It’s a series about a clandestine group of spies and informants that use sex to get information, so its perhaps not too surprising that The Romeo Section depicts people having sex.
But it may be surprising, at least to those of a certain vintage, that a series so full of sex takes place in Canada and is being shown on the CBC, our venerable public broadcaster. Home to This Hour has 22 Minutes, Peter Mansbridge and Canada’s Smartest Person, the Mother Corp. is generally not known for letting loose in that particular direction.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” says Banff native Juan Riedinger, who plays a “Romeo” named Rufus on the Vancouver-set spy series. “It gives so much more freedom as an artist for storytelling. It’s fun to not hold back with the sex and the swearing and the drugs. I was surprised and I’m sure there will be some people who will be a bit shocked by the material we are putting out there. But I think it’s a good thing. It’s time. ”
The Romeo Section, which debuts on Wednesday, is the brainchild of veteran screenwriter and producer Chris Haddock, best known for bringing us Da Vinci’s Inquest and Da Vinci’s City Hall. It stars Scottish actor Andrew Airlie as the wonderfully named Wolfgang McGee, a silver-haired spymaster posing as a university professor. He is the handler of a gaggle of “Romeo” and “Juliet” spies, who burrow deep undercover and use seduction to take down Vancouver’s drug barons, gang leaders and other baddies.
But in Wednesday’s opener, the character who seems to see most of the carnal action is Rufus. Wolfgang McGee has him covertly cavorting with Dee, a darkly ambitious and perennially horny young wife of a drug lord. Insecure and prone to drug-fuelled hissy fits, she wants Rufus to do away with her husband so the two of them can take over operations.
Rufus is no James Bond. Sporting shaggy hair and beard, his has a Jim Morrison-meets-your-neighbourhood-barista type of sexiness going on. How Rufus became engaged in spy activity, or why, is one of the secrets the series will likely reveal as it unfolds. But in the season debut, he is paranoid, unsure of his mission and hoovering cocaine.
“We’re still shooting episode 10 of the series and I’m still figuring stuff out about Rufus as we go,” says Riedinger. “One big thing with Rufus is his self-preservation. He has this really strong survival instinct. And he seems to be the kind of guy that if he doesn’t know how to get out of tough situation, he will figure it out. You’ll see as the series progresses, he starts to get more ambition and see that maybe he can be a leader himself.”
The Romeo Section offers Riedinger’s his highest profile role to date, although his career has generally been on an upward swing for the past few years. The 34-year-old actor discovered his fondness for the craft relatively late in life. He was no high-school drama kid. It wasn’t until his third year at the University of Calgary, where he was working toward a double major in English and biology, that he took a theatre class as an elective. He caught the bug, and was soon in Vancouver pursuing acting full-time. Roles in the horror film Jennifer’s Body and guest spots on series such as Supernatural and Fringe followed. Four years ago he nabbed the lead in Drawing Home, a biopic about Banff artists Peter and Catherine Whyte that looks like it will finally hit the festival circuit next year.
But this year has been particularly good for the actor. He was cast as real-life Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder in the critically acclaimed American crime series Narcos, which debuted on Netflix in late August. As with Whyte, he was playing a real person. Unlike Whyte, Lehder is a ruthless drug lord who speaks Spanish.
“The nice thing about playing a real person is that you can research,” says Riedinger. “There’s a documentary that I got to watch that is dedicated specifically to Lehder, which gave me a wealth of knowledge and I got to watch video clips of him to see his mannerisms and how he carried himself and his voice. Getting to act in Spanish was a big challenge because I’ve never done that on that scale. We had a dialect coach who was making sure not only we were speaking Spanish correctly but sounded Columbian.”
Riedinger landed the role on Narcos after only one audition and knowing very little about the show, which focuses on the spread of cocaine and criminal exploits of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
“I didn’t know how big it would be, to be honest,” he says. “But I jumped at the opportunity to go work in Columbia for two months on Netflix, which has a great reputation. I did that and all of sudden I came back to Canada and Romeo Section thing happened. For me, this is the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had. It’s a leading role in a series and hopefully a long-running series. Getting to explore a character for that kind of arc is exciting. We’re on episode 10 and it’s already been such an amazing journey I hope we can do it for many more years. It’s something different and something I think Canadians are hungry for.”