An Interview with Christopher Gorham, Covert Affairs Star

Christopher Gorham and Piper Perabo

VisionAware is pleased to interview Christopher Gorham, who starred as blind military intelligence agent August "Auggie" Anderson in the dramatic series Covert Affairs (2010-2015) on the USA Network.

Covert Affairs told the story of a young CIA trainee, Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), who was summoned to duty, with minimal explanation, as a field operative with the Domestic Protection Division (DPD), housed within CIA headquarters.

Auggie Anderson was head of the Technical Operations Department within the DPD. He was a former Captain in the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Forces operative who was blinded while on a mission in Tikrit, Iraq. Auggie served as Annie's guide through the tangled CIA bureaucracy.

Maureen Duffy: Hello Chris. I appreciate your taking time to visit with our readers. I've read several interviews in which you discuss your audition as Auggie, including the fact that you didn't know very much about blindness back then. I am curious, however, about this: What drew you to audition for Auggie, the blind character? What did you believe you could bring to the role?

Christopher Gorham: Initially, like most of the guys who read for this part, the challenge of playing a physically convincing blind character is what caught my attention. What I needed to know before I accepted the role, however, was that Auggie would also be an emotionally convincing character with depth and complexity.

I liked the fact that he excelled at his work, but also wanted to make sure he didn't become the typical quirky computer geek that so many procedural shows have now. I wanted him to be a leading man, who happens to be blind, and I think we succeeded.

MD: And of course I have to ask this question: How do you respond to people who believe that the role of Auggie should have been played by a blind actor?

CG: Honestly, I'm almost never asked that question. Certainly, a blind actor can be capable of playing a role like this. I think that goes without saying. I really can't speak for the producers, nor the network, as to why they chose as they did. he only thing we've done, that a blind actor might not be able to do, is the flashback episode showing Auggie in Iraq before he lost his sight.

MD: Have your ideas about blindness—and disability in general, perhaps—changed since you first auditioned? If so, in what ways?

CG: Oh, sure—of course! My admiration for people living with disabilities has absolutely soared since I started working on this show.

I met a man who lost his sight at 20 years old who gave up his mobility training for an entire year because he was too embarrassed to practice walking with his cane on his street. He then worked up the courage to do the work, moved on with his life, and now works as a professional and is married with children.

I met a young man who is congenitally blind and plays drums in a heavy metal band.

And David Lepofsky, who's well known in Canada as a lawyer and disability advocate, has introduced me to all the newest, coolest technological gadgets for the blind (some of which made it onto Auggie's desk!).

The people I've met and the reading that I've done have all served to educate me about the technical, and emotional, aspects of living without sight; but, as importantly, they've reminded me how different each individual is. It's the uniqueness of each individual with a disability that, I feel, drove us to make Auggie a "real" person, not just a "blind guy."

MD: In an interview several years ago, you mentioned that most sighted people don't know any blind people, and, as a sighted person who happens to have many friends who are blind, I do agree with you. Now, of course, you've spent quite a bit of time around blind people, both as colleagues and friends. What is the most interesting thing you've learned—as Auggie or as Chris—about living with blindness?

C.G. The most interesting thing I've learned is how differently each person lives; at the same time, the training blind people receive seems to be pretty standardized. For instance, mobility training, as I understand it and have (in a limited way) experienced, is based on a standard body of knowledge. Safe cooking technique is another example of something that's fairly standard, such as using trays when pouring or not leaving knives in the sink.

What's great, and should be expected but often is not, is how each individual takes that training and then modifies it for their individual needs. For instance, I've seen one, maybe two, blind people on the street who are holding their canes the "proper" way. The rest of them are just holding it however they find comfortable.

In Istanbul, where we were shooting for Auggie's flashback episode of Covert Affairs, I saw a blind man walking, quickly, in the middle of hundreds of people with his beat-up, bent cane just kind of held out in front of him and he was one of the happiest-looking people I saw on that trip.

MD: I've also read about your rehabilitation training at CNIB in preparation for your role. This especially interests me because, for many years, I was a university professor who taught the adapted "skills of blindness" course at Salus University. What was the most difficult skill for you to learn? Is there any daily living activity (blindness-related) that you still want—or need—to master?

Photo of Christopher Gorham using a white cane in a crowded street in Istanbul

CG: Street crossing was the most difficult. I know that anyone who's gone through that training knows what I'm talking about. Until you've stood, sightless, on the corner of a major intersection, trying to listen for the traffic pattern and planning your veer so you don't walk into oncoming traffic, then walk not knowing, for sure, how far you have to go, nor, if the corner isn't very tactile, knowing for sure when you've made it all—well, you know what I mean.

That was tough, and I wouldn't go out and try it alone. And let me say this, I haven't "master"ed ANY of the blindness-related living activities! For me, this was always very much a work in progress.

MD: What were some of the more humorous things that happened to you (on or off the Covert Affairs set) related to your role as a blind person?

CG: Early on, in Season One, we had to re-shoot a scene because I realized halfway through that if Joan (senior DPD officer Joan Campbell, portrayed by Kari Matchett) wasn't leading me, and she hadn't been, there's no way I'd be able to turn the corner, during the "walk and talk," exactly at the same time she turned. To make my point, on one take I just kept walking straight - out of the shot!

Also, I added a moment, in the pilot, where Annie takes off without me, forgetting that I'm blind because we'd just met. Real, and funny.

MD: I imagine that an actor's defining role, such as your portrayal of Auggie Anderson, has particular meaning for the actor. What did you take away from this role that will remain with you?

CG: I didn't anticipate the very real positive impact that this fictional man has had, and will continue to have. I'm so proud of how we were able to reflect, with Auggie, the capability and humanity of not just the blind community, but the disabled veteran community as well. I've received hundreds of messages of support and thanks from veterans and their families. Some of those words will stay with me forever.

MD: Do you have any words for our readers who (along with their family members and friends) are dealing with vision loss every day?

CG: You stand up and move forward when others would lie down and give up. I promise you that I did everything in my power to honor you, and yours, with my work on Covert Affairs.

MD: And finally, is there anything you'd like to say to our veterans who have lost their sight in combat?

CG: I hope that we made you proud. I hope that, by portraying a disabled veteran as a strong, smart, capable, even sexy (!) member of his fictional community, we honored the very real roles you play in your very real homes, neighborhoods and careers. You are our heroes.

We thank Christopher Gorham for his support of VisionAware and the larger blindness community. You can still watch watch full episodes online at the Covert Affairs website.

All photos courtesy of USA Network.

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