Welcome once again to "On the Futon With...," a new (hopefully) weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.
THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "NCIS" star Michael Weatherly.
Getting inside a character's head is a challenge for any actor. For Michael Weatherly, it's the challenge of getting inside the head of manchild Anthony DiNozzo each week on "NCIS." It's a character he says is the end result of several things - from his own need to break free as an actor to watching too much "CSI: Miami" - and a job he calls his favorite ever. I recently had the chance to visit Michael on the Valencia-based set of "NCIS" where we talked about how "the DiNozzo" came to be, the challenges of being "TV worthy" and his love of HBO's "Extras."
Brian Ford Sullivan: How do you think people who have never seen "NCIS" perceive it?
Michael Weatherly: "NCIS" is sort of [promoted as] "The Unit" meets "CSI" when clearly, to my way of thinking, we're more like "Scooby-Doo" meets "M*A*S*H." You know, it's like we have a mystery van and we go around, and if weren't for those damn teenage kids! [Laughs.] And then Klinger wearing a dress trying to get the Section 8, we've got some kookiness. And so it's always interesting to me because in other countries like on France on M6, the personality of the show is much more at the forefront. So no one even really... people actually think that "NCIS" is like making fun of "CSI." It's almost like spoofing it. I mean the sensibility is so much different.
BFS: Is it because the international perception is so much different?
MW: It's because they just get the material and then cut their own internal promos country by country. So they just have fun with it, it's not imposed. I think what ends up happening in the U.S. is CBS as an entity has their identity and it's programmed to such a way that they don't want anyone going outside of what it is. I mean, CBS sitcoms are a certain way. CBS dramas are a certain way. And that's very effective and obviously over the last eight years has made CBS do a complete turnaround. Or ten years since Les [Moonves] has come in, taking everything that he knew at Warner Bros. and creating "ER" and "Friends" and all the stuff that he was involved in with his team which he largely took with him over to CBS. They are I think the best in the business. You know, they took the Tiffany network from a place of like real trouble. And it's juggernaut worthy. But it is not, I don't think, being completely honest with the American people about what "NCIS" is. I have a feeling it's like "Adventure Tuesday!"
BFS: So are you going to cut your own promos then? [Laughs.]
MW: No, what happens is like today I had two things happen and this is what happens when you go into the "real world" of Hollywood when you interact with people that work in New York and LA, that are industry people from Entertainment Weekly to agents to whoever they are - the first person I was talking to said that "well, you're probably really tired of wearing a uniform and being involved in all this, saying all these military terms all the time and like, saluting." And I looked at her and I was like, "I'm a federal agent, and like barely. I'm like a 13-year-old with a badge and a gun and a Playboy in my back pocket. I don't know what show [you're talking about], do you think I'm someone else?" And she was like, "oh, I thought you were on that 'Navy' show." [Laughs.]
And we were getting ready to shoot our CBS promos two years ago and the person came in to get us and they clapped their hands and said, "okay, okay Navy people, should we get them in their uniforms?" And we were all like, "this is... [we're] in our wardrobe, this is actually [how we dress on the show]." So I think there's a constant [struggle] and I think it's partly why the show maintains and sustains. Because I think people just keep discovering the show in different tiers. I mean, I know the audience gets a little younger all the time. Because I think that initially, your parents were watching it because it was on in the "JAG" time slot. So immediately you just hate it, just because it's in your parents' time slot. [Laughs.] And then I think slowly people have caught onto the oddball characters and then like TV shows you have your great episodes and your kind of filler episodes. So we're probably as guilty of that as anybody.
So it's hard. Like my sister sampled one episode three years ago and she was like, "Yeah, it's not really my thing." And I like [sighs], "oh, which one did you see?" And then you feel terrible because you're like, "No, no, that was a bad hair day." [Laughs.] And it's hard. And slowly the show wins over audiences through word of mouth and we're not taking ourselves seriously. And I think a show like "JAG" did take itself more seriously or in the sense that a lot of procedural crime dramas that are on now have a sense of earnestness and it's part and parcel of the genre. And that's why I think we're a little more... like, I think "Magnum, P.I." knew all along that it was all kind of silly, with Zeus and Apollo and the Ferrari and the Audi and the wine cellar, Robin Masters and Higgins, a 40-year-old bachelor in a Hawaiian shirt wearing tiny little shorts and a mustache.
