"This is all just a setup," says Pauley Perrette, walking into the NCIS writers' room north of Los Angeles. Michael Weatherly fatalistically adds: "This is where we all..." Brian Dietzen finishes the thought: "...meet our end."
Not bloody likely. Sure, the series did off a couple major characters in the first five seasons (RIP, Lauren Holly's Jenny), and some significant recurring characters have met their makers in the five years since (Mike Franks, we hardly knew ye!). But the chances of any of these eight diehards going down anytime before the show ends its run are about the same as the odds of Gibbs cracking a sustained smile.
Speaking of which: When we gathered all eight regular cast members of TV's No. 1 drama for a historic summit, their fearless leader, Mark Harmon, was largely the quiet man out. When his colleagues finally called him on his reticence, he swore he was having too good a time listening to everyone else's banter. As you read this unprecedented full-cast gabfest, you'll know exactly what he means.
TV Guide Magazine: How often are all eight of you in the same room?
David McCallum: Table reads, every 10 days.
TV Guide Magazine: Have there been any scenes in which you've all been together at once?
McCallum: When Ziva became a U.S. citizen.
Pauley Perrette: Everybody wasn't there. Michael wasn't. But for Jenny's funeral, we were.
McCallum: And that was the last episode of...
Michael Weatherly: Season 5.
McCallum: How do you know that?
Weatherly: Because when she died at the end of Season 5, that's when we got the Rocket Man. [Points to Rocky Carroll.]
TV Guide Magazine: There have been no major cast changes lately — unless we count Brian Dietzen finally getting bumped up to the main credits after 10 years. [The group applauds.]
Dietzen: I've gotten congratulated so often in the last few weeks, and it's a great recognition. But I've never been made to feel like anything but a full cast member for the last decade.
Perrette: It's a lot easier on the rest of us, too, because people are hollering at me, "Why isn't he in the opening credits?" "I don't have anything to do with that — I don't know!"
Dietzen: When I first did the show, I was supposed to do one day. So I thought, "I'll wear glasses, hunch over and stammer a bit. I don't have anything like that on my reel, so that'd be cool!"
Mark Harmon: I remember early on, maybe on the second day, David saying to you, "You come with me downtown to autopsy," and you going, "All right, I'm there!" I remember right then thinking, "Okay, this is gonna work."
Dietzen: I spent a lot of that time staring at my shoes and concentrating on not throwing up.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you prefer the stand-alone episodes or the ones that get into a lot of mythology and long-term storytelling?
Perrette, Weatherly and Dietzen: [Almost in unison] Stand-alone.
Sean Murray: Yeah, me too.
Cote De Pablo: Long-term storytelling! You get invested and you want to see the next one, and they get into a lot of character stuff and complex conflict.
Perrette: I sit around and watch the marathons on USA all the time, of course. So if [the multipart episodes] are not in the order of how they first aired, then I'm afraid it's gonna confuse people.
Weatherly: That's a very network-executive thing to say. Maybe I'm just incredibly conventional and conservative, but I get very lost in the two-parters. I'm like, where are we? What the hell is going on? Why do I feel like crying? [Laughs]
Perrette: No matter if it's a one-parter or multiparter, the arc of the show is these characters.
McCallum: The scary part of that is, I find that Ducky and David have combined... [Everyone laughs] No, I'm serious about this. Has it happened to you guys, that your characters influence your own life?
De Pablo: Absolutely. I was saying goodbye to one of my best friends today, and she said, "Give me a hug," and I gave her a hug like this. [Mimes a half-hearted back pat.] She was like, "No, I need a real hug!" And I gave her a huge hug. I've been playing this character that's not [touchy-feely], and I find myself catching little things that are not me.
Weatherly: The distance between how I feel when I'm in that squad room and when I go home is so different now that I am keenly aware how consistent I used to be. Where work ended and life began was a very fuzzy line for me. And now I think it's demarcated quite clearly. I've already spoken too much. [Laughs]
Perrette: It's imperative to my survival and my life that the two never fade into each other at any time. Because especially in the past 10 years, I've dealt with so many horrific personal struggles that my escape is playing Abby. I put the ponytails in, and it's like, "Abby doesn't have that problem." So literally, for Pauley's own survival, I have to keep Abby completely separate. Because if I don't, I have no place to hide. All of my freedom lives in Abby.
Weatherly: It is fun, still, right? People ask, "Are you tired of it? It's a decade. Do you want to do something else?"
McCallum: I have fun every minute of the day.
Weatherly: [To Carroll] Do you ever bring Leon home?
Perrette: Yeah, your character is so different from your real personality.
Rocky Carroll: No, it doesn't really work at home. You know that shopping cart with the wheels that lock when you take it past the yellow line in the parking lot? That's kind of what it's like.
TV Guide Magazine: I was going to ask who's least like his or her character, and it sounds like the consensus answer is Rocky.
McCallum: And also Jimmy Palmer and Brian. Brian's not a blithering idiot.
Dietzen: I'm not?
Perrette: [To Weatherly] I get asked about you all the time—
Weatherly: I'm much thinner in person.
Perrette: When people early on knew we were really good friends off-set, especially women would holler at me, "How can you be friends with him? He's such a misogynist. I don't know how you can hang out with that guy." I'm like, "Do you mean Michael Weatherly? Because he's actually not DiNozzo in real life."
Weatherly: Although I have to say, it's kind of fun to play a total dinosaur in terms of sexual politics, somebody who doesn't give a flying f---. The shallow end of the philosophical pool is obviously where Tony paddles around.
De Pablo: However, I have to say this, because my character has feelings for you—
Weatherly: I'm sorry.
De Pablo: No, there's something deeper about that character. We always talk about the superficial element and the things that make us laugh. But he wouldn't be doing what he does if he wasn't really good at it. It's a complex character, and that's why people love it.
Weatherly: I've been really happy about Season 10. I don't know how everyone else feels about it.
De Pablo: Ducky's alive.
Weatherly: That's a bonus. And I had a great time watching McGee after he got the initial gut blast with the window shard. I don't know if this is by design or something you and [executive producer Gary] Glasberg cooked up, but I'll ask anyway. It feels like there's a little bit of a new wind in the sail. Do you feel that at all?
Murray: Yeah, I think McGee's toughened up a little bit.
De Pablo: Mark, do you want to say something? [Much laughter over Harmon's silence]
Harmon: No, I love listening to everybody! You've got all these excited people at this table. These guys have all done more than 100 shows, and they're every bit as motivated as they were in the beginning, and in some cases more so.
De Pablo: It doesn't come without work, though.
De Pablo: Making it good.
Harmon: I just think you can't forget how hard everybody worked to get here. Most of the time, shows don't work. If you don't appreciate this ride... But it wasn't always a ride. I'm so clear about how we've earned this. I'm not confused at all. And I'm not confused about what it's gonna take to stay here. I don't think anybody at this table is. I mean, shows all end at some point. But right now, there's no end in sight for this one.
For more with the cast of NCIS, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, Nov. 8!