Interview wtih USA’s Covert Affairs star Piper Perabo

By Fred Topel USA’s ‘Burn Notice ‘ shows what spies do when they’re cut off from the agency. Now USA has a more official CIA show.  ‘Covert Affairs’ stars Piper Perabo as new recruit Annie Walker. Making it in the CIA is only the beginning. Now she has to find her way through each mission, where unpredictable circumstances challenge her training. Hey, if blind analyst Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham) can do it, Annie will do just fine. Doug Liman, director of ‘The Bourne Identity’ and ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ produces the show.

Perabo joined a conference call with the media to talk about her new series. It is the first series lead for the star of hit movies like Coyote Ugly, Cheaper By the Dozen and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. She’d guest starred on House and Law & Order but Covert Affairs will give her a new adventure every Tuesday at 10 on USA.

Q: This may be the first spy show I’ve ever seen where the hero is sort of learning on the job. Do you think the eventual progression will be that Annie becomes a total kick-ass Alias type?

PP: I think Annie’s definitely going to progress in her talent and level as a spy. But I also think, when I talk to officers who really do work in the field, your whole job for the length of your career is on the fly. There are so many things that come up that you could have never planned for and trained for. These people are really, in a lot of ways, creative types because they have to solve problems that you could never imagine were going to come up. I mean, you can learn to pick locks and set explosives, but after that you’re kind of on your own.

Q: So that’s going to be the heart of the show, the constant learning?

PP: Yeah, I think that’s what makes it interesting. I think that’s certainly what interests Doug Liman. There’s a kind of Nikita quality to it or The Professional, how you see them in a situation and you see them start so quickly adapting. I think it’s really dramatic.

Q: A lot of actors say they enjoy playing cops and spied because it’s like when they were kids, only with better special effects. Does that go for a girl playing spy too?

PP: I think so. I mean I was kind of a tomboy growing up. But it’s better now. I mean the props are definitely better, and the playmates, but also your mom isn’t there to stop you. I was a tomboy and jumping off the roof and stuff like that, but it’s much more fun when I have Chris and Doug, and we’re jumping off of buildings, and jumping down elevator shafts and crashing cars. They’re encouraging you to break stuff. So I enjoy it even more.

Q: They didn’t let you jump out of that plane though did they?

PP:I’m so mad, because I already told somebody that it wasn’t me. Then I talked to the woman who jumped out of the plane and she was like, “You don’t have to say it was me.” But it wasn’t me jumping out of the plane. I would have jumped out, but USA would never have let me do it.

Q: Were you looking for a series to do to make the leap to television?

PP: I wasn’t looking for a series actually. I was in the middle of doing a Broadway play when this came across my desk. I was thinking of what I was going to do when the play ended and I was reading films, and I just wasn’t finding anything that I really connected to. When this came across my desk, not only did it have the pedigree of Doug Liman, but it was a character that I thought would be really fun to play, and even fun to play episode after episode, and how it would evolve and change. I talked with the boys a lot about how Annie would evolve but I even sort of like not knowing specifically where the story’s going. When you make a film, you kind of know where you’re going for the whole arc of the story when you begin. In this arc, I can’t see the end yet. So it makes for a whole different kind of work. I didn’t expect that, and I’m really enjoying that about having started on the series.

Q: How much do you know at this point about Annie and her mystery man?

PP: I think I know less than I knew when we started. As I’ve seen more of the Ben Mercer character, it’s gotten muddier about whose side he’s on. Somebody asked me the other day if we’re going to find out who he is by the end of this season, and even I don’t know that. It’s definitely getting more complicated than less, with him.

Q: Do you think Auggie could become a love interest for Annie?

PP: The instinct that I get from Auggie and my relationship with him is that this sort of relationship that you just start to see the beginning of in the pilot, really takes hold as the episodes continue. He’s my one person that I can touch and confide in, and not worry about failing in front of. So he becomes a really important sort of component to me being able to succeed.

Q: Because they say in the pilot the agency encourages agents to date. That’s surprising if it’s true.

PP: Yeah, that is true. I’m still kind of surprised by that. But the more you understand how secret you have to keep everything and how compartmentalized your life becomes, I can understand why you would date someone in the agency, because they’re really the only people who understand the full extent of what you’re doing in your life. So I could understand how it happens.

Q: Is it true that the CIA has a lot more young operatives because of the hiring freeze, and that there’s a Starbucks right in the headquarters building?

PP: Yeah, I went down to Langley for the day. Valerie Plame Wilson was our Technical Advisor on the pilot and so we have connections down there. So I spent the day down there and met agents who are the same age as Chris [Gorham] and I, and talked with them about their lives and what’s going on. A lot of the things that we’re drawing on from the show are based in kind of the dirty details of reality. One thing that I thought I really liked about it, and that I would like about it when I met them was, that the reason that they’re there, one of the agents that I spoke to was saying, “I serve at the pleasure of the President, regardless of who the President is.” So it’s bigger than even the momentary political agenda in that they believe in the ideals of this country. That was kind of an old fashioned and forthright mission statement that I didn’t expect. It sort of charmed me in a way that I didn’t anticipate when I first got to the CIA.

Q: Did you go to any CIA training camp or firing range?

PP: Well, right now, my character doesn’t carry a gun. CIA officers don’t carry firearms when they’re on U.S. soil. I did go to Langley and spent the day there with agents who are my age. And they briefed me a lot on their lifestyle and their training. I didn’t go The Farm where they do their physical training but I did do a lot of physical training before the pilot, predominantly combat training. You know, fight training for the hand to hand combat things that we do.

Q: What surprised you the most about the whole CIA lifestyle?

PP: I mean, I had lunch with a bunch of different agents, and one of the guys told me that his wife doesn’t know that he works for the CIA. I couldn’t believe that that really happens, that that’s how secret it has to be. But every person that you tell, it puts them in danger. The CIA policy, they said to me, is that you’re allowed to tell whoever you want, just with the realization that that’s going to put them in danger the more that they know.

Q: If you were married, would you tell your husband if you were in the CIA?

PP: I don’t think I would. When he was telling me this about his wife I really pressed him on it, and I said, “You know, I’m sure your wife’s smart,” and, “Do you think sometimes that she knows what you do and kind of has chosen to leave it the way you’ve set it up?” And he said, “Yeah, some days I think she does know where I go to work.” It’s interesting though, it’s a complex kind of dual life that they have to lead.

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