When I say “‘40s female secret agents in pop culture,” the first names that will likely come to your mind are Peggy Carter and Bridget von Hammersmark. But with CBC’s new World War II-set spy series, X COMPANY, the name Aurora Luft may become equally as synonymous in this league of characters inspired by the true stories of women who boldly defied traditional gender norms of their time.
Played by ORPHAN BLACK star Evelyne Brochu, Luft is a half German-Jewish, half French-Canadian journalist who is recruited to join the Allies’ top-secret espionage organization based at Camp X, a real-life training camp — located between Whitby and Oshawa on the shores of Lake Ontario — that trained British, American and Canadian spies.
A sergeant to four fellow recruits — Alfred Graves (Jack Laskey), Tom Cummings (Dustin Milligan), Harry James (Connor Price), and Neil Mackay (Warren Brown) — Luft lends not only her experience as a reporter working abroad but also her remarkable ability to speak three languages fluently: English, German and French.
When we’re first introduced to Luft in the pilot, she puts her talents to the test in a life-threatening undercover mission to help the Resistance defeat vicious Nazi leader Sturmbanfüher Richter (Philip Bulcock), who has declared no mercy on a small French village. But since the show is set in 1942, long before modern espionage was nurtured into what we perceive it as today, Luft and her colleagues are thrust into a mission with no precedent to guide them, presenting audiences with a unique angle in this popular genre.
Will Luft join the ranks of renowned fictional spies? Or, better yet, will she inspire viewers to learn about the real women — such as Agnès Humbert, Nancy Wake and Noor Inayat Khan — who served as spies for the Allies?
We’ll soon find out when X COMPANY, which is brought to you by FLASHPOINT co-creators Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern, premieres on Wednesday, Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. on CBC. Until then, check out my interview below with the Québécois actress for more insight into her role as well as some scoop on the third season of Space’s ORPHAN BLACK.
First of all, I just wanted to say congrats on the new show. I thought it was really interesting.
Evelyne: Thank you so much.
The first time I watched it, I didn’t know it was based on true events, that Camp X actually existed, so that part was really fascinating. Were you aware that this camp existed before the show?
Evelyne: I had no clue. I think people that worked at the camp, that created the camp, did such a good job at keeping it a secret that it’s kind of remained a secret. I know at the time the Prime Minister didn’t know it existed. I was glad to get to learn about it. They call it “Canada’s coolest secret.“ (laughs)
Since Canada isn’t really involved in those kinds of espionage dramas, it makes it look cooler. (laughs)
Evelyne: Yeah, exactly. I think the six following directors of the CIA were all trained there. There’s something kinda special about it when you think of that.
Based on the first impressions we get on the premiere episode, we’re introduced to Aurora as a strong-willed, intelligent character who isn’t afraid to put her life in jeopardy. But we see her in these moments throughout the episode where she’s more vulnerable. Was there any particular aspect that drew you to this character?
Evelyne: I think that you’re exactly pinpointing what really attracted me to her.
(laughs) Did I just answer my question?
Evelyne: No, you’re right. She’s relatable. They’re heroes because they’re courageous, and they turn their beliefs into action. But they’re not superheroes; they do have feelings. They’re not always right. They make hard decisions sometimes. They make mistakes. Aurora is exactly like that. Plus she has a very passionate side. So not only is she passionate about a cause in what she’s doing, and a sense of justice, but she’s passionate about her lover. As you’ll see, it’s going to be hard for her to deal with the aftermath of what happens at the end of episode one. Then she’s going to be faced with a new challenge — she’s going to become sergeant of these four boys. This is 1942, two years after women started voting in Quebec. So you can imagine being in a position of authority in those days was quite difficult. What fascinates me about Aurora is to see how she navigates all that.
In a past interview, you also mentioned that in preparing for the role you read about Agnès Humbert. Could you tell us about how she inspired you to play the role?
Evelyne: There’s a flame inside that woman of truth and justice. Even though she got tortured, even though her body was weak, even though mentally it must have been hell on earth — there’s something inside her that knew that she was right and that what was going on was wrong. To me, when you think about a show about World War II, you’re like, “Oh, we’re gonna learn about how barbaric humans can be.” And it is true. Those historical events remind us of that, but I think the unsung heroes of that era also remind us of the capacity the human being has to know what’s right and what’s good.
I’m surprised they haven’t made a film about her. I actually never heard about her until I read your past interviews for the show. So now I’m more interested in hearing about her. I’m probably reading that book [Resistance].
Evelyne: Oh, you’re going to love that book. It’s like Anne Frank’s journal, so there’s something very day to day — the details, the day to day, the actual truth cause it’s autobiographical. So there’s something in there that’s extremely relatable. She’s an incredible woman. You’re going to be very, very moved by that book.
Since the show is set before the inception of the CIA, these characters aren’t the archetypes of the traditional freedom fighters that we’re used to seeing. Instead, they’re these ordinary people. But they each have this skill. Your character is trilingual, so she can speak English, French and German. Do you think it’s just as important to have intellectual capabilities as physical to be a good spy?
