While Sendhil Ramamurthy may be best known for playing Mohinder Suresh on Heroes, his time on Covert Affairs [USA Network, Tuesdays, 10/9C] – as Jai Wilcox – is certainly allowing him to stretch in other directions – and winning him new fans.
Last week, I had the opportunity to take part in a conference call Q&A with the charming Mr. Ramamurthy – where he explained why Jai hasn’t been as prominent in the first part of the show’s second season, and teased how that arc was going to pay off over the season’s last three episodes – which begin this week.
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Sendhil Ramamurthy: I did get a promotion. I weaseled my way into a promotion.
You have your own office and everything.
Ramamurthy: Yes, a nice office. Let me tell you. It’s – so it’s a very nice office. I’m – it’s nice to be in it. It’s the hottest set that we have. Like I don’t know if the air conditioning just doesn’t work there or I don’t know about that. I’m writing letters to people about the air conditioning situation in my office.
They couldn’t make you too comfortable.
Ramamurthy: Exactly. Right. Heaven forbid.
So my question is how are you going to fit back into the storyline because you kind of just randomly appeared so far in episodes. And you have moments where you’re kind of arguing with Jill but other than that, we don’t see you.
Ramamurthy: Yes. It’s interesting. Trust me, I had that question too. Well, you know, there’s basically the office of special projects that Jai is now heading up is tasked with different, you know, has different tasks that it has to perform and he answers to everybody’s boss; even to Arthur’s boss. He answers to the DCI.
And as we’ll see in coming episodes, the – what the job entails, what that office, what the specifics of that office are, they’re not that specific and Jai finds that out very quickly.
Ramamurthy: Like he’s not quite sure what he’s supposed to be doing and then Henry Wilcox actually will figure into informing him about what this is and kind of point him in a direction that – or put him on a path that he kind of goes on which all comes to a head in the finale; actually in the final episode; you know, the season where you’ll kind of see what the office of special projects is and then what Jai is going to do about that without wanting to give too much away. I know that was pretty broad.
It was very broad. Does Henry volunteer this information or does Jai have to go and kind of question him about it? Henry seems to give information when he feels like it.
Ramamurthy: Well, yeah, you know. You know what their relationship is like. You know Henry – I mean they don’t have the greatest relationship so it kind of comes out in a typical Henry, Jai Wilcox – in typical Henry, Jai Wilcox fashion, you know. It’s – there’s usually moments of contention between these two and that’s kind of where we – where a lot of the information that Jai gets from Henry come out of the situations and we have plenty of them coming up.
All right. Sounds good because I’ve been missing you on the show. You just – you appear for a moment and then you go away.
Ramamurthy: Yes, I know. It’s coming. It’s coming. I think that next season kind of – what they have planned is to kind of bring Jai more into, you know, more into the fold with, you know, with Annie because this season Jai was very much kind of on his own show a little bit.
You know, kind of exploring, you know, other avenues and I think that the plan for next season – the writers went back last Monday. They went back into the writer’s room last Monday. I think that’s what the plan is for the next season is to kind of bring him more into Annie’s world now. So and again the finale, especially Jai’s final scene, really kind of sets the tone for where he’s going to be headed for season three.
All right. Sounds good. I hope you get air conditioning soon. That does not sound enjoyable.
Ramamurthy: No. I tell you, it’s not. I’m sweating under those suits so we’re going to sort that out real quick, let me tell you.
Do you find that you’re pretty in sync with Jai? You know, that you can tell where his head’s at or what’s going to happen with him because you know there are some definitely major things going on and do they come as a surprise to you or do you find them in correlation with your mindset for Jai.
Ramamurthy: No. They’re not in correlation. They’re – I’m completely surprised by everything really. I didn’t see anything that was – that was – that has come so far or that is coming up in future episodes. Like I couldn’t have thought of them which I suppose is why I’m not a writer, you know. I – no. I’m, you know, I always think okay. So now he’s going to do this and, you know, and then it goes, you know, the opposite way of what I’m thinking.
