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‘The Americans,’ ‘Alias’ Spies Were Actually Good at Their Job, According to a CIA Disguise Chief

Things spies actually use: poison pens, hair dye, facemasks. Things spies don't actually use: black full-body catsuits.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock (2014101c)Alias: Season 1 - Jennifer Garner'Alias: Season 1' TV Series - 2001

“Alias”

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

Obviously, there’s more to being a counterintelligence operative than wearing a costume or hair dye. But even a professional agrees that those can be pretty helpful if done right, especially how they are portrayed in scripted shows like “Alias” or “The Americans.”

The latest episode of “Technique Critique,” the ongoing Wired series that asks real-life professionals to give their perspective on movie and TV scenes covering their area of expertise, set its sights on the world of spies. For this deep dive, the publication enlisted Jonna Mendez, the former Chief of Disguise for the CIA.

In the process of dissecting 30 scenes from the film and TV spy worlds, Mendez gave top marks to Jennifer Garner and Matthew Rhys’ respective undercover roles. Citing one particular “Alias” sequence where Sydney Bristow (Garner) really leans into one overwhelmingly red outfit, Mendez says with a chuckle that the CIA “could have used that as a training film.” (Distraction is, apparently, a key part of making sure any marks don’t realize exactly who you are when you’re pretending to be someone else.)

Similarly, Mendez drew a connection between Rhys’ Phillip Jennings character on “The Americans” and the concept of undercover agents having to be method actors to truly embody the person they’re attempting to project.

Among Mendez’s tips for would-be spies: Try not to shoplift anything where security sensors are present, like Ansel Elgort’s character in “Baby Driver.” And don’t try to get drunk to help your cover story. In a pinch for alibi-appropriate apparel, Mendez said with a knowing glance, “We can arrange…anything.”

Mendez also details some of the techniques in the film “Argo.” The film, based on the real-life experience of her husband Tony Mendez rescuing hostages from Iran in 1979, follows the exfiltration efforts that heavily relied on Mendez’s team seeming like a real filmmaking crew.

Even though spying can seeming like a profession where all bets are off, Mendez did emphasize that there were internal rules against dressing up like clergy, journalists, and members of the Peace Corps. Oh, and it appears that full-body catsuits aren’t too popular among actual spies either.

Watch the full Wired interview with Mendez below:

 

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