Evelyne: I think so, especially in this specific team. I think they built outside-the-box fighters, if you wanna call it that, so it’s not necessarily the sort of physical army talents that you think people have. Being intellectually fit for special missions — for example, Harry’s character is the total brain. He’s a genius. I don’t think that if he were in BAND OF BROTHERS, he would’ve been the hero, but in our team he’s a major hero. I do think these outside-the-box talents do make us unlikely but very efficient team members. (laughs)
In a way, is this the show’s way of saying that you don’t need to have all these qualities in one? But you can use your ordinary qualities to rise up to an occasion?
Evelyne: I think that’s exactly what the show reminds you of. Also, that you’re stronger as a team. Mark [Ellis] and Steph [Morgenstern] have this ability to tell stories based upon the strength of team members coming together. FLASHPOINT was all about that. So is our show. I think one of the main, specific traits that drives me to our show is the force of the team. It’s also what was the best about shooting it. We were such a tight-knit group of very talented and kind people. You met them last week; we did the promotion. We couldn’t get enough of each other. We went to Niagara Falls, we went on Lake Simcoe…We’re praying for a second season just so we can get back together. I think that chemistry reads on screen as well. And I think, personally, I enjoy stories about people who need to rely on each other to succeed because that’s what life is about. Often you get fiction that are about individuals, their quest and love. But a tight friendship between a group of people is not an easy story to tell. Mark and Steph do a beautiful job at it.
Another thing the show does that I think is commendable is that it really doesn’t paint the war or the people involved with just black and white brushes. Your character Aurora encounters this Nazi soldier who shows a more sympathetic and human side towards this girl named Annie. How important is it to show a more nuanced depiction of a Nazi soldier but also not trying to ignore the horrors of their crimes?
Evelyne: One of the beauties of Mark and Steph’s writing is exactly what you’re talking about — it’s the very nuanced, non-black and white. They’re so well researched and so sensitive that I don’t think they’re trying depict the bad guy as a good guy necessarily. Even when you’re on the wrong side, you think you’re on the right side. So it’s interesting what that could mean for everyone.
The same can also be said for our heroes in the story throughout the episode. We saw their morals being challenged in precarious situations, and the most climatic obviously being the bridge sequence. How is it like to perform in that kind of scene where those heightened, life-threatening scenarios aren’t what you experience from day to day?
Evelyne: I have a newfound respect for people who do adventure dramas and action movies. I used to think all you gotta do is step on the gas and let these big, huge emotions come out. But they have to be truthful. And because they’re so loud, they have to be even more truthful. (laughs) There’s no place for making mistakes; it’s so in your face that it has to be right. I think the physicality of the actual filming helped me get into a sort of adrenaline mode. I’m not saying at all that what I experienced is comparable to war. Of course not — it’s movie-making. But you’ve gotta use what you have, right? I think what’s really appealing about our show is, what would I do in these situations? These ethical dilemmas we often have about the decisions we have a split second to make are what make it, yes, exciting but also kind of interesting that those are the things that will linger after the show is over.
In a way, I think it’s kind of how we mentioned earlier — how these are just ordinary people, they weren’t in wars before, so they’re reacting how normal people would in those situations.
Evelyne: I think it’s super important to resonate because it’s not a comic book. It’s not about seeing how cool they are. Often spies are depicted as cool, and they have all these magical gadgets. You kinda know that it’s life and death, but it’s not. They have so much swag, right? But that’s totally not the angle of our show. These characters were not inspired by one real person, but were inspired by very well-researched, real stories. They needed to be vulnerable, and they needed to be at risk because this is a true story we’re telling.
Will we see more scenarios where the characters are placed in these morally conflicting situations where the right answer isn’t really one decision?
Evelyne: Oh, yeah. And there’s gonna be mistakes made. I think all the characters on the team have these great, really rich emotional arcs. Their beliefs will be flipped around; sometimes their hearts are gonna be broken. There are gonna be consequences to some events, so I think every episode is gonna be a sort of a building block for each character. I think that’s also what makes it interesting — it’s serial. So, yes, there’s a mission, and a couple of missions even through episode, but there’s also something that you follow. You wanna know what’s going to happen, and what consequences events have on these characters.
Finally, for my last question, I have to ask this cause I’m a huge ORPHAN BLACK fan…Can you say anything about what happens to Delphine [Cormier] in season three, or is it really tight-lipped?
Evelyne: Sometimes I feel like if I talk too much, there’s gonna be a weird guy with a baseball bat that’s gonna run behind me and break my knees. (laughs) I’ve never been on a show that’s so secretive about story points and all that. But I can say that Delphine is gonna have more responsibilities. The stakes are even higher in terms of where she’s gonna be in the Dyad hierarchy. But because of those responsibilities, she’s also going to have to make really hard decisions. It’s a darker period for her.
Evelyne: It might reveal a darker side to her. Maybe. (laughs)
Well, thank you so much for taking time for this, and congrats on the show again.
Evelyne: Thank you.