So you know it keeps me on my toes really. And, you know, I put the work into kind of try and make it all make sense to me. You know, you kind of have to go back and, you know, I find it actually helpful to go back and watch previous episodes to kind of help me and to plot his journey because it is quite extreme at certain points.
You know, he does extreme things; like what happened in the premier of this little – I don’t even know what we’re calling it. Is it the fall season? The season 2.5 as we call it on set. I don’t know what everybody else is calling it but we call it season 2.5.
And, you know, that – I never – I didn’t see that coming at all, you know. That was the last thing was, you know, him kind of you know using very Henry Wilcox like methods to kind of get what he wants but, you know, he was pushed up against a corner.
So I think that you know that’s kind of where Jai operates out of a lot of the time is he – or so far anyway, is he kind of exhausts avenues that are, you know, “the right way to go about things.” You know, he goes through the proper channels and if all of that fails, then he kind of has to, you know, go to his plan B or his plan C and what I’m curious to see is, you know, does that keep up?
Because, you know, the CIA, it’s all about hierarchy and, you know, following the rules a lot or at least the way Jai sees it or saw it. Is he going to continue on like that or is he just going to, you know, be like a rogue guy like, you know, like a Ben Mercer type guy. You know, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that.
Great. And you know going into the third season and knowing what you know and what we’ll know soon enough, if you could give Jai a piece of advice, what would it be?
Ramamurthy: If I could give Jai a piece of advice it would be – wow. That’s just – that’s actually a really great question. If I could give Jai a piece of advice it would be to maybe trust people a little bit more.
I think that because of the way that he has been treated within the CIA and because of whose son he is and the reputation of his father, I think he at first he kind of came in really game and he got – I think, you know, over the course of these two seasons, he’s become slightly jaded and I’d like to see him, you know, back to being able to trust certain people.
You know, I think that he does still intrinsically trust Annie. I think that there’s a possibility and I’m watching to see some more interactions between Jai and Auggie in the next episode.
But I think that, you know, not everybody – the sentiment that everybody is against Jai, while a lot of the time that seems to be true, I’d like to see if that’s something that he can work around and kind of be able to trust people and to have people trust him because it’s not really – you can’t do things on your own in an organization as big as the CIA. And, at some point, Jai is going to have to learn that. He’s going to have to know that he can’t just, you know, kind of use people to get what he wants all the time.
And, you know, that’s what I’d like him to – that’s where I’d like him to go. That’s what I’d like him to learn and, you know, we’ll see if that happens.
I just have – my question would be there was a lot of hoopla over – in the Twitter world when you went shortlist and, you know, Gorham was going in on it too and I was just wondering, do you like to do those kind of scenes and do you go to the gym and work out or do you just kind of prepare yourself when that scene’s going to be coming around?
Ramamurthy: You know, do I like doing those scenes? First of all, to the first part of your question is no. I don’t. I don’t think any of us like doing those scenes because it’s hard work but, you know, having said that, I’ve always been a really athletic guy. You know, I was competitive tennis player and I’ve always – I don’t really – I don’t lift weights. I don’t go in and do weights in the gym but I do a lot of Pilates and stuff like that and yoga and I play a lot of tennis.
Like any chance – I travel everywhere with my tennis rackets and any chance I get I get onto the tennis court. So I’ve always been a very active person but I certainly – put it this way, I wasn’t there requesting to have a scene where I take my shirt off that’s for sure.
Can I ask also now that you’ll be on a hiatus from the show will you be working on any other projects?
Ramamurthy: I am actually trying to – I’m helping to produce a movie that we’re hoping to shoot in February. I’m actually in Los Angeles right now trying – working on it. I’m working on the script with the writer/director and we are hoping to start shooting right before actually we go back to work on Covert Affairs to shoot the movie for a month in Los Angeles in February so we’ll see.
We still need a little bit more money. We still need to raise a little bit more money. That’s kind of what I’m spending my hiatus on is begging venture capitalist for money and trying to get this thing done so that’s pretty much what I’m doing over this hiatus. .
