Based on the Israeli spy series The Gordin Cell, NBC’s Allegiance (which debuted this Thursday, February 5th, and airs Thursdays at 10 PM) follows Katya and Mark O’Connor, a New York couple (played by Hope Davis and Scott Cohen) who find their lives and the lives of their children at stake when their past as Russian spies catches up with them. To make matters worse, one of those children (Alex, actor Gavin Stenhouse) is one of the CIA’s top analysts… We caught up with the show’s cast and executive producer George Nolfi (director of The Adjustment Bureau) and they told us how Allegiance differs from the similarly-themed The Americans and how their characters survive in a world where no one can be trusted.
On how the show evolved from the Israeli series on which it’s based…
George Nolfi: The project came to me. The CEO of Keshet, the company that owns the underlying property, asked to meet with me. We had a really interesting meeting. It’s a world that I thought was a very interesting way into the kind of national security spy role, which is something I’ve been interested in for thirty-plus years. Namely, this sort of central dilemma of a family that has to protect its son by spying on him. So it was just sort of a good fit with my interests and a really interesting premise. Then I met with the people at NBC and Universal, and I thought, “This is going to be a really good partnership because they seem to really want to do a show with depth and complexity and not going after the lowest common denominator.” That was exciting to me.
On what was changed from the original incarnation…
GN: The central character of Alex is quite different. The sort of the issues that he has and the way that he’s the center of an investigation, his ability to see patterns that other people don’t see, but that coupled with [the fact that] he can sort of comprehend the most complex patterns out there and facts, but he can’t comprehend the most simple social situations. That changed, and then the binding together of the notion that he was investigating something that would uncover his parents as spies. That sort of central dilemma.
Hope Davis: But the scripts are all completely new. It’s not like our episodes are retreads of the ten or twelve or however many episodes of the Israeli show.
GN: Right. The pilot takes off from that premise, changed in the way that I just talked about. Then from there, it’s a completely different ride.
On learning to speak Russian…
Hope Davis: I’m learning day by day. I was very excited to have something new to tackle in my life, and learning Russian is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn. Luckily, we have Russian-speaking cast members, Margarita and our other daughter Alex Peters. So I learn phonetically on the day. I’m learning as fast as I can.
On the controversy surrounding the pilot episode’s opening scene in light of the ISIS execution…
GN: If you look at the world today versus the world fifteen years ago, there’s probably a lot of things the average person in the public would never have imagined they were reading on the news — whether it’s a civilian jetliner getting shot down by a military missile or what happened in Paris or 9/11. I think there’s an increasing appreciation for how dangerous the world is and how serious the people, entities of all stripes are out there that want to do harm to, America, the West, whatever, civilization. So I wanted to send a message that the threat was serious and have it overhang the whole show.
On comparisons between Gavin Stenhouse’s character Alex and Sherlock Holmes, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, and The Imitation Game’s Alan Turing…
GN: I was looking for an interesting way into this particular story, this spy story, and I was also reaching back to some of my own childhood, and so it came really from that. I wouldn’t say there’s a direct relationship, but I had a pretty severe learning disability when I was kid. So the notion of feeling like outside the system, outside the normal ways of social interaction, but still having your mind work okay was something that I was very familiar with. I would also just say the character has a lot of complexity to him, and it’s going to come out over the course of the season. We’ll know a lot more about him by the end of the season than we do in the pilot, obviously. So there’s no easy label to put on him.
Gavin Stenhouse: The one thing with George’s script which was so wonderful [was] the characters have such complexity, not just Alex but all of the characters have a complex, rich backstory. Like with any great writer, like with Pinter or Mamet, when you come to the script, the research that you do to explore that character, everything is written there for you. What the character says is in the choices that they make in their life and how the people talk about the character. So in that sense, it was a very, very rich wonderful character to spend my months researching in lead-up to shooting the show.
GN: Can I take you with me everywhere?
GN: To say things like that? Pinter and Mamet.
GS:[Laughs.] I love this guy.
On the similarities between Allegiance and The Americans…
GN: Watch one or two episodes, and I think it’s pretty clear that we’re going in a very different direction. This is fundamentally a family drama about people who really do not want to be spies, and they’re forced into this situation. They’re stuck in a vise. On the one hand, they face the possibility of death at the hands of SVR, and on the other hand, life imprisonment at the hands of the U.S. government. That’s just an extremely different setup. Then where we take it is very different as well.
GS: There’s actually a lot of shows, I feel, that have superficially similar premises. Some of my favorite shows, whether it’s True Detective, The Missing, The Killing, or Broadchurch, are all based on similar things. But they’re a completely different emotional journey for the viewer. I myself have enjoyed every single one and not gone, “Oh, man, they’re ripping each other off.” It’s its own [thing]. It’s borne out of a completely different equation of writers, of actors. Yeah, I really feel like once you’ve seen an episode or two, that’s where the similarities end.
Scott Cohen: The idea that our show in dealing is an imminent danger, and we’re also dealing with the idea that it’s a 9/11 generation, a post-9/11 generation. Especially [with] a kid like Alex, who kind of grew up in New York and witnessed the horror of 9/11. Which is a little different from The Americans.