The immediate hook of the CBC’s new drama The Romeo Section, premiering Wednesday, is that the spy seemingly at the center of it all is very unspylike. Played by Andrew Airlie, a familiar face in Canadian film and TV going back two decades, Wolfgang McGee initially presents as a rumpled professor who might be something else — he’s a little bristly about some topics but otherwise very congenial and approachable. It’s a fantastic role for the actor. I had the chance to talk one-on-one with him last week about the new drama, and inhabiting a character who’s not quite what he seems.
In the last couple of years, Airlie has recurred on TV shows as varied as Mistresses, Intruders, and Cedar Cove. If those don’t ring any bells for you, his IMDb will — he’s worked a lot. Fans on the street still recognize him from his Stargate days, and this year, he started getting fan mail for his role as Christian’s dad in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Airlie came to the show through the standard audition process, and he’s having a ball. “I wish I could say that Chris [Haddock] brought the project to me and that he had written it with me in mind. None of that happened. I went in like everyone else and read for it. I came back and saw Chris and his executive producer Stephen Surjik and we worked the scenes a little bit and he put my name forward, and there we are,” he says. “I am unreservedly and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. It’s been just fantastic to date.”
Out of the gate, the first episode paints a picture of several intersecting characters that’s not entirely clear, and Airlie says that will crystallize for the viewer over the course of the season. “I think it does become a little more clear. With Chris’s style of writing, he is a little elliptical and deliberately obscure. He doesn’t like to hit a nail on the head,” he explains.
“He trusts the audience to lean in a little and pay closer attention. Not [to] make them work harder, but he tries to build intrigue and have them [evaluate what is the truth]. He assumes the audience is intelligent and that they will be looking for this type of show. It’s a different kind of show. He’s sort of Dickensian in his storytelling. If you stay with it and are intrigued, [earlier threads] will come back later [and make perfect sense].”
Airlie’s character is a professor juggling a second, covert career. “You’ll see that he has been a past working operative in Canadian intelligence, and now he’s a contractor. He works as a freelance intelligence spymaster, if you will,” he says. “His primary career is as an academic, but he has stayed in the intelligence game because he needs the access to that world to complete his magnum opus in academia. Hopefully that will be clear to everyone. Yes, he’s a professor by day, and not that he’s a spy by night, but yes, he does have a second career that has kept going.”
One thing you’ll notice in the series is that it’s not overtly 2015 — characters smoke cigarettes and drink freely. Airlie says those elements serve the story in terms of the aesthetic and the plot, and in some cases whether or not Wolfgang is actually partaking is part of the ruse. “Some of the cinematic aspiration of our show is to have a little bit of a noir feel,” he points out. “There’s some visual homage to the noir style in the smoking, the drinking, and some of the reflection. Hopefully people will enjoy [that and find that it] feels new but a little old at the same time. It’s quite deliberate.”
Airlie previously worked in the Da Vinci and Intelligence universe, and he loves being back in the Haddock fold — in front of and behind the camera. “It does feel old school. So many of the crew are back from Chris’s previous shows,” he says. “There’s a shorthand and a trust. Most shows, if you’re on them long enough, they feel like family, but sometimes it’s a dysfunctional family. On this show, it feels like the family you want to be in. We’ve got an amazing ensemble. Everyone’s storylines are great. It’s a joy to be a part of it. We’re a very tight cast.”
Here’s hoping they’ll all be together for a while.
Photo and Video Courtesy of the CBC