“Undercovers” stars Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw play married caterers who get re-activated by the CIA to get back into the spy game.
The new fall show has a few distinctions: It could be NBC’s best shot at redemption, but it also stars two black leads. Their ethnicity shouldn’t be considered unusual, considering the country’s diversity, but it’s the first question a critic poses at Friday’s (July 30) NBC press tour day.
“J.J. [Abrams] and I wrote the script originally, we decided we wanted to write it like ‘The Philadelphia Story,'” says executive producer Josh Reims. “You know, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, but they’re dead, so we didn’t hire them. We started out by saying, ‘Let’s just see every possible incarnation.’ We didn’t want to see the same people we’ve seen on TV 10 million times, who look like any other cast. When Boris and Gugu came in, we knew immediately. ‘Okay, these are them.'”
Reims emphasizes that it wasn’t the goal to find black actors, but they were thrilled to hire them. “We don’t consider that we’re revolutionizing TV, at the same time we realize it is a big deal. Unfortunately that’s the way it is right now.”
Kodjoe agrees, “I think it’s important to recognize the fact that it’s not the norm, although it should be the norm because that’s the way the world looks like. The world is diverse and we come in all shapes, sizes and shades. Let’s inspire people to regard it as normal so more and more people don’t consider it taking a chance, but just being creative.”
Ethnicities aside, what’s probably more fascinating is that the two leads on “Undercovers” are foreigners. In the TV landscape, it’s become fairly common that at least one lead and perhaps a supporting actor could have accents, but be playing American.
Reims observes, “The funny thing is that when we started casting, J.J. and I said adamantly to the casting director, ‘We are not hiring any foreign actors for these roles. We can’t deal with them faking American accents.'”
What did they get? Mbatha-Raw is from Oxford in the UK, and has a very posh British accent, while Kodjoe is German-born and still cooks schnitzel for his kids.
“[My dialect] wasn’t always like this,” says Kodjoe in seemingly flawless American. “I came here in ’93 on a scholarship to play tennis for VCU. They brought a bunch of international players and I was one of them. There were two Swedes. They spoke Swedish to me, and I spoke German to them. That’s how we learned English. My English was so bad, someone walked up to me on the street and asked, ‘What’s up?’ and I looked up. Literally, I had no idea.
“I met some gerat dialect coaches,” he continues. “It was three hours a day I was studying, and when you see my earlier work you can detect a distinct German accent. And after 12 hours on the set, it comes out. It’s funny to have a Brit and a German portray American spies at 12 a.m., it all comes out. It’s all a big mess.”
Mbatha-Raw at least grew up speaking English, so she only had to pick up an American accent, which she doesn’t find too difficult.
“In terms of culture and television and movies, I was brought up very much with American TV shows and American films,” she says. “I was immersed in the culture all the time, so it subliminally seeps in. And I’ve always had a good ear for mimicry. Even when I was a kid I used to do voices and things like that.”
“Undercovers” premieres on Sept. 22 on NBC.
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