Interview: ‘Covert Affairs’ co-star Anne Dudek

For the last few years, Anne Dudek was one of the more ubiquitous faces on television, even though she didn’t have a regular job. Instead, she bounced around three different series at once, playing the ambitious Amber Volakis (better known as “Cutthroat Bitch”) on “House,” Betty Draper’s best friend Francine on “Mad Men” and Alby’s number one wife Lura on “Big Love.” In all three roles, Dudek always left me wanting more, and I still believe the “House” producers made a big mistake picking any of the other three fellowship candidates over Amber.

Now she has a regular gig on USA’s “Covert Affairs,” and while the role of Piper Perabo’s civilian sister Danielle isn’t as colorful or prominent as I might have hoped for when I heard she was going to be on a spy drama, she seems happy with the change of pace it offers. And after hanging around on the series’ margins for most of its first season, Danielle finally moves closer to the center in tonight’s episode, where the two sisters take a trip to Niagara Falls together, only for Annie’s spy life to again intrude on her personal life.

Back when I was at press tour, I sat down with Dudek to talk about her triple-threat years, the appeal of playing somebody normal, the challenges of being a 5’10” actress, and more, all after the jump…

You’ve been kind of ubiquitous for a while now on a lot of shows, but it was always in a recurring capacity. Now that you’re a regular here, are you prevented from doing “Big Love”? Or if Matt Weiner called up and said, “We need Francine,” could you do that?

It’s possible. My home now is this show, “Covert Affairs.” But those shows were things I’d been involved with a long time before this. It’s definitely possible to be involved in a limited capacity.

So I’m wondering, having bounced around to a lot of high-profile shows, how you came to land on this one.

It was good timing. I had just had a baby, so I was back looking for projects, and then this show came about. It was really interesting to me, because it is so different from the other shows I’ve been working on. This person is a lot more normal. (laughs) I’m not this extreme eccentric crazy person. There’s a crazy world, but I get to react to that, which is interesting.

When I first heard you were in this, I assumed you would be a spy, and I was looking forward to that. But you’re the normal one, and that sounds like something that was maybe appealing to you.

Yeah, sort of. Playing the misunderstood character has been really interesting to me. But I think after too long, that also becomes a little bit of a cliché. Or that’s all you’re expected to do. I didn’t want that to be the totality of what my career was. So it was really nice to have this option, and really nice to realize this is a possibility as well for me. It’s very flashy to be someone who’s murdering someone, or who’s overtly competitive and evil and bitchy. Those are really juicy, really fun roles. But that’s not all there is in terms of acting. This is a fun, different kind of genre. It’s light-hearted, which I like. And someone that I can relate to, which is interesting to me. Believe it or not, you do these extreme scenes where you’re in a polygamist compound, and it’s almost like, “How would I play a scene where I’m someone’s sister and we live in Washington, DC and my life is very stable? What would that even be like?”

I’m wondering what the experience was like when you were first playing Amber. David Shore would always say, “We didn’t tell them anything, we didn’t have our minds made up. It really was a try-out.” How was that for you working as it went along, and when did you get a sense that, at the very least, they were going to keep you around for a while?

I never got that sense. I went into it very excited thinking, “Oh, wow, I have a chance to be on this great hit show,” and I want to do everything to have my chances be as good as they can possibly be. And then the scripts would come in where my character was doing these awful things, and she was sooo evil! I knew going into it from my audition that she was menacing and hyper-competitive, and had a very evil edge to her, but I didn’t really understand that that would be really all she was doing on the show. Just massive hijinks, and she was the villain. Thinking about it, I didn’t have the foresight to see it in those terms, that she was the Omarosa – the person who’s in these contests who’s super-evil. That’s who Amber ended up being.

The worse the antics she had, the more I sort of went home and said, “There’s no way they’re going to keep me here.” You can’t have a character like this as a series regular. She’s too evil. They’ll want to see her go down in flames. There’s no way I’m going to be chosen. So I was very sad. Normally, as an actress, you’d be so excited: “Oh, I get to do this scene! It’s so juicy and so great!” But I looked at it and said (sigh), “Oh, I’m not going to be in the show, because of this horrible thing that she’s doing.”

So I fully expected to not be picked as a regular doctor on his team. And then it was a total surprise that they wanted me to come back and continue on sort of in a different storyline.

Did you ever get the sense that maybe they regretted having cut Amber, and they were just looking for a way to keep her around?

