The CBS drama NCIS: Los Angeles is about the high-stakes world of a division responsible for apprehending dangerous and elusive criminals that pose a threat to the nation’s security. By assuming false identities and utilizing the most advanced technology, this team of highly trained agents goes deep undercover, putting their lives on the line in the field to bring down their targets and protect the country. Assisting the team, which includes Special Agent Callen (Chris O’Donnell) and Special Agent Sam Hanna (LL Cool J), is Special Agent Kensi Blye (Daniela Ruah), the daughter of a slain Marine who lives for the adrenaline rush that comes with undercover work.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Daniela Ruah talked about being the only female member of the team, kicking ass and forming real family bonds with her co-stars. She also revealed what it was like to work with George Lucas, who recently took over directing duties to film some re-shoots on the upcoming feature Red Tails, about the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
Daniela: I’ll be honest, it was a little bit of both. I was in the auditioning process. It was pilot season at the time, so I was getting a lot of auditions. But, at the same time, my team has always told me to be selective about the things that I go up for and never just do everything for the sake of doing it. In that sense, I liked the character Kensi and, therefore, decided to go to that specific audition. I auditioned in New York, which is where I was living at the time. The callback was then in L.A. and they flew me over. I spent one night here, and that was the very first time I touched California soil, so that was pretty exciting. I arrived, did the audition that day, and then, the very next morning, I flew back to New York, so I didn’t really get to see anything at all, but it was exciting. So, there was the studio audition and then the network audition. The first had the executive producer, casting director and one of our resident directors. They gave me instructions as to how to do the scene, I did it once, they gave me some notes and then I did it again. And then, when you pass that, you go to the network audition, which is in front of about 30 people and that’s really nerve-wracking. Everyone who’s anyone from CBS and Paramount were there, and I was just like, “Oh, good lord!” That was the process.
Had you been aware of the proven success of NCIS, and did that success help you feel confident in this show?
Daniela: I researched the original show before going in for the audition, just as part of how to build the character and what kind of tone the show would have. Even though now there’s quite a different tone, at the time, I needed to know where I was coming from. It’s a double-edged sword because, on one hand, you have this confidence because the show already exists and that’s a wonderful platform for us to step onto, but on the other hand, you have such faithful fans who might not receive us very well because we have the same title, even though now we’ve become really a different show. We both just handle the Navy, basically. So, there was a little bit of both. I just walked in going, “Whatever happens, happens. Do your best and then walk away.” That’s how you have to treat auditions, otherwise you’d be stressed all the time.
Daniela: We have a couple of additions to the show. Kensi’s partner, Dom, played by Adam Jamal Craig, was killed in the first season and she was left as the third wheel with Sam (LL Cool J) and Callen (Chris O’Donnell). Now, in this season, I have a new partner, Marty Deeks, played by Eric Christian Olsen. She’s not entirely that fond of him. It’s a relationship that’s going to develop. I think he’s quite fascinated by her. She’s like Jason Bourne. Her dad taught her to do everything, and I think Deeks is quite fascinated by that. She’s still a little weary of him, and she’s not one to let men get too close too quickly, so it’s going to be a really fun development for those characters. Throughout the season, you’ll discover more and more things about each character and their personal lives. I can’t wait.
Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to fans getting to see or learn about Kensi, and has anything that you’ve learned about her really surprised you?
Daniela: I’ll be honest with you, the cast discovers things about their characters, almost at the same time the audience does because our executive producers don’t really tell us how they’re going to develop the characters on purpose. They want it to be a surprise. It’s hard for me to predict what’s coming up because they won’t tell me until we actually get the script, a day before we start shooting. I want to know more about where she comes from and what happened to her dad. I don’t know if that’s going to be revealed in this season. It might not be. But, I like the type of shows where you see why characters are the way they are, and I hope to see that kind of development. I think the audience wants to see that too. We’ve got wonderful action, but people relate to the characters personally.
Even though things are done for dramatic effect and the betterment of the story, how difficult was it to lose a cast member already in the first season? Was that expected at all?
Daniela: No, not at all. We all got a warning before the audience did, obviously, because they had to build up to that point, but they didn’t tell us that far before. I think that it revealed everyone else’s own mortality, in terms of the characters, because it shows that anyone can go at anytime. The producers like to keep people guessing and keep them on the edge of their seats, and they treat us that way as well, in a good sense because we’re like a big family. But, it was very difficult. We all love each other. A family is created throughout the process, and it’s always difficult when you lose someone. But, that’s the way the show developed.
