When James Cameron brought True Lies to theaters in 1994, it was seen as a spy thriller showcase for Arnold Schwarzenegger featuring a whole lot of amazing stunts and practical effects, with Jamie Lee Curtis serving as eye candy with almost accidental skills thrown in. The CBS adaptation premiering this week is more of a level playing field between husband and wife Harry and Helen Tasker, played by Steve Howey (Shameless) and Ginger Gonzaga (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law).
Gonzaga admits she didn’t watch the original True Lies, but she acknowledges its problematic treatment of Helen. “I had never seen it, and that was helpful for me in playing Helen for the pilot because I wasn’t affected by Jamie’s iconic performance — I didn’t want to be!” she says. “I’ve seen half of it; I’ve seen up to the helicopter. It’s no one’s fault; it’s history’s fault that some of it does not hold up… The performances are so great, but there’s a couple of lines where I’m like, ‘Wow, that got past so many people!’”
Howey explains that True Lies wanted to pay homage to the movie but didn’t want to mimic it. “In our version, Helen thinks that Harry’s cheating on her,” he says. “So in the failed attempt for Harry to try to convince Helen that he’s not having an affair, he invites her along for a mission, and then they get kidnapped. So from that pilot into the next episodes, Helen is now a part of Omega, and we go from True Lies into Mr. and Mrs. Smith if you will.”
The fun of True Lies moving straight into a married spy team lies in the humor of Helen’s amateur nature. “We kind of summarize the film in the pilot, and then we look at the life beyond that,” says Gonzaga. “That’s kind of what’s so fun for me is I get to be this character that is thrown into the world of being a spy, and I get to mine the comedy of not knowing what the hell I’m doing. But also the adrenaline of kind of liking it sometimes or getting over eager and thinking she’s learned enough.”
Howey appreciates the comic nature of Harry’s team-up with Helen since it makes the serious nature of his deceptive character easier to carry off. “Playing this guy who’s really good at his job, lying to his family that he is a computer salesman into going into missions, this was tough,” Howey says. “I was really struggling a lot to find the charm, the attitude, the funny, and all that. But Ginger made it so much easier because she did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to the funny, which helped me because I can just stand back and react. I didn’t have to lead so many scenes.”
Gonzaga is pleased that the True Lies directors have allowed her to improvise some of her comedic lines to keep the show from feeling too procedural. “It’s like a game to keep my brain happy,” she says. “Like ‘Oh, how many times can I change this to make it funny?’ Almost like defiantly working against the procedural-ness in a way. I want Helen to be weird, and I want her to make mistakes because she’s anxious. I want it to be funny that she’s so human and so committal in certain instances.”
True Lies doesn’t eschew all connections to the movie, however. Tom Arnold, who perhaps surprised audiences with his wonderful sidekick role opposite Schwarzenegger, notably makes a cameo in the series trailer. “True Lies, personally speaking, was one of his best roles,” says Howey, “and to have one of your best roles be a hit blockbuster movie is pretty good… He was actually pleasantly surprised, too. He was on point! He was really fun, and it was great to have him.”
In the end, Howey and Gonzaga hope that their chemistry will be a big part of why people who tune into the True Lies premiere will stick around for more, either for the thriller plot or the comedic interaction between the show’s characters. “I’m dealing with people I can spar with,” says Gonzaga. “I can spar with Steve; he can be so funny in all the different levels. He can be really big or really natural, or it’s just sharp and witty. We’re making each other laugh in the scenes in a natural way and also when we’re joking with each other outside of it. It all starts to blend together.”
True Lies premieres on March 1, 2023 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.