by Jay S. Jacobs
When you think of scientists in the Naval police corps, do you picture someone in pitch-black retro clothes, with goth boots, spider-web tattoos and with a serious caffeine addiction?
If you do, chances are that notion is thanks to Pauley Perrette.
Perrette plays Abby, the overstimulated-but-quite-brilliant lab worker on the CBS smash series NCIS. The quirky show is about a troupe of Navy investigators who look into crimes which touch on the military. Abby is the resident tech expert, sticking close to the lab working out ballistics, cracking computer codes and cracking wise with her fellow agents. Even Perrette admits she was surprised that she would be cast in a role of a Naval scientist.
Perrette recalls, “My boss, Don Bellisario, I actually asked him – where did she come from? He had a really interesting answer to that. He always likes to put characters out that are portrayed differently from [the normal on] television. When he created Magnum PI, he wanted to make a Vietnam veteran that was doing his thing. He’s got his job and a floral shirt. Don told me that he wanted to portray a Vietnam vet in a better light than he thought the media was portraying them. He thought alternative lifestyle people, or even people who dress alternatively, were always portrayed on TV as junkies or thieves. He wanted to put this character out there that had cat shoes and different kind of clothes who was not at all a junkie or a thief, but is overly capable. Overly smart. Overly good at her job. That’s where he came up with Abby.”
Four years of playing Abby have been a treat for Perrette. “People call me Abby everywhere I go.” Perrette laughs. “It’s such an incredible character and I love her so much.”
The role also seems like a natural for Perrette, because ironically, she had studied criminal justice in college. Though she does not, she insists, have a Masters in Criminology as is reported many places.
“I started my master’s degree,” Perrette says, “but the real story is actually more interesting. But, you know the grand old internet… once anything is written anywhere, it keeps coming up over and over again. The real story is undergrad. I studied sociology, psychology and criminal science. I started my masters degree in criminal science, but then I moved to New York and I was broke and bartending. When I was bartending I started working with this director that put me in fifteen back to back… everything from commercials, music videos to short films. Then, suddenly I was in this business. I never got to finish [the masters]. I’d still like to.”
That led to a series of jobs in the business; including a regular gig in the short-lived Jennifer Love Hewitt/Jennifer Garner Party of Five spin-off Time of Your Life (“That was one of those that actually made it to air for like a second.”) and appearances in movies like The Ring and Almost Famous.
Though Almost Famous was a small role, it is still one of her favorites. “That is the greatest film ever made. I love that. I’m in that movie for like five seconds, but I’m still just so proud to be a part of it,” Perrette laughs. “I’m a huge Cameron Crowe fan from Say Anything. I can quote that movie from beginning to end. I went in and met Cameron Crowe. It was such a weird day. He’s just so amazing and cool and wonderful and happy and a lovely man. And of course talent. And he’s married to Nancy Wilson [singer/guitarist for rock group Heart], on top of that.”
Perrette respects Wilson because she too is a singer. She’s had a series of bands, including Lo-Ball, which had a song on the soundtrack of the movie Legally Blonde.
“I sing all the time, but I’m not in a band right now,” Perrette says. “I mean, I sing around the house. I think that everyone should sing every day at some point. I’ve been in and out of bands my whole life. That was a great band. I itch to get back in the studio. I love the studio. But right now, I’m kind of planning something, but there’s stuff going on, you know?”
Perrette also has a lot of other artistic endeavors: writing, poetry, photography and she is currently producing a documentary.
“My dream would be to be a reclusive, miserable writer. But I haven’t had time,” Perrette laughs. “[I’d like] to lock myself inside and write for the rest of my life, but there’s just too much going on. Still, my fantasy life is ahead of me, hopefully, where I can just sit and write the whole time.”
For now, though, she is more than happy to be part of NCIS.
“The thing that makes this is a dream job is the cast and crew of this show is just the greatest group of people,” Perrette gushes. “I think everybody was pretty much hand-picked for that reason. It’s a great place to work. Everybody is really good friends. Being such good friends with all of my co-stars is a dream come true. I love them. They are awesome – every single one of them. We have so much fun together. When we’re not at work, we’re often hanging out somewhere else. And it’s a pretty long run, you know. It’s four years and strong of being madly in love with each other. All of us. People coming on the set – it throws them off. They’re like what? Because everybody is so, so close. It’s very much like a family.”