I was wondering… since Jai has now shown himself to be at least as capable as his dad at the sneaking and conniving, I’m just wondering if that’s going to be something that he uses more frequently or will his use of subterfuge kind of be a last resort in situations where he just doesn’t have any other option.
Ramamurthy: That’s a good question. It’s a question that I don’t know the answer to but I can tell you what I’d like to see. What I would like to see is that he varies it up otherwise he just becomes the sneaky subterfuge guy, you know. And he just becomes his father.
And I’d like to see Jai be more, you know, evolved really. It’s the CIA at the end of the day. Like you are going to have to use subterfuge at some point. Even – I’m talking even within the walls of the CIA just politically in any organization; whether it’s the CIA or anywhere else.
You know, you will have to use that a little bit. So I hope, you know, I like it when Jai is kind of – when he is forced to use those kinds of things but I don’t want it to be his go to. Like the – like his first port of call to be sneaky and sub – you know, kind of devious and underhanded. I don’t want him to be that because then he turns in – then he just becomes Henry. Then he becomes his father.
And I don’t think that will happen just because I think that that’s actually Jai’s greatest fear is becoming his – his greatest fears are failure and becoming his father. You know, those are two things that drive him to excel and, you know, in mind and try and, you know, to try and be the best he can be and get to the strongest position that he can be within the CIA.
You know, I don’t – you know, Jai’s not the kind of person who’s – he’s never going to go against the CIA or his colleagues or anything like that. I think that he just honestly feels that he’s being – his talents aren’t being utilized at the CIA and he feels honestly that he can do these jobs better than some people and that’s why he goes after it.
That’s always kind of the approach and the position that I’ve seen him in. You know, I don’t look at him as this bad person; as this, you know, evil person. I see that everything that he does he will actually – we have a – there’s a great scene that’s coming up where he kind of explains what he wants this new position to be.
And what he – what his goals and aspiration for the office of special projects is and what his role as the director is. And it’s actually, you know, quite an unlikely person and it was a lot of fun shooting that scene. It’s in the next episode.
And he kind of explains it and you see that, you know, he actually just really does have a passion for what he’s doing and he has definite goals and ideas of what his position and what this office should be within the CIA and what he’s capable of but there are obstacles. There are roadblocks and he has to try and figure them all out.
Excellent. Also I was just wondering, now that he has through his use of subterfuge gotten some respect from Henry, how will that effect his mostly adversarial relationship with his father?
Ramamurthy: You know, that’s a great question and it is explored thoroughly in these next three episodes. Greg Itzin and I had a really great time when he came up. He’s just – he’s so much fun to work with and he’s so detailed.
Like I learn a lot when I work with him. And, you know, we go through all the scenes beforehand. Like we always meet for dinner when he comes into town. When he flies up to Toronto, we meet up usually the night before – maybe two nights before we shoot our scenes and we go through them all and we just talk through them all.
And, you know, the relationship is an adversarial relationship. They don’t have this lovey dovey father-son relationship and I would kind of be surprised if it ever becomes like that. I mean you never know but I would be surprised if, you know, I think that so much damage has been done just like during his childhood and, you know, I’m still very curious to see what happened with Jai’s mom and, you know, how that all played out between Henry and the mom and Jai. And, you know, I think that a lot of – there’s a lot of baggage there and I think there’s a lot of hurt there on Jai’s part.
And you know I don’t know that it’s going to be – ever going to be a lovey dovey relationship but they have a relationship that they need each other certainly at this point in the story that we’re telling.
And it’s – it kind of comes to a head actually in the finale and ends again in a place that I never thought that we would go. Like I didn’t really even see that avenue which is why it’s a good thing I guess I’m not a writer.
For the rest of the season I want to find out what lengths will Jai go to in order to make his own name?
