Friday, Oct. 1, 2010
When Boris Kodjoe auditioned for the role of Steven Bloom, the lead in a new TV series called “Undercovers,” he understood that he was a long shot for the part. Several other actors were in the mix and each was “a movie star,” Kodjoe said.
Kodjoe, a VCU alumnus, decided he needed to do something to stand out. Bloom’s character is a seasoned international spy fluent in a number of languages. Kodjoe, who was born in Austria and grew up in Germany, can speak four languages himself. So during his audition Kodjoe first performed the assigned scene in French. Then he did it in German. And then, finally, in English.
His performance was eye-opening for the show’s officials. They called in J.J. Abrams, the noted TV hit-maker who is a co-creator of “Undercovers,” so he could meet Kodjoe. Abrams, one of the creative forces behind “Alias,” “Lost” and “Fringe,” among others, later told Kodjoe that he knew from that first meeting that he was the right man for the part.
Kodjoe’s life then abruptly changed.
Kodjoe had enjoyed steady acting work in movies and television for more than a decade before being tapped for “Undercovers,” which airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. Now, as male lead in an hour-long network program, he’s spending lengthy days at work – sometimes as much as 18 hours at a time – and navigating the whirlwind of press coverage that the show has attracted.
In fact, the buzz surrounding the show elevated Kodjoe and his co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Kodjoe’s on-screen wife, to a new status of stardom before the action-packed pilot episode had even aired last week to good reviews.
“It’s been crazy. Really crazy,” Kodjoe said recently from the set while a makeup artist and wardrobe staffer prepared him for the next scene. “It’s also the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m really blessed to be in this position.”
When Kodjoe arrived in Richmond in 1992, he possessed limited English skills and a thick German accent. His time at VCU proved to be a rewarding period of growth. He excelled on the tennis courts, earning national rankings in both singles and doubles during his junior and senior years. He also sharpened his English, lived on his own for the first time, earned a marketing degree in the School of Business and, all in all, broadened his perspective.
Kodjoe said he often encounters fellow VCU alumni who remember him from his time on campus, including a camera operator working on “Undercovers.”
“I look back at when I was at VCU as a really great time for me,” Kodjoe said. “All of my memories are great ones. I’m grateful to VCU for the upbringing that I had there. I left VCU not only with confidence but with a lot of great knowledge. It’s a precious part of my life and I definitely attribute a great deal of my success to what I learned there.”
Kodjoe said Paul Kostin, VCU’s longtime tennis coach, was a major influence on him and the two still keep in touch. Kodjoe even flew down from a Canadian film set last year for a reunion of Kostin’s former players in Richmond.
Kodjoe said that a favorite piece of advice that Kostin dispensed helped him take advantage of his shot at the “Undercovers” part.
“He was always preaching to be prepared, to always be ready so that when an opportunity presented itself you were ready to take it,” Kodjoe said. “And I was ready.”
Kostin said Kodjoe is one of the most reliable and talented players he has ever coached – driven and disciplined, always placing team success over his own.
“Boris is an exceptional guy,” Kostin said. “He was a special kid when he was here and it’s great to see the success he’s had.”
Following graduation from VCU, Kodjoe traveled around the world as a professional model before making the move into acting. He made his on-screen debut in 1998 on “The Steve Harvey Show” and built a career from there, appearing in TV shows (“Boston Public,” “Soul Food,” “Second Time Around,”) and feature films (“Love & Basketball,” “Madea’s Family Reunion,” “Resident Evil: Afterlife”).
His role as Damon Carter on “Soul Food” from 2000 to 2004 was his first recurring role and provided him with the opportunity to settle into a part and stretch a character a bit for the first time. He points to that as a major learning experience for him. He appeared in 26 episodes in the series, and, most importantly, met his wife, Nicole Ari Parker, an actress on the show. They now have two young daughters.
Kodjoe said the regular – if rigorous – schedule of a TV production such as “Undercovers” allows him to sleep in his own bed and see his wife and children just about every day. That’s important to him.
“It’s not even a question of balance and prioritizing,” Kodjoe said. “It’s simple. My family comes first, second and third. I truly believe the only true happiness comes from family. Everything else is icing on the cake.”
“Undercovers” features Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw as former spies who return to espionage work, maintaining their cover as caterers while engaging in international intrigue with savvy and skill and enduring the customary ups and downs of married life. In the pilot, Kodjoe cracks codes, jumps from an airplane, dangles from a rooftop during an acrobatic martial arts fight and engages in an explosive gunfight. He also trades witty banter with his wife and cuts an elegant figure on the dance floor of a black-tie wedding.
Kodjoe said his character has a versatility and depth that surpasses any previous role he has played in his career. “Undercovers” incorporates elements of action, drama, romance and comedy, often in the same episode, and Kodjoe will be expected to rise to the occasion week in and week out. As a spy, Kodjoe also will be required to credibly transform himself into different characters on a routine basis.
“Being able to play a character like this is a dream come true,” Kodjoe said. “There are going to be new challenges every day that I come to work and I’m very excited about that.”
Kodjoe said he finds himself surrounded by “geniuses” on the set, including Abrams and his writing and producing partner Josh Reims.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to work with such esteemed talent,” Kodjoe said. “Every day I’m listening, learning, soaking up as much information as I can. All I try to be is grateful for this experience and to be a better actor every day.”
Kodjoe feels confident that he can handle the demands of his “Undercovers” part because of the work ethic that has carried him this far in his chosen profession. Kodjoe points to his background as a competitive tennis player when he explains the tenacity he has demonstrated pursuing an acting career. In particular, Kodjoe has had to work hard honing something that most Hollywood actors do not have to consider – his accent and fluency in English.
However, Kostin said Kodjoe has the kind of personality that thrives on challenges. If the path had been too easy, Kostin said, than Kodjoe might not have found as much success as he has.
“He’s a player who would always rise to the occasion when times were tough,” Kostin said. “He seemed to like to be in trouble. It would just make him play stronger. That’s something you can’t really teach.”
Kostin said Kodjoe will not be satisfied with simply landing the “Undercovers” part. As a player, Kostin said, Kodjoe was never one to rest after a victory. Instead, he always had his eye on the next match.
“Some people think he’s hit it big but I don’t think he has yet,” Kostin said. “I think he’s only got higher to go. I think things are going to get even better.”