After leading the NCIS crew as director on the CBS show’s sixth season, Rocky Carroll is filling his director shoes for both “NCIS” and the popular spin-off “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
Carroll, who also played Carl Reese on “The Agency” and Lieutenant Darik Westergaurd in 1995’s “Crimson Tide,” is back as a series regular on the seventh season of “NCIS,” the most popular show on broadcast television. Carroll’s Director Vance role has become popular on the show, as audiences are still wondering what his connections are to Israel and some shadowy black ops.
BLAST: So thank you for agreeing to talk to blastmagazine.com for a little while. We really appreciate it this morning.
ROCKY CARROLL: Thanks for putting me on Blast as they say.
BLAST: Oh thank you. The first thing we like to ask people who have been playing a character we are getting to know is, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself — tell us a little bit about Rocky.
RC: Well, Rocky is a professional actor now in Hollywood for over 20 years. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I studied theater at a very young age. I always approached this business as a craft. I was in a performing arts high school and then got a degree in fine arts at a university in St. Louis. So this has always been the pattern for my life, to be an actor. Working in Hollywood kind of happened by accident, just sort of fell into it. It wasn’t something I set out to do, I just happened to end up in Los Angeles. I went from one series to the next. I think after 20 years working, primarily in television and Hollywood, the best thing I can tell you is that I still absolutely love doing it. It’s fun, I’m still fascinated by people and I think that’s the thing that separates the difference between a 20 year career and a 3 year career, is that I still really enjoy what I do. I still feel there’s a long way to go and a lot more to learn but I’m fascinated by people. I’m fascinated by people’s perception of celebrity and how people respond to or defer toâ€¦ and just being an actor. The first question you ask is when people have an impact on you in some kind of way, you know if you meet somebody in a restaurant or a bar or whatever it is and you strike up a conversation and you find them interesting, the first thing you want to do is get to know more about them. The thing about us actors is that, the reason we can kind of keep doing what we do is we kind of have to just play our cards close to the vests.
The natural instinct of people is you want to get to know more about them. But the thing I’ve realized after so many years is that you kind of have to keep people or at least stuff about yourself at arms length because the more you know about me the less likely I am able to go from character to character because when you have so many perceived notions about a person or personality it gets harder and harder to believe them in certain roles. If Madonna were to do the remake or Norma Rae you would spend the first 45 minutes dealing with the Madonna factor you know so it is what it is. That’s the part of this business that fascinates me so much is that it really is a paradox. You become popular because people like you and when people like you they want to know about you and there’s a real danger to that because the more people get to know about you the less they believe you in other roles. All of it is fascinating to me. I probably answered that question more than you wanted.
BLAST: It almost sounds like you kind of model your career after your character on “NCIS” somebody who’s been a little bit in the background who we’re getting to like but there’s still a little bit of mystery that he leaves up in the air for us.
RC: You know I think so. I think it’s not so much by design, but when you’re an actor your goal is to just easily transition from character to character from medium to different mediums. I’ve just seen it happen so many times especially 20 years in Hollywood; where people’s pitfall is you give peopleâ€¦ the public what you think they want and eventually they grow weary of it. You’ve given them too much information they know too much about you and they become instantly bored with you and they move on. You know I think you just try to keep it interesting. Not being coy or anything like that I just think it’s very important if you’re going to sustain, continue a presence in a town especially like Hollywood.
BLAST: No, certainly. So one of the early roles that our readers would recognize you in is Lieutenant Westergaurd on “Crimson Tide,” do you still get called out for that role do you still get recognized for that?
RC: I do. I think primarily because of the fact that if you have insomnia on any given night you can probably turn on a cable station and that movie is on. It runs constantly, which is a great thing. I think the advent of cable TV and satellite TV has propelled what would have been a footnote in history. Now people go "Oh you’re the guy with the glasses on ‘Crimson Tide,’" yeah. A lot of guys especially. It’s such a guy movie. Guys love that movie.
BLAST: Oh yeah, we love submarine movies that’s for sure. That’s going way back. Now going forward to “NCIS here,” Leon Vance is a character that was in the shadows in the last season and now you’ve really taken this character to a new level. I guess kind of walk us through developing this character from almost a supporting role to a main role — to someone who really has his own story to tell.
