This story originally appeared in our March 2013 issue.
The face—knitted brow, scrunched nose, curled lip, eye roll at the ready—is familiar to anyone who’s ever been, or been in the orbit of, a teenager. With elegant simplicity, it says one thing: You suck. Morgan Saylor is a pro at making the face. Millions have seen her do it.
Saylor plays surly teenager Dana Brody on Showtime’s addictive drama Homeland, where the face appears so often it’s been immortalized on websites, Tumblrs, and dedicated Twitter feeds. It’s become such a part of the pop culture consciousness that it was even spoofed on Saturday Night Live.
But tonight, as Saylor squeezes into a booth with her four best friends at Fellini’s Pizza in Decatur, there is no sign of the face. She folds a napkin into an origami bird with what they playfully call her E.T. fingers, long and knobby from years of competitive rock climbing, and they chat about class color day, egging cars, spring break at Grayton Beach, and who will take Saylor to the prom.
“She dances like this,” jokes Saylor’s friend, Rhiannon Stone-Miller, jumping out of her seat to demonstrate. She looks like a chicken with some ballet training.
“I do not!” Saylor giggles. “I danced at the after-party for the Golden Globes.”
Yes, Saylor was there just four nights ago, in a spangly gold gown with a plunging neckline, standing center stage with Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin, Mandy Patinkin, and her other costars from Homeland to accept the award for best TV drama.
Sure, we may enjoy the baroque melodrama of Downton Abbey, or the stylized cool of Mad Men, or the bleak morality play that is Breaking Bad, but it is Homeland that feels unnervingly topical. Heck, even President Obama makes it a point to watch. The show centers around Nicholas Brody (Lewis), a Marine sergeant who, after eight years as the prisoner of an Islamic terrorist, returns home to his family a damaged and different man. Self-serving politicians try to exploit him for their own gain, but Brody harbors a secret: His years in captivity turned him to the terrorists’ cause. In the first season finale, it was a phone call from Brody’s daughter, played by Saylor, that kept her father from detonating a bomb that would have killed him, the vice president, and much of the president’s cabinet. Meanwhile the only person who suspects Brody’s true motives is CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Danes), who has fallen in love with him. Homeland is a complicated show about a simple thing: trust, both in people and in institutions. And what happens when that trust evaporates.
For Saylor, whose character is in many ways Homeland’s idealistic heart, the show’s breakaway success has meant living two lives in almost equal measure: that of a regular Decatur teen, and that of a television star. Successfully straddling these disparate worlds is no small feat. She’s been known to drive four hours to the Homeland set in Charlotte to shoot a scene, then drive back to Decatur for a friend’s birthday party. Saylor shifts from playing a grumpy teenager on television to being a lighter, happier one in real life, and goes back and forth, again and again.
Sometimes one of her two lives gets short shrift. By living in Decatur instead of Los Angeles or New York, she’s at a disadvantage for new roles, auditioning by tape instead of meeting a casting director face-to-face. And when she’s at work, she misses out on pivotal teenage moments back home, like the time her friends got not one but five snow days during the “Atlanta Snowpocalypse” of 2011. Shooting the pilot for Homeland, Saylor watched as her Facebook feed filled with updates about her friends’ fun in the snow.
“I was devastated to miss it,” Saylor says. “I mean, I have two great choices. I love Homeland, and I love Atlanta. But still there is a feeling of missing things.”
Right now, in this booth at Fellini’s, Saylor is fully inhabiting her role as a real-life teenager. Someone suggests a game called “Who Knows Morgan Best?”
“Ooh, this is fun!” Saylor says.
The competition is stiff. Sophie Maschinot has known Saylor since fourth grade, and the others—Stone-Miller, John Speed, and Luke Wertz—have been her friends since ninth grade. They toss out some random bits of trivia about Saylor: She won’t eat pork because she had a pet pig named Olivia, her favorite food is pasta with salt and lemon (preferably in Italy), she has worn fake eyelashes, she doesn’t sleep late, and she loves Simon & Garfunkel. Now they’re ready to do battle.
1) Where was Morgan Saylor born?
They all get the right answer: Chicago, though she moved to Villa Rica when she was two years old and to Decatur when she was ten. During the summers she tried playing soccer but wasn’t any good, so she signed up for acting camps run by the Department of Recreation.