USA’s new spy series, Covert Affairs [Tuesdays, 10/9C] channels the world of espionage through what some have called “USA’s blue sky filter” – resulting in a fast-paced dramedy with roots in the details of the real CIA and the flights of action film imagination that spawned the James Bond and Jason Bourne films.
Covert Affairs is particularly notable for casting Piper Perabo, who has worked almost exclusively in film [give or take a guest star role on House] for a little better than a decade. Perabo kindly took some time to speak with a number of bloggers/journalists between adhering to her hectic shooting schedule and a meeting with executive producer, Doug Liman.
How important are social networking and online sites for the show promotion?
Piper Perabo: Well, that may be a better question for the studio. Chris Gorham is Twittering from set and while we’re working and we also have pages on Facebook and our Web page. Doug Liman, our executive producer, has been up and visiting so he writes about coming to the set and the action sequences that he’s been doing with us. So we’re pretty active on the Internet.
There’s early buzz on the show that’s a little good, a little bad. But is there going to be a link to viewership based on that buzz?
Perabo: I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t know. This is my first television show. I’ve never done press at the same time as we’re shooting, and in a way I think it’s really exciting because hopefully fans of the show can give us input and tell us how they’re feeling about the story and it can affect how we continue.
Obviously, you’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately and it seems that everyone’s favorite question to ask you is about Alias. I’m sure you’re kind of tired of talking about Alias at this point. I’m just wondering, personally I see a lot of differences between the two shows and I’m wondering, being lumped together with that show so frequently do you think that that’s something that’s going to help or hinder the show?
Perabo: When I first got working on the show and I was speaking to actor friends of mine about what the show was about and how I was going to create the character, people said, “You should watch Alias.” I had never watched the show, don’t ask me how I missed it, so I got the pilot and I watched the pilot and I thought it was genius. I didn’t really want to watch anymore because I don’t want to in any way imitate what Jennifer was doing and I want to make sure that Annie is her own woman and dealing with her own world. But I thought that what I saw of the work on that pilot was really exciting and the fight sequences were really dynamic and she was just a really powerful, smart, intuitive woman who can make decisions on the fly, she’s brave, and she’s still a real person. I think those parallels can be drawn to Annie.
I think in our show, though, you see a lot more of the real life of a spy, what kind of car you drive and what it’s like when you get home at night after you’ve just been chasing an assassin all day. So in that way I think we are really different. I think that if people come and watch our show because they like Alias, then that’s great, but I think they’re going to get to see a much bigger world than they saw and so hopefully they’ll keep watching.
You said that this is your first foray into series television. If it was a movie I’m sure there would be a premiere, but with this being a television show what sort of exciting plans do you have for the premiere night?
Perabo: The premiere night, I’m going to be shooting actually. We’re trying to work out this—I don’t know if I’m telling you secrets that I shouldn’t be telling you. That’s another thing I don’t know about television, I don’t know how to keep a secret. But there’s a really intense action chase that we’re going to be shooting on Tuesday night in Canada, so I won’t be watching it. But I have two brothers, and they are having a party for the premiere where everyone has to come as spies in trench coats and sunglasses. So, they’re representing the premiere party aspect for me.
My question, I actually posed it to the people on Twitter and the person who responded was your lovely co-star, Chris Gorham. He suggested that I ask you to tell us about your day at the CIA and how you took notes.
Perabo: Oh, that’s interesting. Yes, Doug Liman, our executive producer, was in the middle of editing Fair Game when I got cast in the pilot, which is the story of Valerie Plame Wilson, so I knew he had contacts down at Langley. And I asked him if he could get me an introduction so that I could go there and see what it’s really like and talk to real people who do this for a living. So he did, and this sort of shows my naiveté, but I brought a notebook with me so I could take notes. I had a lot of questions that I wanted to ask.
When I got there they told me, of course, you can’t bring a notebook into the CIA. … number one is … take notes in the secret agency. I said, “Oh, okay when we get inside could I have some paper and a pen?” And the agent who was taking me around said, “Sure, but you have to leave it inside when you leave.” Of course you can’t take notes out of the CIA either. I said, “Well, how am I supposed to keep all this information?” He said, “You have to be like a spy and remember it.” It was interesting that before I even got inside you can feel how tight and secret the whole world is. It was an amazing day. It started there and it was incredible.