I don’t know. I think they grew to really like all the characters that were in the competition, so it was very hard to work them into that world and then see them go. I don’t know if it was regret. (Producer) Katie Jacobs told me that they made the right decision. She really didn’t want Amber to stay on the show in that way. I don’t think it was that kind of a deal, but I think they saw there was more to Amber than being this completely evil entity.

Over the course of the rest of that season, you actually wound up getting more to do than the three who got the job. You didn’t get long-term employment, but in a way was it maybe a better outcome for you?

Financially, no. But artistically? Sure. But I loved that character from the start. It was disappointing to realize she’s not going to stay around forever, but the stuff they wrote for me – you don’t see stuff like that on primetime television. It was something really special. It was riches, every time I got a script.

During the time you were recurring on the three shows at once, did the production ever overlap? Or was there always time in between? ‘Now I’m Amber… Now I’m Francine…’

They overlapped sometimes, I think. People ask me, “Oh, was that so hard?” But it really wasn’t. Especially with something like “Mad Men,” with the costumes. And the writing on that show was so wonderful that you slip into that world very effortlessly, I think. It wasn’t very schizophrenic or crazy. It was an actor’s dream come true to have all of this work, all at once, very different things, different characters in different worlds. It was a complete gift.

I’m assuming “House,” simply because it’s the most popular, but was one of those roles the one you tended to be recognized for the most?

Yeah, “House.” It’s on non-cable network, and had a very wide audience, and those fans were very passionate fans, so if they were a fan of “House,” they would recognize me if they saw me on the street.

Plus, Amber looks more like you than the other two.

Yeah, a little bit more. The other ones, I have some hair and makeup stuff that’s more extreme. Nobody ever recognizes me from “Mad Men,” because they darken my hair a little bit.

Did you know Piper Perabo before this?

I didn’t! I wish I did. She’s the greatest!

Talk to me about developing the chemistry you need to play somebody’s sister.

Well, you worry about that. You show up on the first day and you think, “Are we going to seem sisterly? Are we going to have any sense of a shared past? How is this going to be?” I’ve never been in a situation where you had to work at developing chemistry with someone, luckily. With Piper, it was immediate. She’s so warm and open and friendly that she immediately sets you at ease. I feel like I’ve known her for a very long time, so the sisterly thing felt so natural to me. She’s tremendous.

Obviously, you can’t tell me too much about what goes on as the season goes along. But given that your character is the one who’s out of the loop, what’s your feeling like being on-set where everyone else is running around in the glitzy CIA offices and the toys?

I’m jealous, just because the quality of all that action stuff is so high. Doug Liman comes in every episode and plans out the fight stuff, and that’s really amazing. But the other strength is these characters are interesting people. That’s the part of the show I’m involved with: this really important relationship at the center of Annie’s life. That’s fun for me. But I do want to have a high-tech computer screen and some CIA gadgets at some point, please.

Well, “Alias” is not the exact same show, but there came a point in that series where all the normal people in Jennifer Garner’s life eventually became spies or got involved in that world. If Doug came to you one day and said, “Alright, Danielle is going to go on a mission…”

I would be so excited. Hopefully, a mission on a tropical island that we have to shoot on location. And some action sequences we have to shoot on a helicopter, over a beach would be ideal. I would love to do that kind of stuff as well.

Okay, my last question is something I’ve talked about in the past with Christine Lahti and Allison Janney, and they say being tall as an actress has sometimes been problematic for them, because there’s a lot of short actors in Hollywood who don’t want to be looking up at their female co-stars. Have you found that to be the case?

Yeah, I think so. I don’t really know on the jobs I don’t get – nobody calls me up and says, “Yeah, you were too tall!” I don’t know if it was that or one of a bunch of other factors. But it is awkward. I can’t wear heels. Look, I’m wearing heels today, where this is one of the few occasions in life where nobody tells me to take them off. Definitely, when I was younger it was harder because that’s when you’re up for a lot of roles that are romantic situations, and yeah, the men are shorter, or at least they want to have a classic proportion with the woman being shorter than the man.

Well, do you feel now that you’ve become more of a character actress that’s become less of an issue? You certainly have not lacked for work in the last few years.

Right. Maybe they’re writing more tall characters. (laughs) I don’t really know. In a way, I don’t want to know what’s being said in casting offices, because it can get pretty brutal, and I don’t want to have to think about the reasons why I don’t get one job or do get one job. I can say, “Oh, my height,” and that’ll make me feel better, but I don’t know for sure.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at