One evening, looking for something to watch, I found Covert Affairs on Amazon Prime. The show really engrossed me, and I started asking myself questions about politics and what it means to be a spy, both literally and metaphorically. Spy questions are identity questions in disguise, and I watched all five seasons a few times. It was in the midst of this binge watching when I spoke to a film buff friend of mine, who naturally asked me what I was watching. All I could do was confess to watching Covert Affairs, again. At which point he told me that he knew Stephen and Piper. Piper is the main character in Covert Affairs, and Stephen, her husband, is a director/producer and also a sometime actor himself. I was so engrossed in Covert Affairs that the only questions I could think to ask were about Covert Affairs. Which is ridiculous, but that is where I was, mentally. Piper Perabo is a wonderful actress, who got her start in Coyote Ugly, and is also in Cheaper by the Dozen, The Prestige, and Looper. You can find charming and extensive interviews with her online about all of her work. Stephen Kay directs and produces films, among them, Get Carter and Boogeyman, and has acted in Murder, She Wrote, Party of Five, and Quantum Leap, among many others.
Here is an e-mail interview we conducted casually, mostly about themes from Covert Affairs.
Shadowgraph: Annie gives up her family, her lovers, and her identity to pursue her mission without distraction. That is some serious commitment! I was asking myself if I have ever committed to anything so completely. How do you personally relate to Annie’s commitment? And have you ever committed to anything so completely?
Piper: I have at one time or another sacrificed one or all of these things for acting … not forever, but … while I’m doing a job, I invariably am forced to put aside many aspects of myself … it’s not directly correlative, but in some ways Annie’s passion for her job (and the sacrifices she has to make) are very similar to my relationship to acting.
Stephen: When we talk to young actors/writers/directors we often explain to them that that is part of the deal they’re making when they choose to pursue this particular passion … this is hard to understand until you’ve lived in it for a while … but neither of us would trade it for the world … (and we were very lucky to have found each other).
Shadowgraph: What else might it take to succeed as an actor?
Piper: There are a lot of variables that go into succeeding as an actor, but I think it definitely requires this level of commitment. To have a long-term success there are a lot of intangibles, like charisma, imagination, luck …
Stephen: I don’t, honestly, think that it’s possible to say what does or doesn’t make for success as an actor. I think Piper has very specific gifts and a tireless passion for the craft and a curiosity for human behavior that contribute to her success. But I think everyone’s journey is going to be different.
Shadowgraph: One of the questions Covert Affairs asks is: How do we know where trust will take us?
Piper: We don’t … that’s what makes it “trust and instinct” … that’s the adventure.
Stephen: That’s what makes the character (and Piper) so brave.
Shadowgraph: Annie mostly uses instinct to know whom to trust. For her character, this usually works out. What happens on the set when you have to trust the director, or the writer, and they have to trust you to bring the character into the fullness of being?
Stephen: Lemme jump in here 🙂 I think that’s the creative dynamic … we have to trust each other … the moments when that trust is fractured or disappears are the moments that you see things fall apart … Gary Marshall once said to me, “The key to being a good director is surrounding yourself with people who can do their jobs better than you can. And then trusting them to do them. That and change your shoes at lunch—and socks.” Our “art form” is all about trust.
Shadowgraph: Is collaboration ever stressful for you?
Piper: Of course. Sometimes. But just because it’s stressful, doesn’t mean I don’t like it. It just means I care. I believe best idea wins.
Shadowgraph: Have you ever experienced being blinded by your own desire to see something else, and thus your “instinct” was off?
Piper: Sure. All the time.
Stephen: That’s life, man. We’re constantly faced with distractions and things that can throw us off our path or confuse our clarity of intention.
Shadowgraph: How do you trust yourself again?
Stephen: You just do.
Piper: Mistakes don’t make you not trust yourself. That’s how you fine tune who you are … through practice.
Shadowgraph: When Annie “goes dark” and gives up her identity, she is sacrificing her personal life for the mission. When you’re acting, especially in a long TV series, how do you separate your personal life from the life of the characters you play?
Piper: I’m not Annie. But we look a lot alike. 🙂 I don’t feel like I confuse them. Although, characteristics that I share with Annie can be more front and center in my behavior when I’m working. Honestly, one thing I do is not discuss my personal life in the press or at work. It’s other people that assume you are just like your character, and if they don’t know about your home life they can’t draw false conclusions.
Shadowgraph: Writers might be dictating the themes of a given show but you are putting a face on it. How do you make the show and the character your own?
Piper: The first time I read the script, I like to read it all in one sitting, without interruptions. To see if something in it rings out to me. Does it ring true? For me, I’m not trying to make the character my own, I’m trying to advocate for that person, for their choices, actions, for their world view.
Shadowgraph: Because acting involves your whole body becoming a character, I would hypothesize that it could create personal issues in the actor. I think about Heath Ledger taking on the Joker and wonder if it haunted him. In this way, is acting dangerous?
Piper: Yes, it can be dangerous, depending on how the actor works on getting to what they are trying advocate for.
Also, I’ve been in scenes where the stunt or the circumstances we are shooting under can be dangerous, and it’s your responsibility, as much as the shows, to keep safe. Have “with-it-ness.” “Make safe,” as they say on set.
Shadowgraph: How do you maintain your intimate relationship with your character when the world is Tweeting and Facebooking their opinions as the show progresses? The world today is almost like an interactive and live theater. Does that affect your internal process of acting?
Piper: The show is always ahead of press and social media. What we are shooting is weeks ahead of what episode is on that night. So I’ve had time to solidify my opinions of what happened in a moment, or my character’s relationship to another long before you get the chance to comment on it. And, I try not to read a lot of that stuff when I’m shooting.
Shadowgraph: In relation to identity, do you have, as an actor, a desire to be seen as yourself? Does it bother you that the public most likely sees you through your characters and/or attributes characteristics from your characters onto you?
Piper: I didn’t get into acting so that you can know me. I’m interested in acting and story telling so that I can understand “you.” Or so “we” can understand one another better.