Daniela: Eric is the kind of actor who is very comfortable. He’s very comfortable with experimenting and he’s very open to what’s around him, and I think that reflects in the way that he plays Marty Deeks and the way he so easily entered this relatively well-established group of people. He’s really fun and he improvises so many things at the end of the scenes. Between takes, he makes everyone laugh. We all make each other laugh, to be honest with you. He seems to fit in very well, and I think that’s why he was cast. They have to look for the chemistry between the characters and if somebody clashes, it’s not going to work. He just managed to fit in really, really well. He brings rhythm, he brings a lot of humor and the banter between Deeks and Kensi is something the audience is really going to appreciate.
Is it fun to have that banter between your characters? Is all of that scripted, or do you guys improvise some of the teasing?
Daniela: It’s a little bit of both. The writers have openly told us, “We write for your characters, as we see the way you develop the characters.” They pick up on little things. Stuff that begins by being improvised gets added in writing, in a later episode. But, there’s definitely a lot of improvising, especially at the end of scenes.
What’s it been like to work with this ensemble of actors? Did you relationship just come easily for all of you?
Daniela: It did. I want to say it was surprising because, so often, when you have a cast of people who are so mixed, we could have clashed with each other and had different ways of dealing with situations, but this is our baby. The show is everyone’s baby. Rather than people want to stand out on their own and be stars, it genuinely feels like we’re all fighting for the success of the show, which we’re all a part of and which we all love. All of that brings us together as a family. It sounds like a cliched thing to say, but it’s absolutely true. All of the boys have become like brothers to me. I can talk to them. If something’s wrong, we talk to each other. If somebody has a problem with somebody else, you sit down and you talk and it’s out of the way. Nobody has any interest in keeping a heavy environment, so it’s really positive, it’s fun and everybody has been behaving so incredibly well.
Last year, I was here in L.A. on my own. I’m not from the States, so Thanksgiving, for me, was never a huge tradition. I wasn’t going to do anything last year, and Chris O’Donnell was like, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?,” and I said, “I don’t know. Nothing. Watching TV.” He said, “Why don’t you come over to my place?,” and I was so touched by that gesture ‘cause it was just his family and then me. It was really nice and fun with kids running around. It was just a family environment, which I miss from home ‘cause home is Portugal.
Another situation which was really funny was when we were doing a scene and Todd, who is LL Cool J, kept having a hiccup on the same line. The whole scene was fine, but then that one line would come up and he didn’t know what to do. The scene was with Linda Hunt, so she ripped off the little line that he kept stopping on and she stuck it on the back of her own head because he was standing behind her. That’s the kind of support and love that we show each other. It’s a funny thing. This Oscar-winning, wonderful actress stuck a line on the back of her head, so that her fellow actor had a reference. It was hilarious.
How is it to be the only female on this team? Do you enjoy getting to use both strength and beauty in the operations you participate in?
Daniela: It’s fun. I have to say, in my own specific case, it just so happens that all my life most of my friends have been guys anyway, so it’s not an environment that I’m unfamiliar with, to be mostly surrounded by guys. I think the writers are trying to get away from the stereotype of Kensi going to do deal with anything emotional. That’s not the case at all. In fact, I don’t think that she deals with emotions all that well, which is the opposite of what you would think. She’s not exactly one to have a motherly instinct. It’s nice to show a little female strength amongst the team. I’ve met real female NCIS agents who were smaller than I am. They were very petite. I asked one woman, “When you’re in an interrogation room with this massive Marine, how are you not intimidated or scared by the guy?,” and she was speaking to me like an absolutely normal human being, and then suddenly, when she put on the tone of interrogation to show me what it’s like, I was absolutely blown away. It’s very special to be able to represent women like that on the show.
What’s been the most fun thing about working on this show, and what has been the most challenging aspect of it?
Daniela: The most fun thing is the action sequences, as well as destroying cars. I have to say that’s quite fun, but that’s more of a superficial thing. I absolutely love our banter scenes. When the whole cast is sitting in a room and we’re all picking on one of the characters, I absolutely love doing those scenes. When everyone is there, the day is a little bit longer, of course, because the more actors you have, the more coverage you have to do, but they’re such fun days.
