Michael Weatherly is in the makeup chair on the NCIS set, getting his brunette hair and long sideburns touched up. He's shooting "Baltimore," the May 5 episode that will flash back at hairy length to show the fateful meeting between his Tony DiNozzo and Mark Harmon's Jethro Gibbs, ten fictional years ago. Writer (and co-producer) Steve Binder sits nearby, in case the script needs any touching up along with Weatherly's dye job.
"You know I'm wearing that bomber jacket in that last scene," Weatherly tells the scriptwriter.
"That got approved? That's awesome," says Binder.
Weatherly elaborates for a visitor. "It's when Gibbs fools me into going to the NCIS recruiting office, to sign up for the NCIS test — which I pass with flying colors. It's a drinking test," he jokes.
"You know, that is from history," Binder points out. "Kate asked you how you got hired here, and you smiled at the recruiting officer. I don't know if you remember that."
"Oh, I remember it!" says Weatherly, who rarely needs to be reminded of ancient NCIS lore. "Episode number two."
"I wrote this entire show just to get that moment to happen," Binder says. "And I was like, 'How can I get... did Gibbs hire him, or did the recruiting... wait a minute...'"
"I saw her picture," Weatherly says, of the gal who was just cast for that minor role.
"Is she someone you'd smile at?"
"Oh yeah. It's gonna be good. I've been practicing." He breaks into a not entirely convincing smile, then doubts himself. "It needs to be in the eyes, doesn't it?"
"It'll be a nice ending," says Binder, "since it's such a dark episode." And such a highly anticipated one. Among the NCIS faithful, there could be no more eagerly awaited hour of NCIS than a DiNozzo origins story. Binder realizes that now, but he didn't when he got the assignment. Then the show's publicist told him that a TV Guide Magazine cover was being planned for the episode, right after he started writing it in January. "Kristin told me halfway through the outline phase that this was the episode everyone was waiting for, and then I went home and sat in front of my computer and was paralyzed for three days."
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We'll see the results of Binder's post-writer's block work soon enough. "Baltimore" has a lot to live up to, coming on the heels of another flashback episode this season, the brilliantly rendered "Enemies Domestic," which centered around a younger Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll)... with just enough cameo at the end by a young Gibbs, too, to pay off a teaser about a squashed pastry that was set up several seasons ago.
Harmon has enjoyed doing both these flashback episodes, as a chance to explore the physicality of the characters at an earlier stage in their lives, with a minimum of hair-and-makeup (or digital) assistance.
"It's a chance to grab a handle on some different points that you remember from earlier times," Harmon tells TV Guide Magazine, during another filming break. "Maybe you've looked at old episodes and you say 'Okay, what are the things I have to pay attention to, to play younger?' Maybe you're speaking a little bit faster, maybe your posture is a little bit more erect — those kinds of things. There's a different rhythm. Experience and time in the saddle breeds different development in a character and a person."
Weatherly also got a kick out of de-aging himself.
"It's a little surreal, going back to 2001," he says, still in black-turtleneck period costume in the catering line. "It makes me think where I was, at that time. I wish the 2001 me could wander into the scene and interact with the 2001 Tony. I don't know if we could get Jessica Alba to do it, though," he quips, referencing his then-girlfriend.
"The flashback hair was a lot of fun. They wanted it to be a little darker, which I at first was a fan of, then I wasn't a fan of, but then I got into it. What I conceived of was this idea that Tony had been undercover recently, and that he had some kind of assignment where he had to be on the streets with dark hair. But there's another part of me that thought actually maybe Tony dyed his hair dark when he was a Baltimore homicide cop because he was insecure about his honey-colored hair. He thought, 'My name's Anthony DiNozzo, and nobody's gonna [expletive] take me seriously unless I have dark hair that matches the name.' So maybe that's the real answer — style over substance."
As for the cut of the hair, if not the shade... well, believe it or not, that's "R.J. hair." Irony alert! Effort was made in this episode to go back to something approximating the cut Weatherly had when NCIS (or Navy NCIS, as it was known then) started in 2003. And at the time, the young actor had just come off a TV movie where he played Robert Wagner... who, of course, would go on to play DiNozzo's dad in two highly regarded episodes of this series.
Says executive producer Gary Glasberg, "So many little origin moments are sort of touched on, from Tony's wardrobe to the head slap. And it's fun, because there's nothing blatant about it. It's all very well structured and built into the mystery. And as you're going through the story, you find yourself going 'Wait a minute, they just explained one thing.' That was our goal, to come up with an origin story that presented all this information in as natural a way as possible — and sets up what Tony's and Gibbs' dynamic would be for the next decade."
