Oct 29 2015 1:00pm

The Many Masks of Actors and Spies: Pulling into Berlin Station

For the past year I’ve been wrapped up in a project that, to be honest, has taken a lot more of my time than I suspected it would. It’s a TV show, Berlin Station, that I’ve been creating and writing with the help of a small staff of writers in a room in New York City. By the time you read this, I will have moved with my family to Berlin to go through the rigors of preproduction and shooting, and by Fall of 2016 you should be able to see the results in your very home.

Creating a show is the inverse of novel-writing, which I’ve done for more than a decade now. The collaborative nature, the huge variety of tastes that have to be satisfied, and the way a lot of the brainstorming has to be done outside the house has forced me out of my little creative bubble. Which is both exhilarating and unnerving.                                           

Along the way I’ve had the chance to speak with some talented actors about the project. When you say you’re making a spy show, it’s people leap to assumptions: one explosion per episode, a dashing protagonist who saves the world once a week, and an unbelievably young, attractive cast. That’s not the kind of show Berlin Station is, and so when I speak with actors I find myself having to explain what the show actually is.

The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to explain why I write espionage novels in the first place. I’ve always found in the acts of agent running and intelligence gathering a useful metaphor for living, in particular the way officers have to act their way through conversation. In other words: They lie. When you’re sitting with an agent you’re running, you need to be able to reassure them even when things are not going well. Sometimes you pretend to be someone else entirely. You wear masks—a different one for each person. These are an intelligence officer’s legends, and they have to be within reach at all times.

How is this a metaphor for living? Well, we all do it. We might not literally put on a different identity, but we do bend the truth on a regular basis, particularly if we want to reassure someone.

“How do I look in this?”

“You look great.”

Often, we’ll be one person at work, another one at home, someone else with our parents, and another person with the plumber. It’s not as extreme as what an intelligence officer does, but it’s the same idea. We change our behavior in order to elicit a particular reaction. We change ourselves in order to get what we want.

When a story is going well, this can be pushed into deeper territory. If spies, or case officers, spend years wearing masks, then what are they beneath all the false personalities? Put another way: Who are we, really? Are we the person we believe ourselves to be, or do our actions create our identities? If I commit a murder but don’t think of myself as a murderer, it makes no difference: I am a murderer, and will be for the rest of my life. Perhaps the same is true here: If I wear fabricated personalities, and act like those fabricated people, then does it make any difference what I believe myself to be?

Which brings me to the actors I’ve been speaking with. I’ve been gratified to find that these talented people, once I’ve gone through my spiel, often react with complete, deep understanding. “I just got goose bumps while you were speaking,” one told me. Because this is precisely the actor’s dilemma. They spend most of the year away from their homes, wearing other people’s clothes, embedding themselves in other lives, and speaking lines that someone else dreamed up.

Another actor said, “When I get time off, I don’t know what clothes to put on. I don’t know what music to listen to. I don’t know what to do with myself.” That actor, searching for something to do, bought a farm.

This is all very encouraging as I move my way through the uncharted territory of television production. I’m working with strangers who, instinctually, and by the very nature of their jobs, understand the identity crises of spies better than I ever could, even though it’s been a major theme for my entire publishing career. I look forward to learning from them.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer, a tale of espionage, love, and deception!

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Olen Steinhauer grew up in Virginia, and has since lived in Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Massachusetts, and New York. Outside the US, he's lived in Croatia (when it was called Yugoslavia), the Czech Republic and Italy. He also spent a year in Romania on a Fulbright grant, an experience that helped inspire his first five books.

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Alma Minter
3. alminter
Your book the Tourist describe the problem of personal masks-husband&wife, and the professional one used with his co-workers. Its not that easy to be honest in many cases even though you may love or be a friend to the person. When personal survival, physical or corporate, is involved, its amazing what an indiviual will do to protect their ego. Working with actors, at least you will able to contruct the masks they wear to bring life to your character. If all the actors are as dedicated and disciplined as Richard Armitage, you have a great crew that will add to your storytelling. Looking forward to the series. Good Luck.
Alma Minter
Jane Schwarz
4. Janeschwarz
The new TV series sounds very interesting and will keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the opportunity to win your novel. I read mostly mysteries and not that many intrigue/spy novels but the few that I have, I have enjoyed and yours seems like it would be an exciting read.
Susan Kelley
5. SusanK
I'm in! Looking forward to this. Sounds like it was written for Armitage...
Chris Lantz
6. Woodchip
I love to read and live to read, sounds like a bumpersticker!
Phyllis Scott
Always love a book that catches my attention right off and this definitely did!!
Laura McLendon
8. LMcLendon
Another actor said, “When I get time off, I don’t know what clothes to put on. I don’t know what music to listen to. I don’t know what to do with myself.”
I have wondered how actors manage their real time and real self as they spend so much time being anyone but themself!!
Donna Widoe
9. Widoedm53
The comparison between the mask of the spy to the masks worn by an actor is an interesting one. We see the results of their craft and they make us believe they are truly that person they want us to see. It certainly must be a dilemma for them to peel away the masks and find who they really are underneath. I look forward to this book and to the series. Best of luck to all involved in this project.
Deb Philippon
10. DebP
Interesting topic. I'd like to read more about it.
11. Catherine Windsor
As an actor I can attest to the sense of having to find myself when I finish a role. I've never thought of it all in terms of how spies change personnas, but I can see where there's a kinship between the two professions. Interesting.
S Howard
12. Shera
OS- I found your post unexpectedly transparent and arresting. (Pun intended?? ;) I would love to win your book and looking forward even more to seeing the show!
Anna Barskaya
13. AnnaBarskaya
How to understand who we really are? - "Are we the person we believe ourselves to be, or do our actions create our identities?"

