Morena Baccarin Morena Baccarin

If Homeland's Morena Baccarin were a lesser actress, Jessica — the betrayed wife of Al Qaeda operative-turned-double-agent Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) — would be a forgettable obstacle in the way of Brody's passionate bond with CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). But Baccarin plays what she calls her "incredibly emotionally layered character" with moving subtlety and fierceness. "She's got some brass knuckles this season," says Baccarin, 33, who also doesn't hold back when it comes to opening up. Here's what you need to know about her.

Showbiz is in her genes.
"My mother, Vera, is an actress who's done television, film and theater in Brazil. Her brother was an actor, my great-uncle is a well-known theater director and my father is a news editor for Brazilian TV. My first role was in a Nativity play. My mom was playing Mary, and I was crying backstage, so she brought me out as Baby Jesus."

She and costar Claire Danes go way back.
"When I was 7, we moved to New York because my dad's job was transferred. I grew up in the West Village and went to the New York City Lab School for junior high. Claire was there at the same time! We were somewhat friendly, so when Homeland came up, it was great."

Meryl Streep is a fan.
"I understudied Natalie Portman in a Shakespeare in the Park production of The Seagull [featuring] everybody on the planet. I went to a dress rehearsal and did scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep. I'll never forget Meryl holding my face between her hands when rehearsal was over and saying, 'You were amazing. The new joke around the set is going to be: Nobody get sick, because the understudy is great.' That made me feel so special. I look up to her to this day."

Natalie Wood was an early acting inspiration, but Jean Seberg inspired her trademark pixie hairstyle.
"When I first cut my hair short, I was trying for a mix of Mia Farrow and Jean Seberg. The photo I took to my hairdresser was Jean Seberg in Breathless. I said, 'Make me look like this.'"

She's enjoying her Homeland character more this season.
"I like the turn that Jessica is taking. She's stronger and she's really not standing back anymore and letting Brody do whatever he feels like doing."

Baccarin's sci-fi résumé is out of this world.
Her "first real break" came in Joss Whedon's Firefly, playing the courtesan Inara Serra. "It became a cult hit and made everyone in the cast sci-fi stars," she says. That was followed by a gig as Adria, a superpowered bad girl on Stargate SG-1, the voice of Black Canary on the animated Justice League and, finally, Anna, the ruthless alien leader on ABC's short-lived thriller V. "I couldn't pass that up," says Baccarin. "Anna was such a fantastic character."

Being a sci-fi goddess has its drawbacks.
"It's a little daunting. One time, a fan asked me to ask his girlfriend to marry him — at a convention's autograph table! I said, 'Why don't I write it on the photo and you give it to her? It's a little weird for me to ask.' I felt strange being a part of that relationship."

She played a male-to-female transsexual named Carmen in a TV show, but we never saw it!
"I was in the original pilot of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia because [exec producer and star] Glenn Howerton is a good friend from college. It was fun and we went crazy with it. The biggest research was what to put in my pants to make it look real. After the show got officially picked up, I was working on another project and couldn't do it, which made me very sad."

Timing was also the reason she hasn't yet worked with her husband, director/screenwriter Austin Chick (August).
"We got married in November [2011]. We were friends a really, really long time before we started dating. He wrote a small role for me in one of his films, but I couldn't do it because I was working at the time. I'm sure we'll find something to do together at some point."

Mad Men's Jessica Paré is her tenant.
"I own a duplex in Los Angeles. When it was up for rent, I asked around and Jessica was looking for a place and we became friends. She's moving out shortly, but she's been great."

Baccarin is Homeland's top chef!
"I'm an avid cook. Brazilian, some Italian, a little French. And I often throw dinner parties. I make this Brazilian fish stew that has become popular around the set. Mandy [Patinkin] went crazy for it, then Claire, then everybody! But it's not my favorite. I like to make a very slow-cooked braised beef shank, because you just throw it in a pot with a bottle of wine and some garlic and you let it cook for eight hours. You don't have to do any of the work!"

Homeland airs Sundays at 10/9c on Showtime.

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!