By Alison Prato
Chris O'Donnell was only a teenager when he became a Hollywood A-lister, thanks to critically acclaimed roles in School Ties, Fried Green Tomatoes, Circle of Friends and Scent of a Woman, a movie that won Al Pacino an Oscar and made everyone want to dance the tango.
But even with a scene-chewing co-star, you couldn't deny the obvious: O'Donnell was a natural, that rare breed of talent who could hold his own against the biggest Hollywood heavyweights and shine just as brightly. Twenty years later, he's all grown up but still at it on the high-octane CBS series NCIS: LOS ANGELES, where a buff, scruffy, hotter-than-ever O'Donnell is chasing bad guys with co-star LL COOL J, and taking part in more stunts, action and explosions than all of his films combined. Now married with five children, the actor has avoided many of the pratfalls of other teenage stars and gone on to make his series one of the most seen in the world, with a record 18 million viewers watching last winter. O'Donnell's all-American charm juxtaposed against the mysterious intensity of his alter ago, G. Callen, has made his character one of the most layered on television, and the show one of its highest rated.
"I'm very impressed with how O'Donnell has transformed himself," says Jay Bobbin of Tribune Media Services. "As NCIS: LOS ANGELES, goes along, he's constantly reshaping and building upon what we already know of Callen—a tribute to O'Donnell as a performer, and to the show's writers as well."
Not that there were many other options.
"You know you've got the perfect actor when you can't imagine anyone else being able to play that character," says Shane Brennan, the show's executive producer and creator. "He is word-perfect from the first take. He's a regular guy who loves his job and the people he works with"—most notably his co-star, a former rap artist who himself segued gracefully onto a hit TV series.
It's that chemistry between the two stars that critics say gives the show its bite. "They're both lovable characters, but they can still shake off the aw-shucks appeal to play heavies when it's needed," says Entertainment Weekly's West Coast news editor, Lynette Rice.
Thankfully, O'Donnell was all spirits when Watch! caught up with him this fall, several months after accompanying him to County Mayo, Ireland, for a cover shoot at the storied Ashford Castle.
WATCH!: Do you want to sit upstairs? They said we could get a quiet table.
CHRIS O'DONNELL: [Scrunches up face.] I don't love quiet. Do you mind if we sit down here?
WATCH!: At the bar?
CHRIS: Yeah. I haven't eaten all day. I'm starving. [Orders a cheeseburger, fries and a Stella Artois.] Is this going to be one of those interviews talking about how I'm eating a cheeseburger and having a beer?
CHRIS: [Laughs.] Nice.
WATCH!: So your Ireland trip looked pretty awesome. Ashford Castle, where you stayed, was built in 1228. They filmed John Wayne's The Quiet Man there in 1951.
CHRIS: I know! I heard that. The coolest thing is that my grandfather owned a movie house, and he had that John Wayne movie poster restored and hanging up.
WATCH!: What was the best part of your trip? Please tell me you consumed your body weight in beer.
CHRIS: Not exactly. But every bar in Ireland is so great, because you can just start a random conversation with someone, and everyone is so friendly and interesting. I did some golfing. … We had a great time.
WATCH!: You were also awarded the Certificate of Irish Heritage.
CHRIS: Yeah, pretty cool. My mom is from a small town in Kentucky, and her side of the family is German. My dad's is obviously Irish. I actually first came to this bar [P.J. O'Rourke's] with my dad when I was 17 years old, and I was in town auditioning for a movie. It's been one of my favorite places in the city ever since.
WATCH!: So I dug up your first commercial—a McDonald's ad with Michael Jordan. Want to watch it?
CHRIS: Oh, God. OK. [Watches it on phone.]
WATCH!: What do you remember about that day?
CHRIS: I remember we were running about eight hours behind, and when I say "eight hours behind" I mean Michael Jordan showed up about eight hours late. [Laughs.] Then I put on the polyester suit and served him breakfast.
WATCH!: What were you, like 13 at the time?
CHRIS: Thirteen? I drove there!
WATCH!: No way—you were 16?
CHRIS: Maybe 17. I know, I looked young. I'd been working for a few years at that point. God—13, really?
WATCH!: Sorry. So, back when you started, TV was a step down from movies.