So, our actions or our thoughts?
I think, it's neither one nor the other... in the first place.
It's about trusting your own inner voice, inner spirit (not to give preference to thoughts about yourself). And THEN, actions based on it, will always show who you really are.
...It's not that easy, of course - I'm learning to do it myself. Accustomed to wearing a mask, it is difficult to hear your inner voice.
(Thank you for the article. It's very interesting. And though I don't usually read spy novels, (maybe because of this "purely logical" approach to analyzing a human mind and soul), but it was interesting for me to reflect on this subject. Especially considering the fact that my parents are both actors).
14. MCS
Thank you for this article :-)
Peter W. Horton Jr.
15. mosaix
Faces and what you wish to see! Yes!
Nancy Marcho
18. nmarcho
Love spy thrillers! My favorite genre.
Nissa Evans
22. nevans72
Hope I can. I never win anything on here!
Irene Menge
24. Goldenmane
I think we all wear masks of one sort or another to hide the self we fear or are ashamed of from others. I think we also wear masks to hide from ourselve so that we see ourselves as we would like to be, possibly not who we really are.
Susan Pertierra
25. orchidlady01
Your show, Berlin Station, and the book, All the Old Knives, both sound very interesting. I can't wait to see and read them.
28. Denise Hale
Very interesting perspective. I have been wondering how actors readjust back into their own skin. Most people have to reassess themselves at times as resistance is,about coping with change, but an actor's job is to create someone else. Does this job equip them with a better understanding of the human condition? Spies also create a subterfuge to integrate themselves and maybe to protect their inner selves. I would love to read your work. I look forward to programme too.
29. Denise Hale
Sorry it's existence not resistance, autocorrect error!
Tawney Mazek
30. tmaze
Another author to investigate - this sounds so intelligent. Jamie Lee Curtis once said something along the line of 'The more I like myself, the less I want to be other people.' which really struck a chord. (Perhaps a few mid-life crises arise from that.) I hope the tv show will someday become available to me as it sounds so promising.
Pam Flynn
31. desdemona
As Fall sets into the season it's time to read a really good suspenseful book.
Gary Anderson
32. gwander
Good luck with the TV show. I hope to see it soon. Thanks for the article.
Nissa Evans
33. nevans72
I can't seem to ever login right. My name is always in Red not Black.
Jackie Wisherd
34. JackieW
I would to read your book to report on at my book club. It sounds like a story I would enjoy reading.
Alyson Widen
35. Sunnymay
Spies hide behind masks and other get-ups to do their work while remaining somewhat hidden. They do not like blowing their covers and go to great lengths to "blend in" so as not to stand out. They each play a role and connect the pieces so that their fabricated story makes sense. And the best ones get the information desired and pass it on.
Andrew Kuligowski
36. KuligowskiAndrew
I am curious how writing a script with a team differs from writing a novel alone.
susan beamon
38. susanbeamon
I hope this show is on a channel I can watch. I'm getting tired of things being on Netflix, or Sundance, or HBO because I don't get them. Then I have to wait until the DVD box set comes out to watch.
41. Kittycat
Thanks for the chance to win! Looks good!
Joyce Mitchell
43. JoyceLm
Interesting - thanks for the chance to win.
44. vvwoman
Look forward to reading this.
46. susanadams
Some people's lives and personas do mirror those of spies. I limit my exposure to them as their reality is so far removed from my own, and I find them unsettling.
Sharron Walker
47. sharron
Sounds like a must read! If I were to win I could!
50. melissialenox
I had not previously heard about the Berlin Station project and am now eagerly awaiting it. Human personalities are merely a collection of the involuntary masks/personas present in each of us that rise to the outer surface to fit the mood, circumstance, etc. I find spies and other persons who intentionally switch their persona to meet a specific goal utterly fascinating. I view them through a lens filled with both awe and fear. I wonder, how does a person not lose their "true" self?
Michael Gonzales
53. mchlmlgnz
Love Olen Steinhauer books, so can't wait for this TV series.
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