The biggest challenge I’ve had is probably being aware of the fact that, hopefully, I will be playing this character for many years. I started my career in Portugal and the longest I’ve ever played a character was for about a year, which is how long our TV shows last. You have this arc with a character, and then it’s done. I remember being really sick of playing that same character, after that whole year, so when I got Kensi, I realized that the biggest challenge would be playing one character for a very long time. Sometimes you feel like you don’t know where to go with it anymore, and then the writers give you something else as fuel. It hasn’t felt like a challenge yet, but that’s what I predicted would be a challenge. But, it’s been good so far. I have no complaints. Other than that, there’s the challenge of pleasing the audience.
Have you given any thought as to what you’d like to see Kensi do or go through before the series is finished?
Daniela: I’d like to see her become a mom, which is so out of what she would do. I could see her getting pregnant and have the whole team be like, “You have to stay in the op center. You can’t come out and kick ass because you’re pregnant.” She’d be like, “No, I’ll come with you I’ll be fine! I just have a big belly.” I could just see her not wanting to stop because of it. I think it would be so different to what’s expected of her. That’s really random, but I think it would be quite interesting to see happen to her. Not now, but much later into the series.
What was it like to have the opportunity to work on Red Tails? How was that experience?
Daniela: That was a wonderful experience, mainly because it was my first big film. Just to be able to work on something that came out of George Lucas’ mind was quite an honor. Initially, it was directed by Anthony Hemingway, and then George Lucas wanted to change some of the tone of it and decided to direct it himself, so we had a few re-shoots and I got to work specifically with George Lucas on those re-shoots. That was really special, to see how he works and to see what the process is. They only had me for a weekend because I was shooting the show, so everything had to be on the ball, at all times.
Who do you play in the film?
Daniela: I play this Italian character. The film is about the Tuskegee Airmen, so it’s the Second World War in Italy. I play David Oyelowo’s love interest. He’s one of the main pilots in the film and he falls in love with me, and I’m his drive to survive. To play an Italian character was a big challenge. I don’t speak Italian. I’ve always wanted to do something which required as much character work as possible, so it was a wonderful opportunity for me. I can’t wait until it comes out, and I have no idea when it will.
Did you do a lot of green screen work?
Daniela: Yeah. We initially shot in Croatia and the Czech Republic, so during the re-shoots, I was doing the show and they only had a weekend, and they couldn’t fly me over to Eastern Europe because it was too far. So, we did a lot of green and blue screen stuff and that was unbelievable.
Was it daunting to be a part of something knowing that it was George Lucas’ first original project since Star Wars?
Daniela: No. If anything, that helps drive you to do as well as you can. It’s an honor that that is the case. He’s been planning this for 20 years or so, so for him to have wanted me to be a part of it is huge. It’s wonderful and it feels really good, and it gave me strength and energy to play the role as well as I could because he put that trust in me.
If you had your way, are there particular types of roles or specific genres that you’d love to work it, but haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
Daniela: My main goal, when I started acting, was to show as much versatility as possible because I like playing diverse roles. I’m playing an action role right now on NCIS: Los Angeles. She’s a hard woman. I’d like to do something that’s different from that. The Italian character in Red Tails was very different. She’s a romantic character who falls in love. Maybe I’d like to do a romantic comedy, or something like that. It’s not that that’s my life-long dream, but it’s just simply that it opposes the other two roles I’ve done already. So, what I want to do always depends on what I’m doing now.
Daniela: I have to admit that I’m a little bit of a workaholic, but not that I want to be in an office space for 24 hours a day. I’ve had such good experiences with every job that I’ve had so far in my career that it’s like going to meet a group of friends. It’s so easy when I go to work. It’s long hours, don’t get me wrong. We all get tired of being at work sometimes, and you want to go home to your family, but generally speaking, we have such a good time and it’s such a positive environment that I want to keep doing it. And, I want to get film on my resume and have that experience of playing different roles. Holidays are always good, but if a good script comes up and the availability happens, then I would love to do that. But, I always go home to Portugal to see my family when I can.
NCIS: LOS ANGELES airs on CBS on Tuesdays