from an actor who’s very good at keeping an audience on their toes; he’s played both some incredibly heroic characters and some incredible antagonists, and so he pulled Wellington all the way through that spectrum. He developed him from someone who couldn’t be trusted to someone who was needed, and when the dust settled, Linus expected that would be the end of the story.

“Season 7, I thought, was an incredible season. Everybody was very much writing to the political climate that we were in after Trump got elected, and so there was a strong political story going on,” he recalled. “And I left at the end of seven.

“I said goodbye and thought well, that’s it, because the story ran its course. Keane resigned and Wellington wouldn’t have a job. But then about four or five months later, Alex called up and said, how do you feel about coming back? We think there’s a place for Wellington. I said well, I trust you now, I’ll come back.”

Now in Homeland season 8, David Wellington appears to be psuedo-immortal. As new President Benjamin Hayes (Sam Trammell) pointed out in last week’s episode, David is now on his third administration. He’s a survivor, and yet you get the sense from Linus’s performance that he doesn’t want to be. Rather than enjoying his success, as many other political characters would, Wellington’s longevity is a massive weight on his shoulders, growing as his position gets more and more precarious.

So why is he still serving at the pleasure of the President? Why didn’t he leave as soon as Keane resigned?

Linus Roache as David Wellington in HOMELAND, “Two Minutes”. Photo Credit: Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME.

“I think the truest answer is that he actually does care,” Linus theorized. “I think he actually saw it as part of a responsibility to hand over to [President] Warner and make sure that there was a smooth transition. And I sort of gave my own backstory that Keane would have asked [Wellington] to do that.

“And then, before you know it, we are where we are now and it’s all happening really quickly. What we’re watching now is happening within a matter of days. So there’s no time to get rid of him.”

Why would anyone want to, really? For all of his foibles, whatever you may think of him, Wellington is a character who provokes reaction. And much of that comes from the actor who plays him. Linus’s addition to Homeland introduced a different energy to the political machinations of the series; watching him act is like watching a grandmaster play chess. You can see that the wheels in his head are always turning, and that the moves he makes are deliberate. He doesn’t do anything forgettable.

That degree of thought, of strategy, is perfect for a political character. The entire point of someone like David Wellington is that they have to think ahead, whether it’s because they are dealing with global events or because they’re trying to save their own skin. That’s why many of the portrayals we’ve seen come across as disingenuous; they’re not always developed beyond that instinct for gamesmanship and/or self-preservation. What’s set Wellington apart is that Linus Roache isn’t only an incredibly smart actor, but he’s also willing to be vulnerable.

So as Homeland season 7 turned into Homeland season 8, he pulled the thread and we’ve gotten to see Wellington as a human being, not just the White House Chief of Staff. With each of the Presidents that David has worked for, Linus has shown something different in the way he interacts with them. How have Marvel, Beau Bridges and now Trammell influenced his work?

“They’re all great actors. I think it’s been fascinating,” he said. “I’ve worked with Beth a few times before, so it was wonderful for us to have that whole season to develop that relationship. And it was kind of heartbreaking to say goodbye to it, actually. [There were] tears in my eyes at the end when she left. I didn’t have too much to do with Beau, but there was a relationship of mutual respect there between the characters. And then with Sam now, it’s a really fun ride. It’s really interesting. It’s a very edgy situation.”

Wellington is certainly walking a razor’s edge going into tonight’s eighth episode of the season. Hayes doesn’t trust him (previously making it clear that he expects Wellington’s loyalty), Zabel is moving in on his territory, and David is doing his damnedest to help Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and company without getting himself fired or worse.

After he’s devoted so much time to the cause of others, is there anyone he can turn to now that he needs help? Or will he have to rely on his own wiles to get him out from between the rock and the hard place? That’s the million-dollar question. He could wind up being the sacrificial lamb by the time Homeland ends, simply for trying to follow his conscience.

“That’s why I really was excited to do this story with Alex,” Linus told me. “I imagined how would it be if you were in the Trump administration, and you didn’t believe in all the policies and all the things he was doing, but you cared about the country and you cared about the future? And you actually were trying to sort of work things from the inside. That became a really interesting challenge.

“His resources are growing thin. There’s very few people to go to. So we’re going to see. I’m not going to give too much away, but he might have to take a few things in his own hands.”

One aspect of Homeland that’s been a departure for Linus Roache is that Wellington has to be passive sometimes, particularly now, because there’s his career and a whole lot more at stake. Whether it was playing the hard-charging Michael Cutter in Law & Order or the ruthless King Ecbert of Wessex in Vikings, he’s usually been in a more proactive position, and so those quieter moments have been the most difficult scenes.

“To be honest, it’s often the ones where I have to bite my lip. It’s hard to sort of play… There’s a line you can’t cross because, if you go over that line, that president is so volatile, that might be the end. So those are the toughest scenes,” he related. “I think the scenes where I actually get to confront something, really have a point of view and share it and come out with it, [those were] kind of easier. It was a lot of the lip-biting stuff that was the challenge.”

With only five episodes left, audiences will have to wait and see if David Wellington makes it out of Homeland with a career – or his freedom. But one thing we’re not likely to learn more about is his personal life. While it was a talking point last season, it’s been subjugated this season for more important issues. However, Linus has his own idea of David’s interior life, and it’s one that makes his character that much more human and that much more compelling.

“I talked with Alex [and] there was a sort of sketch of him, that they might have been, Keane and him, been friends years ago. He could have had a political career, but he went off and was pretty successful in business and maybe in some sort of legal capacity,” he explained. “Then when she decided to run [for President], there was this sense that she called on him to run her campaign. His deal was I’m going to just get you in, but I’m not going to be part of the administration because it’s not for me.

“And then when she wins, obviously he does leave. But then what happened at the end of season 6 is that that bomb went off and her administration was completely devastated,” he continued. “She just calls him and he’s a friend and he responds, so suddenly he’s in by default…He’s not your typical politician. I kind of like to think of him as being a little bit outside of the box.”

Therein lies the beauty of Linus Roache playing David Wellington. Homeland gave us a character who could have been another scheming political figure with a single-minded approach and no real humanity. But the show cast an incredible actor who’s always outside of the box. He’s always able to find that one thing that breaks the mold. That one aspect that adds another layer, or makes you second-guess.

And so, in a season and a half, our opinion of Wellington has completely transformed. He’s gone from just the President’s attack dog to someone incredibly selfless, who has continually sacrificed whether it’s for a friend or the greater good of the nation or just what’s morally right, and now we’re seeing it wear on him. Now we’re having to ask, how much more can he give before he breaks? He has come so incredibly far, and that’s owing to Linus Roache, and the way he’s taken another character and made them into someone so much greater than we’d ever expect them to be.

Homeland airs Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.

Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.

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