BFS: It was also the '80s. [Laughs.]
MW: [Laughs.] And his best friend was a helicopter pilot. So there was like a sliver of Grade A American cheese. But then it also had this Vietnam back story to it. So it could inject some mysterious stuff into it. I think "NCIS" operates on the same [level], you know, it's not the "A-Team" where it's just pure fictional... it's not just cheese in a can. It's actually just cheese in a block. [Laughs.] And it is in some way related to the cow. [Leans to the show's publicist] This is how all my interviews go. [Laughs.] I wasn't like this for "Entertainment Tonight" exactly was I? [Laughs.] A little bit. But that's kind of my "big think" on "NCIS." What are your sort of professional observations on it?
BFS: Obviously from the beginning, people's perception was the show was a "JAG" spin-off and assumed it was more of the same.
MW: And Mark [Harmon] also sort of has like a degree of earnestness about him. So what he brings to it, you'd almost think "oh, okay so this is going to be [like this]."
BFS: And then there was the whole - first it's "Navy NCIS," now its "NCIS" - thing. I think it took a season or two for that to wear off in the audience's consciousness. But obviously the show's found a sizeable core audience that's nearly untouched by "American Idol." I mean I'm sure NBC and ABC kicks themselves over ways on how to accomplish that. It's the ultimate showkiller and the fact you guys don't lose any ground to it is amazing.
MW: I do also have this sneaking suspicion that when we start the syndication run - which I think is next summer, not this summer, I think it's 2008 - I think there's a portion of the audience that just isn't around on Tuesday night at 8:00 to sample it. But they might like on Saturday night at like 11 pm. Like come back from a party, smoke a joint and be surfing around and catch a "head slap" or Ducky talking to a body or they're going to see Pauley Perrette and think, "wait a minute, that's an interesting creature" and I think there's going to be this weird sampling of the "other" audience. Because I think we've strip-mined everyone from 50 to 65. [Laughs.] I think we've found every single one. I don't think we have to sell to them any more. It would be a disservice to push ourselves into that.
And I also think that strangely, kids, 14, 15-year-old kids, this is exactly the age that I was watching "Magnum, P.I." and completely enjoying the kind of silly banter, like "is that how grown-ups talk?" when clearly nobody talks like we talk on our show. But the curiosity from teenage eyeballs would be, "I don't really understand the plot so it must be adult and confusing. But I like these characters." And there's also a family dynamic that's like growing up in an American dysfunctional family. You know, you've got the father, the strange sibling rivalries going on and the weird grandpa in the basement with the dead bodies. You know, like everyone's family. [Laughs.] So I don't know, I see the resonance continuing for a couple years in some different quarters.
And then the last one that we'll get is women between the ages of 18-34, that will be the very last, that's the hardest one to crack. And I don't know how we're going to do it. I think we have to wait for "American Idol" to go off the air before that actually happens. Oh, and we'll also have to hire and incredibly attractive 23-year-old like Wentworth Miller-type guy. And have him in jeopardy each week with his shirt off. [Laughs.] I'll be 45 or something, I dunno at that point and we'll be in the squad room going, "Is that guy naked and chained to a serial killer again!" [Laughs.] "Not another babe in jeopardy!"
BFS: So then what we your first perception of the show?
