Rocky Carroll on Taking Control of Tonight’s ‘NCIS’ Episode and His Hopes for Vance’s Future
We have come to appreciate Rocky Carroll in his role as Director Leon Vance on NCIS after the initial difficult start he had with Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), but there’s even more reason to appreciate him than viewers may be aware of, because Carroll has directed more than 20 episodes of the hit CBS series since joining the cast in 2008—and tonight’s episode, Big Rig, is one of them.
In it, Special Agent Nick Torres (Wilmer Valderrama), who came from the world of undercover, is f0rc3d to once again adopt a false identity to help bring to justice a cr**e ring that is set in the world of a trucking company. There’s an undercover FBI agent who’s gone missing and everything points to foul play from his NCIS agent partner, who is an acquaintance of Torres. So, despite the jeopardy it may put Torres in, the only way to discover the truth and solve the c***e is to send him in under deep cover.
For Carroll, who enjoys collaborating with his co-stars in his job as a director, it was great to work with Valderrama on this Torres-centric episode because Carroll says that Valderrama has a great eye for the action.
“There was a fight scene, there were stunts involved, there were all sorts of things involved, there was so much action,” Carroll tells Parade. “I always say to people if you’re shooting a scene where you’ve got five or six people sitting around a table, that’s hard to shoot in itself. Imagine five or six people fighting each other. I never hesitate to reach out and go, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve got an idea but what’s the best way to get the maximum amount of impact from this scene? Should we focus on this angle, should we focus on that?’”
And Valderrama was helpful because, again, according to Carroll, he understands how the camera works, he understands elements and angles and ways to tell the story because he’s done it himself.
“I think people are at their most creative when they know that the director respects their input,” Carroll continues. “As a director, I always tell the actor if we do it and we realize it’s not the right choice or it may not work, I will never discount somebody’s instincts or intuition or ideas. Once they realize that you respect what they bring to the table there’s nothing they won’t do for you.”
During our conversation, Carroll also talked about his hopes for upcoming stories for Vance, like possibly more episodes with him involving a lady friend and the return of his daughter Kayla, who is now an NCIS special agent.
When you get the script, what’s the first thing that you look for?
As an actor and a stage actor, I always look for the logic of the scenes and the dialogue. The one thing I know for sure, when actors have questions, it’s usually something logistically. Like how do we get from point A to point F? If the steps to get there are not clearly mapped out that’s usually the first thing. I’ve become the dramateur, I start asking the whys, like, “Why is this happening?” I’m not doing it just to be a devil’s advocate, because I know actors, those are the questions that actors ask.
I think one of the misconceptions that people have about directing is that the director is always the smartest guy in the room. A good portion of directing is having the right cast, being surrounded by smart people, and having the wherewithal to know when to step in and sometimes when to simply delegate and let them do what they do best.
What I always tell the actors, especially the guest stars who come on the show, is we hired you for this role because you’re good. I don’t have to tell you how to play in this role. We hired you because your instincts and ability are apparent, you can do this, you know what’s best for this character. All I want to do is if you have questions or if something doesn’t make sense, to be there. I don’t need to hold your hand or micromanage anybody, whether it’s actors or crew or anybody else. Hopefully, you’ve hired the best person for the job.
As an actor, I just want to make everybody’s journey make sense. When I get a script if there’s things that as an actor don’t make sense to me, I know they’re not going to make sense on the day that we shoot it. My job is to try to get the script and an understanding from the writers of what their intent is, where we’re going with this, and what’s underneath this dialogue. Because these are the questions the actors are going to ask me on the day that we shoot this. The first step is to make sure I know the script backwards and forwards, I know the script better than anybody else. That’s my job as a director.
When we talked in 2018 you called yourself an “embryonic director,” but you have so much more experience now. What’s it like that the show gave you this great opportunity? Do you still consider yourself learning?
No longer embryonic, but I think I’m in my directorial adolescence. That’s where I put it now. I absolutely think that I’m learning. I have people telling me you’re selling yourself short. I say no, I’m giving myself the greatest compliment of all because I’m open. There’s nothing worse than a director who says, “I don’t need any help from anybody else, I know what I’m doing.” Those are the ones who usually crash and burn when they come and direct an episode of our show.