Ramamurthy: Well, you know, Jai isn’t pleased with what’s been happening. You know, he’s being blatantly overlooked and set aside by Joan and by Arthur and he, you know, feels that it’s really not for the right reasons because it’s not like he’s screwed up or it’s not like he’s doing his job poorly.
A lot of the reason is this ingrained, you know, notion that he must be like Henry because he is Henry Wilcox’s son. And I think that a lot of what you’ve seen, like you know how he got his promotion and all that, it’s kind of like well, you know, if you keep telling somebody that their likeness then eventually they’re going to go to that place and show you that they can be that.
Now I think what’s going to be interesting is to see the different layers of Jai which we actually saw a little bit of in the last episode.
You know, he took the hit. He took the hit for shooting – shooting those people even though it was Eyal who did it. You know, he’s not a guy who’s strictly out for himself. You know, he’s going to have to – he’s going to take some heat for that. You know, for saying that it was him that shot these people even though it wasn’t and it’s very clear that’s it not. I mean he just blatantly lies to Agent (Rosavi) – to the FBI agent.
So I’d like to see the layers there and not him just not going to devious places all the time. So we’ll see. We’ll see how it all plays out over the next few episodes and, more importantly, I think in the following season; in the third season.
Okay. Cool. And one more thing. How did Phoenix change Jai’s mindset?
Ramamurthy: Well, you know, it’s basically you’re in the major leagues and you’re being sent down to the farm. You know, you’re being sent down to AAA or AA or A or, you know, whatever it is, when you’re a player, when your last name’s Wilcox and you’re being demoted to the Phoenix office, that’s going to get around really quick. Everybody’s going to know and that is ringing through Jai’s head when he makes these decisions.
You know, there is – in a sick way you can look at it as family honor, as well as just pride. You know, this guy has gone to Yale. He has succeeded at everything that he’s ever done and he is getting, you know, for lack of a better word, you know, cock-blocked by people within the CIA; namely, you know, the Campbells. Really.
And it’s turning into like a Campbell versus Wilcox type situation. And you know he’s kind of, you know, moved out of that realm where he doesn’t actually, you know, he doesn’t really see Annie anymore. He doesn’t really work with Annie except on, you know, vague missions and he’s really being sidelined I think on the various missions; whether it’s being, you know, taking points on a mission or anything like that.
So you know he’s not happy about it and he doesn’t – he’s going to do something about it and when Phoenix comes up, that’s just the last straw for him. You know, there’s always the straw that breaks the camel’s back and that’s it. When it’s like we’re sending you to Phoenix, it’s his back up is up against the wall and he has to do whatever it take to – even if it’s extreme. You know, he screws over his friend. He screws over (Cam), his friend on the hearing committee.
And he does say that he will make it up to him and I’m very curious to see, because I’ve always seen Jai as a man of his word, I’m curious to see in the third season if he does or not. I think it’s, you know, I pay attention to all of those little things. I always mark them down because I want to see if there is payback for it further on down the line.
But, you know, Phoenix was absolutely the impetus for him to do – to go to the extremes that he did. You know, he hasn’t done anything wrong and he’s being overlooked. That’s Jai’s point of view.
And when that happens, you can either take it lying down and be a doormat or you can go after it and he’s a Wilcox. He goes after it.
Right on. I just want to say I think Jai will make it up. I’m interested to see how he does it, that’s all.
Ramamurthy: Me too. I really am too. No, I’m very curious to see. You know, and Matt and Chris and, you know, all the guys and the writers are – they, as much as we the actors keep track of it, those guys keep track of it even more. I mean they plot this stuff out so intricately and you know it’s – you know, to be able to juggle that many balls. You know, it’s not something that I’m capable of. You know, I – it’s hard enough juggling – I was about to say it’s hard enough juggling Jai Wilcox’s balls but I think I’ll but that a different way.
It’s hard enough juggling all those balls and I have a hard enough time just juggling my character’s stuff. So, you know, for those guys to be, you know, be dealing with all of our characters, it’s a monumental feat and I’m kind of in awe of what they do and I have no doubt that they will figure it out and it will be in a way that challenges me as an actor which is the thing that I appreciate the most. That they – you know, it was a pretty extreme jump for Jai and that Matt and Chris and all the writers kind of trusted me to make it was quite cool.