For my follow up question I want to know if you ever got your bedroom closet all fixed up, because they had those ugly slippers in there.
Perabo: Oh my gosh, that’s so funny, because there’s a scene that’s coming up where someone ransacks my room, and I had a long meeting with wardrobe and set dec to make sure that all Annie’s fancy shoes and pinstripe suits and all that, I said, bloggers came in and looked at Annie’s closet and there’s a pair of ugly slippers and there was an exercise ball and a tablecloth in there. It didn’t make any sense. Set dec had just done something colorful in the … so we took it all out and now it’s very Sex in the City, her closet.
What I’m wondering is how did the role of Annie Walker come to you? Doug Liman, when we were talking with him, he mentioned that he likes to tailor characters to the actors who play them, so I was wondering how Annie was tailored for you and what part you played in that process.
Perabo: The way that the role came to me was I was doing a Broadway play, I was doing Neil Labute’s new play, Reasons to be Pretty, and we were almost done with our run and I was reading movie scripts and I wasn’t finding anything that was really speaking to me and my agent suggested that I read this. And I hadn’t thought about doing television, but when I read it, it kind of changed everything for me. She’s such a powerful character, she’s so smart, the action is so intense, and I really thought it would be fun to do.
Then I met Doug and I went to the CIA and I started creating the character, and I met the creators, Matt Corman and Chris Ord, and we did a lot of talking about how – because the pilot is Annie’s first day at the CIA. And so as the show continues Annie’s really a rookie, and so what she excels at and what she isn’t very good at, I think is in some ways tailored to me. I really like driving. I really like action. I really like stunts. And those are things that I haven’t gotten to do in the past and so when I told them that all of a sudden that stuff started getting more and more intense and more creative. And Doug has been very active in ramping up the action sequences for each episode we do, so I think in a lot of ways the action was even kicked up a higher notch because I was so excited to do it.
What’s it like on the set? You’ve got a pretty high powered cast.
Perabo: It’s going really well on the set. Sendhil Ramamurthy joined us for the season, and Sendhil, Chris Gorham and I really get on like a house on fire, which is good because a lot of times when we leave the CIA those are the people I’m leaving the CIA with to go abroad. It’s really long days because the action sequences, if you’ve ever been on a set where they’re shooting action, it takes a long time. It goes in really long pieces so that you can get the angles you want and that everything is safe, and so I’m really lucky that I really love the people that I work with, and it’s not bad doing a 17 hour day with these guys.
You mentioned that you were at the CIA, I’m assuming Langley. What sort of special training did you get while you were there or did you have to undergo to play this character?
Perabo: The fight training that I went through to play this character wasn’t at Langley. They go to the farm to do their fight training and I wasn’t able to go there. The fight training that I did was with our head of stunts, and they hired different martial arts and hand-to-hand combat teachers.
So, first, the creators and Doug sat down about what kind of style of fighting Annie would have. Doug is a real fan of close hand-to-hand combat that you shoot on a steadicam, the way that Jason Bourne fights, but you have to tailor that to a woman because obviously when I’m fighting a man, if we’re going to keep it real, which is what we’re going for, Annie Walker isn’t a super hero, then you have to find styles of fighting that could give her an advantage and make it plausible that she can win or at least hold out in some of these fights. So we ended up with Krav Maga, which is [the] Israeli army style of street fighting, and Wing Chun, which is a martial arts that was developed for women. So we were working for weeks and weeks on that and training on that, I was training on that before we started the pilot.
When I went to Langley a lot of it was really I couldn’t train there and they can’t really show me the technology they have. So a lot of that day was about asking the agents about their personal lives, because that they can sort of share, they’re not telling me their real names anyway. So, does your boyfriend know what you do, and what kind of car do you drive, and how much do you make; those kinds of questions are really important when you’re creating a character, and they were really forthcoming with that kind of information.
We’ve heard mention of a lot of different guest stars that you’re going to have this season and I was wondering, is there anyone in particular that you’ve especially enjoyed working with?