"We did a scene yesterday," Harmon says, "and every bit of the dialogue in the scene is a test, as far as Gibbs is concerned. He's listening the entire time to what Tony says. And the end of the scene depends on what he says. I mean, DiNozzo doesn't know that. But the scene ends the way it does because of what DiNozzo says, and because of Gibbs' belief in him. And from that, his gut instinct is that this kid is good."
One topic that is always up for discussion among NCIS fans and recappers is how comically or seriously or in-between DiNozzo's character is being played. Weatherly's facility for comedy may be the greatest single distinguishing facility that has successfully separated NCIS from any other procedural on the market for the last eight years. But there's been some concert that the balance might have gotten out of whack at times, given that Tony is also supposed to be the office's most capable agent. But there seems to be a general consensus that, after an abundance of goofiness, the series has been getting that tricky tonal balance just right in the second half of season 8.
"In season 7, when I first joined," says Glasberg, who's assumed showrunner duties, "there were a number of episodes where Tony was played very lightly. And it's fun to juxtapose that now and twist it in ways — and never get rid of the humor, because that's a big part of who Tony DiNozzo is. But there are ways of demonstrating that humor and incorporating it where it isn't done quite as broadly. And the beauty of Michael Weatherly is that you can constantly go back to that whenever you need to and give him a line or a physical gag. He manages so beautifully to ground it that you can always count on him for whatever the situation is that you've written."
Weatherly says, "Whether I'm in (shooting) every day all day or if I'm in a more peripheral storyline, I'm always thinking about what's happening to Tony and trying to figure that out: How deep in his silly bubble cocoon is he right now? That was a lot of season 7, which I know was a while ago. But I remember not having much to do in certain points in terms of the plot or the end result of stuff, but thinking, what can I do here? Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail." Asked if he's been more pleased with where the character has gone lately, he quickly says, "Since Christmas."
"My belief is, when Tony stole the wedding invitation that had been sent to Gibbs, he thought, 'When am I gonna get married? And is E.J. [Sarah Jane Morris] the one that I'm gonna marry?' And I think that that's why he went back to that women's shower to read it, a place where they'd shared intimate moments. Not intimate sexually so much as intimate emotionally. And I think that he feels charged, and feels his mojo back. I think maybe he'd like to see if that could be achieved with E.J.
"I think the arrival of E.J. — her reminding him that he was a varsity athlete, he was a team leader, he was offered a team, and that he's got it — reminded him that he's got some traits that perhaps have not been used, and that maybe some of his co-workers don't really encourage his excellence. And they have good reason not to encourage this, because it's kind of like encouraging the class clown — he's only going to get worse. Or feeding the dogs scraps from the table... But I think she gives all of us hope for Tony. Because why is he attracted to her? Because she's his equal. She's not an object. They don't talk down to each other. It's not fraught with neurotic banter. It seems to be something that is more reminiscent of the Jeanne Benoit thing, even though that was completely illusory and fake and an undercover assignment and lying.
"It related back to that moment when he took the envelope from Jeanne Benoit and put it in the fire," Weatherly recalls. "And she said, "You have to choose. Do you want to have a life with a person you can trust, where you can raise children and be optimistic? Or are you going to lie about who you are and have friendships with the people that you work with and only work to live and live to work?' She said, 'It's your choice.' And he made his choice by tossing that in the fire. Then she said, 'Did you ever love me,' and he said no. He lied to her, because of course he loved her. But he knew that the right thing to do was to break her heart. And then yeah, I think he went into a catatonic emotional state" — he laughs heartily — "and was difficult to access in seasons 5 through 8. So beware the awakened heart of Tony DiNozzo."
It might have seemed, from their initial connection in the shower at the end of Weatherly's directorial debut, that the attraction was purely sexual. But Weatherly says that was more a function of tight editing than wanting to continue to play Tony as a lothario.
"There was more in that scene that didn't make it," he says. "There was a reference that she made to her father being a detective, and how watching Columbo is how she learned about stuff — which is part of how Tony ID-ed her as simpatico and 'Oh, you're not from another country, where I have to explain everything to you.' She gets all his pop culture references. And she knew Jenny Shepherd, because Jenny gave her the post in Rota, Spain. And she knew that Tony was the agent who was there when Jenny died in California. I mean, can you imagine — whatever internal Googling you can do of a fellow agent, once he saw that E.J. was in Rota and he was like, 'Who is this girl?,' I think she fascinated him in one way because she was him. She was the road he chose not to take. And then she's got a sort of sunny disposition, which Tony also has; she's smiley... I think it's a great foil. And then we have CI-Ray, Enrique Murciano. We had so much fun with him on the set, and I know Cote really liked working with him, too. Classic."
It almost sounds like these are the good old days for NCIS, or at least for Weatherly's and Cote de Pablo's characters, who are finally getting some... love, that is. But neither of these relationships seems likely to last, given the show's propensity for keeping all the members of this particular family eternally single. Gibbs, of course, does not want DiNozzo's heart waking up... at least not in the workplace.
