'Covert Affairs' Interview: The Executive Producers on Casting, Location and the CIA's Starbuck's
'Covert Affairs' Interview: The Executive Producers on Casting, Location and the CIA's Starbuck's
Laurel Brown
Laurel Brown
Senior Writer, BuddyTV
Having leaped into its second season with both feet, Covert Affairs made its Comic-Con debut this year in San Diego. After their packed panel in Ballroom 20, the stars and producers of the show spoke to reporters. Among them were the show's executive producers Chris Ord and Matt Corman.

How did you decide to do something like Covert Affairs?
We wanted to do a CIA show, but we wanted to portray the CIA in a way that we felt really hadn't been seen, or certainly underserved, which is no one really looks at the CIA as a workplace. They're usually, the missions are so intense. You never really get to know the characters behind it. So we wanted to say, well, the CIA in actuality is a workplace. People go to work just like us. They have to pay rent. They wanna get a date, they wanna get married -- all those problems that we all have, they have, but they're just doing an extraordinary job.

We just wanted to do a more humanistic view on the CIA, because whenever you go and pitch a show to a network, they've seen a million cop shows, they wanna know how this one differs. They heard, probably, other CIA pitches that day, so you have to say, "This one is different because it's about the workplace, it's about people and how they interact." So that will serve our way into it, and it just kind of evolved from there. We always want the action to feel gritty and realistic, and that's something you got from Doug Liman, our partner in this. We never wanted it to feel too choreographed. That's sometimes hard to achieve, but we wanted it to have a visceral nature, so...

Because if it's visceral, you feel that it's real. And, you know, if you're portraying the characters and you feel they're real and they're in a situation that you feel is real, you're gonna be invested that much more in the characters. If Annie's a superhero, you're not that concerned if she's gonna make it through. And granted it's a TV series, she's probably gonna make it through...

That would be a big shock, a big twist.
And that's the end of the story!

But if we didn't have the grounded characters, and the grounded action, people wouldn't invest themselves, the audience wouldn't invest themselves in the same way. I think once the audience is invested they get that much more out of it.

Talking about casting, did you guys have any ideas in your head prior to the show?
Unlike some writers who sort of write with a person in mind, we sort of just wrote characters we figured we could fit in a cast afterwards. You know, we saw a lot of girls ... it's amazing combination of attributes. Intelligent, sexy, and you'd plausibly believe she could do these languages, and as Chris said in the panel, it's just like a lightning bolt went off, when [Piper Perabo] came in and read and we just realized that... there she was. She just came to life in front of our eyes. It's almost like you can see the whole show spiralling out in front of us for five years, or whatever, in this moment. It was pretty special.

Was it almost immediate when you saw her?
It was immediate. It was immediate when she started.

The second she walked in. She just looked the part. You know, some actors actually try and dress for the part. Some don't, but she did, she was wearing this dress that seemed appropriate for the character, and she had the right look, and when she started doing the scenes, it was so easy. But we had seen probably 15... 15 to a hundred actors... 15 to a hundred actors come in and read, and you want to see everybody, you want to see what's out there, and if you don't do that due diligence, you're not serving the show. But, you know, no one touched what she did.

How much research went into portraying the CIA workplace?
We've been fortunate to have some really good access to the CIA. We've been there several times, and it was hard to get in at first because they're not very user-friendly, they're not very forward-facing... They don't reply to e-mails.

But somehow we found a guy who recently worked there and at first they were skeptical. They're often maligned in TV and movies as sort of bumbling, they're just conspiracies about aliens in the basement or whatever, poisoning us through the water... but slowly they realized that we're trying to portray it very honestly, and this year we were lucky enough to bring all of our writers to Langley for a full day there of interviews and tours. It helps a lot, just to get the physical geography of the place, and also to see the people that walk the halls. As a writer you have to soak up every little detail like a sponge. So, you wanna see how people dress. What they're eating for lunch. Just anything that might be best for our story.

I'd say that that was the moment, it's in the pile that crystallized the human element for us, which is, you walk into this place and there is a Starbucks in the CIA. And, you know, it makes so much sense that you serve coffee. Who doesn't? But you never think the CIA has a Starbucks because, like, all we know about the CIA is movies and television, and they're always so fixated on their work, so intense. We saw there's a Starbucks there, and we're like, "This is a revelation!" I mean, that was a really amazing moment when we first went, and from there we can kind of see the human side.

And we love it. We love going there as often as we can. It doesn't get old. Like, if you go in, in this building that you really shouldn't be in, other than making a TV show there's no legitimate reason -- there's certainly no national security reason for us to be in there.

We had to wear a badge, sort of like this, that had a big V on it for "visitor"... Like a scarlet letter. Yeah. And, um, we went into some ops centers where they had almost like police things going on. They were silent, but that was to indicate that there were outsiders and no one should talk about anything sensitive.

It's cool! The defining moment was, we were getting our first tours, just Matt and myself, and we were just writing the pilot, and the guy showing us around, he said, "I hate to break this to you guys, but I kind of have to go and take a leak, and I can't let you out of my sight, so you have to go to the bathroom with me." So we're just sitting there while the guy goes to the bathroom. Had he left us alone, security would have swooped in and brought us down to the gate. You have to be monitored all the time.

We have a great writing staff, and we really, at the start of each season, try to emphasize research and, you know, if we're going to go to a country, let's learn about the country and what's interesting about the country... And, if possible, go there.

We're doing Paris and Istanbul. I mean, it's a great opportunity, and a rare one in episodic television, to be able to actually send the crew and actors somewhere. Anywhere. And we always feel fortunate to do it, because it shows up on screen, and you absolutely can't fake Istanbul. Not well.

Do you have any plans for new locations?
Yeah. We're hoping to go to Berlin, and hopefully Stockholm.

Berlin and Stockholm are on the wishlist for the winter season. USA does 10, which were in the run-off now, and we're doing six that will be airing in November or January.

So is this the first time Covert Affairs came here?
Yeah, it's the first time I've been to Comic-Con. Yeah, but it was really exciting to be in there. Just great energy.

It's very nice. We want people who like the show. We make the show for people to enjoy it. It's just nice to see people who share the same enthusiasm we have for the show, because it's hard to put it out there, you know, all you get are sort of ratings back ... you get little numbers. It's nice to put faces to the fans and really feel that.

When you guys travel on location, the guest cast -- do you cast on location or do you bring them?
It's a combination. For example, the Paris episode, we cast a woman in Paris and brought her back to Toronto. But the Turkey one, we cast the people there and just shot them there. And we brought Rebecca Mader from Toronto to Istanbul. It's a combo. Whatever, you know, part of it's can you get a good actor? And part of it is, logistics.

Click here to check out video of the Covert Affairs Comic-Con panel.