You might know her as the girl who stops a bar brawl by singing "One Way or Another" on top of the bar in Coyote Ugly. Or you may think of her as the irresponsible girl who loses her aunt's dog in Beverly Hills Chihuahua. But whatever role you think of Piper Perabo playing, it's been in a film. Last week Piper made the switch to TV, and will now most likely be known for playing CIA officer Annie Walker in USA's Covert Affairs.
In our recent video interview Piper talked about why she jumped from films to television. And in a conference call, she also discussed the character of Annie Walker in depth—from her intense fight scenes to her Louis Vuitton shoes.
Q: How did the role of Annie Walker come to you and what part did you play in creating the character?
PIPER: The way that the role came to me was I was doing a Broadway play, I was doing Neil Labute’s new play, Reasons to be Pretty, and we were almost done with our run and I was reading movie scripts and I wasn’t finding anything that was really speaking to me and my agent suggested that I read this. And I hadn’t thought about doing television, but when I read it, it kind of changed everything for me. She’s such a powerful character, she’s so smart, the action is so intense, and I really thought it would be fun to do.
Then I met Doug and I went to the CIA and I started creating the character, and I met the creators, Matt Corman and Chris Ord, and we did a lot of talking about how–because the pilot is Annie’s first day at the CIA. And so as the show continues Annie’s really a rookie, and so what she excels at and what she isn’t very good at, I think is in some ways tailored to me. I really like driving. I really like action. I really like stunts. And those are things that I haven’t gotten to do in the past and so when I told them that all of a sudden that stuff started getting more and more intense and more creative. And Doug has been very active in ramping up the action sequences for each episode we do, so I think in a lot of ways the action was even kicked up a higher notch because I was so excited to do it.
Q: How much input do you have in the direction of your character?
PIPER: I actually have input, although it’s not necessarily always on the day. Because of the action we get our scripts fairly early, and so there is a lot of time to have a dialogue with the writers and the directors while they’re in prep about ideas that come up in scenes and maybe is it possible if we do it this way. We even have a chance as actors to rehearse our scenes on our own before the day, so there is a big dialogue going on about it, but it’s not just me changing it on the day because we have our scripts so much in advance that it’s a dialogue that goes on with the creators and the stunt coordinators and the director and everybody.
Q: What is it like to be the original character in the premiere of a show, as opposed to appearing in an established show?
PIPER: Certainly it’s a lot more work on the show because of the action component and whether it’s fights or car chases or explosions, and also Annie Walker is a language expert, so right now we’re up to nine different languages that Annie can speak. So between lessons and stunt choreography and training, I’m there all the time setting the tone and creating the character. I think creating a new character always takes a lot, because you want to make sure that you’re making someone who’s full and dynamic. You don’t want to give everything away at the top. You need to have a layered performance filled with history.
So it’s a lot of work but it’s also really fun because new things come up in each episode, we’ll come to a crossroads of a decision about what would Annie do, and then there’s this big conversation with the creators and the writers and the actors about well, what has she done in the past and where do we want her to go and what would she base her decision on? And so it makes for a really dynamic and artistic set.
Q: What would you say are Annie’s strong points and shortcomings?
PIPER: Definitely language is a strong point for Annie. Then she has things that can be both a strong point and a shortcoming. Annie’s a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, and so that can help sometimes but it also can take her off track. She’s also quite a flirt, and so although that can get her in the door at some of these embassy parties, I think she can be a little distracted by all the beautiful men and she’s not always paying attention to the mission at hand, depending on how handsome the guy in the tuxedo is. Hopefully that won’t get her into too much trouble. I have that problem as well, so I can really sympathize.
Q: In the pilot we saw a lot of different sides to Annie, the vulnerable side, the tough side. Is there a lot about her that we don’t even know yet?
PIPER: There’s a lot about her that you don’t even know yet. Annie’s whole family life and also what happened in her relationship is still to unfold. And actually going back to talking about Valerie for a second, Valerie was also really generous with me about emotionally the toll that it takes keeping all those secrets from your family and your friends. And I think that her personal story that she told me was also very helpful in kind of folding into Annie’s secret and how that plays out in her relationship with her sister and her family. So as Annie weaves the lie that she has to tell so many people, the secrets start overlapping and overlapping, and it just gets very complicated.
