Covert Affairs, a new spy drama on USA Network, premieres tomorrow night alongside the second season premiere of White Collar. The show centers around Annie Walker (played by Piper Perabo), a new CIA agent with an interesting past. Chris Gorham plays Auggie, a blind CIA agent tech guru who takes Annie under his wing. You might think that blind and CIA agent don’t go together but it really works. A big part of the reason it works is actor Chris Gorham, who plays Auggie. I recently had the chance to visit the amazing set of Covert Affairs, where we toured the “CIA Headquarters” and much more. Chris Gorham talked about what attracted him to the role, how he physically approaches it, and the possible darker side to Auggie.
What attracted you to the role?
Well, let me tell you something funny, actually—
It’s so different from anything you’ve ever done.
Yeah, it’s a really different role. But before we completely abandon Ugly Betty, somebody asked me something about, like why— somebody asked me, like, why do you think people will watch this show? Or, why do you think it’s going to succeed? And, really, what popped into my mind— and the more I thought about it, the more true it is— is that when I watched it, it really reminded me of watching the pilot of Ugly Betty. Obviously it’s a completely different show, it’s a completely different style of show. But the reason that I say that is because I feel like you really fall in love with Annie Walker in a way that you really fell in love with Betty Suarez in the first episode, you know? Like, you— this is somebody that you can trust, this is someone that you like, this is someone that you want to succeed and you don’t want to see hurt. And I feel like there’s a real kind of bridge there between those two characters. I mean, most of the similarities end there, but the feeling that I had, you know, about the main character of the show, was very similar. Now, for me, being attracted— like, you know, going back to auditioning for the part, it was a great challenge. I mean, you know, the script was really good, there were great people involved with the show, obviously, with Doug and Dave and Gene. And, you know, Chris and Matt I wasn’t familiar with before, but they wrote a great script. And the character is really interesting, you know? He’s a blind guy who’s, you know, kind of the tech guy, but he also used to be special forces, you know? I mean, he’s multi-dimensional and has a great sense of humor and some real physical challenges that have to be overcome and confronted, literally in every scene. You know, I can’t just pick up my cup of coffee and have a drink and then grab my pen and— you know, or get up and walk across the room. I mean, there’s literally nothing that I can physically do that doesn’t require me thinking it through, you know? How am I going to do that, you know? I have to find my cup of coffee before I can [laughs] pick it up and drink it, you know? I have to— everything has to be found before I can do anything with it, you know? I have to— well, I mean, that’s a really good example. And it’s a big challenge, but it makes— for me, it has really kind of re-invigorated me to this kind of storytelling, you know? Like, this kind of ensemble drama where— like, it’s completely new again, you know? Because I’ve done a lot of shows and, you know, I’ve been the lead and I’ve been, like, the expository guy and I’ve been the best friend and I’ve been the— you know, all these different types of guys. And now it’s all new. So it’s really exciting.
Physically, how do you approach it?
[laughs] Yeah, it is difficult. It’s really tricky, on a couple different levels. I mean, one, I stop paying attention to what I’m seeing. I mean, obviously, I can’t not see, unless I close my eyes. But it requires a— it’s a different kind of focus. I just stop paying attention to what’s happening in front of my eyes, and start paying much more attention to what I’m hearing, you know? Like, I can kind of look near people but I never really make eye contact. And the first couple of days were interesting too, technically, because we would shoot the master, you know, and I’d be talking to somebody like this. And then we’d go to my close-up and the camera would be right fucking there, [laughs] you know? And I’d be staring into the camera and it was like, “Damn it!” [laughs] you know? And so it required just some technical maneuvering like, okay, well where can I find my look that I’m not going to end up staring directly into the lens when we come around and— you know, and working with the director, Tim Matheson, on, you know, “Well, how does this look?” It’s one thing, like, in person, and it’s another thing— on camera it’s not always the same, you know? So, “How is this looking? Is it working? Is it not working? What’s working well, what’s— ,” you know. In the research that I’ve been doing and the people that I’ve been meeting with, especially with the guys who— and women— who’ve lost their sight as adults, they’re really good at making eye contact. It can be unnerving, because you think— you’re like, “Wait a minute, you can see me.” [laughs] You know? And it’s only when you stop talking and move over six inches and they’re still looking where you were, that you realize, “Oh no, they just used to be able to see and they know what it is— they have physical memory of what it is to make eye contact.” But I found that for the purposes of the show, I can’t really be as good at it as I believe Auggie really would be, because on camera it is confusing. So, you know, there’s kind of little variations like that, that you know, we’ve been getting better at as we go along, you know? And a lot of this stuff I’m learning as I go. I mean, I started working