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Sean Murray, Rocky Carroll, Other Cast Members on Landmark

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Sean Murray, Rocky Carroll, Other Cast Members on Landmark

With the April 15 episode of “NCIS” on CBS, the overall franchise — including its multiple spinoffs — clocks its 1,000th episode. That’s a milestone for all of the associated series, but the mothership show accounts for nearly half of those, and is edging ever closer to its own once-unfathomable benchmark: “NCIS” O.G. is at 463 episodes and counting, with the 500-show mark hardly out of reach, especially now that the show has just been renewed for its 22nd season. There’s no end in sight, with the top-rated drama series having proven its ability to withstand cast changes, such as the loss of Mark Harmon, the show’s original team leader, in 2021. (Gary Cole tagged in as Harmon was departing during Season 19.)

And yet, if there were a complete and total turnover, fans’ loyalty might not still be the same. Although there’s no cast member left from the show’s premiere back in 2003, it has two who were extremely close to the origin point, in Sean Murray and Brian Dietzen, who had recurring characters during the first season before becoming series regulars. And Rocky Carroll goes back to Season 5 — several lifetimes ago in network TV time. Not to mention, “NCIS” benefits greatly from the infusion of new blood, in “recent” additions like Katrina Law (who joined in the 18th season) and Diona Reasonover (who came in in Season 16).

To celebrate the franchise’s 1,000th episode, as the cast was leaving for hiatus after wrapping up Season 21, Variety gathered together two of those longest-standing cast members, Murray and Carroll, and two of the newest regulars, Law and Reasonover, for a discussion about the vein of immortality they’ve apparently tapped into.

For all of you, but especially the more veteran members, what was your honest prospectus for how long this gig was going to last when you came on?

Rocky Carroll: When I came on the show toward the end of Season 5, I literally was telling my friends, “Hey, I made it on the tail end of the series. If it goes seven years, at least I got in two full seasons on a hit show!” I was thinking, if we get to seven seasons, man, it’ll be a feather in my cap. And that was 16 years ago. That was my mindset, because most of the most famous shows in television history, hit shows that you know, have gone less than 10 seasons — six, seven is kind of the goal. So when we got into double digits, I knew we were in rare air.

Sean Murray: Yeah, I feel the same. In terms of when you start a TV show, the pilot getting picked up is a miracle. Then the pilot going to series is a miracle. To have a full season is a miracle! To go four or five years is unbelievable and rare. To go 21 years is unfathomable. TV shows are not meant to go that long.

I joke about how on our sets, the partitions that make up our office sets are falling apart. They’re literally held together by rubber bands. So, it’s hard to wrap your head around. And the world of “NCIS” seems to be this living thing where characters can come and go from it. It’s wild to be here 21 years later and have everyone sticking with us — kind of unheard of, I think.

Sean, going back to the first season, when you were on just eight episodes, were you nervous then, like — “Is this even gonna be like a regular gig next year”?

Murray: Well, it happened sort of naturally. McGee came in as a one-time guest star, and was a probational rookie officer at the local base in Virginia, Norfolk, helping the team with the case. He slowly started appearing more and more after that, and it just kind of felt like a natural sort of progression. It felt almost like he was a little slice of the pie — the pizza pie — that made up the team, like there was something untouched there, and McGee filled that a little bit and it allowed for some new dynamics.

I remember when we finished Season 1, talking to Harmon and everyone else, and saying, “I hope I see you guys next year.” Good things were in the air, and I came back full-time on Season 2, so I guess it worked out.

Carroll: And, for the record, actors never lose that sense of, “Is this the last time…?” You’re constantly in a state of, what’s next, as a performer. Even if you do a show that’s this successful, you always look at the next script as if, “Am I OK? I’m in this episode, too. Good. Good.” You never lose that sense. It’s an innate thing for us actors to always feel like, “OK, are we still a part of this? Is this gonna have a future?” That never goes away.

Rocky Carroll as NCIS Director Leon Vance and Sean Murray as Special Agent Timothy McGee on “NCIS.”
CBS

Sean, do people look to you as an “NCIS” historian, just because you go back so close to day one?

Murray: No, I hope not, because I can barely remember what I had for lunch. We’ve done almost 500 of these bad boys, so I usually count on our fans to tell me what’s going on.

Katrina Law: No, Sean has an uncanny memory for details of very specific scripts. There are times where he’ll pull out a character from Episode 3 of Season 4 and tell you the entire plot line. You’re like, “Oh my gosh, how do you remember all of this?” So I go to Sean as the historian. He knows everything.