Q: Annie is a member of the CIA and she can’t tell her friends and family. In that respect you have two roles on the show, the CIA operative and a regular person who has to keep that other side of her secret. Is it fun to play two different personalities on the same show?
PIPER: It is. The actress who plays my sister who doesn’t know what I do for a living is Anne Dudek, who is on so many television shows I can’t keep track. But she’s a really great actress and she’s very aware of the kind of balance that I’m trying to strike between my relationship at home with her and then my relationship with work. She and I have worked a lot on that and what our family is like and who our parents were and how we deal with each other, and as the season goes on we spend more and more time together. You get a glimpse of her in the pilot, but you see a lot more of her as the season goes on. She and I have worked a lot on that, about what it’s like at home for the Walker sisters.
Q: Annie is very stylish. You mentioned her closet as being very Sex and the City. Are you interested in fashion and what do you think of Annie’s clothing so far?
PIPER: I am interested in fashion. I really like it. I live in New York City and I think the women here are dressed so beautifully. I think the glamour of fictional characters and of the spy world have always interested me. I’ve never played a character who wore suits before, so that’s really an interesting thing diving into that whole line of fashion. But it’s really fun because there’s a certain fantasy element. Obviously on a government salary you can’t have this many Louis Vuitton shoes, but it is really fun to pick the ones that go best with your pinstripe suit in the morning.
Q: In the series beyond the first couple of seasons how will your character adjust to essentially being a much more experienced agent, since a lot of the show at this point seem to be based on your inexperience right now?
PIPER: That’s a really interesting question and that’s come up with me and the creators already. It’s funny that you noticed that. Because one of the things that I really like about Annie is how inexperienced she is, and obviously the longer we stay with her, the more she’ll gain.
What’s fun about being an inexperienced CIA agent is that you don’t follow protocol because you don’t know it. So that comes up again and again with Annie, is that it’s not that she’s particularly flouting authority, she just hasn’t had the training to know how she’s supposed to do it. So she has to come up with her own ideas. I hope that Annie will be successful enough that eventually she’ll be allowed to give it a little bit looser range, because the creativity that the writing department continually comes up with as to how Annie solves a problem is really fun to watch her do. So hopefully even with her experience she’ll just get better at creative solutions, but not necessarily become an expert. Do you know what I mean?
Q: What film or TV characters were influences for you as a reference point for Annie?
PIPER: There were two. One is the original La Femme Nikita that Luc Besson did. I thought that film was a great balance of the pressure of the job and the real emotional pull that it takes. Also, I loved how he handled action with a woman and I just think that movie is so beautiful and she’s so strong, and it just was a big influence on me for Annie.
Then Lee Miller, who was an artist and a war photographer, she was a beautiful journalist who put herself in the middle of these battles in order to take photographs. So I had read a lot about her and how she maintained her integrity and still was a beautiful woman amid the battlefield, and I thought that was really inspiring thinking about Annie.
Q: Why do you think we’re seeing more and more film stars making a transition to TV? This isn’t really something that we would have seen 15, 20 years ago.
PIPER: Yes, that’s an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, too. One of the things is I think there’s a lot of great writing happening in television, not that there hasn’t been great writing in television before, but there seems to be a burst of new writers, young writers writing for television and writing really dynamic, complex characters, so that will always draw actors is good writing. I also think there seems to be a surge of dramas helmed by women, which wasn’t the case before, so that draws great actresses to the screen. Damages is one of my favorite shows, and to watch Glenn Close and Rose Byrne do those scenes. It’s great writing. I think maybe that’s what got them there in the first place. I don’t know, but I would assume so. Then when you add that talent to it, it just makes for great television. So I think creating these powerful female characters is changing television.
Q: This is your first starring role in a TV show. Were you nervous when you started, and did either Chris or Peter or anyone else really give you any advice since they’ve starred on shows before?
PIPER: Yes, both of them did, actually. Both of them are so talented and successful and confident with their work on television and they understand the speed of it. You shoot television much faster than you shoot a film, and so you have to have a certain fluid quality to the scenes and be able to change them really fast and be really confident about your choices, because there’s not always time to try it ten different ways. I think our director took a real cue from that in how confidently they approached a scene and they really know how they want to do it. I’m really lucky to have both of them on the show.
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