That family consists of such respected veteran actors as Mark Harmon (St Elsewhere), David McCallum (The Man from UNCLE) and Lauren Holly as well as newer actors like Perrette, Michael Weatherly, Cote De Pablo and Sean Murray. NCIS (for the record, the title stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service) has perfected a sure-footed mixture of drama and comedy which has made it surprisingly popular. In fact, it is the only show that has been able to stand tall as counter-programming to a little phenomenon known American Idol – and not just because NCIS has never allowed Sanjaya on their set.
“It’s just a fascinating thing what’s happened with NCIS up against American Idol,” Perrette agrees. “They have these huge numbers and it hasn’t really affected us at all. Last week, I think, American Idol had like the first three slots [in the Nielsen ratings] and we were number six. No other show that was in the top was up against [AI]. We went dead head against them. Just even the numbers game is fascinating. I think with NCIS, in the beginning people didn’t really know what it was. They were like military something with an ‘N.’ Then when people check it out, they are like, wait a minute, what was that? That’s funny. Then they have to go check it out again. What was that crazy show I just watched? And then you’re hooked. Once people get hooked on this show, they just don’t leave.”
Part of the charm is the quirkiness of the major characters – and Abby is at the forefront of that. Unlike the average Navy investigator, Abby wears punk t-shirts and has a whole bunch of tattoos.
“The one on Abby’s neck belongs to Bellisarius Productions,” Perrette admits. “The rest are mine. The spider webs, that’s not.”
She is also just slightly hyper-active, which may be explained by Abby’s ever-present super Big Gulps cups.
“That’s our fictional super-caffeine drink,” Perrette smiles. “It’s actually filled with Hawaiian Punch, because that’s what Pauley drinks.”
However, one of the nicest touches for the series is that Mark Harmon’s character of Gibbs – a hard-boiled military man from way back – is closer to Abby than anyone else on the team.
“You know, the relationship is fascinating,” Perrette says. “I’ve always suspected, and of course we don’t know… we’re always the last to know… but it almost seems familial, you know? Like are they related? What is it? But I love that relationship. I love that he’d be the hard, gruff boss and then when it comes to Abby – he loves her. And he’s open about it. It’s sweet. It’s a sweet, wonderful and a surprising relationship.”
The show is deft at mixing moods and storylines. It seems that there can sometimes be a certain gallows humor which comes to life in jobs of such life-and-death pressure and NCIS shows that dichotomy.
“I’ve heard that is true,” Perrette says. “We work with them. Everybody pretty much represented on this show – we’ve met their real life counterpoint. All the NCIS agents. FBI. We’ve talked to cops. We’ve talked to the medical examiners – everyone. Yeah [they joke to get through the job], but there is no disrespect there, I don’t think. I think it’s just more like anything else anywhere. Life isn’t just all drama or all comedy. That’s one thing I love about the show, that it’s both. I always say to people – the crime show, we’re the funny one. We’re the funny show about crime.” She laughs. “It has so much of everything. In an hour episode there’s all the drama and I think the show is hilarious. I laugh at it more than I do sitcoms – especially Michael Weatherly.”
Of course, it is also a bit of a balancing act doing a series about the military right in the middle of an extremely unpopular war. As a show about the Navy – even when it is based in the US – of course some stories have to touch on Iraq. The show is able to perform the balancing act of showing the bravery and ingenuity of the Navy without making either side of the war debate feel that it is politically slanted. Perrette, whose politics skew a little further left and is very active in causes like gay rights, civil liberties and animal rescue, did have to consider this when she was up for the role.
“I was concerned at first,” she admits. “I was concerned about doing a military show during wartime. I was like, ughh… There’s no way to predict what that was going to mean. It’s been fine. I was really, really worried about that. But we’re telling stories about people. I’ve been really impressed with the writers and the show and with the way that [they’ve handled it]. It’s just a really tough thing to be putting on a show about the military right now. I mean it gives me the shivers thinking about it. But these are more story-based and character-based. So we’ve been able to just continue to put on a show. An interesting show… It’s cool. I’m fine.”
Perrette feels a real responsibility to use her celebrity to help spread the word about causes she feels passionately about.