Perabo: Eriq La Salle did an episode … and I really liked working with him. I watched ER a lot, especially when I was in college studying acting was when ER, I’m sure you remember, they did that episode once that was live and they did it live on the East Coast and live on the West Coast. As a theater student we all sat down as actors together and watched it together, the East Coast one and the West Coast one, and it was so cool and it was so brave and it was so exciting. So I wanted to really pick his brain about that and about how you shoot for such a dynamic emotional one-hour drama, and he was so patient and generous and also just a really good actor.
I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about the time you spent with Valerie Plame and what insights she gave you that you took to Annie.
Perabo: Valerie Plame was our consultant on the pilot, which was incredible to have her insight, because since she’s no longer in the CIA and because of the way she left it, she is more willing to share things than someone who’s from the agency can’t really talk about it. Also, just being on the ground, she can walk through the set of the CIA. We were shooting a scene that had extras, there’s an induction ceremony situation, and there were extras that came in to the CIA and in their wardrobe they had purses, but that’s impossible because you can’t carry anything in or out of the CIA, so having Valerie around to continually say well, these are the kinds of ID cards. And another thing was the CIA is a giant office, like any other office, and so there are reams and reams of paper. They’re can’t be regular trash in the CIA because obviously that paper is carrying all kinds of top secret documents, and it’s not just shredded at the CIA, it’s all burn bagged. So then all the trash cans were taken out and all the burn bags were brought in so everyone has burn bags under their desk. It was just again and again her attention to detail that was really, really helpful.
Yes, I remember those burn bags on set.
Perabo: … right?
In the pilot we saw a lot of different sides to Annie, the vulnerable side, the tough side, and is there a lot about her that we don’t even know yet?
Perabo: There’s a lot about her that you don’t even know yet. Annie’s whole family life and also what happened in her relationship is still to unfold. And actually going back to talking about Valerie for a second, Valerie was also really generous with me about emotionally the toll that it takes keeping all those secrets from your family and your friends. And I think that her personal story that she told me was also very helpful in kind of folding into Annie’s secret and how that plays out in her relationship with her sister and her family. So as Annie weaves the lie that she has to tell so many people, the secrets start overlapping and overlapping, and it just gets very complicated.
My first question to you is what film or TV characters were an influence for you, or did influence you as a reference point for Annie?
Perabo: There were two. One is the original La Femme Nikita that Luc Besson did. I thought that film was a great balance of the pressure of the job and the real emotional pull that it takes. Also, I loved how he handled action with a woman and I just think that movie is so beautiful and she’s so strong, and it just was a big influence on me for Annie.
Then Lee Miller, who was an artist and a war photographer, she was a beautiful journalist who put herself in the middle of these battles in order to take photographs. So I had read a lot about her and how she maintained her integrity and still was a beautiful woman amid the battlefield, and I thought that was really inspiring thinking about Annie.
Can you talk a little bit about working with Christopher Nolan in The Prestige, and if he called would you want to play Cat Woman?
Perabo: If Christopher Nolan called I would play anything he wanted me to play. It was amazing working with him. I had been such a fan of all his films and I didn’t know how he worked until I got on the set with him the first day and how closely he works with Wally Pfister, his DP, and how fluid and alive his sets are. Also having Christian Bale, who has worked obviously multiple times with Nolan and Hugh Jackman, it was kind of a dream experience. I would do anything to work with Nolan again.
I read that you consider yourself more of a tomboy than anything. What puts you in that category and have you ever considered yourself the girl-next-door type?
Perabo: I don’t know if anybody considers themselves the girl-next-door, because you’re the girl. Do you know what I mean? I grew up in a neighborhood of all boys, so I was the only girl in the neighborhood so I guess that’s makes me the girl-next-door. But running around with a bunch of boys on the coast in New Jersey it just makes for a certain … lifestyle, your BMX bike and the beach and everything’s in your backpack, and you’re sunburned. I guess however you grow up creates in a way who you are, and living in a shore town with a bunch of boys makes you a tomboy.
I’m wondering, why do you think we’re seeing more and more film stars making a transition to TV? This isn’t really something that we would have seen 15, 20 years ago.
