PIPER PERABO bursts onto the small screen this month as a rough-and-tumble CIA agent on Covert Affairs.

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When Alias’ Sydney Bristow retired from spy life in 2006, viewers were left clamoring for another butt-kicking heroine. This month, they’re getting one in the form of Piper Perabo, who stars as CIA recruit Annie Walker on USA’s new series, Covert Affairs. Perabo shot to stardom a decade ago in Coyote Ugly and has since kept busy in everything from indie films to Broadway. She weighs in on the world of high-stakes espionage, her killer fight scenes and becoming the next big female action star.

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You play a CIA agent who is lured into the agency almost without knowing what she’s getting into.
Yes, I play Annie Walker, who has this great foreign-language ability. After a love affair gone wrong, I travel the world and then decide to join the CIA. Because I’m so heartbroken and lonely, what the CIA offers is appealing. And in the pilot, they pull me out of training before I’ve finished and give me an assignment, but I don’t know why I’ve been singled out.

Your co-star Christopher Gorham told me that “you trained like a beast” for the role.
[Laughs] When we started training, our fight coordinator and Doug Liman, our producer, were talking about a style of fighting that you would believe that a woman would use — you can’t just use boxing moves to take on a guy who outweighs you by 100 pounds because he gets one hit in and that’s a wrap on you. So we chose Krav Maga [a form of Israeli jujitsu] and Wing Chun, which is a form of martial arts that nuns developed. It’s about how to get in the most destructive blows quickly, so that you can get away.

How much did you delve into the lives of real CIA agents?
I spent the day at Langley and met officers who were my age. I was really interested in their personal lives. You know, if you work for the CIA, how do you have a boyfriend? What kind of car do you drive? How much money do you make?

So, what do they tell their families?
The ones who would talk said that most people’s parents know, and sometimes their spouse, but it does put their spouse at a certain amount of risk. It’s not to keep them out but to keep them safe.

What’s the perfect cover, to keep it from your spouse or otherwise?
You want something really boring so that it doesn’t provoke questions. It’s similar for an actor. Like when you’re sitting on a plane and somebody asks you what you do, if you say you’re an actor, you’re going to get a whole lot of questions. But if you say you’re a seminary student, they go back to their magazine.

How jarring was it for you when Coyote Ugly totally shot you from unknown to first-name recognition?
It made it hard to know where you stood or how to make the next decision, because you’re linked so strongly with a single piece of work. And people’s opinion of you is so defined by that, so your own personal agenda gets a little muddy.

Is it true that you went on your first audition by accident?
Yes, I was in college, studying theater. A friend of mine had an audition, and I asked if I could just go along and see what a professional audition was like. When I was there, the casting director thought that I was there to audition because I looked like one of the parts they were casting. I learned the pages in 10 minutes in a stairwell and gave it my best.

Did you get the part?
No. After the audition, the casting director was like, “OK, well, we’re not going to cast you. You don’t really know what you’re doing.” But she called a bunch of agents and managers for me, and that’s actually how I got representation. So, it did really get me into the business. [Laughs] It just didn’t get me my first job.