Patch recently spoke with Patchogue native Renée Felice Smith, who is now a series regular cast member on the TV show NCIS: LA. A spin-off of NCIS, government agents take on undercover work to solve difficult cases, especially those surrounding Navy personnel. Season three recently began filming and will premiere on Sept. 20.
Patchogue Patch: Walk me through the process of how this all came about. In particular, with NCIS: LA. How does one land a role such as that?
Renée Felice Smith: Basically, it's through an audition, like anything else. I auditioned back in August 2010, in New York, for the New York casting directors. They pass your tapes along. Sometimes people in Los Angeles see them, sometimes they don't. I don't really know how it works. I'm guessing that if you catch someone's eye in New York, they'll put in a good word for you with the people who are the show-runners in Los Angeles. And that's sort of how it happened. So the creator of the show, Shane Brennan, called me and told me I'd be coming out to Los Angeles to screen test for the role. And that's what I did. It just kind of unfolded from there.
Patch: And now you're a series regular on the show?
RFS: Yep. I guess the writers saw a lot of opportunity for the character, Nell Jones. [She] kind of brings a new voice to the show, a little bit younger, she's kind of spunky, and she's got a different perspective on things. They liked what it was adding to the show and they wanted to continue it, and the role became permanent. Originally, it was a guest star role that turned into being a series regular.
Patch: How long is this for? Ongoing?
RFS: Yeah, it's ongoing. There's no end date. You can't predict when a show ends. It's as long as the writers feel that the cast's chemistry brings new opportunities and new story lines and things like that.
Patch: What is it like working with the rest of the cast?
RFS: It's great. It's awesome. Everyone's so positive, so professional. I feel like sometimes I'm playing with the big kids. You know what I mean? Because I am the youngest on the set, and it's a world that I don't have as much experience as the other people on the show. But everyone's really cool. LL Cool J is the nicest guy, very funny, always joking around. We're always dancing...we're all very musical. Barrett [Foa], who plays Eric on the show, he's done Broadway and he's a singer, so he'll sing and I'll dance. We keep each other entertained.
Patch: What's a typical schedule for you? How long does it take to film an episode?
RFS: Episodes film every eight days. My character mainly now works on the stage, meaning I don't go on location. I'm not part of what happens when they're stopping a bomb or crashing cars. I'm usually not involved in that because I'm the person who's helping solve the crime, so I'm on the inside. For the most part, all of my character's action takes place within the Op Center within the NCIS Headquarters. Filming can be a 14 to 16 hour day, really long hours. But you just channel your energy and keep going. What I'm trying to say is - 16 hour days sound crazy, but if you are on the set for that amount of time, you can walk over to craft service, get a banana. You know, kind of get another source of energy going, because I find that it's really tiring to stand up. It's a long day, but I find ways to deal with it. It's all positive. It's been a great experience so far.
Patch: Tell me a little bit more about Nell. What is she like? Did you create her? Did the creators create her? A little bit of both?
RFS: The character was kind of already created, and they were looking for someone for the role. Basically, she's spunky, she is very forthright in her opinions. Sometimes she has to do some backpedaling because she realizes she oversteps her boundaries when dealing with her superiors - Hetty or Callen or Sam. She might say something that's a little out of line. And she realizes that and takes it back a few paces, but she's very, very bright. One of the top intelligence analysts in her field, but she doesn't quite realize how bright, and the impact she will have on the field yet. The idea is that Hetty sees that in her, sees her potential, and sees a little bit of herself in Nell, just from comparisons of their stature. They're both petite ladies who have these strong opinions about things. I think that's where the writers are going with that. She's kind of a young Hetty, in a way.
Patch: Would you say you see any of yourself in Nell?
RFS: Oh, sure. Yeah. I'm real good at putting my foot in my mouth! Like anything, I think you have to bring yourself to the character. There's always a percentage of yourself that you're bringing to the character versus what you're finding just from the character itself, and playing off of those qualities that are given to you. I think that's what makes it interesting, and that's when characters really come alive - when you see true human qualities within them. Definitely, there is a bit of me. Especially, I've been told by my family, some of the little smug grimaces and all these things. They say, "Oh, yeah, we've seen those before, Renée." It's pretty funny.
Patch: How is your family and boyfriend doing with all of this?
RFS: Great! They're so excited. They're my biggest supporters, and they're just thrilled for this opportunity. My mom and dad have always been so supportive and have told me to follow your dream and that you can create your own kind of vision of your own life. It's something I've always wanted to do and they've always backed me up on it.
Patch: How did you get your career started?