Perabo: Yes, that’s an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about that a lot too. One of the things is I think there’s a lot of great writing happening in television, not that there hasn’t been great writing in television before, but there seems to be a burst of new writers, young writers writing for television and writing really dynamic, complex characters, so that will always draw actors is good writing. I also think there seems to be a surge of dramas helmed by women, which wasn’t the case before, so that draws great actresses to the screen. Damages is one of my favorite shows, and to watch Glenn Close and Rose Byrne do those scenes, it’s great writing. I think maybe that’s what got them there in the first place. I don’t know, but I would assume so. Then when you add that talent to it, it just makes for great television. So I think creating these powerful female characters is changing television.
What is it like to be the original character in the premiere of a show, as opposed to appearing in an established show?
Perabo: Certainly it’s a lot more work on the show because of the action component and whether it’s fights or car chases or explosions, and also Annie Walker is a language expert, so right now we’re up to nine different languages that Annie can speak. So between lessons and stunt choreography and training, I’m there all the time setting the tone and creating the character. I think creating a new character always takes a lot, because you want to make sure that you’re making someone who’s full and dynamic. You don’t want to give everything away at the top. You need to have a layered performance filled with history.
So it’s a lot of work but it’s also really fun because new things come up in each episode, we’ll come to a crossroads of a decision about what would Annie do, and then there’s this big conversation with the creators and the writers and the actors about well, what has she done in the past and where do we want her to go and what would she base her decision on? And so it makes for a really dynamic and artistic set.
I know it’s really early, but what would you say are Annie’s strong points and shortcomings?
Perabo: Definitely language is a strong point for Annie. Then she has things that can be both a strong point and a shortcoming. Annie’s a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, and so that can help sometimes but it also can take her off track. She’s also quite a flirt, and so although that can get her in the door at some of these embassy parties, I think she can be a little distracted by all the beautiful men and she’s not always paying attention to the mission at hand, depending on how handsome the guy in the tuxedo is. Hopefully that won’t get her into too much trouble. I have that problem as well, so I can really sympathize.
Annie is very stylish, which I love and respect. I think it’s great. You mentioned your closet as being very Sex and the City. So I’m wondering, are you interested in fashion and what do you think of Annie’s clothing so far?
Perabo: I am interested in fashion. I really like it. I live in New York City and I think the women here are dressed so beautifully. I think the glamour of fictional characters and of the spy world have always interested me. I’ve never played a character who wore suits before, so that’s really an interesting thing diving into that whole line of fashion. But it’s really fun because there’s a certain fantasy element. Obviously on a government salary you can’t have this many Louis Vuitton shoes, but it is really fun to pick the ones that go best with your pinstripe suit in the morning.
To reference Annie’s softer side, they mentioned a perfume that she wears, the Grapefruit perfume. Do you ever wear the actual perfume to get more in character or anything?
Perabo: I think Jo Malone makes the Grapefruit perfume, don’t they?
Yes, that’s the one that they say that she wears.
Perabo: Yes, Jo Malone, Grapefruit, right. God, I forgot about that. …. I never wear perfume on set because I never know if it’s going to bother the other actor. I’ve seen it happen on other … where some actors will come in doused in perfume and you can see the leading man’s eyes start watering, so I’ve always been nervous about it since I’ve seen that. But I should do that to Chris Gorham one day when we have a racier moment. That’s a good idea. There should definitely be a bottle of it in Annie’s room. I’m going to make sure there is one.
Yes, get some kind of candle or something, Grapefruit, to trigger your Annie senses. I don’t know.
Have you ever had a really disastrous fix up like that and what happened?
Perabo: Oh my gosh, yes. I have had some disastrous fix ups. Oh my God. Once I was set up, it was actually here in New York, a friend of mine set me up on a date with someone and we met at a movie theater. It was a first date and it was a French movie at one of the art house cinemas downtown and he fell asleep. About five minutes into the movie my date fell all the way asleep. Not just a little bit asleep, can’t keep your eyes open asleep, but like snoring so that other people in the movie theater had to say “Be quiet.” It was so humiliating and disheartening. Yes, I’m not really into fix ups anymore ….
