Interview with Boris Kodjoe & Gugu Mbatha-Raw from Undercovers

Recently, stars Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw spoke with the press about their new show, Undercovers, premiering tonight on NBC at 8/7c.

From JJ Abrams (Lost, Alias, Fringe) comes Undercovers, a sexy, fun, action-packed spy drama that proves once and for all that marriage is still the world’s most dangerous partnership. Outwardly, Steven Bloom (Boris Kodjoe) and his wife, Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Doctor Who), are a typical married couple who own a small catering company in Los Angeles and are helped by Samantha’s easily frazzled younger sister, Lizzy (Jessica Parker Kennedy, Smallville). Secretly, the duo were two of the CIA’s best spies until they fell in love on the job five years ago and retired. When fellow spy and friend Nash (Carter MacIntyre) goes missing while on the trail of a Russian arms dealer, the Blooms are reinstated by boss Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney, Deadwood, Jericho, Major Dad) to locate and rescue Nash. The pair is thrust back into the world of espionage as they follow leads that span the globe — and Steven and Samantha realize that this supercharged, undercover lifestyle provides the excitement and romance that their marriage has been missing. Also starring is Ben Schwartz (NBC’s Parks and Recreation).

Jump with me to read some of the great questions and answers from the call.
When asked if they do their own stunts:

Boris: We work closely with the stunt team, but I would say we do 99% of our own stunts. The only time they jump in is when there’s a time conflict, meaning when we work on two units and we have to get stuff done. And if there’s a wide shot of a guy climbing on top of a truck or something, that can be done by somebody else, they’ll take care of that. But I must say Gugu is quite the action hero on, like, 5-inch heels.

Gugu: Yeah, we were just doing some stunts last night actually. So yeah, we pretty much do most of our own stunts. So yeah, it’s very action-packed.

On whether they were nervous before the show about the chemistry between their characters:

Gugu: We were fortunate enough to audition together which, you know, was great because we got a chance to, you know, work with each other. And also, you know, the scripts themselves are full of such brilliant, you know, dialogue. You know, Josh and J.J. have created, you know, a really great, you know, rhythm and banter between all the characters. So, no, it wasn’t [scary].

Boris: And we get to spend a lot of time together, and we both grew up in a similar environment in Europe. And so we have that that we definitely share, you know, in terms of mentality and just sensibility. So it was easy. And thank God she’s not an asshole, so it’s easy to get along with her.

On what languages they speak in real life:

Gugu: Well personally, I speak little bits of everything, but I don’t speak anything other than English fluently. But Boris is much more talented in that department.

Boris: No, I just speak a couple. I speak, you know, obviously German. That’s my mother language, and French was the second one, and then I learned Spanish when I was traveling. And, you know, the last one, I guess, was English. But she has an amazing ear, and that’s really what it takes. When you have an ear for melody, it’s much easier to not necessarily acquire a language skill completely, but at least know how to sound like a native. And we have native speakers of those respective languages on set that basically, you know, talk to us and read our lines for us so we can mimic that. Otherwise it would be impossible. Because it’s, you know, literally every single episode we speak one or two different languages, like accents. So it’s a great – it’s fun at the same time, though.

On what initially attracted them to their roles:

Boris: Well I think – I don’t think I only speak for myself if I say that it’s sort of like somebody asking you if you’d like to play a round of golf with Tiger Woods. I mean the whole project was just a dream project to be involved with. I mean starting on top, J.J. and Josh — such accomplished, you know, writers and creators who put this all together. And then with NBC backing it, all the way down to our, you know, the script and our roles, it was a no-brainer right from the get go. And to be able to play a James Bond-like character who goes from action to comedy to drama to romance all in one scene, you never get to do that as an actor, especially on TV where usually roles are pretty one-dimensional, you know. If you play a lawyer, you play a lawyer for six years. And so that is definitely probably the most enticing element to the whole thing — that we get to play roles within roles every day as we go along with these episodes.

Gugu: Yeah, I agree. I mean initially, you know, it was the opportunity to work with J.J. Abrams when we first, you know, saw the pilot script. And I was really thrilled to read the script because it was just so fast-paced and so action-packed, and so exciting and just had such kind of charismatic characters, you know, to play with. And also as far as that, you know, we really do have these multi-faceted characters, which is wonderful. You know, there’s so many different tones and different ways that we can work, you know, physically and with the accents and, you know, the romantic scenes as well as the action scenes. So, yeah, there’s so much for an actor to do.

