'Covert Affairs' star sets high bar for craft

Covert Affairs

10 p.m. June 14, USA network

Not much frightens actress Piper Perabo. She's not afraid of auditions, or a roomful of strangers, or hauling off to New York fresh out of college with only a coffeepot, a cluster of books and a gym bag of clothes.

What does scare her is doing mediocre work, she confides in the garden cafe at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. While she doesn't claim to be a perfectionist, she quit her burgeoning career for two years to work on her acting.

That kind of dedication makes Perabo, 34, ideal for the role of the CIA agent Annie Walker in USA's "Covert Affairs."

"I'd done a movie and wasn't particularly happy with the work I'd done so I was kind of down about it," she says. "So I spoke to a bunch of different actors and asked them who they had studied with in New York, and the same name kept coming up (Maggie Flannigan)."

Perabo enrolled in the class, which follows the method of the famed teacher Sanford Meisner.

"That really changed me because, after having worked for 10 years, there are things I knew how to do and things I knew I didn't know how to do. I could tell you what I couldn't do, but I didn't know how to accomplish it. I had worked with actors who could do these things I was trying for - like I'd done a movie with Christian Bale and with Guy Pearce and these were people who were doing the kind of work I was really interested in, but I didn't know how to get there."

She ejected her old way of working and started over from the beginning. "And the combination of the experience and cleaning of the slate and rebuilding my process really changed my work," she says.

To this day she not only worries about maintaining a peak performance but about everything else.

"As an actor I have to remind myself sometimes, 'Don't worry about realistically how are we going to do this?... Your responsibility is the imaginary world.... If you're doing a scene where you get shot, or someone dies, your responsibility is just the truth of that moment. You don't have to worry about the other stuff," she shrugs her shoulders.

"If you're a practical person you can get wrapped up in 'How much time is left in the day? And, 'How are we going to shoot this?' And, 'Can you see me if I move like this?' But really your responsibility is just to live out that moment. And there's all kinds of people around you to figure the rest out."

She is so devoted to the moment that she broke her leg executing a stunt on the finale of the first season of "Covert Affairs." They placed a pin near her knee while she healed and then went back in to remove it. Today just a small red trail on the outside of her left knee testifies to that ordeal.

Perabo, who costarred in the films "Coyote Ugly," "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "The Prestige," thinks she always wanted to perform. She and her two brothers would act out on her grandmother's sun porch making folding doors and heavy curtains into an imaginary stage.

Unmarried, she doesn't like to talk about her personal life, but will say she wouldn't be opposed to marrying someday. And she has no rules about dating actors or falling in love.

"You know when you know," she says. "Sometimes you know when you see somebody and other times you've known someone for 10 years and you think, 'Oh, duh, why didn't I look at you?' I'm totally open to all. It's just the way that the cards start falling, you really make sense together."