Murray: Sometimes I can pull it out, every once in a while, if I got some sleep.

So you’re forgetting what a good memory you have. Katrina, for your part, how many times do we get to read in the trades or in Wikipedia or anywhere that a principal cast member “came on in the 18th season.”

Law: I was laughing, because the newbies on the show consist of me and then Diona, who’s now going to — what? Your seventh or eighth season? And that’s usually when most hit shows are ending. But that’s considered the new blood on the show. So that made me laugh a little bit.

When I came on in the 18th season, I’m not gonna lie: “NCIS” felt like home to me. And the reason why is because I have been watching the show off and on for the past 20 or, at that point, 18 years, with my father and with my husband. So it’s this whole dynamic of kind of growing up with the show. So the thought of it going on forever doesn’t seem that strange, because it feels like it’s been on forever and it’s just a fabric of American television culture, or of, actually, international world culture.

But when I came on, I knew that Harmon was leaving, so we all just thought to ourselves, well, it’s either gonna be one fantastic season and — like Rocky said — what’s next?, or we’re gonna pull it together. I think it’s a testimony to this cast and the chemistry that we all just gel and — tell me if I’m wrong, guys, but we have such a beautiful chemistry off screen that it carries on to the screen. And with our writers constantly coming up with fresh new ideas, and then having the new blood of Diona and me infusing with the old blood and being able to create new stories and new dynamics, there’s so much more versatility now that I think the show has potential to still go on for a long time.

Katrina Law as Jessica Knight and Diona Reasonover as Kasie Hines on “NCIS.”
CBS

For the the two of you who are “the new blood,” so to speak, you have to have a sense of the hole you’re filling when you come in, because typically someone else has left the show. At least, I’m guessing you have this vague awareness of, OK, here’s what the show’s been missing that I’m bringing in, but I can’t duplicate what anybody did before me.

Diona Reasonover: Oh, more than a vague awareness. I felt so fortunate when I got this show, mainly because everybody was so welcoming, from the jump. But also, I knew exactly who Abby was. You get Pauley Perrette in your mind — and she had been literally part of people’s families, because this show becomes something that people watch multi-generationally — and the characters almost become like family members. So I was really nervous, but I actually found the fans to be quite welcoming too. I still get people saying, now, “I wasn’t sure I was gonna like you at first, but I do now.” And I’m glad to have won them over.

Carroll: At the end of Season 5, because the cast had been so firmly established, and my character was sort of a cog in the wheel, I was basically told by the producers, “Don’t read the social media.” Although at the time, there was no Twitter, so it was more like fan pages. And literally, you feel like a stepdad coming into a new family, and the kids are like, “That’s not my dad.” So for a long period of time, I was told, “Just stay away from the fans’ responses.” But over time they grow to accept you, and I give the fans of the show so much credit, because over these 21, now 22 seasons, with all the changes and machinations that have happened with us, the fans have stayed with us.

It’s like when you’re friends with somebody for life, when somebody has a real impact on you, you’re not just friends with ’em when things are good. You go through all of their ups and downs, peaks and valleys. And we’ve dealt with death, with loss, in real life, and changes in cast, changes in so many different ways. And the fans say, “Hey, we’re still here. We still believe in it.”

Rocky, how many years did it take you to get over being the new guy?

Carroll: About 10.

Just a decade? OK.

Carroll: No, you know, going into this, the only person that I knew who was connected to “NCIS” was Mark Harmon. He and I worked together on “Chicago Hope,” so I was the Mark Harmon-approved hire. So I figured, look, if there’s one person that you should know coming into something that’s already established already, it’s good to know No. 1 on the call sheet. So I just sort of said, “Hey, listen, I’m here. I follow your lead, however you need me. I don’t need to be front and center.”

I loved kind of having this antagonistic sort of relationship with the main character, but I knew I was in good hands because Harmon and I knew each other. He was the one that said to everybody else, the networks and the studio, “This guy will help us out.” So I always felt like I was in good hands, regardless of the fan pages. Harmon was like, “Just come in and do your job.” So that’s kind of where I went.

I remember eight years or so in, I was on set and I’d have conversations with Michael Weatherly about what could actually kill “NCIS.” And he would say that maybe the only thing that could really kill it is Harmon leaving, because it could probably survive anyone else’s loss. Would any of you admit to harboring doubts that, yeah, maybe that would mark the end of the show? No pun intended.

