Watching over Chuck is a full-time job for Yvonne Strahovski.
Soon after she was cast as CIA agent sarah Walker on the NBC TV series Chuck, Yvonne Strahovski asked Josh Schwartz why he gave her the part. After all, she was an unknown Austrailan actress with no U.S. credits to her name, and not a likely candidate for a primetime show. Schwartz -who co-created Chuck with Chris Fedak- didn’t have to think long before giving his answer.
“He said it was because I could be really sweet and then switch into a lethal agent, which was necessary for the role,” says Strahovski. “Also, being athletic and looking convincing holding a gun didn’t hurt.”
Indeed, the 25-year-old Sydney native -who recently opted for a more accessible, easily pronounceable surname than her original Strzechowski- excels in fleshing out the duality of her role. And in so doing, she deserves credit for helping make Chuck the artistic and popular success that it is.
“Sarah is really good at what she does,” explains Strahovski. “As a CIA agent whose role is to protect Chuck [Zachary Levi] and the government secrets he has in his head, she can deal with dangerous situations and handle them very well. And Sarah can certainly take care of herself. But it’s an uphill struggle for her when it comes to normal daily situations, just being a normal human being. This is a different kind of assignment for her, because she must protect Chuck and pretend to be his girlfriend in order to provide both of them a cover. At the same time, Sarah gets to see a part of Chuck’s life that she doesn’t have: his family and friends.”
She meets his sister, Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), who cares about Chuck’s job opportunities no less than his prospective love life; Ellie’s amiable boyfriend, Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin), whose extra-curricular achievements match his ability to have a cozy home life; and Morgan (Josh Gomez), Chuck’s loyal friend, whose heart is in the right place, even when his fanboy behavior is consistently immature.
“Chuck’s family and friends show her that there are people who are compassionate and innocent,” explains Strahovski. “Most of the time, all she sees is the negative side of people.” That’s because Sarah is in a business rife with intrigue, back-stabbing and diabolical plots. “She sees Chuck’s innocence and vulnerability and is attracted to it, because she doesn’t have that in her own life.”
And yet her cover as a hot-dog maker -at a fast-food joint that requires her to wear a Swiss Maid uniform, complete with apron and pigtails- is oddly appropriate: Behind her hard-boiled exterior, Sarah has a vulnerable core that strives to be heard. But yearning for normalcy takes a backseat to a life of danger, duty and, yes, excitement.
“There’s a tragic element to Sarah, because she can’t have a normal life,” says Strahovski. “She can’t ever trust anyone completely, and that comes into play when she falls in love. Sarah might have to leave the country or simply disappear overnight. That’s part of the dangerous life that she leads. And yet she’s human and has a heart. Everyone needs to feel love and have a family and friends, yet she’s forbidden to do that.
“At the same time, she enjoys her job -even if she has to learn to enjoy some parts of it, such as having to teach Chuck the ropes. It isn’t an easy task to instruct him about her world, because Chuck is so clumsy and innocent and doesn’t know what to do much of the time. It’s like constantly having a child around. But that’s part of the fun as well.”
That rapport helps Chuck to lose some of awkwardness, just as it points out to Sarah why she should be more in touch with her humanity. “When you put two people like Chuck and Sarah together, they’re going to rub off on each other,” reasons Strahovski. “Chuck will pick up tricks that her never knew, and she’ll have her eyes opened a bit more to a world that she craves, but which she can’t have most of the time.”
Although the traditions of serial TV may require Chuck’s protagonists to become romantically involved, the show’s creators are taking their time before nurturing such seeds. “Sarah and Chuck are obviously attracted to each other from the start,” offers Strahovski. “I don’t know what’s going to happen -whether they will get together- but it would make for an interesting dynamic if they became a real couple.”
What Chuck may see in Sarah goes without saying: a beautiful blonde who isn’t bashful and has a bag of tricks up her sleeve. But it takes a greater leap of the imagination to explain what Sarah sees in Chuck. After all, she has a relationship with Chuck’s ex-pal, the late, rogue CIA agent Bryce Larkin (Matthew Bomer), whose mastery of treachery matched his dashing good looks. If anything, you would speculate that Sarah would be more inclined to see romantic potential in the likes of the similarly dashing (though infinitely less conniving) Captain Awesome.
“Even though Sarah was in love with Bryce, it was hard for her to fully trust him, because she was in the same line of work,” says Strahovski. “When you join the CIA, you sign your life over to the government -serving the country comes first. But also, some women like good-looking guys, and other girls fall for nerdy ones. It comes down to personal taste.”
Personal taste factors into Strahovski’s attraction to her role, which she approaches with the experience from her years of drama school Down Under. “I learned a who bunch of things, and I’ve come up with my own way of reading the script and preparing the part,” she explains. “And then there’s the physical element that my role entails -the fight scenes, and the choreography that requires. I have a strong dance background. I danced from age five till 18, and that helps a lot. Doing a fight routin is like doing a dance routine.