RC: Yeah. When the executive producers from “NCIS” brought me in fir the role of director of NCIS, which had been a part of the show since day one played by different actors, when I was brought in to do it I think there was pretty much discussion of either severely limiting that character on that series or not even having it at all. My character was brought in as a four episode arc at the end of season five. Lauren Holly was still playing the director of NCIS and my character, Leon Vance, came from the San Diego office he was sort of an interim director lower level bureaucrat investigating a case involving Lauren Holly. Her character was killed and Leon Vance suddenly found himself as director of NCIS. I tell people I basically had a 4 episode on (not audible). I guess one thing it was apparent there was a genuine chemistry a real interesting and different dynamic between my character and Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon, something that hadn’t appeared before. A real atmospheric, dynamic, sort of mano y mano attention that was created because the other characters in the series especially the other agents had a very different relationship with Gibbs. Vance and Gibbs are like two gunslingers when they get together and they lock horns. The dynamic worked and the producers thought it, the network, and I guess the audience as well. Suddenly what became this four episode arc I found myself a part of the NCIS family and its sort of the jumping off point. Vance comes in and breaks up the team he enters with a real splash. The audience response was they didn’t know if this was a good guy or a bad guy. These characters that over six seasons had been developed and the audience pretty much could have known if they set their watch to who they were and suddenly you introduce this character who really is kind of a mystery. You don’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy, if his motives are good, if he’s there to undermine the team. Especially after 5 seasons I think it was a very refreshing dynamic not only for the creative side the producers and everybody but even for the audience. The death nail to any project is when the audience gets ahead of you and they know what’s going to happen. I think we were successful in keeping them a little off balance there.
BLAST: Of course. That success has translated now onto the role on the new “NCIS Los Angeles,” which is doing really well on its own. How’s that show been for you so far?
RC: It’s been good. It’s a very different dynamic. I call the original “NCIS” the mother ship. People ask what’s the big difference? Well one show has been on the air for seven seasons and one show has been on for seven months. There’s a great deal of energy and anticipation about the future. I’m really still kind of amazed at the fact that sometimes I can turn on the TV and I’ll see promos for “NCIS” and “NCIS LA” and I’ll be in both promos, and I’m thinking wow this is pretty cool man. I’m going back and forth here. It’s been greatâ€¦its great that the network and the executive producers of the show feel that the character carries enough wait and can transfer between the two series. I’m really having a lot of fun.
BLAST: Great. So when Lauren Holly was in your shoes she got to do a lot of investigating. She did a decent amount of gun slinging on the show. We saw a little bit of that from you finally in a recent episode where you were being kind of not hunted, but pursued by a Korean assassin. Would you like to do more of the hands on, get your hands dirty action, or are you happy kind of being more of a cerebral character on the show?
RC: You know its fun to get out in the field every once in a while, but I don’t mindâ€¦I enjoy the dynamic we’ve created between Vance and the rest of the group, but on occasion, you know if its warranted. The fact that Vance was a former operative, he does possess the skills that the operatives and NCIS agents have, its nice to kind of just sort of get in that role and even remind the audience that oh yea that’s right the director used to be an agent as well. You know he specialized in crime scenes, he specialized in you know he’s a bit of a computer geek. So it’s fun, but you know sitting in the seat of power is also a lot of fun too. When they ask me to go into the field I do it on very rare occasions.
BLAST: OK. Now obviously your character’s past is left as a mystery on purpose on the show. There’s always been this question of what’s in that CIA file that Gibbs has on your character. Can you shed some light on your character’s shadowy past?
RC: Well, I think what we realized, cause I think we started to go down that road what we were trying to answer a lot of questions and sort of expose Vance as this character that is much more complex than we even knew from the beginning.
BLAST: Yeah, you’re not a pencil pusher.
RC: The great thing about Shane Brennan, the executive producer of “NCIS,” is he will give audiences little tidbits, little nuggets of information, or he may address something and go away from it long enough. Once it becomes a curiosity, once audiences go we wanna to know more of this, this, and that he will address it. So, nothing is arbitrary. I think over time bits and pieces of this Vance character will be unveiled, but what we’re trying to balance, the real trick especially for the writers and producers, is you can’t have especially in this day and age if a guy has ascended to the level of director of NCIS, there’s certain things about his past would have been vetted.
If he was really a traitor to his country, a rogue, a criminal, or whatever he wouldn’t have ascended to the top level of the federal agency. You know, it just wouldn’t be plausible that he’s one of the highest levels of office in the federal agency only to be found out to be a rogue or a criminal or whatever. I mean its possible, but what we didn’t want was and one of my favorite sayings and Mark Harmon says it all the time, and it’s true the real star of “NCIS” is the agency. Real NCIS agents have said to me and other people connected with the show that now when people find out they are connected with NCIS people are genuinely interested and fascinated by them because what the show has done by sort of putting the agency on display. The star of the show is the agency we don’t want to do anything to tarnish the real federal agency. So to suggest that somebody who is nefarious or that a bad guy could ascend to the top level of the agency, that’s not what we want to do. What we do like is delving into the complexity of a person. You can be the head of an agency and a very very complex individual and that’s sort of what we’re trying to balance out is where this complexity really lies. Was Leon Vance even deep coveted by the CIA, was there some other agency that he was a part of on a bigger government level even before this. So those are the kind of things that we’re kind of tossing around now and eventually we’re going to put on the screen.
