Covert Affairs: Series Creators On Putting Auggie Through The Wringer, Lena and Joan’s Beef, And Making Sure We Know Who’s On The Poster!

Matt Corman Chris Ord

Last week, Matt Corman and Chris Ord, the co-creators of Covert Affairs (USA Network, Tuesdays, 10/9C) took some time to chat with a group of journalists/bloggers about the more serialized third season of their hit series. Topics covered ranged from putting Auggie through the wringer (they’re not done yet), to what’s going on between Joan and Lena, to what Richard Coyle brought to the role of Simon Fisher that got him the role and how Jai’s death set up the overall arc for the whole season.

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Matt Corman: Sure.

It seems to me that these first two episodes have been a little bit faster pace and more intense. And is that going to be a theme for the whole season? Are you ramping it up?

Chris Ord: Yes.

Corman: Yes, sorry.

Ord: Yes.

Corman: Yes. And Chris is in Toronto and I’m here in Los Angeles. So we’re not in the same place but go ahead, Chris.

Ord: Well, yes, I would just say the short answer is yes, we made a conscious choice to kind of amp up the stakes this season. You know, we really see this season of Annie’s teenage years of the CIA and with those teenage years comes everything that comes with teenage years be it more question, more passion, more – and, you know, along with that is greater stakes and I think for us we just want to make sure that the stakes are equal to the long arch sentiments we are trying to convey.

Corman: And the one thing I would add to that is in addition to the faster pace you mentioned, there is more long arch storytelling. In the past I think we focused more on compartmental episodes to tell the story at a week and even though we certainly still do that, it’s more of a novelistic approach with more mythology this year which hopefully you’ve seen and recognized as well.

That was going to be my next question, actually I had noticed that. So let me just quickly follow up. It looks like you’re moving Annie into a position where she’s a little more isolated. Auggie is left available to her and now I guess Danielle is going to move away. Are we going to get the chance to see how that affects her?

Corman: Yes, I think as Chris said, the analogy of a teenager is in up form which is she’s starting to want, crave and experience more independence. I mean, there’s still key relationships in her life, so she may not be isolated but I think she is yearning for a little more autonomy and she’s getting it. But like everything you want when you’re a teenager, it’s a two-edged sword, and what you want may not necessarily be what you need.

So my question has to do with the travelog aspect of it this season. We’re already globe hopping in a significant way. And I wondered, do you sort of set out with a destination list and write to that or do the writers come with you and say, ‘Hey, we want to do this. We want to go to Morocco. We want to go to Paris. We want to go to Berlin.’ What order does that happen where you decided where you’re going to try to shoot each season?

Ord: I would say it’s a combination of all of that. You know, we have certain things that the story dictates that certain things take place in certain countries and if that – some of the case, we look into ways that we can shoot there and then sometimes it’s a question of the country being interesting and creating a good backdrop for a spy story and we’ll write to that.

I think for us, you know, started doing this, you know, as early as season one and then last year we really explored it even further with trips to Venice and Berlin and Stockholm and Paris and for us it’s a spy show, so that needs to reflect that there’s an international intrigue spy story going on and the international shooting we found a way to do it on budget and get our actors over there and it’s been a big addition to the production value of the show.

Well I love that you guys are actually doing it and it’s so very obviously not LA, you know, and it’s not locale from Toronto where you can go, ‘Oh, yes, that’s the so and so bank building,’ and that kind of stuff. So when you take your cast and you shoot in these different locations, what kind of gorilla film making is it? How many of you are all going to each location because when we talked to Piper, she mentioned it was very, very fast because I think she was leaving for Paris when we got to talk to her a few weeks ago. And she said between wheels down and wheels up, it was about 12 hours.

Corman: Yes.

So it sounds like very fast and furious.