“Also, I recently started kung-fu training to make it look even better!” she adds. “I just love the physical stuff, stunts and fight scenes. I was more of a tomboy growing up. I never liked makeup or painting my nails. I loved camping, hiking an rock climbing. So the physicality of this role is very attractive to me. I get to use all the skills I acquired growing up.
“In the early episodes, I didn’t contribute as much to the fight choreography. We have a stunt and fight coordinator who create the routines. But in an episode we shot recently, I request certain things for the fight sequence. The more fights that I do, the more I realize what I can do, and what I’m good at. I like to do kicks, because I’m flexible, and high kicks look good on camera. I loved Kill Bill. I remember watching that and thinking how much fun it would be to perform those fight scenes. And now, I get to do it!”
Strahovski cites “Chuck vs. the Wookie” as her favorite episode so far. In it, a rival agent named Carina (Mini Anden) requests Sarah and Casey’s (Adam Baldwin) help in stealing a diamond from a vicious drug lord. However, the two are reluctant to help, because they’ve had negative experiences with Carina before. Once they agree -and with Chuck in tow- Carina proves yet again that trust is a luxury secret agents can ill afford. The episode includes a sizzling confrontation between the two women, both of whom display that they’re as adept at kicking as they are at punching.
“It had lots of action and laughter in it, but also lots of heart,” says Strahovski. “those three elements are the key to our show’s success, and together they attract all kinds of people to watch.”
“Chuck’s appeal also has to do with the amiable mood and jovial spirit among the talent on the set, which seeps into the small screen. “We have a really good relationship,” remarks Strahovski. “We have loads of fun, and are always joking around and making fun of each other. With Adam, because we have a competitive on-screen relationship, we tend to play it up off-camera as well. Before a scene, we’ll make fun of each other and tell each other to shut up. We do have conversations where we’re nice -but we’re also mean like we would be in front of the camera!
“With Zach, it’s pretty crazy, because he’s pretty crazy on the set. I guess we all feed off that. It’s so much fun hanging out with the cast: We sing and dance, chase each other around and flirt. We’re like children on the set, especially when we shoot past 1 a.m.”
When the cameras are rolling, however Strahovski doesn’t face a similar comic challenge. “I have a serious role,” she states. “The comedy comes from Chuck and the Nerd Herders, the Buy More characters and Chuck’s family. My side of the deal is to bring in the show’s more serious, action elements. But I did have a comic moment with one of the Nerd Herders, who tries to see if he has a chance with Sarah…and it doesn’t o down very well.”
It’s only fitting that her major credit is a fantasy series, not only because the actress is a SF fan who likes “ALIEN movies and Jurassic Park,” but also because it’s part of her upbringing. “My parents both have scientific backgrounds,” she notes. “My Mom is a lab technician, and my Dad is an electronic engineer. I grew up around that, and I do enjoy SF movies and television. What appeals to me [about the genre] is that it’s about exploring your imagination and how far you can go with things, imagining what life could be like if the world were different or circumstances changed or aliens came for a visit…”
Her other movie credits include a small part in Gone, The Plex (“an Australian romantic comedy I did last year, where I play one of the workers at a multiplex”) and The Canyon. “I shot The Canyon right after the Chuck pilot,” says Strahovski. “It’s about young newlyweds who go to the Grand Canyon for their honeymoon with a guide, and end up getting lost. It’s a dramatic thriller with tragic elements. We filmed at beautiful desert locations in Utah, Arizona and the Grand Canyon.”
The pleasure Strahovski finds in her chosen metier harks back to her childhood, when fun and games helped pave the way to a full-fledged career. “When I was young, I was such a showoff,” she remembers. “I used to make my best friend do home videos with me. We would set up the camera a shoot all kinds of things -mock commercials we had written, pretend shows, fake documentaries- and play all the different characters. We did crazy things, really funny stuff. My family and friends loved it when we showed them the final product.”
Encouraged by their feedback, Strahovski took drama courses at school. “I also did it as an extracurricular activity with an ensemble,” she says. “We performed musicals and other things, and right after high school, I got into drama school and then started working professionally in Australia for three years before I came here. This is my fourth year in the industry.
“In October 2006, I came here for a couple of weeks to get a manager, but then I had to go back home, where I was working on a series called Sea Patrol. My managers in the U.S. were submitting me for all these parts, and so I would go to ta studio in Sydney, make audition tapes and send them as files over the internet. Last February, I came back [to the States] for the pilot season, and a few days afterward, I got a phone call saying that they had watched the tape I made for Chuck and wanted me to come in. By the end of the week, I had the job. It was pretty crazy.
“I came [to the States] thinking I would stay for three months -I had a return ticket for that date- to get some experience and see how things were. I intended to come back a year later and maybe get lucky and land a job. But to have it all happen in a week was unbelievable. And now, nine months later, to have a lead role in a TV series, as well as a lead role in an American film under my belt, is just great.”
Now a LA resident, Yvonne Strahovski feels that the industry has embraced her. “People here seem to like Australians. And essaying a badass CIA girl, I get to do things I could never imagine doing in my own life. Just to have the opportunity to play a whole bunch of different people in one lifetime…What an exciting life!” – By Dan Yakir
Starlog Magazine, 2008.