CHRIS: Yeah, when I started out, you either did film or you did TV—you didn't do both. And the business has really changed. There's a handful of stars still making tentpole movies, but very few. And then a lot of these tentpole movies are just big marketing machines with no-name stars that make huge money. Then the rest of it is indie film, but they're not paying anybody anything. So everyone who wants to work and make money is doing TV.
WATCH!: No stigma at all anymore.
CHRIS: No. When I was young and single, the gypsy lifestyle of filmmaking was fun. I loved setting up camp all over the world. But that doesn't work when you've got five kids [Lily, Chip, Christopher, Finley and Maeve, with wife of 15 years, Caroline Fentress]. I work really long hours, but at least I'm seeing my kids when I get home. They may not be awake, but I'm seeing them. [Laughs.]
WATCH!: In 1993, you were on location with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland for The Three Musketeers. That must have been bananas.
CHRIS: It was insane. Charlie is one of the most charming guys I've ever met. He's just got some issues, and you knew it back then. It was like taking your wildest buddy from college and giving him millions and millions of dollars to see what he does. I thought I was a pretty worldly guy, having come out of college and doing some films, but this was a whole different world. It was fun to kind of dip my toe in the water with him a little bit, but I was not fully engaging in their, uh, activities.
WATCH!: Have you ever seen the video of Kiefer Sutherland tackling the Christmas tree in a bar?
CHRIS: No, no. Was he just totally out of it? Well, [Charlie and Kiefer] get different when they've been cocktailing. Kiefer will get real emotional and real sincere, and then all of a sudden he gets a little loopy. And when he's hung over, he gets kind of angry. Then it starts over again. But he's a sweet guy. A great actor. That was … an adventure.
[A woman comes up to the bar]: Hi, you're from Winnetka, right?
Woman: My daughter's husband is a dentist, and he has your picture in his office.
CHRIS: Who's that, Dr. Ford?
CHRIS: There you go. So funny. It's me and Ann-Margret.
WATCH! Do you get recognized a lot?
CHRIS: That woman was a plant. I had her waiting back there. There are a couple more coming, too. [Laughs.]
WATCH!: So let's go back in time a bit. One of my favorite movies of yours is Mad Love.
CHRIS: Are you serious?
WATCH!: Yes! I love that movie.
CHRIS: I can't tell if people are serious or if they're screwing with me when they say that. I've never seen it.
WATCH!: What? Never?
CHRIS: I saw half of it with Drew [Barrymore] and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time. It was a screening just for us, and I'm [watching myself] rolling around the hay with Drew, and it was just like, this is awkward! I have to tell you, historically, I didn't love watching myself on film.
WATCH!: At the time, Drew called you the brother she never had.
CHRIS: There are lot of people I've worked with who, I feel awkward, like they won't remember me, so I don't go up to them. But Drew is someone who to this day I could go up and yell something out that we used to say on the set, and she'd pick up immediately and we'd give each other a big hug. I remember on my first film, I loved everyone, and I was like, "This is so amazing, we'll always be great friends," and one guy said, "Don't get too attached, buddy. You're not going to see most of us ever again." I was like, "Whoa, what do you mean? We'll always be close!"
WATCH!: Brutal. Did it crush you?
CHRIS: Yeah! It's the strange nature of the business. There's maybe one person from each project—a production assistant, a director, a producer—that you might stay in touch with over time, but it's hard. I mean, we were recently living in a rental house in the Pacific Palisades, and I was thinking that Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and I all lived within a half-mile of each other. Who would have thought 20 years ago we'd be living in the same neighborhood, with kids around the same ages? Bizarre.
WATCH!: You came up with those guys in the early to mid-'90s. And around that time the following terms were used to describe you: "Buff and manly." "A mini Tom Cruise." And "warm and lovable but very, very sexy." Which would you say is the most accurate?
CHRIS: Well, the Scientology thing is probably what sums me up the most. [Laughs.] Um, I don't know how buff I'm going to be after inhaling this burger and beer. What was the other one?
WATCH!: "Warm and lovable but very, very sexy." Two verys.
CHRIS: Ah, I can't even take that seriously.
WATCH!: In all seriousness, your performances were described as "not forced."