Corman: Yes, guerilla film making is a good way to put it. We usually go with, you know, maybe six or eight people and then we pick up local crews when we’re there. And it’s running gun. I mean, we need an actor like Piper who’s comfortable with, you know, changing wardrobes in the street or in a restaurant and literally runs from location to location. You have to be as excited by foreign travel and as game as Piper is because it’s not glamorous. It’s just about running like maniacs to get what we can.

But it’s one of the things that we’re most proud about with the show because very few television programs and certainly very few cable shows are going to great lengths that we are to have international components. And I think our first – well, seven of our first eight episodes have some international component to them.

Ord: And I would add, it also takes – we have a great production team here that gets – you know, we can try and get our scripts in as early as possible and they take those scripts and start doing the research, working with production companies aboard, getting wardrobe ready to ship over. And a lot of the leg work is done here in Toronto in order to kind of set up those shoots and thankfully we have a great team here that can do it.

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I guess more of a two-part question and first part being, are you taken by surprise by the degree of popularity that – of Auggie’s character? And with that, how difficult is it to balance like the audience demand for more Auggie but yet keeping it (unintelligible) with him as a blind character?

Corman: Well, so the first part, we’re not surprised at all. Chris Gorham is a fantastic actor and from the very earliest moment of the show, we can see that he and Piper had this incredible chemistry that you just can’t fake. I think as far as to the second part, you know, it’s not participants to come up with scenarios that he can be in but we do have to make the missions and action components that he’s in authentic to his blindness. We would never want to put him in a position or put the character in a position that seemed fake or where an audience member is saying, “Well, I’m not sure how a blind person could literally navigate that.” So it requires a far amount of thought to find seamless organic stories to tell that fit his skills and also his limitations.

Ord: But it’s a fun challenge in the sense you get to create action set pieces and things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to create. You know, I think if you saw last week’s episode where Auggie and (Parker) were forced to jump from building to building, just does has an inherent drama intention to it but came from character. It came from who Auggie is and I think the whole lot instance with them and (Parker) as they tried to make that jump. And for us, it’s those situations that, you know, are unique to Auggie that we get to do for the series so we get really excited about.

All right. And I think you guys really do a fabulous job on keeping his character and Chris is doing – playing his part as being very authentic as blind.

Corman: Well he’s fantastic for that.

Yes.

Ord: He does a lot of research. He works with the Canadian Institute for the Blind. So a great deal and he’s always working on his craft and he in any scene if you’re blocking it, he can immediately felt – well, you know, tell you, oh I couldn’t see that over there unless this – you know, that person makes a noise or he’s very much aware of, you know, the demands on the character. And so he’s very helpful in that regard.

What challenges do you think season three has over season two? Like what difference this season?

Corman: You want to go, Chris, or you want me to talk?

Ord: Sure, no, I can – well as Matt mentioned earlier, we are doing a lot more long arch storytelling in terms of stories that are serialized throughout the season. We have the Simon arc. We have Lena coming in Dani’s life. We have some serialized (unintelligible) of Auggie.

And to create a season of stories that fits seamlessly but also mesh with the individual cases of the week has been probably the greatest challenge but it’s a fun challenge for us. I think last season we’re a bit more compartmentalized which was fun and great on its own right but this season we’ve been allowed to kind of stretch our legs and find some character stories that we believe – and for us if – (unintelligible) a writer is to really delve it deep into the characters as possible and this season with the long arch storytelling we’ve been able to do that.

Okay. And how did Sendhil Ramamurthy feel or react to learning about his character’s fate?

Corman: Well, it’s a very difficult conversation. We like Sendhil a lot as a person. We respect him as an actor. It was not easy for us to talk to him about this because we so enjoy working with him. But he’s a very classy guy. He took it in stride. He was as gracious as a person can be but it’s hard because I think he enjoyed working on the show and we enjoy having him and, you know, wasn’t an easy conversation but we owed it to him to be as direct as possible and to explain it as much as we could.

