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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

In song or onscreen, Mandy Patinkin gives it his all

“I choose material that tells stories. It’s the stories I’m most  interested in discovering,” said Mandy Patinkin.

Darrell Hoemann

“I choose material that tells stories. It’s the stories I’m most interested in discovering,” said Mandy Patinkin.

Believe it or not, Mandy Patinkin doesn’t think he’s all that intense.

“I don’t feel intense,’’ Patinkin insists in a telephone interview. “I feel as lost as the next guy, as vulnerable or frightened as the next guy. I can have fun like the next guy.’’ He admits, though, that when he and his wife happened to catch a rerun of his appearance on Charlie Rose’s interview program, he turned to her and asked: “Am I always that intense?’’ She said yes.

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“I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrifying. I find that guy terrifying,’ ” Patinkin says with a laugh. “I switched the channel as fast as I could.’’

The truth, though, is that TV viewers often have a hard time changing the channel when Patinkin is onscreen. The guy just compels your attention; if he were an athlete, you’d say he leaves it all on the field. Currently starring in Showtime’s “Homeland’’ as Saul Berenson, the bearded mentor to CIA operative Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes), Patinkin has also turned in memorable stints on TV dramas like “Criminal Minds’’ and “Chicago Hope’’ and in movies like “Yentl’’ and “The Princess Bride.’’

In his other life, of course, he is a celebrated singer and Broadway performer, and it is that Mandy Patinkin who will appear Wednesday night at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton for a sold-out show dubbed “Mandy Patinkin: Dress Casual With Paul Ford on Piano.’’

Patinkin will perform a 50-minute concert followed by an onstage conversation between him and Robert Brustein, the founder of Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theater. They will then take questions from the audience. The evening is part of the Jonathan Samen Hot Buttons, Cool Conversations Discussion Series, run by the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston.

In the Globe interview, Patinkin talked about how he copes with fear, his enduring friendship with “Evita’’ costar Patti LuPone, his admiration for Stephen Sondheim, and why little kids refuse to believe he’s the swashbuckling Spanish swordsman from “The Princess Bride’’ who said (and said, and said) the immortal words: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’’

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Q. In your interpretations, is your goal to peel back a layer of even the most well-known song, like “Over the Rainbow’’?

A. My only goal is to connect with the audience and to connect with the material. I choose material that tells stories. It’s the stories I’m most interested in discovering. I sometimes think some of these songs are stories on their own. Other times I take several songs and link them to create a little tale that I want to tell, whether it’s about family or meeting a woman or the economy or the evolution of a relationship or about America. That is where my fun has come in over the years, finding different ways to be the mailman for these gifted writers — in some cases geniuses — who wrote down their wishes for the world and left them for us.

Q. Do you feel that a certain amount of sheer daring is a key attribute for an artist? Has that entered into your career choices?

A. My age has just given me the courage to do and say whatever I need to do and say. Early on I was driven a great deal by fear. And I finally came to the realization that I’m never going to outrun it. It’s always going to be way faster than me. I might as well learn to live with it, let it sit on my shoulder, put it in the front of an audience, wait until it bores me to death. To hell with the fear. I’ve learned to welcome the fear, and anytime I have one of those fearful episodes I take it as going to the emotional gym. Just get up and have a good day, because you only get so many of them.

Q. You’re performing on April 30 at a Jewish community center in Newton. I read somewhere that you launched your career playing Billy Bigelow in a teenage production of “Carousel’’ at a Jewish community center in Chicago?

A. When I was 13 or 14, this wonderful drama coach, he cast me as Billy Bigelow. He sat us in a semicircle and asked us what it was about. We said: “A guy who makes mistakes and goes to heaven.’’ He said to us, “I also think it’s about: If you love someone, tell them.’’ I grew up on the south side of Chicago and went to synagogue every week, but I’d never heard anything quite that simple. It sort of hit a nerve in me. I thought, if this stuff called musical theater talks about things like that, I’m going to hang out and see what else there is. And then I spent my life sort of doing it by accident.

Q. Speaking of musical theater, you’ve maintained a very close bond with Patti LuPone for a very long time.

A. It was birthed when we were doing “Evita.’’ We were kids; we were both scared. She was maybe a little more scared. I walked into her dressing room one night and her mascara was dripping down her cheek and she looked at me with these watery eyes. I closed the door behind us, and I held her in my arms and I said: “I’m not leaving this room until you know that I’m your friend.’’ We’ve held onto each other since that day, through the rest of our lives.

Q. You’ve performed other shows with her, including “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin’’ on Broadway. What’s the basis for the professional partnership: that you challenge each other onstage and keep each other fresh, or that your styles simply mesh and support each other?

A. I look at her face and I’m 30 years younger instantly. She’s also one of the best in the world who’s ever done this. When I’m up there with her, I look at her and I say to myself, while I’m singing with her: “Mandy, are you paying attention to where you are and who you’re with? Are you paying attention?’’ It’s like being in heaven. It’s something quite magical. The light glows around her.

Q. You’re considered one of the definitive interpreters of Sondheim, having put your stamp on one of his greatest works, “Sunday in the Park with George,’’ with your portrayal of Georges Seurat. What is about Sondheim’s work that speaks to you, that makes you want to tackle it?

A. I don’t say this lightly: I truly believe he’s the Shakespeare of our time. Our connection is the fact that we both struggle with the dark side of life. What Sondheim does, I believe, is he turns darkness into light. If I could write, I’d write every word he wrote. His words are my Torah; they are my scripture. I’m talking about how to shut up and have a good time, how to play with your loved ones, how to help the world, how to be alive. I don’t know who I’d be without him.

Q. When you’re initially cast in a role like Saul Berenson on “Homeland,’’ do you mentally assemble his back story so you’ll understand his motivations for doing what he does?

A. Yes, I do. I do it with every song I sing. I do it with every play I do. I always write my own play underneath everything I do. The fun for me comes in searching my own head for stories or material that is close enough to marry what the writers have written. I look for incidents in my experience or my imaginative life that match. I relate everything to things I know in life.

Q. OK, I have to ask: Do you have kids coming up to you in airports and asking you to recite Inigo Montoya’s famous line from “The Princess Bride’’?

A. It’s not only kids. It’s everybody. Not a day of my life goes by that I don’t get asked to say that. Over time he became this cult figure. The parents will say to the kids: “Do you know who that is?’’ And the kids will say: “You’re crazy. That guy’s got a bald spot.’’ I’ll walk up to that kid and get down on my knees and whisper the line into the kid’s ear. I figure the audio experience will have more believability.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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