With "NCIS: Los Angeles" entering its third season (premiering Tues. Sept. 20 at 9 p.m. on CBS), LL Cool J is looking forward to more action as Sam Hanna and "G" Callen (Chris O'Donnell) journey to eastern Europe to rescue their boss, Hetty (Linda Hunt), who's trying to convince the dangerous Comescu crime family that Callen is dead. With the focus squarely on Callen, Hanna's backstory is off the show's radar -- but that doesn't seem to bother the affable rapper/actor. During the CBS TCA party I talked to LL Cool J about the show, his special gift from the commander of the aircraft carrier that disposed of Osama bin Laden's body and why he and O'Donnell make such a perfect couple.
So, at the end of last season, you're running off to rescue Hetty. I guess we can safely assume things work out in the end?
I wouldn’t assume that. It’s definitely a tearjerker.
Oh no! It's not curtains for Hetty, I hope!
There’s a lot of stuff that happens. I wouldn’t like put all the focus on Linda, you know? There’s a lot of red herrings, you know, a lot of things happen. So nobody’s safe. I would just stay tuned. It’s interesting.
Now that the show is coming back for its third season, you must feel like taking the role of Sam Hanna was a smart choice. But did you hesitate to take on a high profile spin-off? It's worked for "CSI" but failed miserably for another CBS hit, "Criminal Minds."
Well, you know for me, my first decision was, I’d like to do a drama. "House" is on another network and everything, but I did a guest appearance on [that show] and it was so fun for me and so interesting that I said, you know what? I wouldn’t mind trying to do this. I’d done music for many, many, many years and I felt like I needed a new challenge. Something to kind of just get re-inspired as an artist. It was kind of like moving from painting to sculpture. So I met with Nina Tassler at CBS, and I thought she was fantastic. I had great conversations with her whole team and we ended up doing this show. And as far as it being the spin-off, you know, I wasn’t familiar with the original at first because I used to think "NCIS" was like a military show and I wouldn’t be able to relate it. [But] when they told me about possibly doing a spin-off, I watched the show and realized I could relate to it. There was humor in it. It was something that was actually really cool. I just didn’t think it was for me. It’s kind of like there’s just certain things you think, oh that’s not for me or maybe there’s a concert coming to town and you’re like oh, that’s not for me. And your friends drag you and then you have the time of your life. So it was kind of like that for me with the show.
But "NCIS: Los Angeles" is, in some ways, a very different animal than "NCIS." Because you have a background in comedy ("In the House" aired on UPN for five seasons), did the tone of the show change in any way once you joined the project?
I think as human beings we bring something to the character, but the writing is different and I think that they wanted to make sure we weren’t imitating the original and that it was truly us spinning off and doing something new. But at the same time, maintaining that wit and that humor and that banter and striving to have that same level of chemistry that those guys have.
Speaking of chemistry, you and Chris O'Donnell have a great on-screen bromance. Do you guys hang out off-screen?
The first time we met was at a table read. We never met each other before. You know, I’m a New York guy from Queens and he’s from the north side of Chicago. That’s as different as you can get, you know? He’s like middle America, like "Stepford Wives" and I’m New York City. But we click. We both have families. We get along. The energy was right. I think that that really helps us because we bring different sensibilities to the show, so it’s not like we’re like a duplicate, you know? It’ cool.
The show has been strongly focused on Callen's backstory and his search for identity. Have you asked the writers to give you something as meaty to sink your teeth into?
You know what? At this point I’m kind of just enjoying the ride, you know? I do talk to the writers and we talk about Sam being the [Navy] Seal and what have you, but as an actor I’m still into the show right now, you know? I’m not looking to turn Sam Hanna into Jake LaMotta. That’s not what this is. This is a different thing. I want a gun; I want to jump over cars. I want to do the things I’m doing. Like, I’m having a good time doing what I’m doing, you know? And I think it’s evolving at a pace. Hopefully, we’ll be around long enough for people to learn more about our characters, but there’s no rush. Right now we’re focusing on, you know, life and exploring "G" and what he’s been through; where he’s come from and that mystery. And I’m kind of supporting my friend in that. And that’s good.
Since your character is a retired Navy SEAL, does that require some intense groundwork to prepare for the role?
I went to Camp Pendleton and met with the Special Ops guys. They’re Marines. There were some SEALs there and some Navy guys as well. And, you know, we had some great conversations just about them putting their lives on the line and what that means. And they told me some private things that I’ve taken to heart and that I try to bring into the character. It definitely changes the way you view the world, you know what I mean? It’s one thing to be in the center of the circle, protected. It’s another thing to be the circle—facing outward. And that’s a whole ‘nother world. It’s a whole ‘nother existence. I mean, everybody’s walking around at this party and they have glasses in their hands. They’re not thinking about like, you know, terrorists attacks and what could happen or who’s in this room and who’s thinking what. You know, it’s a whole ‘nother thing. Knowing what you know now, do you tend to case the joint when you walk into a room? You know what? I’d love to stroke my ego and think that. I don’t think so.
Still, did doing a show with such a strong military focus change how you feel about the military? As you mentioned before, you felt a show like "NCIS" didn't relate to you.
Well, we have to represent. I mean, I go and I meet with military guys, and I meet commanders. I met a commander of the [aircraft carrier the USS Carl] Vinson. They dropped Bin Laden’s body in the ocean and they gave me a coin. I got a coin from the commanding officer of the boat, you know? It’s like you know you’re representing something that is beyond you, and you know they take pride in our show. They take pride in what we do as agents and as representatives of the military, so we have to keep that in mind.
You must get approached by enlisted fans of the show.
Oh yeah. They come to the set. We have sailors come to the set all the time and we have military guys that visit us. We have lots of people that come down to say hello to us and show us love. We don’t take that part of it lightly, but you can’t take it too seriously because you can get caught up [in it]. But we do take that part of it—that representing—seriously because you've got to remember the show is in 205 countries around the world. So every day when they say action, I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing military and I’m representing America all over the world. So that comes with a certain amount of responsibility that [you want to know that] people would say, 'Hey, you know what? We think you’re worthy of representing us and we’re going to support that.' So you’ve got to respect that.
We've met LL Cool J the singer, the comedic actor and the dramatic action star. How many sides of LL Cool J are we going to see?
I’m having fun. I’m having fun. I don’t have an image that I’m trying to like portray. I’m just being me. Like what I’m wearing right now, I could wear this in a music video tomorrow, you know? I could go to the Grammies right now, just like this. I would be no different. I’m not pretending. I’m just being me. And I’m having fun, you know?
Can we expect more music from you soon?
I’ve been working on music. Just did a song with Kasabian, they’re a big British rock group—big band. We just did a song together. And I just did a song with Ne-Yo. I don't know what I want to do with it yet, but I’m thinking about that. I'm working with different producers and stuff. I want to do some music, yeah. Yeah, want to do some music. With the music industry undergoing so many changes, are you thinking of distributing it yourself or going through a label? Or maybe trying something else? I’m not sure how I’m going to do it. It’s a new time. So you know the days of just doing an album and putting it out, that’s kind of over, so it’s kind of like you can make music but how’re we going to do this? So it’s a little different for me. I own my catalog, but I’m not signed to Def Jam or any of those labels. So I’m trying to figure out exactly how I want to distribute the music.