MW: I was a little reluctant initially. The notion of a "JAG" spin-off, which if you remove the word "spin" is how I believe it was referred to by certain people. So there was like stigma attached to it already. But I went and had this dinner with Don Bellisario in Austrailia and his personality, his storytelling and his presence and everything kind of won me over. I mean any questions I had, I mean I just wanted to meet him as a fan of like "Magnum, P.I." And then getting into with him, I was like this could work. But then the funny thing was that my character's name was Anthony DiNozzo and he's clearly supposed to be [an] Italian homicide cop from Baltimore who's like gritty and edgy and street. So maybe Eddie Cibrian wasn't available but I am not your first pick for the Italian homicide cop whose instincts can only come from the street. [Laughs.] I'm the WASP from the boarding school whose instincts could only come from how to slip out when the dorm master has shut out the lights for the night. I'm "School Ties," not "Homicide." So what happened was I had this dinner with Don and thought "maybe it'll happen, maybe it won't happen." And then I got this call, saying it's an offer to do it. And I sorta had to sit there and think, so how does this work - one out of every 10 pilots is picked up right? Isn't that about it one out of every 10?
BFS: Nah, it's actually like one out of three or four. Nowadays anyway.
MW: So I was like most pilots don't get picked up and then most things that go on the air are gone, like "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." And I did a show called "girls club," for like two and a half episodes or something. We were literally turning around on my coverage with Gretchen Mol and David Kelley walks up on the stage and unplugged the cameras and said, "that's it." We didn't even finish the day. They just killed it. And that was my third FOX show in a row to die in a span of four years. So I thought maybe it was time. "Significant Others" was '98, "Dark Angel" was 2000 to 2002 and "girls club" was 2002 in the fall and I thought "hmmm, maybe no more FOX." FOX is not my friend. I'm the curse. So I thought I'll go in, it'll be an experiment. And then once I wrapped my head around the idea that this was never really going to go. I mean, "NCIS," I don't get the title because it sounds too much like "CSI."
And I was just on something called "Dark Angel" where I've had to explain forevermore that it's not the Joss Whedon "Angel." I am the man for the series title confusion. So that all kind of gave way to this new attitude about doing the pilot, which was kind of I'm going to go in and try and have as much fun as I possibly can with this guy Don Bellisario who directed the first episode. And right from the get-go, we had instant... like Mark Harmon and I were on different poles. I was Antarctica, he was the North Pole and we was just looking down there going "what is up with your polarity? What's going on? The water goes down the drain the other way for me." And he was confused by my presence right from the get-go. When "CNN Showbiz Today" or one of those things asked what was the best part about doing the pilot when were doing the upfronts, I said, "I got a rubber gun and I got a fake badge." And Harmon looked at me like, "that is your CNN answer?" [Laughs.] And I was like a little kid who had one too many bowls of Count Chocula. And that could be.. Tony's a real sugar cereal kid, borderline diabetic.
So the pilot was, I just assumed, you know, we had a lot of fun, made some money, we'll see what comes next. And Don called a few weeks later and he said [doing Don's gruff voice], "Alright, well, looks like we're going to have to make some more of these things." And so the first year we made 23. And that was it, we all flew to New York, walked on the stage. It was Pauley Perrette and David McCallum and myself and Mark. Because we didn't have Sasha [Alexander] yet [because] Robin Lively had been in the first two episodes as "the girl." That's, talk about a perilous position on our show, we're on our third "girl." And she's Israeli, I don't even know how she sticks around. [Laughs.] If I were her [lowers voice], I'd be really nervous. [Laughs.] I'd be like sweating all the time. I mean if I were her agents, I'd be like "just take the money, no negotiation." And of course, you know, now I've become comfortable with the fact I'm clearly northern Italian, near the Alps, the blonde Italians. And it just kind of continues, I'm just amazed sometimes that there are still stories to tell. But there always is. There's a lot of jeopardy. We have a lot of female serial killers too.
BFS: So what do you feel is the biggest change on the show from the pilot to today?
MW: Well, initially, I had this idea. I always have the worst ideas, it's true. I had this concept that DiNozzo would be - this is totally my idea too. [Laughs.] Nobody else thought this was a good idea. I thought he would be a master of disguise. [Laughs.] So in the beginning of the show I tried to do like a different hair style in every single scene which really drove everyone nuts. Because first of all, Archie Bunker always wore the same shirt and pants and in television, you have the Hawaiian shirt and shorts, that's Magnum. There's like signature elements, like I'm watching "Extras" now with Ricky Gervais. "You havin' a laugh?" Like the whole catchphrase in the glasses and the wig.
