08.23.10

Action Heroes in Heels

From Covert Affairs to Nikita to Undercovers, this season boasts a bumper crop of ladies who aren't afraid of a little action. Shannon Donnelly talks to them about what it's like to fight in high heels.

Television's biggest badass, Jack Bauer, might have holstered his gun for good this past May, but there's a new crop of small-screen action heroes ready to take his place. They're tough, smart, ambitious, and can do everything Jack did—and they can do it in heels. Television is being invaded by kick-ass women this fall, with new shows like CW's Nikita, NBC's Undercovers, and ABC's No Ordinary Family featuring tough female characters. USA Network got a head start on the trend with its new hit Covert Affairs, which debuted last month and has already been picked up for a second season.

Covert Affairs follows Annie Walker, a newly minted CIA agent fresh off "the Farm," as she learns how to balance her personal life with her professional duties. Think Grey's Anatomy with less moping and more ass-kicking. Piper Perabo, who plays Annie, says she had to do a lot of training prior to filming to get herself into shape for the action series. Since filming began, however, she's been able to cut back on her personal training. "I've been running for half the day already, so I don't need to go running when I get home. The show has become my gym."

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All the training in the world, unfortunately, may not shield actors from the dangers of filming action sequences. TMZ recently reported that Perabo sustained an injury to her knee while filming the season finale, but said she was expected to make a full recovery.

This new breed of action women call to mind the quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels. Except Ginger Rogers never found herself standing on the ledge of an elevator shaft preparing to rappel down, as Perabo recently did with guest star Oded Fehr. "Oded at least has a full man's dress heel on his shoe to stand on that tiny ledge. I've got the spike of a six-inch Louboutin—that's all I've got to hang on with. It's definitely a disadvantage to do it in heels."

But as hazardous as those shoes are for Perabo, she's downright deadly for them. "I ruin a lot of really beautiful shoes in this show, it's kind of heartbreaking," she laughs. "The sets we're shooting on, we're in shipping yards and running through jungles, so I carefully carry my beautiful shoes all the way to set so that they don't get scuffed. But by the end of the day it's a wrap on those shoes, they're totally trashed."

Executive producer Doug Liman, who directed big-screen (and big-budget) spy thrillers like The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, says that scaling down the action for television hasn't posed a problem in the least. "We're applying the same rules that I brought to those bigger movies, because I don't believe the action in those movies was more successful because we spent more money than other people," he says. "In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, we used machine guns in place of how words would be used in a marital spat. That idea could be made bigger or smaller. For Covert Affairs, when we started working on the show, we said, 'What's our action going to look like?' The first conversations weren't, you know, 'What's the biggest explosion you can do?'"

That hasn't stopped Liman from pushing the envelope when it comes to bringing action to the small screen, though. "The stunts that we did at the beginning are so small compared to what we're doing now," Perabo says. "Because Doug is so involved, each episode gets bigger and bigger. Right now we're in the middle of the finale, and Doug keeps suggesting things for us to try and do and I'm like, 'I don't think that's physically possible!' He's so excited."

Aside from physical training, Perabo says that she and co-star Sendhil Ramamurthy—best remembered by television audiences as Heroes' Mohinder Suresh—are immersing themselves in the TV spyworlds of 24 and Alias, respectively. "We'll get to work and start comparing weapon ideas. 'Did you see this episode where he did this and that? Where do you get those darts, or that kind of silencer?' We'll go into work asking for all kinds of things that we've seen on other shows. It's exciting to think, like, if you work for the CIA, you can probably get any kind of weapon you need, so all of a sudden your imagination starts going wild."

But Liman has an entirely different stance on weapons. "Valerie Plame told me she wasn't into gadgets, that gadgets always break. There are people in the CIA who are like Q [from the Bond series] and try to come up with all these gadgets, and she would always try to avoid it. I know that from my own experience filming, mechanical things tend to not work. Batteries run out. When you take some of the toys away and you force them to use real-world technology, it actually gets more interesting."

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Annie (Piper Perabo) and Eyal (Oded Fehr) get cozy in an elevator shaft.

Liman is particularly interested in getting the emotional aspects of spycraft accurate, so he brought in Plame to serve as the technical adviser for the pilot. Perabo says she found it helpful to interrogate the former CIA operative on everything from how she'd respond to a particular work crisis to what she told her friends she did for a living. Plame and Liman, who had CIA connections due to his previous spy movies, were able to get Perabo into Langley to talk to real female spies about the same age as Perabo's character. The most surprising insight from these real-life Annie Walkers? How hard it is finding someone to date. "You can't tell a guy what you do, you disappear for chunks of time, and you're probably tougher than him," Perabo says. The trick, she says, is to find a guy who's really accepting—or one who's in the CIA. But intra-agency dating comes with its own challenges: "The CIA is big, but it's not that big. You can get a lot of information on people. These people are information collectors, so if you want to date a guy in the CIA, you can do more than just Google him."

So why the sudden explosion of female action heroes on TV? Granted, there's always been women on television who could kick your butt and look amazing while doing it, from Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman to Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy Summers to Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow. But this has to be the most girl-powered TV season in recent memory. Perabo says it's because female viewers want an escapist fantasy when they're working hard balancing families and careers. "You work all day, you go to the grocery store, you have a family to take care of, the house isn't clean… if an assassin came up behind you, God, wouldn't it feel good to just head-butt him?" she says. "I think it would, anyway!"

Liman, meanwhile, sees it as a rejection of the precedent of the way women have often been portrayed in media. "When I was in film school we even had a name for it, WIJ—Woman in Jeopardy," he says. "It was so common to treat the female characters as an attractive appendage that they actually came up with an acronym for it. I think we go through cycles." The current cycle of strong women on TV, Liman says, may have a certain Secretary of State to thank. "Probably Hillary Clinton running for president seeped into our consciousness."

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Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.