“It’s a really interesting thing,” Perrette admits. “I don’t know why people listen to celebrities, but they do. I’m sitting here surrounded by all these rescue dogs. Without animal rescue… the mass breeding of animals is very disturbing to me. I found that a lot of times, people… it never occurred to them to go to rescue a dog that’s already here and needs a home. For whatever reason – reading something or because they like an actor or an actress – you know, it’s happened. It’s weird, when it’s actually you, you think, me? Who on earth would really care what I have to say? I feel that way all the time. But, you know what? If it helps you might as well try it. Especially with issues like – gay rights, now – it’s just so crazy. It’s a civil rights issue that’s right in our face. I think that it’s getting better, but it’s really misunderstood a little bit. All these horrible stereotypes and weird things about this one part of our community that. It’s good for somebody to say, hey, you know what, that’s really judgmental and wrong. And like I said, sometimes celebrities end up saying stuff that changes things. But that’s not why it works.”
Of course, on a series that deals so much with technology and the internet, Perrette has recently had a wake-up call as to the dangers of the internet. She had to stop writing her regular blog when it became apparent that a disturbed reader was posing a threat to her. Perrette has now taken a more cautious approach to the world wide web.
“I’ll tell you, I have suddenly just gone in a completely different direction,” Perrette says. “Perhaps this is going to be the new wave, who knows? But the internet, I’ve been surfing for years. Then all of the sudden – and I think it was because it’s me – when it actually is me and I read things on the internet all the time about myself which is completely untrue.” She laughs. “Like, not true at all. Then I start thinking, it happens so fast; it’s become this resource for information, but there really is no disclaimer at the top of every page saying ‘almost none of what you’re about to read may be true.’ When it’s actually me reading about myself, I’m like, huh? What is this?
“I was talking to a young girl the other day. I was just saying, be careful. Especially with all these…,” she sighs, “places where people make their own page and all this stuff. I am not on MySpace.com. I’m not a fan. But then there’s MySpace pages… not fan pages, those are fine. It says at the top this is a fan page. But then there’s other ones – ‘MySpace.com/PauleyPerrette’ – posing as me. Talking to people as me. That was terrifying. It’s like, whoaaa! And what are you going to do, fight the whole internet? So essentially, I just gave up. Hopefully, I think people will start understanding and talking about it more that the internet is not a valid resource for everything. It’s a starting place, but it’s really out of control.
“No matter what you read or see, until you know somebody and really hang out with them, you don’t really know. We don’t really know each other. That’s one thing that’s bothering me about the internet is that… I’m not just talking about celebrities; I’m talking about people that think you know from their website. It’s good to hug your friend. Not cyber-hugs. Real ones. It’s really becoming this world where nobody exists except online and it makes me sad. Like, God, get off the internet and go walk with your friend. Not your top eight friends… When was the last time you shook their hand or kissed them on the cheek? As much as information is out there, we don’t really know each other until we’ve held your face and your hands or held them while they are crying or laughed with them. It’s all rather false.”
After well over a decade in the Hollywood scene, though, Perrette is enjoying her dream part of Abby – not that she doesn’t want to stretch out even more as an artist.
“I don’t have any interest in being a celebrity, but I am really proud of being a good actor,” Perrette explains. “That’s a weird line. We work this weird celebrity-crazy thing. I guess it’s kind of hard to separate the two. The industry bows down to that. They’ll think of people for parts because they crash their car while driving drunk. It’s just strange. You have to just keep yourself out there. Also, there are just so many things I want to play in addition to [Abby]. I love Abby. I want to play Abby for the rest of my life. But then on my break time… not that there is a lot… I took a lot of things in independent film and stuff that I’ve done here and there and even guest star on other stuff that were nothing like Abby. I’ve got a lot more to do.”
However, for all that is going on in her life, Perrette likes the fact that she is a pretty normal type. Life hasn’t changed for her that much and stardom on one of the biggest shows on TV certainly hasn’t gone to her head.
“I’m pretty simple. Pretty scruffy. Abby’s put together and all. People often ask me how much I’m like her. Some people say, you’re so much alike. Yeah, I’m very hyperactive when I talk. But I am always in old scruffy jeans and an old sweatshirt and the same sneakers I’ve had for like 100 years. Very into comfort; sitting on the couch, watching television, surrounded by a bunch of animals, drinking a beer.” Perrette laughs. “I’m just a beer drinking guy.”
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 20, 2007.