with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind before we started shooting the pilot. And when we came back to start on the series, I immediately called them up. And I’ve, you know, spent many days over there and met with four or five different people who have lost their sight and, you know, a couple guys who have been blind from birth, and seeing what those differences are and just learning a lot about it. And so I’m always learning new things that then I bring and, you know, put into the show. Or, you know, call the writers and say, “Oh my God, you’ve got to use this at some point, because it’s just brilliant.” Because, you know, people will be curious. They’ll honestly be curious. Like, how would someone do XYZ, you know? [laughs] Like, what would you do, you know? We had— Leslie McDonald is a woman at the Institute who I’ve been working with a lot and has been very helpful, you know. We had her— I set it up so she could come out here and work with me and Piper on sighted lead, you know, so that— To make sure we were doing it right. And it was— you know, we would do all kinds of stuff, and stuff that we may never use. Like, how do you do sighted lead in a movie theatre, you know, like for a theatre seating? Like, what do you do? Who knows if we’ll ever use that, I don’t know why we would. But it’s interesting to know, just in case. And it’s— like, there’s fun little details. There was another guy who’s a blind criminal appeals attorney here in town, who is really excited and has been incredibly helpful and is so great, and sends me— every once in a while sends me an email with, “I thought of another thing,” you know? And sends, like, a little detail, like public restrooms, you know. He says you can’t imagine how frustrating it is to be feeling around in some nasty public toilet for the lever to flush the toilet, only to stand up in frustration and the goddam thing flushes itself. [laughs] You know, like, automatic toilets, you know? [laughs] Like, these random things that can be so challenging to someone, who otherwise is so accomplished and completely— I mean, you know, who argues in the Supreme Court. Argues cases in the Supreme Court but is completely, [laughs] like, defeated by an automatically flushing toilet. It’s just great, like, those little things are stuff that— we’re always looking to find ways to put those kind of details in the show, you know? Like, I only recently learned that blind people can use iPods and iPhones because there’s an— on the 3G and above, there’s an accessibility option that you can turn on where you can operate it all with two-fingered and three-fingered taps and wipes.
Wow. And does it speak?
Yeah, and it speaks.
Would you happen to know if there’s, perhaps, someone your character was kind of based on? Like, is this unprecedented or has there been people that worked in the CIA that didn’t have sight?
Well, two things. One, the character was at least inspired by a friend of Chris Metz, who— he’s not blind, but he became disabled as an adult. And, you know, it changed who he was. So that’s kind of where the idea of that came from. So, on that level, yeah. As far as was, you know, Auggie drawn from someone in the military or from the CIA, no. But I just recently learned about, and I’m going to call and hopefully talk to, Capt. Scotty Smiley who— he has a book coming out pretty recently— who was blinded in the military, in the service in Iraq, and decided to continue his service. And now, you know, he’s got a desk job and he’s working in the military and, you know, it’s a fascinating story, and has some similarities with what Auggie went through. So I’m really looking forward to talking to him.
One thing I noticed that was really interesting was the stick, but it was—
Yeah, the laser. So how does that work? And does that exist?
Yeah, it’s— it doesn’t exist. It’s not far from real, though. The laser part of it is actually fairly old technology. They have an actual laser cane. [laughs] It looks, you know, kind of like a traditional cane, not like one of the long ones, and it shoots out three lasers. They’re not visible lasers but— you know, like on the show— but, yeah, it shoots out three lasers. And the idea was— because the light cane only protects right in front of you, like, you know, where you’re walking. It doesn’t protect the upper half of your body. And the idea with the laser cane was it can protect, you know, your whole body. So that part of it is really legit. The other part of it, though— I was actually talking about this with one of the guys that I met with, trying to figure out, like, what it would actually be. Because we, at least up to this point, haven’t talked specifically on the show, like, explained how it works. We didn’t really think it was important— or, important enough to spend time talking about, you know, the technical— [laughs] yeah, it works. But I think what we’ve come up with is, it has the laser grid but also has sonar, because the lasers would go through glass and the sonar could bounce through glass, and it gives me a vibratory feedback. And then, also, I thought it would be cool if it had a little gyro in it so it could even give me some resistance, depending on how close I am to things. But, yeah, the advantage is I can kind of whip it around and get the idea of the dimensions of a room and if there are people in here or where the objects are. I think we used it that way in the pilot, in the morgue. We’ve since decided, you know, that when I’m outside of the CIA, I’m always using just the white cane, mostly because we thought that the laser cane would attract a lot of questions in real life, and questions we wouldn’t necessarily want to answer, being— [laughs] working for the Agency, yeah.