And I will say hopefully everybody sees this, it wasn’t a tremendous engine going forward and, you know, we miss Sendhil, we miss Jai but the concept of his death really propels the story and propels the season. So it wasn’t just this callous thing where he’s gone and forgotten but the presence of him and everything he represented is yielding through and will continue to do so throughout the season. So hopefully that is clear to our audience as well.

Ord: And I would add that it was always our intention to have characters die and have the audience recognize that there are real stakes to this job. T’s a dangerous job and, you know, as Matt said, we love Sendhil and we love – as a person, as an actor but in order for it really to convey the audience that there are stakes here, one of our main characters needed to be killed and so it wasn’t an easy decision but it was in part for this series going forward.

I watch a lot of shows on USA and it seems to me that a lot of them are sort of these untraditional workplaces where people are finding a family, maybe a dysfunctional family but I do see workplaces (as) family and I’m wondering if that’s something you have in mind or am I reading in to it too much?

Corman: Not all, I think, you know, workplaces are like families in the best senses and also in the dysfunctional senses and, you know, we always – well, even stepping back, I mean, one of our initial thoughts with this series was a lot of times the likes of (unintelligible) and the CIA is not looked at as a traditional workplace and we wanted to look at the Langley as a workplace in the same way the hospital shows or cop shows are workplace shows. So we wanted to kind of get in touch with the more humanistic side of what it means to go to CIA as a job. And then, as you were saying, in the best scenarios, workplaces are sort of proxy families with mother figures, father figures, siblings, et cetera.

And how is your experience been working at USA?

Ord: Great. More fantastic. They’re a great network to work for. They in many ways are a family. They’re a tight-knit unit. They all – you know, we work with USA and UCP as our studio and they all work very well together. They’re all very easy to talk to and have (unintelligible) with. In many ways, I think just (unintelligible), we’ve always been on the same page with USA and that makes it a little easier. You’re not – you know, you’re not constantly fighting. They’re always pretty much in line with what we want because I think we’re all starting from the place of character and if you start from that place, I think we all end up where we are with this series with a sense.

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Over the last couple of episodes, you’ve really put Auggie through the wringer and not in a way that we might have expected since he was placed in charge of investigating Jai’s death by Arthur. So I’m wondering, when are we going to get back to that and how are we going to pull that into the rest of the season?

Corman: Soon. It’s going to be very present and in the next three weeks or three episodes, I should say, there’s going to be a lot more clarity about that and a lot more questions as well. But it’s foremost in our mind and it was when we were breaking these episodes that the investigatory element of this would actually be the driver of the season.

So if you look back when you’ve seen the first 10, you’re going to say, “Wow, this really was all about investigating Jai’s death and getting answers as to how he died and why and what the fallout from that will be.

Ord: And I would add, Auggie is not done going through the wringer. There’s – even as early as next week, he’s got a lot to face.

That’s always fun. Also in The Last Thing You Should Do, we learned a bit about an ongoing situation between Joan and Lena and I’m just wondering and I’m sure a lot of people will be, are we ever going to learn what really happened in Nairobi and will there be more attention paid to this conflict between the two?

Corman: Yes, we’ll lead to it a bit more. And certainly more details about Lena’s life in Nairobi will come out. I think that the conflict is as you mentioned, ongoing and it will evolve as well. But…

Ord: And it’s always with Annie as the fulcra out of their issues.

Always sticking Annie in the middle of the most interesting situations. Thanks.

Ord: She’s on the poster.

The show – the promise of the show is sort of it loosely reminds me of Homeland like Claire Danes’ Homeland with, you know, the female CIA operative. So I just want to ask you, what do you think is so intriguing or exciting about having a woman under CIA that people respond so well to it?

Ord: Well, I would say the experience of that I think man or woman in the CIA, it’s just a very intriguing job. I think the approach we’ve taken is to recognize that it is a job, as Matt alluded to earlier. And, you know, these are people who do extraordinary things but then have to go home at night and, you know, see their spouses or talk to family and, you know, still have to live normal lives.