So hair is a really big deal. Like Keri Russell chops off her hair, kills the ratings. Hair is a big deal on television. And I should learned my lesson because on "Dark Angel" I had like a very spikey haircut in the first season and I came back the next year and had this idea that his should be down because he was sad that he thought Max was dead. So it's like be sad but keep the hair the same or it's going to confuse people. So like in the beginning I had a different hair style in every scene and I would actually build it into the arc of the script, like how Tony was feeling that day. And then I started backing myself into personality deficits that he might be experiencing, little blind spots that he had socially. And that the hair was some kind of manifestation of his insecurity. And then finally Don called me [again, in Don voice], "God damn it! Pick a hairdo and stick with it!" So that changed. We picked a hairdo and we stuck with it. Because initially it was all swept back, I was doing all kinds of things.
And I really enjoyed how when you start a show, nobody really knows what it is, what the voices are. Because the creator has the show in their head that they've made and that's why showrunners like J.J. Abrams and David Kelley and Bellisario and Bochco, all those guys, David Chase, they have sort of an unfettered way of getting what's in their head into the box, into the TV. But a lot of TV, showrunners have to deal with a lot of network and studio kind of notes about tone and this or that, and I think the really great showrunners take what they need from that process, from that collaboration. But really they're like, "you know what, no, it has to be this or I can't do it." Because once you start watering it down, like "can they find a time machine? What if it was CSI with a time machine?" Then it's like, "well, then they would just back to the beginning of time where there's no crime." That's the wrong key to give a crime solver. Then they're like, "well, the obstacle could be interesting." [Sighs then laughs.]
I always say that's when we jump the shark. When Ducky finds a time machine and we go back in time to the Civil War or the Kennedy assassination or whatever. Those are always the trickiest "Star Treks." So I have a feeling that the major shift in the last four years has just been getting the characters into their position. And like I was saying, in the beginning, you don't know what that position is because it's locked away inside the crazy showrunner's head. Like Aaron Sorkin doesn't know to communicate it to you unless he, you know, has a fever dream and screams it into a microphone. But really they write the script and you have to sort of divine from that script what it is that they want. But I mean "Lost" must have been a terribly confusing read because you're like "oh wait, so if this really happening or is it just a dream? And if it's a dream, then do we know it's a dream?" You can just hear the story consult on that by the studio and the network people going, "Okay... do they find other animals?" And they're like, "well, there's a tree that talks." It's very difficult to explain a TV show concept - did you just have something with the "Criminal Minds" guy?
BFS: Yeah, Ed Bernero.
MW: Yeah, I loved reading that. That was really interesting to hear about the process. And he had come to that show after it had already been through a lot of the original banging around. But the voice of the show is the single hardest thing to find. And then trusting that voice and not fucking with it when things get a little wonky and wobbly. Because you don't do out of the box big ratings and people are kind of wondering, so they try and fix it. Then you get a time machine or something. [Laughs.] Or on "Dark Angel," you have mutants appear. [Laughs.] You don't want to do that. And so we had to fight for that really hard. Harmon came in and did that crazy haircut which was his call. You don't want to make Mark Harmon unattractive. He's an attractive looking man.
BFS: And there was a mustache at some point right?
MW: Yeah. [Laughs.] That was season four, this year. But he always fights, and it's character first. And Mark's a proper actor, he's a craftsman. He takes it really seriously, like step by step by step. He doesn't make a big deal about it either. He'd like stomp on my head for even talking about his process but I know that he's very careful in executing each of those steps. And he doesn't bother anybody about it, he's just, "this is what I'm doing." And I was the same way in that, I felt very formalized and stiff after several parts that I played and I just felt like I was in a hostage video. Like I was reading the cards from extremist Muslim hostage takers. Like, "I... am... here... and... everything... is... good... Fallujah is beautiful this time of year." When I look at some of my previous performances it looks like I'm screaming "help me" from behind my eyes while I'm saying technobabble.