Says Harmon, "Aside from the conflict of someone else in the house doing the job, E.J.'s a team leader and comes from the place where this (serial killer) murder (spree) originated, so her being the lead on this is not that much of a surprise. It doesn't mean Gibbs likes it. It doesn't mean he might not think there's other issues involved in that decision. But at the end of the day, he's a team guy and he's trying to solve the case. I don't believe he thinks in terms of taking a second seat to anybody. I don't know that he cares who's getting the credit or who's getting the collar. But this secondary team — and it's not a secondary team, they're all good at what they do — certainly is a challenge in the squadron, just because of how it's been for eight years. The balance changes."
Says Weatherly, "I think it's an exciting time for us to be able to do a TV Guide Magazine cover. I'm thrilled by it. I think the timing is perfect. Because I think it actually is a moment, at the end of this season, where the two characters are seeing and regarding each other. I think maybe Tony's finally becoming the guy that Gibbs — and maybe the audience — has always wanted him to become, maybe earlier, before he got sidelined by all this crazy [stuff]. There's that thing you say about kids: You give them roots, and then you give them wings. And maybe the roots have finally taken with Tony, and maybe it's time for Gibbs to start giving him some wings. And that can only come from a real confidence and a trust that he's not gonna be some goofball [expletive].
"But falling in love with the girl at work doesn't seem to be what Gibbs would say is a good move, so Tony has to defend his position. That forces them to reach a different level of conversation about: Do you want to live alone the rest of your life in an apartment, or make boats in your basement and drink bourbon? Or do you want to get married and have kids? Gibbs' fullness was taken from him. But nobody took Tony's... except Gibbs, if he's saying 'Hey, you can't do that.' It's like, just because you got that taken from you doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to experience that." But, at the time of this interview, he hasn't yet read the script for the season's final episode, let along let in on next season's trajectories, so " who knows whether or not it all gets explored. But I think it's a fascinating aspect.""
Of course, the show is certainly not all about the Gibbs/DiNozzo/E.J. triangle, much as that seems to be the core emotional undercurrent going into the final couple of episodes. There are other tensions, too — like, what's up with the tension between Gibbs and Vance? Is there even time to address that before season 8 wraps up, or is that a setup for season 9?
"Oh yeah, it's a huge part of the final story," promises Glasberg, who also wrote the season finale, about Vance vs. Gibbs. " I think people will get some satisfaction and closure to what they've been witnessing.... It's been fun to have so many different things to tackle in a single (concluding) episode. But it's all in there. I'm anxious for people to watch."
Harmon is intrigued by the simmering relationship with his TV boss as well. And the fact that he saved Vance's life by providing him with a knife for self-protection back in "Enemies Domestic" doesn't mean they're destined to kiss and make up any time soon.
"Everything about Vance and Gibbs is that, on an even field, they have a lot of similarities," Harmon says. "They do the job very differently, and Vance is certainly more political than Gibbs is. But that also comes with the job — to be in that position, to be an African American in that position, all of that. Away from this job, I think they may be more friendly than people think. But as far as doing this job, they have very different ways of doing it. Gibbs is an interrogator. I think Vance thinks of himself every bit his equal." Which he isn't, judging from the way he went after the wrong suspect in that axe-in-the-table scene recently. "That's been good conflict to play for a number of years here, and I don't expect that to change. In this storyline this year, Gibbs basically saved his life at a certain point. There weren't a lot of thank yous!" he points out, laughing. "But I don't know that (saving Vance) was personal to Gibbs, either. I think he saw what was coming, and he was operating on a gut instinct in providing an opportunity for someone to defend himself. But that it worked out the way it did, and that it had the repercussions in Vance's career this year that it has, has in many ways just done nothing but make the character more dimensional."
Above all these love-and-work relationship issues, the A storyline right now has to do with tracking the "port-to-port killer" (or "P2P," in Abby's shorthand). That's essentially a four-episode arc spread over the last five episodes, with "Baltimore" sort of being a break in the middle and sort of not.
Says Glasberg, "The other challenge we had was, we wanted to do this origins episode and at the same time touch on and keep the port-to-port killer story going and alive. I think we've successfully done that. But after that, in the last two episodes, it becomes all about the port-to-port killer, and our entire team becoming involved in trying to capture this guy, including E.J. and her people and CIA agent Ray Cruz. Then that story absolutely informs how we move forward into next season as well. There's a cliffhanger in the final episode" — naturally — "and a big surprise coming up in terms of members of our team being put in danger." But when asked if a rift in the team is inevitable, Glasberg answers, "If anything, this is going to bring some of the characters closer together." And with that assurance, fans may let out a big NCISigh.