Also, I read that you’re an action movie fan. I was wondering, I know this is probably your first really action based thing, but how crazy was it acting through that whole sniper scene in the pilot, which was so intense? Was that hard to do?
Perabo: It was really hard and it was really crazy. They buried … in the wall so that when you built the set there are little, for cameras when you’re doing marks they have all these rolls of tape and they’ll use the tape where all the … are , so that in the rehearsal you know what parts of the wall are going to blow up. But when we shoot everybody else on the crew puts on face shields and packing blankets over their bodies, and they take away all the marks where the explosions are going to happen, and the only person who’s not protected is me. Then they say, “Go,” and the room explodes. So it took a little getting used to.
Annie is a member of the CIA and she can’t tell her friends and family. In that respect you kind of have two roles on the show, the CIA operative and a regular person who has to keep that other side of her secret. Is it fun to play two different personalities on the same show?
Perabo: It is. The actress who plays my sister who doesn’t know what I do for a living is Anne Dudek, who is on so many television shows I can’t keep track. But she’s a really great actress and she’s very aware of the kind of balance that I’m trying to strike between my relationship at home with her and then my relationship with work. She and I have worked a lot on that and what our family is like and who our parents were and how we deal with each other, and as the season goes on we spend more and more time together. You get a glimpse of her in the pilot, but you see a lot more of her as the season goes on. She and I have worked a lot on that, about what it’s like at home for the Walker sisters.
This is your first starring role in a TV show. Were you nervous when you started, and did either Chris or Peter or anyone else really give you any advice since they’ve starred on shows before?
Perabo: Yes, both of them did, actually. Both of them are so talented and successful and confident with their work on television and they understand the speed of it. You shoot television much faster than you shoot a film, and so you have to have a certain fluid quality to the scenes and be able to change them really fast and be really confident about your choices, because there’s not always time to try it ten different ways. I think our director took a real cue from that in how confidently they approached a scene and they really know how they want to do it. I’m really lucky to have both of them on the show.
You’ve touched a little bit on how physical your role is and we’re wondering, do you have a stunt double or do you do all the stunts yourself?
Perabo: No, I have a stunt double. I have different doubles because not everybody can do all the … do it this way and as the season continues Annie is getting wilder and wilder and the stunts are just getting more and more intense. I think each director is trying to top the last one, so we keep having to find some girls who can do things that I … do. So there are definitely multiple pinstripe suits for certain days on set.
We were also just wondering if you’d heard of the Canadian … band named after you and what you think of them.
Perabo: I have heard that there’s a band, but I haven’t heard their music. Is it good?
Perabo: Do they have a MySpace page or something? I should listen to them.
They do. If you look up Piper Perabo MySpace then you’ll find them and not you.
Oh, cool. All right, I’ll have a listen.
Actually, I just wanted to first start off by saying as a fellow Jersey girl I’m very excited that someone from New Jersey has made it so big in the TV and music business.
Perabo: Where are you from in New Jersey?
I’m from… County, so it’s like north Jersey, but … Beechwood area near…
Perabo: Oh, cool.
Yes, I saw that online and I was excited to speak to you about that. My question is, on the show, I know it just started and you’re probably getting into the swing of things, but how much creative freedom do you have in regards to… adlibbing or maybe if you see a scene, there’s a direction that you give your input into, like maybe if you see how you might want to change it.
Perabo: I actually have input, although it’s not necessarily always on the day. Because of the action we get our scripts fairly early, and so there is a lot of time to have a dialogue with the writers and the directors while they’re in prep about ideas that come up in scenes and maybe is it possible if we do it this way. We even have a chance as actors to rehearse our scenes on our own before the day, so there is a big dialogue going on about it, but it’s not just me changing it on the day because we have our scripts so much in advance that it’s a dialogue that goes on with the creators and the stunt coordinators and the director and everybody.
The second part of my question kind of goes back to what you were describing like the stunts and the arm-to-arm combat that you mentioned before. My family, we’re a big fan of the movie The Cave –
Perabo: Oh my gosh, cool.
Yes, we loved your part of Charlie. Does that at all help you with the stunts you have to do today or … swinging on the…?
