Homeland's Elizabeth Marvel Shows Us What A Female President Would've Been Like

Photo: Stefano Ortega.
Elizabeth Marvel is Hollywood's vision of a woman with political power. As Heather Dunbar in Netflix’s political drama House of Cards, Marvel played a rising political star whose goal is to unseat no-good, ethically challenged president Frank Underwood and assume the role of commander in chief herself. Now, she’s back with another political series, this time as the strong-willed but graceful-under-pressure President Elizabeth Keane on the new season of Homeland. Clearly casting directors and fans alike have come to see Marvel as the epitome of an iron-willed woman in Washington.

Marvel, however, isn't just a change-maker on-screen. She talked to R29 more about what to expect from President Keane, the cultural significance of female politicians on TV, and what she's been up to post-election.

You’ve played a woman running for president, and now you play an actual president. What do you think you convey that gets you cast for this kind of role?
"As I get older...I'm more comfortable with the fact that I’ve always been a very strong woman. I think I have a certain sort of gravitas about me that lends itself to playing women who are often the smartest people in the room. It’s interesting, because when I was a younger I was always just trying to play people on the outer limits of the emotional realm or in extreme situations, and now I play people with real dignity and discipline. So it’s been a very interesting journey for me creatively."

From the first episode, President Keane seems like a badass. Can you tell us what more we can expect from her this season? How did you prepare to play her?
"President Elizabeth Keane is definitely a maverick. The way they've written her...I don’t think it was gender-based. I think the main interest was a political figure who was brave, but also someone who has dignity and discipline. So I researched Shirley Chisholm a lot for the body language, then I referenced George W. Bush because this is a woman who's always on her feet — she never sits down, she’s always in motion and has a lot of energy. I read a fair amount about FDR because of his charm offensive, and I did the most reading on Bobby Kennedy, because of his spontaneous ability with language."

What about Hillary Clinton?
"Of course most of us will reference her because she's been the most recent, closest example, and I've got great respect for Hillary and what she's achieved in these arenas...but I did not base my research on her. I wanted to look to people with, metaphorically speaking, very big balls, to create a character who's very bold but also an FDR sensibility. So I studied a lot of Shirley Chisholm, Bobby Kennedy, and a little George W. Those were the three people I used to form this political animal.”

In House of Cards, you played Heather Dunbar, a presidential candidate. How was that different than playing Elizabeth, an actual President, and what did you bring to both as an actress?
“Well, the most obvious is that Elizabeth Keane won the actual presidency! So they’re different stories, because when we meet Elizabeth, she’s the winner, she’s not fighting. That is a completely different energy. Heather Dunbar was in the pit, she was in the fight, going through the meat grinder. We’re meeting Elizabeth Keane post-meat grinder...she survived it the fight. But also, Heather Dunbar was very righteous; she was not as willing and as adept to maneuver as Elizabeth Keane is. To be the leader of the free world, I personally think you must have great resources and discipline. Also, Elizabeth has a very sharp wit, she’s very funny...with Heather Dunbar on House of Cards, I didn’t get to crack too many jokes. She was a serious lady!”

Outside of acting, you're also an activist and were a Hillary supporter; I saw that you took part in a pantsuit protest in New York in December. Can you tell us a little about that?
“We basically reenacted a performance art piece that Yoko Ono had done in the '70s where she wore an article of clothing that was of great personal value to her, and she had a pair of scissors next to her and silently sat there while allowing people to approach her and cut a piece of the clothing and keep it as an offering. It was a group of us from all different backgrounds, but there were a few performance artists, a few actors, a few painters, I think we had 12 of us. We all wore pantsuits that were symbolic of Hillary’s experience. We stood in Madison Square Park and each had a pair of scissors and offered them to passersby to cut a piece of our pantsuits. It was unbelievably, cold but we stood for an hour-and-a half and it was so silent and intense, almost spiritual, but also very moving and heartbreaking as strong women who were standing there in strength and solidarity and having our clothing slowly cut off...I think the people who witnessed it were affected by it.”

You're a political activist off screen, and a politician on screen. What does the future of our country look like to you in the next four years?
“I have great hope. I feel like so many people are activated and engaged right now. I have a 10-year-old son, and he’s smart as a whip. He’s in fifth grade and he’s been studying the suffragette movement, he just finished Howard Zinn’s book, he was reading all about Shirley Chisholm and the other day he was like, ‘Mom I learned something. Shirley said if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.’ It’s so magnificent and it’s so beautiful. So the conversation I’m hearing is very exciting to me, because I do see a lot of people of all ages engaging on a new and deeper level, and that makes me feel very hopeful and very inspired.”

You've played a woman in a variety of powerful roles in Washington. What kind of impact do you hope that will have on viewers watching these shows?
“I have to say I am always very excited about the opportunity to represent strong, intelligent women. Not, you know, just victims, or someone's girlfriend, but independent women who are in control of their destinies. I think if you see it, you can be it, so having young women seeing this modeled on TV is a very, very positive thing that I’m proud to be a part of. It’s not every day that as an actor you get to stand up and feel proud of the message you're sending. It’s a slippery slope sometimes in entertainment, but in this moment in time that we've found ourselves in, I am proud to be sending the message that a female president can happen.”