The NBC series Undercovers is a sexy, fun, action-packed spy drama from writer/producer/director J.J. Abrams and executive producer/writer Josh Reims. As far as their family and friends are concerned, Steven Bloom (Boris Kodjoe) and his wife Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are a typical married couple with their own catering company in Los Angeles. But secretly, the duo were two of the best spies the CIA had ever known, until they retired five years ago. Now, they’ve been reinstated by their old boss, Carlton Shaw (Gerald McRaney), to locate and rescue a fellow spy who has gone missing.
In a recent interview, actor Boris Kodjoe talked about what a dream come true it is for him to play this role, how much he enjoys getting to do his own stunts, and what an honor it is to be the lead on one of the most-anticipated series of the Fall TV season. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Boris: After awhile, marriage gets a little stale and you’re looking for something to scratch that a little. The opportunity to come back to the spy game represents that invigoration of our love life and our marriage. I don’t think they quite know. They’re not quite aware of what that entails because, when you’re a spy without responsibility, it’s easier to risk your life than when your wife is next to you. So, it causes a lot of obstacles and problems they’re not anticipating, at this point.
Did you speak to any CIA guys for research?
Boris: I did. It depends on what the situation calls for, but it’s just a matter of discipline and commitment that they carry themselves with. I try to do that as well.
What do you like about your character, Steven?
Boris: It’s a dream come true to play this guy. He’s the alpha James Bond type character. He’s a loving husband. I get to be funny, I get to be tough and I get to kick ass. There’s absolutely nothing about this character that I don’t like. It’s so much and it’s everything. It can’t be defined by one specific genre, and that’s what’s so great. Usually, when you’re on TV, you end up playing the lawyer or the cop, and you end up saying the same lines, over and over, week after week. After awhile, it gets stale. For an actor, part of the appeal of being on the stage is that it’s always different. In this show, it’s like doing a play.
Boris: I’ve spoken Korean, German, French and Spanish, all in one scene. Every episode, I get at least one or two fight scenes. I did a fight scene in the kitchen with pots and pans, and hand-to-hand combat with knives. Every episode has something else, and I go, “Wow!”
Have you gotten hurt at all?
Boris: There’s not one part of this body that’s not hurt.
How long did it take to choreograph the rooftop fight in the pilot?
Boris: We work with Joey Box and Rob Alonso, the best fight choreographers in the business. They make everything really organic. It’s not like a Hong Kong style of fighting where it’s more like an art form than it is fighting. They want it to look gritty and real, so that’s what we do. I’ve been training with them for six months.
Was that on a stage?
Boris: No, it was on a roof. It was actually the Biltmore in L.A., 30 floors up.
Did you hang from it for real?
Boris: I hung from it, but I was wired, of course. I like the fact that J.J. [Abrams] said to me, “Look, I want you to do as many stunts as you can because it just adds to the reality of the show and it gives the director more freedom to cut back and forth.” So, that’s what I’m trying to do.
Where do you actually get to go on location?
Boris: J.J. has resources that are just incredible. He has top of the line technology that allows us to shoot anywhere in the world, really. When we walked in front of Notre Dame in Paris in the pilot, it was the USC campus.
Did you come here to the States for tennis?
Boris: Yeah, I was a professional tennis player in my teens. I played mostly in Europe. I was top 10 in the world in juniors, and then I messed up my back. I had three herniated discs and that put a stop to it.
Boris: I play a little bit, yeah.
You had three herniated discs and now you’re jumping off buildings?
Boris: Yeah, you’re right, but I learned how to cope and manage and do yoga. For this show, I have to be in impeccable shape just to be able to do that kind of fighting.
Did you up your game when you landed the role?
Boris: Yeah, absolutely. I have to be very disciplined because the hours are ridiculous. We shoot 12 to 14 hours a day. To do all that physical stuff yourself, you have to be on a nutritional plan. I have six or seven meals a day. I eat every hour and a half, and make sure it’s all clean. I have absolutely no sugar at all.
What are you doing to work out for this?
Boris: We do all the mixed martial arts training. I work out on the beach. I do a lot of calisthenics and bio-metrics. No weights. I just want to stay limber and cut, and just healthy really. I don’t need a gym. You can do a lot without the gym, so that’s what I’ve chosen to do.
Was it an intentional or accidental transition into show business for you?
Boris: It was both. On the one hand, I came to America because of a tennis scholarship. I really wanted to get away because I was really frustrated about my injury so my mother said, “Go to America for four months and just open your eyes and see that there’s more things than tennis.” That’s what happened.
What’s the secret to doing all the sexy love scenes on the show?
Boris: It’s so not sexy and intimate. There are 40 people in the room. There’s a guy with his belly hanging out, with a boom in your face. It’s really very technical. I think doing a love scene is tougher than doing a fight scene. It’s so staged and you can’t put light on her face and you have to hit the mark. There’s nothing sexy about it, but if it comes out to be sexy on screen, we did a good job.
Is working with your own wife a good idea or a bad idea?
Boris: I love working with my real wife. First of all, she’s a tremendous actress. She’s incredible. We have a good time together, no matter what we do.
Is it good for the marriage for couples to work together?
Boris: I think so. When you work as actors in this business, you spend a lot of time apart. That’s why a lot of marriages fail. It’s not because of Hollywood, it’s because you don’t spend time together. So, we choose to spend time together as much as we can.
What do you love most about your wife?