Perabo : The Cave is one of those things that I did that has come in useful, is doing these falls. Before that movie I had never done really big stunt falls before and so I learned how to do it for Charlie. It’s come up already in the show, I go jumping into an elevator shaft, I don’t know how many episodes back, but I think we’re … in an elevator shaft from pretty high, and knowing how to do that gives you a lot more confidence …. If you’ve never done a big fall by running and jumping into an elevator shaft, it takes a lot of guts.
I was wondering, in the series beyond the first couple of seasons how will your character adjust to essentially being a much more experienced agent at that point, since a lot of the show seems to be based on your inexperience right now?
Perabo: That’s a really interesting question and that’s come up with me and the creators already. It’s funny that you noticed that. Because one of the things that I really like about Annie is how inexperienced she is, and obviously the longer we stay with her, the more she’ll gain.
What’s fun about being an inexperienced CIA agent is that you don’t follow protocol because you don’t know it. So that comes up again and again with Annie, is that it’s not that she’s particularly flouting authority, she just hasn’t had the training to know how she’s supposed to do it. So she has to come up with her own ideas. I hope that Annie will be successful enough that eventually she’ll be allowed to give it a little bit looser range, because the creativity that the writing department continually comes up with as to how Annie solves a problem is really fun to watch her do. So hopefully even with her experience she’ll just get better at creative solutions, but not necessarily become an expert. Do you know what I mean?
How do you feel about it being on the USA Network where most shows do become a big hit? Is there any pressure for you with that?
Perabo: It’s a combination. Because they’ve had so many successful shows, they have a great idea about how to create successful shows, because it’s their original programming that’s so successful. So I put a lot of faith in network notes and ideas they have about character and also about how we’re bringing the show out, like doing calls like this and talking to you guys. They have such a great track record with introducing new shows that it makes me really excited, that the show that I think is really good and going really well is going to get out there.
Did you actually do the skydiving scene in the pilot?
Perabo: No. I wish I had. I wish that the first reporter that asked me, I wish I had told them yes and I’ve just been lying all the time. But once I told one of you “no,” then I know that I can’t tell another one of you “yes,” because it’s like you guys all know each other. It’s not me. It’s just my ponytail …. The network would never have let me jump out of a plane, especially when we’re only on episode one.
Now we’ll go to the line of Mark Bower from Spoiler TV. Please go ahead.
I have a strange question. You work with Chris Gorham on the show who’s playing a blind character. Is it harder as an actress to work against somebody who is normally sighted but has to not make any eye motions and make eye contact with you?
Perabo: No, it’s not hard because Chris Gorham is such a good actor and he’s so emotionally available, that it’s really not hard at all, because the character of Auggie is really Annie’s foundation in the CIA, I trust him and I have my most intimate discussions with him. No, it’s actually not difficult at all.
Do you find yourself tempted to try to make him break character because you know he can see what you’re doing?
Perabo: I started saying to him that if we are so lucky to get to another season I think that the reveal should be that he’s not blind and we should do a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moment where I throw something at him and he catches it. But I don’t think anybody’s listening to me.
I wanted to talk to you about the love affair that Annie has that’s kind of becoming the central secret of her character. What was it like playing that? Did you draw on any inspiration for that?
Perabo: The love affair?
Yes, the guy and the island and you know who’s becoming the character as part of her back story.
Perabo: Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Southeast Asia so I have yet to fall in love with a man running down a beach. So I’m living a little bit through Annie’s fantasy life at this point. Also seeing Ian Dailey run down the beach, I haven’t seen anything quite that good in my ….
What about your own love life? There were some pictures a couple of months ago of you and Chris Pine. Is there anything going on there?
Perabo: I don’t really ever discuss my personal life. I like to just keep it for myself. I don’t think I’ll comment on that.
Well, you know I have to ask.
Perabo: I totally understand. I did an interview once where an interviewer said to me, so tell me who you’re dating. And I was like “Yes, I never say anything about that.” And she said, “Okay, well just telling me you’re dating somebody mega famous like Prince William, because I … go back to my editor.” And I was like, “I promise you, I’m not dating Prince William.”
Note: To learn more about Covert Affairs, check out the show’s website at: http://usanetwork.com/series/covertaffairs