BLAST: Great. The show itself has made this real federal agency sort of a household name. Had you heard of NCIS before the show?
RC: Not before the show I hadn’t, no.
BLAST: What do you think, I mean obviously NYPD, FBI, CIA, these are the ones we all hear of, how interesting is it to kind of play with this agency that you’re really setting the tone, creating the mold for NCIS in popular culture. What’s that like?
RC: It’s two fold for me because like I said the show hadâ€¦I kind of feel like some guy who’s been traded to a playoff contending team you know I already said these guys are a playoff team, I was brought in to kind of help stir up the defense and hopefully kick them deeper into the playoffs. That’s sort of the feeling I have. I mean they already sort of established this relationship — you know when you still after seven years you still have 20 million people watching your show there must be something to it. Its interesting, its fascinating.
Since the heyday of television there have always been shows and about law enforcement on certain levels, but in the old days it was the “Dragnet”, “Adam 12” — these shows have always existed, but now we get more and more into the science of crime solving so as oppose to just two guys driving around in the squad car and every time their squawk box goes off we’re off on another adventure that sort of has now morphed into the science of getting out of the squad car and into the lab. I think crime shows will always be around, shows about agencies, shows about cops and robbers that will always be a part of television. You can pretty much be guaranteed as an actor that if you do television you’re probably going to play a cop or a doctor at some point in your career. That’s where the most drama happens, it has the most potential for danger, for humor, whatever. Those are the sort of jobs and occupations that have the most dimensions. That’s why guys have been doing cop shows and hospital shows since the beginning of time. It’s interesting and its interesting to see the metamorphosis from the buddy cops driving around in the squad car to now an entire organization that you get to see from the labs to the morgue to the guys on the street all working together to solve a crime.
BLAST: Great. So obviously you’ve done well on television. Do you still kind of long to get involved in more Hollywood productions, or are you happy being in everyone’s living rooms every week?
RC: Well you know it’s funny. I’m at a point right now in my life man — where I am right now is great. I think it’s just the nature of the beast. You always feel that you’re missing out on something; you’re on a hit show, but you’re surrounded by agents and managers saying you should be doing this. But I’ve reached a point in my life where that whole grass is always greener, especially in the business, it’s just too much work man. What happens is you find yourself not really enjoying where you are because you’re on a hit show and you’ve got all these people in your ears going you need to direct, you need to produce you need to make a Christmas album and you’re like I just want to do this show and have a good time, I got 20 million people watching me. So if I’m not everything to everyoneâ€¦and the business has changed, 20 years ago there was a huge distinction between you were either a film actor or a TV actor, now every film actor that I happen to run into that I know personally the first thing they say is god I’d love to be on a series. I read a very interesting article with Edie Falco recently and she said something I thought was very true, is that in our business doing series television is as close to a normal job as you can have. If you’re doing films or whatever hey three weeks in Prague, eight-week shoot in Virginia, nine weeks in Italy you know whatever it is, but to know from the beginning of July to the beginning of May that pretty much Monday through Friday this is what you’re going to do you’re going to be playing the same character for five, seven, 10 years. It’s just as close to normal as we get in our business and as you get older and life becomes more complicated, families kids what have you, I think more and more actors understand.
And television has gotten better. The sort of subject matter that could only be done on film is now all over the TV, especially with the advent of satellite and cable TV and HBO shows and Showtime, A&E so actors are finding much more satisfying work in the field of television than ever before. So I’m glad to be exactly where I am and I think there are a lot of guys in my business who would love to be where I am because the old distinction between ya know you’re not really living unless you’re doing a movie is just crazy.
BLAST: That makes sense to me. So obviously we’ll let you keep some of your personal details close to the vests, but is there anything else you want the fans to know about you yourself as a person instead of the character? Any hobbies or anything you do when you’re not on TV?
RC: You can usually find me on a fishing boat. That’s how you live in Southern California. The weather’s great 11 months out of the year. I try to be out and about as much as I possibly can. People always wonder what do you watch when you’re at home, I guess because you’re so immersed in it, the last thing I want to do is come home and turn on a cop show when that’s what you’ve been filming for 12 hours a day. I like to laugh and be funny because I play such a character who you know is sort of the straight-laced guy with the scowl on the series, but usually I come home and if there’s an HBO comedy concert or somebody doing stand up I’ll watch that before watching anything else.
BLAST: Okay. Rocky Carroll, who plays director Leon Vance on the top show on television, “NCIS,” Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Any final words for the fans here in Boston?
RC: As a guy in the AFC, good luck to the Patriots.
BLAST: Excellent. Rocky thank you so much for your time today we really appreciate it.
RC: My pleasure.
Blast Correspondent Tara Rufo contributed to this report.