If you are a woman under 30 and have ever danced on a bar, it’s a safe bet you were channeling Piper Perabo. It’s fitting that in her iconic breakthrough role in 2000’s “Coyote Ugly,” Perabo’s bar-top chanteuse was named Jersey. That is, of course, who she is – a graduate of Toms River High School North who gets back home whenever she can to visit mom and dad and stroll on the beach. The consummate Jersey girl.
“I split my time between the coasts, so I can be near my family,” Perabo says. “I love being home. I love it in the summer, the Boardwalk and all the noise and fun, but I also love the fall and the winter when it’s cold and windy and no one’s on the beach. I like to walk down the sand and pick up driftwood. It’s like I can breathe more deeply there.”
Breathing deeply is a luxury when you’re as busy as Perabo. The actress has appeared in dozens of independent films and blockbusters like “The Prestige,” “The Cave” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” She took to the stage in 2008 for the Broadway premiere of “Reasons to be Pretty” and the following year began her five-season run as CIA agent Annie Walker on USA Network’s “Covert Affairs.”
Last fall, she took on the role of TV news producer Julia George on ABC’s “Notorious,” and this year she’ll star opposite Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Black Butterfly,” a remake of a French thriller.
Perabo has become well known for playing brainy, ass-kicking characters, and she’s handily overcome the dearth of Hollywood roles for women of a certain age. At 40, she’s no ingénue, but her acting experience speaks for itself. Flawless skin, wavy blonde hair and a crazy-fit body doesn’t hurt, either.
Though she studied Latin and physics in college, Perabo had her sights set on acting from a young age. Wikipedia will tell you her parents felt the same, and named her after actress Piper Laurie. But actually, Perabo says, her choice of career was slightly less predestined.
“My father was an English professor at Ocean County College, and he needed a name with alliteration,” Perabo says. “They always supported my acting, but I don’t think that’s what they had in mind when they chose my name.”
Perabo has established herself as a remarkably flexible actress who can shift comfortably from funny and flirty to impassioned and fierce. Her performances are gripping, she says, because she works to make them as true to life as possible. In Notorious, her character was based on longtime “Larry King Live” producer Wendy Walker.
“When I got the script, one of the first things I asked was, ‘Is this based on real people?’” Perabo says. “I Googled Wendy, then bought her book and wrote all over it. I had a million questions. I asked if I could interview her, and we were on the phone for hours and hours. She was very forthcoming. Then when we went to film the pilot, she came to Atlanta and was there checking our accuracy, answering questions about journalistic integrity.”
When Perabo realized the headquarters of CNN are also located in Atlanta, she arranged to spend the day shadowing producers in real time.
“I went and sat in the newsroom, sat in on the morning meeting and in the control rooms,” she says. “I made multiple visits to CNN to learn firsthand how the world of news works.”
Perabo considers this deep-dive into her characters all part of the job, but playing a newswoman, she says, came with added pressures.
“Whoever you’re playing, whatever they do, there’s somebody out there watching who does that for real,” she says.
“If you get it wrong, they’re going to be like, ‘Yeah, that’s not how it works,’ and that’s so annoying for them. When you’re playing a firefighter on TV, real firefighters aren’t the ones writing the reviews of your show. This time I’m playing a journalist, and they are writing the reviews, so yeah, I’d really better get it right.”
Notorious’ first season met with middle-of-the-road ratings, but the network has cut the number of episodes ordered from 13 to 10. Perabo isn’t fazed. She understands the fickle nature of working in television, and for her, it seems, the work just keeps on coming. She finished filming Black Butterfly last spring, and she’s eager for audiences to see a new side of her.
“It’s a thriller, and I play this damsel in distress,” Perabo says. “That was really new territory for me, because all my other roles have been women who are so totally in charge. I had scenes with [Rhys Meyers] where he’s holding this shotgun in my face and screaming at me, and I said, ‘It’s so weird that I’m not the one who has the gun.’”
While the second season of Notorious remains in what Perabo calls “a holding pattern,” she’s got plenty to keep her busy. She’s part owner of two popular New York City restaurants – the Prohibition-themed bar Employees Only in the West Village and Jack’s Wife Freda, a SoHo bistro – and is still a newlywed. She married her Covert Affairs executive producer Stephen Kay two years ago at a rollicking, New Orleans-themed bash, for which she donned an unconventional Michael Kors gown covered in shimmering silver scales.
She’s also an avid and adventurous traveler, game for exploring busy Southeast Asian cities or scaling glaciers in Patagonia. Five years of playing an international spy required filming in locations across the globe and informed Perabo’s immersive style of tourism.
“I was sent to all these far-flung places to work,” Perabo says. “Taking a vacation is one thing, but when you get sent to work in Istanbul or Hong Kong or Argentina, it’s different. Maybe those wouldn’t have been your top choices of places to take a break, but when you’re working there you meet the crew and their families and learn the city in a different way. I love those opportunities to feel what it’s like to live somewhere completely new.”
While filming in Istanbul, Perabo encountered the region’s refugee crisis firsthand and has become deeply dedicated to helping those displaced from their homes and to spreading the word about their plight.
“We’d start filming as soon as there was enough light in the sky, traveling to the location in the very blue-dark dawn,” she says. “I’d see so many families along the river, and I asked the driver about them. He said they were Syrian refugees, families who’d walked here to find work. It was literally mothers and fathers with babies in their arms, grandparents and children. It wasn’t scary people; it was educated, smart, kind people. I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what can I do?’”
Perabo immediately went to work with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), visiting their operations center on the Greek island of Lesbos.
“I saw the work that was going on there, and it sparked all my energy,” she says. “We were meeting boats of refugees coming to shore. People were reaching the sand, falling to their knees and sobbing in relief. It’s been so hard for them and also so hard for the Greek people. They’ve been so generous now for many years, but they’re just exhausted. Imagine if thousands of people were coming to your town, and every one of them has just come out of a warzone. That’s what stuck with me; their exhaustion and their continuing ability to give.”
Since she began volunteering her time with the IRC – something she now does almost weekly – Perabo says her fame has become a tool and one she feels a pressing responsibility to use well.
“Part of what’s so helpful about being on TV is I can share information with a lot of people,” she says. “I can help them understand what the immigration process is really like, so there’s not so much misinformation out there. I can help people be calmer and more informed.”
You can read Parabo’s essay on her experience with Syrian refugees in Greece here.