Megan McLachlan talks to actress Coral Peña of NBC’s The Enemy Within about the mystery behind Anna Cruz, what spy coding is, and the NBC comedy she’d love to crossover on.
One is the loneliest number, and being a spy may be the loneliest job in the world.
On NBC’s The Enemy Within, FBI agent Will Keaton (Morris Chestnut) enlists the help of America’s most notorious traitor since Benedict Arnold, Erica Shepherd (Jennifer Carpenter), to catch another dangerous spy. In the process, they save a woman named Anna Cruz, played by Coral Peña, who has some secrets of her own.
I had a chance to chat with Peña about her new series, the real-life spy that influenced her character, and how she learned that espionage is a lonely profession.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on the show. You’ve got quite the juicy role. How did it come about for you? What was the audition like?
Coral Peña: I actually auditioned for the hacker who identifies my character in the pilot. But then all of the sudden, I got an offer for Anna Cruz. And the character wasn’t originally named Anna Cruz, so they kind of shaped it around me as well, which was nice.
AD: That’s so cool. Did you have to do any research?
CP: Talking to the showrunner [Ken Woodruff] a lot, I asked him if this was based on anyone, or any ideas of how he wanted me to play this character. He did mention there was a spy Ana Montes, who was working for the CIA and a spy for Cuba. She was the heaviest influence, someone who goes into the CIA and does normal paperwork, and then they go home and write in code all of this information to another country.
I read a lot about spies, mostly because I was curious why someone decides to be a spy. It varies of course. Some people do it for personal reasons, some for ideological reasons, and some people just do it because they get caught up in it. I did a lot of work in terms of how does someone spy and the code work that’s needed, and how lonely spy work is because you can’t really live a full life when someone is watching you at all times.
AD: What kind of coding do they do? And I know they mention it on the show with Erica. What do they mean by coding?
CP: It was almost like speaking in hieroglyphics. You can look it up and see symbols that stand for certain locations or even just words. Sometimes they’ll write things backwards. Using the name of a restaurant, and it’s actually a code name for a certain mission. Things like that. It’s insane. I can’t even explain it. How do you come up with this? There are so many different ways someone can decide to tell information without getting caught.
AD: Your character goes on quite the roller coaster in the first episode. She’s dead, she’s alive, she’s evil. Was that something you were drawn to?
CP: Let’s be honest: This type of character isn’t really written for women. Usually it’s a man who gets to play this evil character, so that was the most exciting thing for me. How often does one get to play a villain? I love Bond films. Sometimes I just watch a Bond film and think, ‘This is it! This is the kind of character I want to play!’ I was drawn to a character who got to pretend to be someone else. I thought that was fascinating.
Also, you have the main mastermind, who’s a woman, you have the lead who’s black, and I think on a bigger level, you have this type of genre that feels different because it’s opening itself up to more people. That’s one of the biggest things I love about this show.
AD: I know you can’t reveal too much, but what will we learn about your character?
CP: It’s so hard. One of the biggest things that’s revealed is her motive, why she did it. Because you think you understand why Erica did it. They give a hint as to one of the reasons why she’s been caught. It’s hard to describe without giving it all away, but one of the most fascinating things we see this season is Anna’s motive. I love the reasoning behind why she’s doing what she’s doing. It’s my favorite part about the character. The biggest thing you’ll learn about Anna is that she is in her element when gets to do this spy work; she’s her best self. She’s very alone when not in the middle of her spy work. Those are the layers I was attracted to so much.
AD: What do you think The Enemy Within is ultimately about? I get a sense that it’s about redemption, but also that you can’t trust anyone.
CP: I think the show is about second chances, how everyone has a chance to do bad and everyone has a chance to do good as well. That’s one of the major takeaways for it. The other thing is at the same time, you never fully know a person. You never know what anyone is capable of, especially when they’re put in a situation where they have nowhere else to turn.
AD: Between Blindspot and 24: Legacy, you’re on a lot of intense TV shows. Would you ever want to do something more light like a comedy?
CP: Yeah, all the time! One of the reasons Ken [Woodruff] said he cast me is because I don’t come off as super harsh, so it’s fun to put someone who is so optimistic like myself into a character. Of course, I crave that kind of role all the time. I do love Brooklyn Nine Nine, and now it’s back on NBC.
AD: You should work on a crossover!
CP: I love that show so much because as someone from New York, I feel like the cast is representative of what New York looks like to me.
The Enemy Within airs on Mondays at 10 pm ET on NBC.