On the challenges of stepping into the role:

Boris: I think one of the challenges was to be – and I’ve talked about this before. Being directed by J.J. means being out of your comfort zone, because he’s such a brilliant filmmaker that he does not want you to go to look for your (unintelligible). But as an actor, you start developing certain muscles that you routinely go back to every time you shoot a scene. And he has this talent to spot that and to challenge you to go a different direction. So it always keeps you off balance, but at the same time he challenges you at the same time. And as a result of it, you grow as an actor. And to me that was the most challenging part of it — always feeling that I’m off-balance and I’m a little bit uncomfortable. But then seeing the results, I understood that this was a tremendous growing opportunity and something that, you know, he sort of forced, which was amazing.

On what sort of insight JJ Abrams has given them into their characters, the backgrounds and what not:

Boris: I think one of the great things about J.J. is that he sort of provides a (unintelligible) with the general idea of the scene and the direction, and then he let’s you go, which is an amazingly empowering feeling to get, when a director trusts you to make choices. And he’s definitely that. He’s absolutely, you know, encouraging and empowering. And so is Josh, you know? And they work really closely together and, you know, Josh and J.J.’s writing just provides that sort of road map. And then you get to bring on or bring in your own sort of personal tweaks and facets to the character.

On what we can expect throughout the season:

Boris: Well I mean obviously you have the relationship of the two of us, and then us going back into the Secret Service. But you also have a bunch of great characters around us that provide tremendous – not just synergy, but also other, you know, secretive sort of story lines. For instance, Leo Nash, our partner in this, happens to be, you know, as everybody knows, an ex-boyfriend of my wife, which adds a little bit of tension here and there, a little bit of competition. And then Samantha’s sister also has a very colorful background and past that she’s trying to overcome. And then, you know, first and foremost Samantha and Steven both have a whole load of secrets that they have not discussed with each other, because they made a pact not to talk about the past. So as the episodes unfold, there’s certainly a lot of, you know, secrets and sub-stories and, you know, background that comes out as these two guys, as these people, go on their trips and solve these problems and issues on the CIA stage, which sort of adds to, you know, just to the tension between the two of them as well.

On what makes JJ Abrams so special:

Boris: I think he’s one of the only, or one of the few, filmmakers and producers in Hollywood that enjoy complete creative freedom. And when you have that, when you’ve earned that, I think it gives you wings to create. And it gives you wings to be innovative and to be daring, and to be out there and to listen to your heart. And he certainly does that. And I think that gives him such tremendous power and strength to create such amazing projects. You know, when you’re somebody who has a project who’s been sort of controlled by, you know, networks and studios, and there’s 28 people on the set looking over your shoulder at all times, it makes it pretty hard to be free. And he certainly earned that right, and he’s produced, you know, time after time. And also he’s like a kid in a candy store, you know. He really loves what he’s doing, you know. He comes to set every day with a huge smile on his face, and he never settles. In the end, he always gets what he wants. And that’s what makes him so special.

On what research each did and how they prepared for the roles:

Gugu: It was tricky to do a lot of research before we started, because it was a very rapid process. But we did do training, you know, physical training for some of the fight sequences with the stunt coordinators. And also, you know, we did rehearse. You know, we had a little bit of time. You know, we had about five weeks to shoot the pilot, and now we’re shooting an episode in nine days. So the process in terms of just, you know, establishing and beginning to develop the characters, you know, was collaborative. And as I say, you know, we had, you know, multiple kinds of other examples of, you know, spy shows and the spy genre to kind of draw on as well.

Boris: I think there’s two parts to preparing for a show like that. Number one is you have to obviously know the character and try to figure out where he came from. Spy training was a huge part of that, because Steven Bloom carries himself a certain way. And so the, you know, J.J. made a point of saying that he wanted me to turn into a fighter, so that the, you know, the choreographers had an easier time to choreograph certain elements of the fight, and I would be (unintelligible) to adapt quickly. And number two, you have to prepare for the schedule, you know. Because shooting a show like that, you know, in nine days, it’s basically shooting a movie in a week. And it’s grueling and you have to be in great shape mentally and physically to do that. And so, you know, eating healthy and working out is all part of sustaining that kind of schedule. And so I guess that was another sort of preparation that we had to deliver.

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