Given that everybody’s pretty much asked the questions I’ve already asked or thought about, here would you like to see this character go and how far will you push it in terms of your acting in season three.
Ramamurthy: Well, I mean listen. This, as far as I’m concerned. is the right direction; like where we’re headed with this character because, you know, it was tough for the first ten seasons where they were building his dissatisfaction. You know, that’s – it’s a difficult thing to sustain as an actor for ten episodes when, you know, you’re more or less kind of dissatisfied and glaring at people.
And then the exciting part for an actor is when you get to take action. You know, it’s really hard to play something that’s passive and now he’s more active and he’s more – I don’t know if aggressive is the right word but he’s more – he’s working towards something anyway.
You know, I think we’ve certainly established that and, you know, I think that you know it’s certainly going to be a confrontational relationship with a lot of the characters just because listen, he came in. He was shoehorned in by Arthur. You know, he was brought into the DPT and, you know, automatically as an interloper. You know, so he came in in this very difficult situation into the DPT and into Langley and he’s come from London.
I’m still very curious as to what happened in London; what he was doing there but that’s a whole separate story. But, you know, I want him – I want to see, you know, I just want to see more layers to him than – we’re exploring them right now and I think it’s such a complex character and I just don’t want the – my biggest fear is that Jai just becomes the evil guy.
You know, because I just think that there is – that again becomes limiting. You don’t’ – you can’t keep playing that, you know, without exhausting the story very quickly. Like how evil can you get within the walls of the CIA without actually going against the country and going against the CIA which I just don’t think is something that Jai would ever do.
So I’d like to see, you know, variations in what he does and I think that the way that that can be explored is through his interactions with the other characters because as other people have been saying too, you know, he has been very separate this whole season.
And I’d like to see him brought more into the fold with the others characters and see how those interactions happen and how they affect him and how the antagonism maybe between certain characters and him, you know, goes and then how maybe they find common ground – some of them as well.
Like that’s kind of the way things work in, you know, within the CIA. So I’d like to see that.
Wow. Yes. It’s a lot because when you don’t get to see – first you initially you were in the mix with people and then to see that you suddenly were – you get to see you in sporadic pieces and the tension is building. People are wondering, you know, how far it’s going to go.
But when you see the relationship as, you know, between Auggie and – I just – thank you. Yes.
Ramamurthy: That’s all right. I do that – I do that too. All right. Or I call them by their real names or whatever. I do that too.
When you see that in terms of the character, looking at those two characters and how their relationship is building and how they’re getting close, does he – because Jai used to have some relationship with these people much more. I mean in terms of it looked like there was a growing relationship with Annie and now it’s – she kind of looks at him like with, you know, some kind of like what’s going down here and…
Ramamurthy: Yes, you know, that’s – those are the swings that television takes and you don’t really have any control over them.
It’s hard just because you don’t exactly know what the end game is but that’s where your trust in your writers has to come in and I just – you have to trust that they have taken Jai out of the fold to somehow bring him back in in a new and interesting way because otherwise what’s the point.
Otherwise there’s no point to the character so I have to assume that at some point, Jai will be brought back into the fold and more into the mix with, you know, with Annie.
At the end of the day, the show’s about Annie Walker. It’s not about Jai Wilcox or Auggie Anderson or Arthur Campbell, Joan Campbell. It’s about Annie Walker.
So at some point, Jai will have to be brought back into the fold with Annie and I’m very curious to see how that’s done because I think that the one constant has been that there’s clearly an affection for Annie with Jai, you know.
Even in the last episode we saw it. It was one of the few times actually that Piper and I had worked together up until that point this season. You know, Jai really has been off on his own.