Murray: Yeah, I mean, you never know what’s going to happen with that — that’s an unknown variable. But I remember getting the call that Gary Cole was going to come in, before Harmon left, and I couldn’t have been happier hearing that name; I can’t even tell you. I think if we tried to plug someone in that was anything like Leroy Jethro Gibbs, it would’ve been a disaster.

I think a lot of shows out there would try and do something like that, but not us. I don’t think it would’ve worked out as well had we not had Gary, and everything that he brings with the character.

Katrina Law as NCIS Special Agent Jessica Knight, Sean Murray as Special Agent Timothy McGee, Rocky Carroll as NCIS Director Leon Vance, and Gary Cole as FBI Special Agent Alden Parker.
CBS

Law: I think that’s a nice thing about “NCIS” with the casting process is that when they bring on new people, they’re never asking them to be the same character. And they never wanted Gary to be Gibbs 2.0, just like I’m sure they never wanted Diona to be Pauley 2.0. We have some pretty amazing shoes to fill, but they’re asking us to bring our own pair of shoes, which is kind of nice.

Sean, it’s provided an opportunity as time has gone on for you to be more of the alpha male on the show. There’s been some evolution over the years into your sort of leadership role.

Murray: It’s funny, because like people will say, “Oh, you must be tired of playing the same character for 20-plus years.” But my character, luckily for me, has been able to evolve as the show has grown. So none of it has ever felt boring to me. I always feel like there’s growth there. I remember talking to the writers early on about the stumbling, bumbling rookie McGee. And I remember saying, “We want growth. We don’t wanna have baby Maggie Simpson, and every year, every week, you revert to the same thing.” Luckily, they’re very much on board with that.

Once we were in this rare era where this show was sort of past its expiration date, as it were, and we were into Season 10, Season 11, I think the actors and the writers sort of came to an agreement. It’s like, “Hey, instead of trying to tell the same stories from the same way and make these characters sort of stuck at one age or at one point, if the show is growing, let’s grow with the show. Let us get older. Let us evolve. Let us have the things that happen to people over a 20-year period of time.” So we were able to have the same characters, but able to tell different stories, because we didn’t get locked into a certain time frame where they can’t get older. It’s like, we got older, we had kids, we had relationships, we had breakups, we had deaths — so I feel like I’ve been doing different things for 20 years. I don’t feel like I’ve been doing the same thing, which is why the time has flown by.

Plus, I like hanging out with these cats.

(L-R): Katrina Law as NCIS Special Agent Jessica Knight, Wilmer Valderrama as Nick Torres, Sean Murray as Special Agent Timothy McGee, Brian Dietzen as Jimmy Palmer, Gary Cole as FBI Special Agent Alden Parker, and Diona Reasonover as Forensic Scientist Kasie Hines.
CBS

In February, the show paid tribute to David McCallum after his death with a farewell-to-Ducky episode. The way this show’s going, you could all still be on the show in your 90s. Have you thought that far ahead?

Carroll: If I have the ability to remember dialogue in my 90s…

Law: If we’re lucky enough to be working that long and happily, yes. Looking forward to it.

Reasonover: If they’re willing to give me craft feed up until I turn 90, yeah.

Law: Oh, yeah. Somebody doing your hair and makeup until you’re 90?

Carroll: And, on that subject, when the show started, the story is, David McCallum said to his wife, “I’m 70 years old. What if this thing goes five, seven years?” I mean, the fact that that he was almost 20 years with the show and started at age 70 — which I still don’t believe, because when you look at those early episodes, it’s like, “That man is not 70 years old.”

It’s pretty incredible for him to have not just the renaissance, but like an entire career after the age for 70. He could still memorize dialogue in his 80s, which is not an easy feat.

Law: One of my favorite things about Sean is, because he has been here for about 21 years, you can see he’s so settled and grounded into his role in the “NCIS” world. But there’s this little twinkle in his eye as he watches the shenanigans and the mayhem kind of circle around him, where he’s just kind of like, “OK, bring it.” And I think you can only get that for being on something for 20-some years. It’s a really fun dynamic to watch.

Do you feel twinkly, Sean, right now?

Murray: I feel extremely twinkly. Are you kidding? Katrina Law just gave me a compliment, so I feel fantastic.

Carroll: And no one knows shenanigans like Katrina Law.

Law: Oh, the shenanigans are usually because he’s watching me mess up my lines.

Reasonover: One thing about Katrina Law, if she has shenans once, she is gonna shenan-again.

Carroll: I see what you did there.

Reasonover: See you guys next season…

This interview has been edited and condensed.