CIA agents are supposed to be a secretive sort, keeping even their closest friends and relatives in the dark about what they do. Yet in her opening scene, prospective agent Annie Walker is made by an interrogator to share some very personal information.
That’s when you know that Covert Affairs, airing Tuesdays beginning July 13 on USA Network, isn’t a typical spy show. Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) plays Annie, a young woman who finds herself plucked from lowly trainee into full-fledged agent with a major role in a dangerous mission involving a Russian assassin trying to defect. After that, the twists come as fast and as furious as the bullets, as Annie uses her skills to figure out the truth behind the assassin’s motives while trying to fit in with the unique culture at the agency.
Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) is on hand as executive producer, and the cast also includes Christopher Gorham as Annie’s blind friend and fellow agent, Peter Gallagher as an agency bigwig, and Anne Dudek as her sister.
Perabo shared with us recently about finding her footing as an action heroine, why she was so drawn to Annie, and what it’s like trying to get inside the heads of real-life CIA agents:
Did you audition for this, or did they come to you?
Piper Perabo: I auditioned for it. I had been doing Neil LaBute’s new play, Reason to Be Pretty, on Broadway, and I was kind of looking for what to do next, and this came across my desk. So many of the roles for women are the girlfriend or some kind of damsel in distress, whereas this character was clearly in charge, and even if she wasn’t fully trained, she was still the hero of the piece and that appealed to me.
You tend to stay very busy with lots of different projects coming out. Was part of the appeal of a TV series also being able to stay with one character and one story for an extended run?
The real appeal was the writing. I read the pilot and thought it was really smart. I liked the character of Annie, and especially having come right out of theater, it kind of spoils you. Playwrights have so much more time to put together a piece, and then you rehearse it for so long that you get a little spoiled for how good the writing is. So I was reading things, looking for the next job, and just not finding anything that had that kind of depth and arc to it. The way they talk in this show and what Annie goes through, the conflict with her family, it seemed to have a lot of potential. It was just so smart with the writing, and that really appealed to me as something that would be interesting to get into, as opposed to just another girlfriend character.
Annie is also very smart, being fluent in six languages. Is that an essential part of the experience for you, being able to tap into your intellectual side along with all the action stuff?
One of the action series that always appealed to me was Indiana Jones, because it’s not that he was the strongest, toughest guy in the world. Especially when you’re playing a female CIA agent, you’re not going to be able to overpower everybody that you meet, so I thought it was a really interesting and useful component to her that there is a real depth of intellectual knowledge and her languages and ways she can solve things without just punching her way in and out.
But you definitely get to do a lot of punching. Doug Liman seems to have brought a lot of the fast-paced Bourne-style action with him.
It’s really fun. It helps in circumstances that are very extreme — from an acting perspective — having really grounded concrete things that you’re trying to accomplish. It makes it easier to make it feel real. [I’ve done action scenes before, but] this is a whole different level, partly because of Doug Liman producing. He has a certain style of action that’s very handheld and tries to really convey the feel of the action. The camera guys are literally on foot with us. When we do a foot chase, there are guys with cameras running through dark alleys with us, so that’s really new to me. A lot of the guys that are coming in to play the assassins and the bad guys all have a lot of action-film background, so I’m trying to get in shape and keep up with everybody.
What kind of research did you do for Annie? Were you able to talk to real-life agents?
I spent time with agents who work in the field. I spent time in particular with one woman who is my age and who works in Afghanistan. She’s a CIA operative, and she was back in the States debriefing on her recent work there. It was really interesting, because this show also has a real humanistic approach to the CIA, it’s not just like cold and procedural. There’s a lot about the toll it takes on your real life and what are the lives like of the people who have to do this job. Going in and being able to talk to agents my age about what kind of car do you drive? What do you tell your boyfriend you do for a living? Do your parents know what you do? Do your friends know what you do? How do you hide it? How much money do you make? It’s all those questions that are really interesting when you’re trying to fill out the full life of a person, so getting to talk to them directly was really useful.
Were they able to be very forthcoming?
They were relatively forthcoming. I mean, obviously I’m sure the names that they gave me were not their real names. But things like what do you tell your boyfriend, and how do you date somebody if you’re in a two-year secret tour in Afghanistan — things like that they were really ready to talk about, because that’s something they’re struggling with. I don’t need to know where are you positioned in Iraq. That’s the kind of stuff they can’t tell me, but what they can tell me is their relationships in their real life. It’s such a struggle to have such a big secret and have so much of your life be compartmentalized in that way. They were very forthcoming about it.
Like Annie, were there some who kept their CIA ties secret from everyone they knew?
Any person who knows that you work for the CIA, it’s potentially dangerous that they could know. So it’s not that you want to keep it a secret because it’s such a juicy secret, but you’re actually keeping people that you care about safe by keeping it from them. People who were my age, most of them weren’t married yet, so the only people who knew what they did were their parents, because when they were recruited — obviously it was out of college — so they had told their parents that they were being recruited. There was one guy who was my age who was married whose wife did not know that he works for the CIA. She thought he worked for the State Department.
And your character says she works at the Smithsonian.
Yeah, that’s my cover. And I actually asked them if they thought that was a good cover, and they did. They’re like, “Oh, yeah.” You could see their wheels turning. Because the Smithsonian is so big that you could meet someone from the Smithsonian and say, “Oh, do you know so-and-so?” and it’s so big that if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be strange.
There’s a line in the pilot about CIA agents skewing much younger these days. Is that something based on research, or is that just a conceit for the show?
That’s true. Because Doug Liman was in the middle of making Fair Game (the fact-based drama about outed CIA agent Valerie Plame) when I was cast, and because of past work he’s done, he has real connections in the CIA. He organized that I could go there and spend some time at Langley, and meet agents who are my age. It’s true, it’s a very young agency and much more diverse than it was in the 1950s spy movies. They don’t just recruit men out of Ivy League schools anymore. There are a lot more women and people from all different backgrounds, and a lot of young people. Which is sort of cool and a little frightening, because you’re like, “Oh, you guys are in charge? I’m older than you.”
You’ve been in a lot of different types of movies, so what role do fans tend to know you from the most?
Kids watch the same movie again and again, so kids really remember [Cheaper By the Dozen], which is funny to me because I’m one of 12, so you wouldn’t think people would remember you. And then people will recognize me from The Prestige, which I think is always funny, because it’s such a period movie, and I die pretty early in that movie.