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Omar Miller On How True Lies Blends Lighthearted Action With Real-Life Problems

The actor says comedy is “top of mind,” even when the spy missions get heavy.
  • Omar Miller in True Lies (Photo: Jace Downs/CBS)
    Omar Miller in True Lies (Photo: Jace Downs/CBS)

    On True Lies, a suburban plumbing problem can be just as important as an international arms crisis. That’s why the CBS series, an adaptation of the ‘90s film about a married couple that also works for an elite government intelligence agency, can feel as much like a romantic comedy or a workplace sitcom as a shoot-em-up thriller. All those moments reflect on how Helen and Harry Trasker (Ginger Gonzaga and Steve Howey) live their lives and do their jobs.

    The same goes for their colleagues. As viewers, we learn how the Traskers’ fellow spies Maria and Luther (Erica Hernandez and Mike O’Gorman) navigate their on-again, off-again romance from the way they collaborate on missions. We understand Mrs. Myers’ (Deneen Tyler) private life because she incorporates her beloved cats into her undercover work. And we grasp exactly how Gib (Omar Miller), the team leader, feels about his work family, since he talks to them like an exasperated dad.

    That’s especially true in the episode “Separate Pairs,” airing March 15. As he helps Omega Sector track a terrorist who thwarted them several years before, Gib has to manage a lot of feelings and logistics, often at the same time. Recently, Primetimer spoke to Miller about the many layers of his performance, and how everyone on True Lies learned to go deep without getting too serious.

    Watching True Lies, it’s fun to see you essentially play two characters at once: There’s “spy Gib,” who has to keep his team from dying on these dangerous missions, and there’s “suburban Gib,” who has to keep up the cover of working at a computer company and going to weekend barbecues. How do you navigate playing both halves of that character?

    Omar Miller: You know, that was one of the things about the series that was intriguing to me from the beginning. It’s really about the masks that we all wear in society. There’s a forward-facing, public persona that everyone has, and then there’s the persona they have in their private lives. I don't think those things have to be conflicting.

    So the two sides of Gib can live in harmony?

    Miller: Exactly. What I love about Gib is that you're talking about someone who plays team leader for the computer sales company, who is doubling as team leader for his other job in Omega Sector. One thing I really liked that [the writers] did, was that in various episodes they put an emphasis on the importance of maintaining the cover identity of selling computers. We can't get away with just saying we do it. We actually have to sell computers and do sales reports and deal with the mundanity of all that. And to me, that's representative of a lot of the stuff that we all have to do in real life. We have to have the discipline to balance what we have to do with what we want to do. That's a key component of being a successful person in life. It’s part of “adulting,” right?

    And Gib is absolutely the one who reminds the team to behave like adults, even if they’d rather skip the sales reports and just fly to Paris to stop an arms dealer.

    Miller: It's super important for us to get the arms dealer. It is also important to support that mission by maintaining our cover story and doing those monthly sales reports and actually selling some computers. And if you take that on a deeper level, you could say that’s what life requires. Yes, the stakes are high in our lives, but those high stakes can only be served properly by attending to some of the mundane details.

    That’s a pretty cool metaphor to be tucked inside an action show.

    Miller: But that’s tricky. When you're making a television show, it’s hard to know whether or not the audience is willing to ride with you on things like that. The audience is dealing with their own elements of real life and mundane life, and they may or may not want to see that mixed into their escapism.

    But that’s something I like about the show: For all the danger and action — and for all these deeper ideas we just talked about — it’s also lighthearted and funny. When you filmed the season, were you thinking about that comic tone?

    Miller: To us, it was foremost. It was top of mind. It was even more important than the physicality and the action stuff, because that stuff is a bit more by the numbers. It has to be choreographed, and the effects are going to be designed in a very particular way. But the element of comedy is just you and the other actors. It’s up to you to make that happen, and in a lot of ways, we were out there on our own. The directors change every week, so we were leaning on each other, to kind of set the tone. And all of us were wondering at times if it worked. We were out there trying stuff, and it was a little bit of the inmates running the asylum. And in this case, the inmates are very funny.

    Ginger Gonzaga’s performance is definitely funny.

    Miller: Ginger is just absolutely sparkling. She’s hilarious, and a lot of the stuff that ends up making it into the series will be stuff that she improvised. It was the same with Steve. He and I tried to make our relationship and our bond as genuine as possible. And for all of us, that came from spending time together off set, just trying to create that chemistry.

    As you got used to that tone, were there things you discovered about Gib that you didn’t realize right away?

    Miller: There's some stuff in a later episode where we get to learn more about Gib’s backstory, and we get to meet his father. That turns the tables, because Gib is always in control. He's a logistical quarterback, and he's usually giving advice. He's watching everything from the van, kind of being the eyes and ears of the audience, and with his father, that gets turned on its head. Now Gib is the one that needs help. That brings a mix of dramatic and comedic elements in the same scene, and that lets me understand more about who he is.

    I’m glad you mentioned Gib as an audience surrogate. In the first few scenes of “Separate Pairs,” there’s so much information coming at us, and Gib’s attitude tells us how we’re supposed to feel about it. When he’s serious, talking about the terrorist, then we know it’s a heavy moment, and when he gets irritated because nobody is doing their sales reports, then we know the mood has lifted. He’s really the emotional barometer in that whole episode.

    Miller: Yeah, and that’s tricky! This gig isn’t easy, because the show is supposed to feel fun and loose, but it’s also got these heavy things in it. It’s hard to create that ease of feeling.

    Did you have any strategies that helped you accomplish that?

    Miller: One of the main things that I did is just try to build real-life bonds with my castmates, which in my experience is what plays on screen. There’s something deeper that happens when there's a real bond, and it comes across to the audience. I’ve always found that to be true.

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    True Lies airs Wednesdays at 10:00 PM ET on CBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: True Lies, CBS, Ginger Gonzaga, Omar Miller, Steve Howey