So what I wanted to do with this character was have none of that. I wanted him to be unfiltered and a little bit more like me. But the difference between me and that character is that I have a tendency to overthink shit to such a degree that I get confused. But he doesn't. He lives in a very simple Captain Crunch universe. Where it's like, "that's good, if they could figure out how to make it not cut the roof of your mouth, Captain Crunch would be the only food you would ever need." [Laughs.] "You just can't eat it too much because it really cuts up the roof of your mouth." He has a very simple worldview, politically I think. He doesn't have a lot of responsibilities. I don't think he has parents that are alive. Any sadness that he's felt in his life I think he's dealt with in a kind of childlike way. I don't think he's learned any of these adult tools that everyone else around him has.
And I had heard Sean Hayes talk about on "Will & Grace" that he based his character on a six-year-old. And that six-year-olds just kind of like, "Mama, that man is black! Why is that man chocolate colored?" And you're in store going like [cringes to cover the child]. And if you've been with kids, kids say things that occur to them. You know, and if they grow up in a white neighborhood and they walk into a supermarket and they see somebody who doesn't look like everybody else they're going to ask that question. So "Will & Grace" always cracked me up so much and I thought how about a federal agent who's completely, just politically so gone. Like women are chicks and he's living like it's the '70s. And there's no enlightenment whatsoever. He's kinda like, "what's the bra burning about?" He's an Aqua Velva man. And with the chest hair and Magnum, P.I. being a hero.
I was in Virgin Records and there was this book "The Male of the Species" or something like that. It was this super-cheesy book and it was ads from the '60s. And it was all about this male dominated world. Like a man with his shirt off wearing Lee Jeans and wearing a lion's head. Like just sanding there like this [stands up triumphantly] with his chest hair and a gold chain with the medallion. That was the Sean Connery [does Sean Connery voice] "you never hit her with a closed fist, you hit her with an open hand" period. And that was the idea behind this male dominated patriarchal society. Its vestiges live today in the White House I believe. [Laughs.] And I do believe that George Bush is a cousin of the DiNozzo. And that was just really freeing and this has been my favorite job for a million reasons. It is not about creature comforts here. We're in our two-banger trailers, there's no "star" stuff anywhere. There's no personal assistants. We got a photo shoot and there's just, we'll have flack from CBS that I don't make sure that I say anything incredibly stupid to Brian Ford Sullivan over at TheFutonCritic.com. [Laughs.] There's no lunacy here. I'm the only one by the way he comes in wearing sunglasses.
BFS: Going forward then, is there anything you'd like to see happen to DiNozzo?
MW: Well that is the test right? First you have to create a character that is like Meathead on "Archie Bunker," someone that is kind of TV worthy. Like are you 200 episode proof? Frasier Crane, like 20 years of that character, how does that happen? And I think it's because you have to create someone who's flawed deeply - and maybe even a little mean and surly sometimes - but also you have to keep rooting for that person to finally figure it out. And I think that's the hallmark of television - or at least the kind of television that's interesting to me, like Andy Millman - where you're following characters that are deeply flawed. I could watch "Extras" every day for I think the next 10 years. I have to pause it because it makes me so uncomfortable when I know what's about to happen. But you get a character to a certain place and then in a sense you can't let them grow or change too much because they have to take baby steps but inevitably they have to have their hair cut and they have to have a certain... like The Bionic Man is The Bionic Man. There's like certain TV parameters. So I think that this character only exists in relation to all the other characters.