Boris: I love the way she looks at me because she looks at me like she looked at me the first time we met. I try to do the same, every time she walks in the door. I think it’s very important because we tend to take each other for granted, and that’s not a good thing.
How’s the chemistry with you and Mekia Cox, now that she’s been added to the show?
Boris: Mekia is great. She’s amazing. She’s a very talented actress. It’s tough for somebody to come in and replace somebody else, and she’s done an amazing job. We’ve welcomed her into the family. The cast and the crew are just beautiful people. That makes it easier to create good work.
Did you know going in that this would be a huge centerpiece show for NBC?
Boris: I don’t know. It’s funny, Josh [Reims] usually tells the story that I refused to come in and read for this part because, going through this process over and over in Hollywood, I’ve come to the stage so many times where I got the feedback, “They love you. You’re great. It’s amazing, but they chose to go another way,” means they went with a white actor. So, when I first heard about the show, I was like, “I’m not going to waste my time and fly from Toronto, where I was shooting Resident Evil, to come in and read,” until they called me from casting and said, “Look, we know who you are, we know what you bring and we want you to come in.”
Do you enjoy carrying a show?
Boris: It’s a tremendous honor to be asked to carry a show. It’s a very fortunate situation because we have great elements to the show. We have a network that supports us, which is not a given. Even though you’re picked up, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to get the support, so this has been really incredible.
This is the kind of role that any actor would kill to have on TV because there are so many shades to it with the humor, the drama and the action. As an actor, what do you see in this role, in terms of being able to play so many things simultaneously?
Boris: It’s absolutely ridiculous, and my head explodes when I think about it because it’s an absolute dream come true for an actor. Usually, when you talk about serialized TV, you’re talking about one specific beat that you play, over and over again. It’s a challenge as well as a blessing that we’re able to do this. We have the opportunity to do this, and there’s so many genres mixed in one. As an actor, this is truly something that’s a once-in-a-lifetime situation, packaged and wrapped in with so many elements that are perfect. At the helm, we have the incredibly talented and funny undercover comedian, Josh Reims, who comes up with these just truly mind-boggling things for you to say that are so true to life. At the same time, we get to go on these rides all around the world, and to these exotic locales, and kick butt. It’s amazing.
Is there one aspect to the role that’s tougher than the others?
Boris: It’s all tough, but at the same time, it’s such a fantastic opportunity and so much fun that you forget about how tough it is because, every day, you’re challenged with a new scenario. We shot in a strip club and I had to speak three languages. That, right there, is a dream come true, in itself. Literally, I’ll be in a scene, speaking three different languages, and in the next scene, I’ll be fighting two secret agents. It is amazing. I can’t believe that this is happening.
What does it mean to have two black actors lead this show?
Boris: I think it’s important to recognize the fact that it is somewhat revolutionary. It’s not the norm, although it should be the norm because that’s what the world looks like. The world is diverse, and we come in all kinds of different shapes, sizes and shades. Traditionally in TV, it hasn’t been the case, and therefore it needs to be commented on. So, I want to make a point that it is important that we get a chance to be trailblazers or door-openers, or whatever you want to call it. On the other hand, let’s inspire people to regard it as normal, so that more and more people don’t consider it taking a chance, but just being creative. At the end of the day, that’s what we all try to be. Even though it’s a corporate industry, and even though it’s show business, to have that freedom is something that we aspire to. Josh and J.J. have led the way and, hopefully, the world will open up to it.
Where did you get your wonderful American accent?
Boris: It wasn’t always like this. When I first got here, I couldn’t really speak English that well at all. I met some great dialect and voice coaches, and they taught me how to breathe because, when you speak a foreign language, the reason why you sound different from the get-go is your breathing since you have a low level of confidence. I had to learn how to draw up my breathing, and it was hard. Three hours a day, I would study and do these exercises. When you see my earlier work, you can still detect a very distinct German accent. After 12 hours on the set, it usually comes out when I get really tired. It’s funny to have a Brit and a German portraying American spies. At about 12 a.m., it all crumbles and it’s a big mess. It’s one of those challenges, but it’s something that I welcome. It’s a great opportunity.
Boris: I came here in ’93, ’94 on a scholarship to play tennis for VCU in Richmond, Virginia. They brought in a bunch of international players, and I was one of them. I roomed with two Swedes. I spoke German to them, and they spoke Swedish to me. That’s how we learned English. And, my English was so bad that somebody walked up to me and said, “What’s up?,” and I looked up. Literally, I had no idea what was going on. That’s how it started.
Does it just come naturally for you now, or is it still a challenge?
Boris: Colloquialism is the toughest part of what we do, as foreign actors, because there are certain sayings that you guys have that absolutely don’t make any sense. “Go out on a limb.” What does that mean? Gugu and I have similar processes when it comes to acting in American. I have to picture stuff. I visualize things, so I can understand what it means in this language because I’m thinking in German. I go from the German picturing of the item, or whatever it is that I’m doing, to saying it in American. That process has shrunk down to where’s now it’s pretty normal to me. But, colloquialism is really a huge deal. Some of the things that are in the script, I literally have to go to Josh and say, “What does this mean? What is he really saying? Is he saying anything?” And, he looks at me like I’m crazy.
Are you doing The Big Chill remake?
Boris: I don’t know. Somebody put that up on IMDb. I have no idea.
UNDERCOVERS premieres on NBC on September 22nd