I think my greatest asset right now as a director is whatever it is that I bring to the table, to allow room for ideas and that nothing is set in stone. It’s NCIS, so you’re not going to color outside the lines too far. If we go too far in a direction, it doesn’t really fit with the style of the show. I’m sure no one would hesitate from upstairs to say, “What are you guys doing down there?” There’s a style and there’s a format, but also, I’ve got a sense that really from day one, from the first time I directed, I had a great advantage because I had spent eight seasons as an actor on the show. It became very apparent to me that maybe I know a little bit more about this show. The fact that I know this show inside and out really helps in my path as a director.
Every time I direct an episode, now I’ve got more than 20 under my belt, but there’s never been an episode that there’s something on one of those days of shooting where I have a moment where I go, “I get it, that’s how this works, that’s the way to do this.” That’s the thing that’s really exciting about it.
We talked about directing, let’s talk a little bit about Vance. When you first joined the cast, you had worked with Mark Harmon previously on Chicago Hope, but he’s gone now. So, Vance has to deal with Alden Parker (Gary Cole). How do you think Gary is doing as the new leader of the team? You two had some really fun moments on that trip to Germany, where Parker served as Vance’s bodyguard.
That was quite a trip to Germany, yes it was. Those of us in the industry know that Gary has played so many different characters and you’ve seen him in so many different things. He’s one of those actors where you go, “Oh, that’s right, he was also in this, and he was also that guy.” Gary was not intimidated by the history of this show when he stepped into the role. To his credit, he also didn’t try to overcompensate by being the biggest and the loudest person in the room when he came in. Gary’s a craftsman. He came in, he got the lay of the land, and even though he was being put into this position as the leader of the team, as the actor, he ingratiated himself to everybody, cast and crew. He didn’t just assume, “I’m going to put on the cape and suddenly be the leader here.”
To me, the first sign of his ability to be a leader was that he allowed everybody to get used to the fact that he was there and that he brought a different energy. But he was committed to working and he was committed to doing whatever it took to make that transition smooth. And he made it very smooth because, he’s easy to work with. He’s the quintessential professional, and he’s such a terrific actor, he elevates everybody around him.
Also, on that trip, we found out that Vance had this secret girlfriend, Lena from German Federal Intelligence. Then there had been another woman back in D.C. that he had thought they were dating, but it turned out she was really investigating him. Since Jackie d**d, Vance hasn’t had very good luck with women. What’s up with that do you think?
Well, the good news is they either get shot or they turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Yes, I’m hoping that this long-distance relationship that he had been cultivating over the years, now that we know who this woman is and now that we know she survived her fate in Germany, I’m really hoping that maybe we revisit that. Anything’s possible.
For me, that episode, what it really set the table for was advancing the relationship between Parker and Vance. Gibbs and Vance had a very bumpy start in their relationship when Vance first took over the role as director. Over the years, they became bound by tragedy, Vance lost his wife to tragedy the same way Gibbs did. So, I’m hoping that this bond that Vance and Parker are forming won’t be solidified by tragedy, but more or less by the understanding that both of them have led very complex lives and both of them have things that they need aside from the job. I think that was the thing we established in the Germany episode. I’m really hoping that our writers and producers will continue to forge the bond between these two senior members of the team.
One of the things that fans really like, and me as well, is we love to see the softer side of Vance when he’s with his daughter, who is now an NCIS agent. But she transferred to San Diego. Any chance she might be coming back?
I hope so. I really do. Unfortunately, I don’t get to make those decisions. I think when the audience responds positively to things like that, I think there’s always a chance. I tell people all the time, “What’s the secret to NCIS’s success?” I think it’s just that. These are procedurals. At the risk of being redundant, procedurals are to television today what Westerns were to television back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s a simpler way of life, it’s a very straightforward sense of right and wrong and an innate sense of justice.
When people talk about the success of our show, the bottom line is at the end of the hour most of the time, good will win out over bad. The bad guys will get caught and justice will be served. That doesn’t happen in the real world all the time, but it happens on NCIS. And people respond to it. We need it.
Gibbs was the quintessential figure. He was Gary Cooper in High Noon. He had a moral compass. He had a set of rules that he lived by. Even though that character no longer exists, it’s all still based on that, that somebody has to carry the moral compass for us all. That, to me, is what we have in spades, it’s what the strong suit has shown us.
I was going to ask you about the fact that NCIS is almost at the 450-episode mark, but you just answered why you think the series has longevity.
I love to tell the story, the biggest joke, is that when we got to the 200th episode, which was a milestone many years ago, Michael Weatherly (Anthony DiNozzo) jokingly said, “We’re halfway to 400,” and everybody laughed, and now we’re here.
NCIS airs Monday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.