It's like "M*A*S*H," that show was on much longer than the Korean War. And ultimately, Hawkeye and I think Hot Lips - did Hot Lips make it to the end? - and Radar, and Radar made it from the movie. So I would assume that if there was any sort of cataclysmic change in the show itself it would be something that would change everything. But we had a cataclysmic moment when Sasha Alexander's character got killed. And we all struggled with how do we come back for this third season and keep our characters, because you want to have the same voice. And it was very hard. And I think Don always flirts with change, having Gibbs leave last year and then I went into this leadership position. It was interesting because they had me wearing the jacket and holding the coffee cup and sort of imitating Gibbs. And it's kind of like a little boy who isn't a man yet so he just goes and puts his dad's slippers and bathrobe on and sits in his dad's chair in the living room and like just pretends he's dad until dad comes home. And maybe dad will make the scary feeling go away. [Laughs.] And I think that's how he responded to the situation.
I mean I live in a world of DiNozzo. DiNozzo's hero is David Caruso. DiNozzo watches "CSI: Miami," owns all the seasons. I'm looking forward to the day when there's a crime scene on the set of "CSI: Miami" and DiNozzo has to go and he just sort of keeps seeing the back of someone's head, their red hair as they go around the corner. He'd be like, [hushed excitement] "I think David Caruso is here. Do we have to talk to him? Should I interview him?" Because I think the Caruso is what Tony as a cop wants to be. It's like he's the perfect man [does the Caruso removing his sunglasses]. Tony is always wearing sunglasses, doing a slight homage - but never really well - to the Caruso. He tries to wear the badge the same way [begins impersonating Caruso], he tries to sweep has jacket back and do a little bit of the turn. He likes to get down on one knee there. But he's never very good at it. That's the other fun thing about somebody like Tony. Because Tony is endlessly humored by things that have long ago stopped being interesting or funny to those around him. The goldfish swims across the bowl and goes - "oh look at that!" - and turns around and swims across the same bowl.
BFS: Now that you've been in Tony's head for four years, has he basically become part of your personality?
MW: Very much so. And the people that know me here know a different version of me than is at home because when I'm here - like I had three cups of coffee right before I came here - and we're going to be here until midnight doing this crime scene. So rehearsal for instance, like I haven't read what we're doing today. [Laughs then digs around for the script.] But I don't have to because Tony is just really excited. Like when they were at a crime scene earlier this year and he was taking pictures of the body and he went, "Hey, this is my 100th crime scene!" And just about starts to go, "Can you take a picture?" And Gibbs just looks at him like, "Are you fucking kidding me? You want a picture with the body? This is someone's loved one who's dead." So he's a little off, the DiNozzo. And so when we go into a rehearsal, that's my whole attitude - and I think it does irritate some of the others - but I think it kind of plays.
This is real irritation. [Laughs.] When you work on a TV set, there's a prop department, there's a sound department, there's the wardrobe department, there's the script supervisor, there's the focus puller, and these are all people that if you are a slob at craft service or go like this [scratches his chest] when the microphone is right here or step over here when they've lit you for here, or step forward when you've got your focus mark right here, or say the line slightly different than what's in the script, or whatever it is - you can fuck with like seven different people's worlds by going like this [scratches his chest and steps forward] - "What's the line?" [Laughs.] Like literally everything can fly out of there.
And so when you become aware of this like a professional organ grinder/monkey boy, you get a little freaked out by it. And you really care because you don't want anyone's job to be harder because you got distracted or because you had an itch or because you forgot your line. But if you live in constant fear of not getting someone else's approval or not making someone else's job easier, it's a little bit of a death spiral, a little trap. So my approach now is - without trying to be a huge pain in the ass - I just don't worry about it. Because I don't think Tony's worried about it. [Laughs.] It seems like a giant rationalization for being lazy, like, "Mom, here's why I'm not going to do my homework - the universe is expanding, and one day it will implode... why deal with the homework?"
BFS: So how long do you think "NCIS" will go?
MW: You wonder how long a show like this stays on the air, it'll be interesting to see. Because like I said, I don't think we're done. I think there's certain ways that this show is going to get more interesting and I'm sure Don has up his sleeve a hideous, kinky - to use a Kate Winslet movie title - future for us all.
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: "The Knights of Prosperity" co-creators Jon Beckerman and Rob Burnett.