This week, NCIS (CBS, Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET) will flash back 20 years to finally reveal what happened in Amsterdam to shape Vance (Rocky Carroll); what Mossad Director Eli David (guest star Michael Nouri) risked leaving Israeli soil to defend himself against when the file was to be reviewed, knowing that a Palestinian terrorist network would try to assassinate him in Washington (an explosive went off in the safe house he and Vance retreated to at the end of last week’s episode); and what was on that single sheet of paper that Vance shredded when he first became the director of NCIS (a question fans have been asking themselves for more than two seasons now). We chatted with Carroll and NCIS exec producer Shane Brennan, who, with the help of some exclusive photos, gave EW an inside look…
“His first assignment was in Europe. That’s where our flashbacks begin,” Carroll says. “You’ll see this young guy who is completely different from the Director of NCIS Vance who’ll emerge 20 years later. You see him having never been out of the country before. Suddenly he’s in Amsterdam, which is like Europe to the tenth power. He’s in the middle of this big, bustling European city, he’s on his first assignment, all these other characters begin to creep into his life, and he wonders if maybe he’s made the wrong decision by signing on to this. I think it’s going to be interesting for the audience, especially because in some sense, the jury is still out on how people feel about this character. I always like to say my character is kinda like the stepdad. It’s like your mother remarries, and she brings in this guy and says, ‘Kids, I want you to meet your new father.’ That was his introduction to NCIS. Some people were welcoming of it, some people said, ‘We’ll give him a shot and see,’ and there were some audience members who were kinda like stepkids goin’, ‘I ain’t callin’ him dad. You can call him whatever you want to.’ The best thing you can hope for from an audience is an honest, visceral response. There is no right or wrong answer, you’re gonna respond the way you respond [to a character]. But what I do hope, for the people who have a real love for the show, is that it answers some questions. A lot of people feel that this Vance character came out of left field. It’s nice to give them a little bit of continuity. He wasn’t some sort of nefarious character who rose out of the ground somewhere and has assumed the role of director.”
Here, Vance meets with (former) NCIS Special Agent Riley McCallister (guest star Michael O’Neill). “Aside from Vance and Eli David, there are other NCIS people that we’ll find out more about [in flashbacks], former handlers, former agents, former operatives,” Carroll says. “McCallister is probably the first relationship between Leon Vance and NCIS. That’s the jumping off point of the episode.” Adds Brennan, “Everyone involved in last week’s episode has a role in this week’s episode, some a lesser role, some a bigger role. It’s a cleverly woven fabric. There are no loose threads to pull at this end of this episode. I think it will go straight to the top of the audience’s top 3 episodes.”
Though some computer effects were used in the episode, most of the age-defying magic was done through makeup courtesy of makeup artists Margie Kaklamanos, left, and Tina Hoffman. “I learned something very interesting in the makeup world,” Carroll says. “With a little bit of tape and a little bit of string hidden under the wig, you can pull back ever so slightly on a person’s skin, erase the lines around the eyes, and give them what we call a little instant facelift.” It wasn’t painful, he reports. It just took some getting used to. “It’s like putting on glasses for the first time, if you’re a person who doesn’t wear glasses. They’re the most intrusive thing. There was about an hour of that. You’re just so aware of it.”
“For somebody who’s used to spending a total of about seven minutes in the hair and makeup chair, anything beyond seven minutes to me seems like an eternity,” says Carroll, who had to arrive at the set an hour and a half earlier than usual. “Fortunately, I’m not playing an android from another planet. To go back 20 years, it didn’t take an actual surgical procedure.” What was his biggest fear? “That we were biting off more than we could chew and the audience wouldn’t buy it,” he says. “But when you see it with the wardrobe, the music, and all the other elements combined, I think you’re gonna be pretty surprised what we were able to do.”
As crucial as this hairpiece was to turning Vance’s clock back to 27 (as supervised by hairstylists Daphne Lawson and Frank Fontaine), Carroll’s challenge as an actor was not just to rely on it and the makeup to do all the work. “I tried to go back in time, too, and think about how different I may have been physically 20 years ago,” he says. “The first thing I respond to is what the character sounds like, I guess because I’ve always been sort of a frustrated musician. I wanted to change the tone of Vance’s voice. I tried to change the vocal quality to give him a younger sound of a guy who was less hardened by the world. Present day Vance comes off as a very authoritarian figure, but back then, he’s this wide-eyed, optimistic guy fresh out of naval college.”
“They were very generous because I still didn’t have that much hair 20 years ago as I had for this episode,” Carroll jokes. “They were more than kind. I appreciate that.” Still, after nine days filming the episode, he was ready to give the hairpiece a sending off party. “This was right around Halloween that we shot this episode. My wife and my daughter said to me, ‘What are you gonna wear for Halloween, daddy?’ I was like, ‘Are you kiddin’ me? I’m gonna take Halloween off, if you don’t mind.’ I had a great time doing it. I don’t think I was that tired when I was 27, but trying to pretend I was 27 was pretty tiring.”
“Hopefully those aren’t somebody else’s biceps that they digitally put on my arms there,” Carroll cracks. Did we know Vance had those kind of guns? Too bad we don’t actually get to see them in the episode.
Now, he’s ready for action. “Vance has been sent by NCIS to track down a bad guy, and this is one of his early incarnations,” Carroll says. “The uniform is going to be very telling as the episode goes on,” he teases.
We’ll see at least four familiar characters in various flashbacks — Vance, Eli David, McCallister, and Gibbs. “Right there, in that photo, is the first time they meet,” Brennan says. “It’s an encounter that we’ve spoken of before. The first time we saw them meet on the show, back in season 5, it was a memorable encounter with Gibbs in a hallway. This photo references that meeting. We posed a question in that corridor, and this scene answers it.” (In case you forgot, it has something to do with a danish.)
Watch an extended preview of Tuesday’s episode