The laudable actor of ‘NCIS: LA’

Eric Christian Olsen on his tenacious show and why TV is better than the movies

‘NCIS’ ANGEL. Olsen makes viewers smile. Photos courtesy of AXN Asia and from the Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines – American actor Eric Christian Olsen is chilling out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, one recent afternoon while on the phone with Rappler and other Asian media reps.

He may be busy lately putting together “a reality show, a half-hour comedy and two hourlong dramas,” but we were in conference mainly for his top job to date: as would-be lawyer turned detective Marty Deeks in the parallel reality of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service — the television show, that is.

NCIS: Los Angeles” is quite the formidable series, taking off from the Mark Harmon predecessor. This location-specific spin-off a la “CSI” is already four seasons strong — each season having a whopping 24 episodes. 

Once again, this “Service” is a military drama and police procedural combined, but this time centered on the LA-based Office of Special Projects (OSP), an elite division handling undercover work. What’s more, with Olsen on board, “NCIS: LA” manages to inject some good-natured humor amid the action and drama. 

Olsen, who turned 36 last May 31, may not yet be a household name compared to lead stars Chris O’Donnell (who was Robin in Joel Schumacher’s two “Batman” movies) and LL Cool J (a smooth rapper since the late ’80s). But he’s certainly been around, in TV and in the movies. 

PARTNERS IN CRIMEFIGHTING. Olsen (left) teams up with O’Donnell (center) and LL Cool J in ‘NCIS: LA’

Old-school action

What was the catalyst for Olsen’s acting career?

“I grew up watching ‘The Guns of Navarone,’ ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai.’ Seeing Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’ and realizing the idea of being able to do that for a living was enchanting.” 

In high school, Olsen got into the improvisational group ComedySportz (“I was 16; I lied about being 21”), for which he would do stand-up comedy.

But in college, he pursued a degree in child psychology, expecting that, “at some point, [my entertainment career] would end.”

Yet the acting bug had bitten hard. The Oregon-born Olsen moved to California in 1991 and soon landed TV gigs, including as a dying burn victim in “ER.” 

His first big-screen stint was as a gunner in “Pearl Harbor,” followed by more supporting roles in TV (“Smallville,” “24”) and movies (“Not Another Teen Movie,” “The Hot Chick”).

The prequel “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd,” in which Olsen was the young version of Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber,” was the first peak in a career that promises to scale more heights.

By 2009, six years later, Olsen would have a combined 30 movies and TV shows to his resume. He felt like settling down.

“I wanted to start a family,” he recalled. “When I was shooting a movie, I’d be away for three to six months. I longed to stay in LA, maybe doing an hourlong drama as someone who’s maybe a lawyer or undercover agent. So when I got my first script for ‘NCIS: Los Angeles,’ I thought it was a joke. It was literally what I asked for. It’s a wonderful opportunity and I feel really blessed.”

TOGETHER FOREVER? Olsen and Daniela Ruah leave viewers guessing about their onscreen relationship

Olsen’s “NCIS” debut aired in May 2010, in two tail-end episodes of the show’s first season. What was initially conceived as a recurring role became a permanent spot, as Marty Deeks became a hit among the “NCIS” fandom. 

“He’s a complex character,” Olsen muses about Deeks, who is NCIS’ liaison with the LAPD. “He grew up in a tumultuous home, had a troubled relationship with his father, we don’t know his relationship to his mother, he paid his way through college, got lost, became an undercover detective and Hetty Lange (the OSP operations manager portrayed by Oscar winner Linda Hunt) is the closest he has to a solid parental figure.”

On the other hand, Olsen adds, “I have phenomenal parents. But Deeks and I are similar in that we both use comedy to navigate in and out of situations.” 

Olsen’s elder brother, David Paul Olsen, is also in the show. “My brother is my stunt double. He was a Navy SEAL and I studied background stuff with him.” Olsen adds that “I did have ride-alongs with the LAPD. In a show like this, the technical aspects have to be right. Otherwise everything just flies out the window.”

There are not a few moments in “NCIS: LA” when everything also quite literally flies out the window, thanks to each episode’s high-octane action.

“We shoot a 55-minute James Bond movie every eight days,” Olsen says. “We shoot six scenes within 12 to 15 hours a day. It’s mindboggling that we finish episodes in such a short time, and that’s because we’ve got a great crew, cast and producers to work with.” 

Apart from the show’s attention to detail and logistical and technical dexterity, Olsen surmises that what has made “NCIS: LA” tick is “great, compelling storylines and characters we all invest in and keep coming back to.” 

As far as character development goes, “[We’re] as collaborative as can be. [Writer-executive producers] Shane Brennan and R. Scott Gemmill are very protective of these characters and they’ve been amazing. If there’s a problem with any character, we work things out.”

On top of all that, “the sweet spot about this show is its blend of drama, comedy and action. The comedy allows the characters to relax and later on break down walls.” 

One thing that has also clicked with “NCIS: LA” is Marty Deeks’ partnership with junior special agent Kensi Blye, played by Portuguese-born Daniela Ruah. “We had no idea that Deeks and Kensi’s relationship would find traction in people,” Olsen says. “I go on YouTube and there are thousands of videos made about the couple. There’s something about Deeks and Kensi that people connect to, and that relationship comes to such a catastrophic crescendo in the season 4 finale.”   

Olsen’s recent movies include “The Back-Up Plan,” “The Thing” and “Celeste and Jesse Forever” (starring his wife, Sarah Wright, whom Olsen first met in the show “The Loop”). And while he has had “great experiences making movies that I won’t exchange for anything,” US television, Olsen affirms, is currently at “a golden age.”

“The divide between TV and movies has been lost in the last 10 years. Some of the best acting and storytelling have been coming from television. I think ‘Breaking Bad’ is the closest thing we have to modern literature.”  

Here is a trailer of ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ season 4:

Surveillance is a distinct feature of the show, from the spy camera motif that bookends each episode’s segment (complete with camera clicks) to the team’s elaborate, high-tech network in trailing suspects. So, does the news about whistleblower Eric Snowden hit too close to home? 

“That’s a compelling issue and we could have that type of storyline in the future,” Olsen says. “The complexity is this: you tend to think that, in a given moment, you’re doing the right thing, but it’s only in retrospect that you see what your action really means. I just think that, in his eyes, this kid thought he did the right thing and it’s yet to be revealed if he’s right. History will decide.”

Olsen believes that shows like “NCIS: LA” resonate with viewers because, “In life, there’s so much we can’t control, and it’s comforting to know who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”

The show’s fifth season premieres next year.  As for good-guy Deeks’ future, Olsen hopes the audience “would know why he stopped being a lawyer, and that he’ll have more moments of clarity. I hope he’ll have those moments when everything makes sense to him, and also that [the writers] put as many obstacles as they can to Deeks’ getting there, because that makes for the best drama.” –  

‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ is aired in the Philippines via AXN every Thursday, 10 p.m. Replays are on Thursdays, 1:40 a.m.; Saturdays, 11:05 a.m. & 5:15 p.m.; Sundays, 3:25 p.m.; and Mondays, 1:50 p.m.

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