Interview with “Allegiance” Star, Gavin Stenhouse

Imagine that you’re new on the job, and in your first big assignment, you uncover a huge spy ring, and lear that your parents are part of it. Welcome to the world of CIA analyst, Alex O’Connor. I chatted with actor Gavin Stenhouse about his role in NBC’s exciting new thriller, Allegiance, and the charming Brit was excited to share lots of details about the show’s exciting first season. The pulse-pounding action premieres Feb. 5, and follow’s NBC’s The Black List on Thursday nights at 10pm ET/PT.

Gavin Stenhouse as Alex O’Connor

Gavin, tell me about Allegiance
The show is a spy thriller with an international mystery aspect of it. But it’s also a family drama as well, so it’s got a couple of really nice viewing points to it. And I play Alex O’Connor, a rookie CIA analyst in Russia House in the CIA, and unbeknownst to me, my parents, Mark and Katya, are deactivated spies for Russia and they left Russia and tried to make a life for themselves in America, but Russia comes back and tries to get them back on the scene and that’s what happens in the first episode.

So you’re pulled into this twisted world of espionage?
There is a lot of espionage aspects to it, it’s a really multi-layered script. George Nolfi is an incredible writer, and that’s one of the things that popped out to me when I was auditioning for the part, it really worked a number of different levels and it’s got something for everyone.

What is Alex’s reaction?
At the start, he doesn’t know anything is wrong, but he quickly starts to feel that something’s not quite right. Alex is not someone who deals with emotion very well, He’s quite an awkward guy and his areas of expertise are in processing numbers and facts and he’s more at home in front of a computer screen, or in his own head.  He doesn’t deal well with having these big ideas brought in front of him.

I don’t want to give too much away, but it will all unfold as we go through the season.

Have you gotten to play with spy gadgets?
I think Mark and Katya (Scott Cohen and Hope Davis) get to play with most of the cool spy gadgets, they’re the actual spies. I just play an analyst, I don’t get much of the cool technological stuff to play with… yet.  But who knows, maybe further down the line I’ll get to play with that stuff.

How did Alex get on the CIA route?
Alex has always been a guy who excels at school and he went to Princeton and he’s always been interested in studying his Russian roots — reading Anna Karenina at an early age — but I think the reason he went into the CIA is he’s got a very distinct sense of justice, or right and wrong, and that’s what really helps play into the show as the title, Allegiance. You see those allegiances, those fixed ideas of justice start to bend and twist and how much can you get away with and where is your allegiance now? Where is your concept of what’s fair, and what’s right and wrong, come from? Who’s the bad guy, who’s the good guy? It’s really always in a state of flux, from episode to episode.

Is that from where that turmoil is going to come from?
Exactly. There’s four main storylines, really. There’s Alex’s life in the CIA. There’s his parent’s lives. And the then there’s the Russian side; we meet some quite intimidating Russian characters, namely Morgan Spector who plays a fantastic evil guy. And little Alex Peters, who plays my little sister, who is completely oblivious to the whole thing. So I think each of those 4 story lines goes through a transformation of being faced with a problem and how to they deal with it. And they each have their own ways of dealing with it. It’s 4 different journeys that all kind of meld into one.

And while all of those storylines are swirling around each other, there’s a lot of action going on too…
In the pilot, there is actually an awesome car chase, but I won’t tell you where that comes in, so your readers will be surprised. George Nolfi wrote the Adjustment Bureau, Ocean’s Twelve and The Borne Ultimatum. He writes spy stuff very well, action sequences, really well; I read one of these action sequences in the first script and, once we finished doing it, and seeing everything, it’ just blew me away, it was like watching a feature film — it’s just incredible. The pace of this show is really dynamic; it doesn’t let you get ahead of the story; it doesn’t let you get ahead of the characters as their stories unfold. The pace is so fast that it really feels like a great way of pulling the audience along with us.

I think the concept was ambitious from the start and I haven’t seen anything yet, but from what I hear, it’s really playing on a lot of different levels and it feels very film-esque and I’m excited to see more.

Tell me about Alex’s relationships with Mark and Katya
There’s a history there between Hope and Scott and how they fell in love and how they decided to uproot their lives and move to America to start afresh and I think that they genuinely feel that they’ve gotten out of that world, before the first episode come along. And they’ve done a good job of keeping that from their youngest kids. They’ve very protective characters and we’ll see how long that lasts and how long it takes before the mirage is shattered and everything starts to spill out.

(l-r) Floriana Lima as Michelle Prado, Gavin Stenhouse as Alex O’Connor

Tell me about some of the action your character gets into.
In my world, there’s Kenneth Choi who plays a CIA operative and Floriana Lima plays a FBI agent and they’re the action guys. I don’t get a gun, CIA agents can’t carry a gun, but we did actually shoot at Langley. For me, being a foreigner, being a Brit, it was such a privilege and experience to go there, meet with people who are doing my job in the show, who I could grill and ask questions and get advice from, and just see how they work in their world. And that was a lot of fun.  I never thought I’d be able to go to Langley and see the seal on the ground and the black stars on one wall and the big black star on the other wall; that was a very exciting weekend for me in D.C..

You’ve had the opportunity to meet your real-life counterparts, do you take some of what they’ve told you and add in bits of fantasy spy characters?
Like from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?? Yeah. I mean, each actor has their own way of preparing their character, and I draw on a lot of different areas and take little bits of things that I like from different people. I try to study their characters and take what works and let the rest go. To go off tangentially, Bruce Lee says [in his book, Tao of Jeet Kune Do], “You take what works for you as a martial artist and disregard what doesn’t, and you develop you own style.” I approach acting in that same way. I try and meet a lot of people, talk to a lot of people, whether they’re analysts, or New Yorkers, or whatever, and take little bits from each person and tighten it until it becomes my own thing. But, it was definitely very cool to grill these CIA analysts about whatever I could get them to answer. Usually I was faced with, “We can neither confirm nor deny that.”

Has Russian been one of the big challenges you’ve faced on this project?
There’s definitely some Russian dialogue; it’s a very difficult language to learn. My character, Alex O’ Connor, was brought up bilingual, and so I’ve had to knuckle down with a language coach and Rosetta Stone (laughs) and get that down. And I would learn one thing and then I’d say it to my co-stars, Margarita Levieva, who plays my older sister and who is obviously Russian, and Alex Peters, is also Russian, and I’d take the phrase I’d learned and say it to them, and they’d stare at me with blank faces. And then they’d say the same thing back to me — but slightly different — and I’d say, “That was the same thing I said!”

But, I love learning languages. I try to learn a phrase or two of any language I’ve come across, and I play jazz guitar, so coming from the musician’s side, it helps you with the nuances and rhythms that are key to portraying an authentic language. So I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of it.

Allegiance is following The Black List on NBC. That seems like a pretty explosive Thursday night.
I know; we’re going to follow Red! It’s all starting to become real. And who doesn’t love plot twists and turns in every episode? It will be fun; I’m excited to see it released and see what we’ve been creating the past few months. And maybe further down the line, I could be behind the wheel, in a really brilliant car chase!

Gavin Stenhouse as Alex O’Connor image: Will Hart/NBC, © 2014 NBCUniversal Media, LLC
Michelle and Alex image: Craig Blankenhorn/NBC, © 2014 NBCUniversal Media, LLC<