In the new JJ Abrams/ Josh Reims’ action series Undercovers, Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw portray Steven and Samantha Bloom, a typical married couple who own and operate a small catering company in Los Angeles. Oh yes, they also used to be spies, who fell in love on the job and retired. When their fellow spy, Leo Nash (Carter MacIntyre) goes missing while on the trail of a Russian arms dealer, the Blooms are reinstated to locate and rescue him.
The most unusual aspect of this series is neither Kodjoe nor Mbatha-Raw are Americans, even though they play them on TV! Boris Kodjoe is from Germany and Gugu Mabtha-Raw was born in England. I spoke with these foreigners about their new U.S. series, and their uncannily good American accents.
We visited the kitchen set a couple of days ago, and talked with Nancy, the food consultant there, and she said that neither of you knew that much about cooking when the series started. Has your relationship with food gotten better now?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I love cooking, but sadly, I’m not an expert. So in the chaos of the kitchen scenes, which are very dynamic, we’re always on the move, we get a chance to play around with the food.
Personally I enjoy cooking, but I’m more of a spontaneous chef.
Boris Kodjoe: Yeah, I’m glad Nancy’s there. I’m not a great cook. I’m a good cook. I think I became a good cook when I had children, because we try to cook twice a day at home.
Me being from Germany, I make a lot of German meals, like schnitzel and stuff like that. So I’m getting better as my kids are getting older, and hopefully one day they will cook for me.
Where did you get this wonderful American accent?
Boris Kodjoe: Thank you very much. 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 coaches and voice coaches, and they taught me how to breathe.
When you speak a foreign language, the reason why you sound different from the get-go is because your breathing is up here, because you have a low level of confidence.
When you speak English, you breathe from down here. It was hard, I worked 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. Usually it comes out when I get really tired. It’s funny to have a Brit and a German portraying American spies. At 12 am it all crumbles. It’s all a big mess.
Can you tell us about your background in England?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I was born in Oxford in the UK. My mom is from the UK. She’s from Herefordshire. And my dad is South African. My mom is from Pretoria originally.
Was it hard to learn to speak with a British and then an American accent when your father had a South African accent?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I didn’t really hear my dad’s accent at home, because I was predominantly brought up with mom. So it was mainly a British accent that I heard. But just in terms of culture, television and movies, I was brought up very much with American TV shows, American films, so immersed in the culture all the time.
I think it sort of subliminally seeps in.
I’ve always had a good ear for mimicry when I was a kid. I always used to do voices and things like that, and I’m relatively musical. So I think it was very much a natural thing, picking it up from watching TV.
Boris Kodjoe: 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. Like, ‘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. So 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 now to where it’s pretty normal to me.
How long ago was it that you came here and started really learning the dialect?
Boris Kodjoe: I came here in ’94. I came here 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. They spoke Swedish to me. That’s how we learned English!
What kind of training, if any, did you have for the part? Did you learn anything about weapons?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Well, for me, it was a relatively rapid casting process, but I did a lot of fight training. I got a chance to work with the stunt coordinator on various martial arts styles, a little bit of a Capoeira. I come from a dance background. So a lot of the stuff that I’ve done has kept me limber.
In terms of all the fighting and kicking, and that sort of thing, it’s already part of my body chemistry. And I did a lot of accent work as well and a lot of dialect and language lessons.
This seems like the best kind of role that an actor could have on a TV series, because there are so many shadings. You’ve got humor. You’ve got drama. You’ve got action. Can you talk about that?
Boris Kodjoe: It’s absolutely ridiculous, and my head explodes when I think about it because you’re right, 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.
I guess it’s a challenge, as well as it is a blessing, that we’re able to do this.
We have the opportunity to go from action to drama to comedy, that as an actor, this is truly something that’s a once-in-a-lifetime situation.