RFS: I guess dancing was where I found a home within the theatre and the Arts community. I used to audition for commercials when I was a kid, and a music teacher of mine from River Elementary actually recommended that I meet with a manager and an agent when I was very young, and I did a Dannon Yogurt commercial. I think I was six or seven, my mom had my younger sister, and it became very hard going in and out, making the trek into Manhattan and back. So I did one commercial, I did a voice-over for Kool-Aid. It was great, it was fun, and it kind of gave me that first introduction into the world that is the entertainment world. That was kind of my real taste. And then, after that, we stopped auditioning, and I stopped going in and working with the manager just because of time. I was missing birthday parties... For some children, it's great. But for someone who lives an hour and half away, you can't really have a full life. You're just basically spending most of your time in a car, you know what I mean? Back and forth, back and forth. Where were we? So, dance. I danced from the time I was about nine or ten, all throughout high school, and I really fell in love with performing for people and that feeling that you're giving someone something to think about or bring a new perspective to some subject. All that is covered in dance. So, I guess, that was my introduction to the arts.
Patch: You also did some acting in school productions? Can you tell us a little about that?
RFS: Of course. I guess my first school play was at . I was in The Wizard of Oz. I was a Munchkin. I was also the Jitterbug, who is not seen in the movie version, but who kind casts a spell on the Yellow Brick Road. That was my first play, and then I did talent shows and things like that. And then in high school I was in Romeo and Juliet, directed by Mrs. Chester Hertling, who was the drama teacher, she was a great influence. And Inherit the Wind, with Mrs. Hertling, and Grease and Footloose. Mrs. Hertling was very knowledgeable and really introduced me to the drama world. With her acting workshop, we improvised and we would do scene study, and that's where I really became interested in work as an actor, I would say.
Patch: Where did you go to college?
RFS: I went to NYU for drama, at the Tisch School of the Arts. I studied there and I studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute, which was a branch of Tisch for many, many years. It's no longer a studio within Tisch. Tisch is sort of the umbrella, and then there's acting studios within Tisch. So, I went to Lee Strasberg for two years, then I took a year off and I did an academic year. Then I did some courses in Florence, Italy, through NYU, which was a great, great experience, as well. Jim Calder was the instructor. He's great. He introduced me to a lot of physical comedy and physical theatre. It was very eye-opening. My senior year I did a film and television workshop through NYU. That was my introduction to camera work, which is different from stage work.
Patch: What other recent projects have you worked on?
RFS: Well, besides NCIS: LA, I just shot a scene for a film that's probably going to be released in 2012. The scene is with Lucy Liu. The film is called Detachment. It's an independent feature, being directed by the same man who did American History X, Tony Kaye. He cast me out of New York, in just this scene that's basically the story of the public school systems in this country and how it's deteriorating. The attitude of the kids, and their relationships with the teachers. That's the story of the film. But I'm just in one scene. But it's with Lucy Liu - that's the big excitement. And she was great to work with too. That was the first film I ever did. She grabbed my hands in the beginning and looked me in the eye and she said, "I will be here for you. I am here for you." It was very intimate. I was surprised, but it was nice to be welcomed in that way.
Patch: Have you found the LA community pretty welcoming? What is it like?
RFS: Yes, definitely. It is different. You need a car. I've lived in Brooklyn now for a while, and I haven't needed a car, and I've been walking and on the subway. I guess that's the biggest change - everything's spread out. You have to drive everywhere. But everyone's very welcoming, very friendly. I feel like if you put out a positive energy, you get that response back. I have my dog out there with me, so that's my buddy. My French bulldog, Hugo. He's the best. And that's it.
Patch: So everything's been working out so far?
RFS: It's been a very great initial experience, with having a full-time job on TV.
Patch: Where were you working before?
RFS: Basically, I was auditioning. I had done a pilot last year for the CW, which, obviously, didn't get picked up. It was called the Wyoming Project. That was last February or March. We shot that in Vancouver, and I had to learn to ride a horse for that, which is really cool. It was basically like Little House on the Prairie meets Party of Five. That was a great experience. It was with the creator of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Dan Palladino. It's kind of funny, they live three or four blocks away from me in Brooklyn. It was just bizarre that they cast me in this role, and they live very close to me. So, I was in Vancouver for a month and a half doing that. Just living the life of an artist, from job to job until I got this job.
Patch: Do you have any advice you'd like to say to others who might want to follow in similar footsteps?
RFS: Yeah, I would say that if you have something that you love to do, you need to pursue that thing to the end, meaning don't let anything impede you, don't let anything get in your way. If this is something that you see yourself doing, create your vision for it, see yourself doing it and you will be doing it someday.