‘Covert Affairs’ Debriefing: Piper Perabo

During The Flickcast’s set visit to USA Network’s new series Covert Affairs we spoke with Executive Producer Doug Liman about the origins of the show.  Following that we had the opportunity to speak with three of the show’s regulars, Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty, Harper’s Island), Anne Dudek (House, Mad Men) and Piper Perabo (The Prestige, Coyote Ugly).  All the interviews took place on the Covert Affairs sets in Toronto, Canada.

One thing every good television show needs is a lead character that can be relatable to viewers yet embrace the hyper-real world of fiction.  Piper Perabo, as Annie Walker, on Covert Affairs blends these two elements seamlessly.  While thoroughly convincing as a rookie CIA Officer she’s equally well-rounded as a down-to-Earth friend to Christopher Gorham’s Auggie and sister to Anne Dudek’s Danielle.  In short, Perabo effortlessly draws the audience into her world of intrigue, action and drama on Covert Affairs.

As easy as Perabo makes her performance on the series look there is a significant amount of reality behind the character of Annie Walker.  While the scripts themselves carry with them a healthy dose of real world exposition, Perabo was fortunate enough to actually do her own research for the role at the Central Intelligence Agency itself in Langley, Virginia.

Interestingly enough, it was the day-to-day details of the people that worked for the CIA that became more relevant than work specifics as Perabo explained:

“…I went and I met agents who are my age who work in the field, women, and got to talk to them.  Not just about—the funny thing is the things that they can’t talk about aren’t really the things that I, you know, I don’t need to know where your stationed or what you’re doing.  But my questions were more like, ‘What kind of car do you drive?  Does your boyfriend know what you do? Do your parents?’

You know what I mean?  There was a lot of personal stuff that they actually could talk about; even though I’m sure they didn’t give me their real names, that kind of stuff was really useful.  And because this show is like kind of a humanist approach to the CIA, just sort of seeing that it’s not a fancy car, it’s like a pretty cheap economy car.  Because you’re on a government salary, you know what I mean?

Having seen countless movies and television shows which involved the CIA I was curious by the ordinary nature of Perabo’s take on the Agency.  As such, I wanted to get her take on how Covert Affairs portrays this often enigmatic government body in contrast to other depictions:

The Flickcast: I think over the, you could probably say decades now, entertainment and the media have sort of indoctrinated us with this idea of the CIA as a villainous entity.  Like movie after movie it’s portrayed as sort of a negative, you know, embodiment.  Do you feel that this show is kind of closest to a reflection of what the real CIA is?  You’ve been there, you’ve talked to the officers and whatnot, do you think we’re getting a true picture of what the organization is about, versus the more probably fantastic nature of this villain side?

Piper Perabo: Yeah, I mean I think that the villain portrayal is probably fantastical, although I’m sure there’s truth in it.  And the people, you know the people that I was allowed to meet with, I’m sure they’re not going to let me meet with the people who are disgruntled.  You know, although Valerie Plame Wilson was our advisor on the pilot, and so I did get a really good sort of mirror view from her, you know.  But one thing that somebody said when I was there that was really interesting, it was the woman who briefed Bush.  I said, ‘Oh, like how did you feel about that, you know, are you pro-Bush or how do you feel about Obama being in?

Like do you want to brief Obama?’  And she said, ‘You know, for me it’s not about who the President is, like I work at the pleasure of the President.’ Like full stop, it’s not to President Bush or President Obama.  And she said, ‘I’m in this because I really believe in the ideals of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.’  And so for her it’s such a wider ideal that she’s fighting for, and to me that was something I could really get behind and understand.  And is much more idealistic then the things that you see in those kind of villain movies.  But that sort of perspective helped me in some ways, get behind the show, because it’s like these are people who believe in sort of ideals that I share.  And so it’s easier to sort of think, like, ‘Oh yeah, I can see why you would risk your life, you know, for that.

The emphasis on portraying real characters is not limited to personality archetypes either.  Close attention is being paid to training and tactics employed by the Agency which elevates the authenticity of Covert Affairs.  Much like the Bourne trilogy, use of firearms is limited in favor of hand-to-hand combat:

“It does require a lot of training.  We’re doing, because of Doug and the Bourne Identity, you know, Jason Bourne rarely uses a gun too, and I think it makes for a smarter character.  It’s fun to watch someone like get out of, you know, if you just blow everybody away it makes for a shorter show.  But, and CIA isn’t supposed to carry weapons when they’re on US soil. So it’s true to life in some ways.  We’ve been, the fight style that we’re working with mostly is Krav-Maga, because that’s such a tight hand-to-hand street combat, it’s what the Israeli army uses for their street combat.

And then for me, when I’m doing fighting, there’s also Win Chun with it, which was created for nuns during the samurai period and it’s mostly deflection but to use as a man’s coming at you.  Because the idea is that, like, if a man were to hit a woman, one punch—Win Chun is called the glass body technique, because one punch, you’re kind of history, you know what I mean?  You’re not really—if it’s real you’re not going to make it.  So how do use his oncoming energy to deflect and move him past you and then what hit can you get in as he’s moving past.  So the combination of Win Chun and Krav-Maga are the styles I’ll be working with.  It’s hard.  I’m tired.”

Given the efforts to make Covert Affairs as real as possible there is still plenty of fun to be had.  Perabo’s character of Annie Walker is not without charm and wit.  She’s definitely a character you’ll be rooting for as she navigates the smoke-and-mirrors world of the CIA.

Piper Perabo and all us TV Journalists (Bob Starr, extreme left)

Interesting note about the photo above (other than the fact I seem incapable of smiling…guess I was all business that day).  The set we were on was an exact replica of the Great Hall in the White House.  It was used in the film Murder at 1600 starring Wesley Snipes and set to be used for the upcoming The Kennedys mini-series from 24 creator Joel Surnow.  It is one of three White House sets that remains in permanent use; the others having been torn down after their respective productions were completed.

Check out The Flickcast as we continue our coverage of Covert Affairs, and be sure to watch Piper Perabo when the series premiers on USA Network, Tuesday July 13.

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