And you know I think that’s something that’s important to him. I think it’s important to Jai and I think that, you know, when he was told to get close to Annie during the first season, he did because he was supposed to because that was his job but he actually developed a, you know, an affection for Annie and is certainly there for her if and when she needs it and I’d love to see more of that and see, you know, whether that’s done by Jai going on missions with Annie or if it’s done, you know, some other way. I don’t really know what is planned. I just know what I hope.
I want to know your character is borderline villainous we can say. How do you like playing a character that is gray area of both friend and foe?
Ramamurthy: Gray area is the way I look at it. I don’t actually see any villainous because it’s, you know, villainous is really from what perspective you’re looking at it. If you look at him as a villain that means that you think that Arthur and Joan and what they’re doing is right and Jai certainly doesn’t see it that way.
And so but the gray area is something that I’m very interested in for Jai and just as an actor. Those are the things that I find really interesting to play.
What – where it becomes hard is that if the gray area becomes all black or all white because then there’s nothing to play. So I really want Jai to balance it and that’s hard. That’s hard to write and it’s hard to maintain as an actor.
It’s, you know, it’s a very difficult thing and there are actually very few shows that are able to do it properly and I think that ours is going to be one of those that’s able to do it because of the, you know, just because of the strength of our writing team.
But, you know, I’d love for it to, you know, when you think Jai is doing something wrong and you think he’s going down the wrong path, for him to prove you right and then when you think he’s doing, you know, great and he’s going to be the good guy, then he’s just kind of – he can’t help himself and his ambitions get in the way.
You know, that’s really what I would like to see, you know, more of because just being a good guy and being the good guy, I just find that really boring to play. I don’t – it’s not something that appeals to me.
So I want to see him teetering on the edge and to be kind of pulled in different directions and for his emotions to be pulled on as well. You know, and we get a little bit of that actually towards the end of the season involving Jai and Henry. You know, I think it’s certainly an avenue that the writers are open to exploring and I think that we’ll see more of that in the third season as well.
All right. And what do you think the audience and the fans think of your character?
Ramamurthy: I have no idea. The comment that I get most of the time, just by people walking up to me is, you know, what is he up to because I think it was very difficult for the audience because in the first ten episodes he was, you know, really – he was there but not there. And then all of a sudden he kind of jumped, you know, jumped into the story in the premier of season 2.5 and I think that it was – it was kind of like oh, okay. So he’s coming into the story now.
So I’d like to see Jai be a bit more of a constant presence in the story. How that’s done, I don’t know but you know it’s – I think it’s difficult now to connect with him simply because his appearance is so sporadic but that changes so you know we’ll see how it goes.
Right now I’m not sure that the audience knows what to think of Jai and I actually don’t – I don’t see that as a bad thing as long as that’s kind of resolved.
Okay. Great. Just to finish. How about guest stars. Who would you like to have coming by to Covert Affairs?
Ramamurthy: Who would I like to have – I’d love to see Santi come back – to see Santiago Cabrera come back. He’s a very good buddy of mine. I was actually at dinner with him last night and I’d love to see him come back. It’s always fun when Oded [Fehr] comes back. You know, he’s certainly one of our favorites.
You know, he and Bailey is really great to work with and, you know, for me personally, you know, my stuff with Greg Itzin is some of – it’s Jai’s juiciest stuff is with, you know, with Henry and I’d love for him to come back.
Who else was cool? Jaimie Alexander who played Reva. That was a fun character. Yes. We’ve had – we’ve actually been really lucky with a lot of our guest stars. We’ve had some really good people and you know I have a feeling that you’ll be seeing more of your favorites hopefully in the third season.
Again, you know, with guest stars it’s tough because it depends if they’re available so, you know, they’re – I know for sure that last season there were people that we wanted to have back but we weren’t able to because, you know, guest stars aren’t under contract. They’re just under contract for the one episode so you have to, you know, you have to make sure that the actor is available. So that’s, you know, that’s – it’s dependent on that a lot.
Photos by Christos Kalohoridis, Frank Ockenfels and Steve Wilkie/courtesy USA Network