I think, you know, we have Annie in our series and certainly Homeland is a great series. And then – you know, there’s been the Bourne series and there’s been the Bond series. I think for the audience as a whole, spies are presented in allure in the terms of the job they do and the lifestyle they live.

You know, we – I mean, I’ll speak for Matt and myself, we just find it fascinating the lives of these people and the more we get to explore it, the more fascinating you find it.

You were – you said more is going to happen, I guess, in Auggie’s more drama I guess. My question is, he confessed to Parker that he had no more secrets. But just that last scene of the last episode, I guess what I’m wondering is, but is Parker keeping any from him.

Corman: Well, I think that it is – without giving too much away, I think the drama between them is not fully resolved and having gone through such a tumultuous adventure like they went through, there’s going to be some fallout from that and there’s going to be some processing that needs to happen. I mean, it’s a very heightened way to propose to somebody, right? And I think a lot of people have picked up on a certain ambivalence from Parker at the end of the episode. So I think it’s safe to say that there’s going to be more that they need to navigate as a couple.

Okay. Can you also tell me if we’ll ever meet Auggie’s family?

Corman: You know, we’ve talked about that. I’m not sure necessarily if we’ll meet his family this season, but at a certain point, we would like to get into that. You know, he alluded to the fact that he had several brothers and it could be really interesting to meet them and to meet somebody that knew him before he was blind it might be a really interesting prism.

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed so much about your show is that being based in Toronto, you’ve pulled from a really great stable of character actors and is there anybody on your wish list that you want to have that you haven’t had yet? And is there anybody that we can look forward to coming up?

Ord: Well, I think we’ve been very blessed up here, there’s a lot of great talented actors up here. We’ve had – well there are few guest stars that we are very excited about going forward. I mean, first and foremost, the two that we’ve already introduced being Sarah Clarke and Richard Coyle. We just couldn’t be happier about they both bring just phenomenal talents through their role and roles get more rich and more engrossing as the episodes go along.

I’m trying to think of the episode we have coming up. We have an actor named Nestor Serrano in episode seven who we’re really excited about. We’re shooting now with an actor named David O’Hara who we’re really thrilled about. So for us, it’s been a fun season because I think the guest stars we’ve been able to get have just really taken their roles and ran with them and it’s just been fun to watch.

Is there anybody on your wish list?

Ord: That’s a good question.

Corman: Richie Coster.

Ord: Oh yes. We wanted Richie at one point and he was great. He was in (unintelligible) and we just think he’s a phenomenal actor.

Okay, you just mentioned Richard Coyle and how he is doing such a wonderful job as Simon Fisher. I was just wondering, how did he come to your attention and what did you see in him that gave him the role over other candidates?

Corman: Yes, I mean, it’s such a key role that we knew we needed to dig deep. So we read people here in Los Angeles and then we also had hired a casting associate in London to do some reads. And he was in that group. And then we actually flew him from London to New York where he did a chemistry read with Piper which Doug Liman, who’s one of our partners in this endeavor, directed. So he really ran Richard trough his phases and we got to see how he and Piper looked together, how they acted off one another. And so it was a pretty vigorous process to make sure he was the right guy.

And one of the things that we saw beyond the fact that he’s just a tremendous actor is he can embody the economy. You don’t know whether he’s to be trusted or not. He can be very charming. He can be very smart. He just – he has this great acting vocabulary where he can be trustworthy or not trustworthy.

Cool.

Ord: And he’s an actor’s actor. I think that’s one thing that really comes up on screen with Piper. She really loves working with him because both of them are just the consummate professional and they both fig in on their scenes and on their lines and they love working through it together. And I think that’s one thing that they – you may not really see it onscreen, not at least you don’t want to but that shared professionalism is huge in terms of their chemistry.

Great. Thanks.

Ord: Thanks for everything. Thanks for the support. We’ll talk to you all soon.

Photos courtesy of USA Network/Cast photo by Frank Ockenfels