CHRIS: Well, that's because of my background—I wasn't a trained actor. To me, it had to feel natural and real for it to work. Which is good and bad. It helped me to give very natural performances, but at the same time, because I hadn't been trained, I was afraid of what my limits were. There were times when films would come by that I didn't pursue, even though I knew they were very interested in me, because in the back of my head I thought, "I'm not sure if I can do that." I was thinking, "I've worked with some of the best actors and directors in the world, but I'm a fraud."
WATCH!: You did an Arthur Miller play [2001's The Man Who Had All the Luck] during a down point.
CHRIS: Yeah, and it was a good thing. I'd had a major lull in my career. It was a very emotional play, and I used to have to torture myself to do the scenes. When I first started out, I was shot out of a cannon. I'd only had success. And so, people say, "He hasn't paid his dues." But it's like, "Oh, I've paid my dues."
WATCH!: Having been shot out of a cannon, do you ever look back at something you did and think, "Well, that was stupid"?
CHRIS: No, and that's something I'm very proud of. I never did that, partially because my dad was hardcore about being true to yourself. He said, "If you get caught up in success, when that goes away you're going to be devastated."
Looking back, one thing I would've changed is what I call paralysis by overanalysis. A script would come along, and my gut instinct would be "That sounds cool," and then I'd start breaking it down, talking to agents and managers and being like, "Should I?" I was so green I didn't realize I was the green-light element. I could've been more proactive and said, "Let's get these people." I was so young. I didn't know what I was doing.
WATCH!: You were in college.
CHRIS: Yeah. And I didn't want to work as much because I was at Boston College having a blast. I wouldn't trade that for anything.
WATCH!: They almost made a Robin spinoff movie after you graduated. How would your career have changed?
CHRIS: If it had been a success, that would've been great. But they rushed Batman & Robin. People didn't have the appetite for it, and the script wasn't finished. It just wasn't the right tone, it was too cute and campy, and it ended up being a disaster.
WATCH!: Was there ever a point where you had to make a crappy film because you needed the money?
CHRIS: I wasn't that thrilled with The Sisters. I liked the actors I was working with—Tony Goldwyn, Mary Stuart Masterson. I wasn't working at the time, and I just wanted to do something. I'm not an idiot with my money, so I didn't put myself in a position where I had to do really dumb roles.
WATCH!: That's rare.
CHRIS: Yeah, although when you look back at some of my movies, you're probably thinking, "You must have thought that was a piece of—." [Laughs.] But honestly I went into everything with the best intentions.
WATCH!: If one element is off, the whole thing could tank.
CHRIS: Exactly. And the TV show we're doing now—it's a huge success. But it's like, why is this one special? What is it?
WATCH!: What do you think it is?
CHRIS: I don't know. I mean, it's something about the chemistry with LL COOL J and me. And the brand, obviously. But if it were that easy, every show would just continue to spin things off.
WATCH!: Do your kids want to act?
CHRIS: One wants to get on [NCIS: LOS ANGELES] because he wants residuals. Lily's 13, and if she wants to do this, fine, but only if she goes to college.
WATCH!: Didn't you faint when she was born?
CHRIS: I did. We were in New Zealand, and I hadn't eaten for a day and a half. The doctor was late and they were like, "We've got to go!" So they hoist my wife's leg over my shoulder, and I see this head coming out, and I'm like, "There's no way that's going to work!" Faint.
WATCH!: Rookie move—you have to stay up near the head.
CHRIS: I learned my lesson. For the rest of the babies, I rubbed her shoulder and had a cold beer.
WATCH!: Have you been injured on set?
CHRIS: Nothing crazy. We're very cautious.
WATCH!: Which scenes do you like the best?
CHRIS: I love the scenes where LL COOL J and I are giving each other a hard time. As fun as it is to run around and shoot guns, that doesn't blow me away, excitement-wise.
WATCH!: Do you have that same relationship off-camera, as well?
CHRIS: We do impersonations of each other. And I give him a hard time that he didn't really grow up in Queens, he grew up in some country club. Every time he's on the phone—which is a lot—I'll be like, "Who's that, Snoop? Who you got, Flav?"
WATCH!: That story about LL's home invasion was crazy. He beat up the guy who broke into his house!
CHRIS: That was insane.
WATCH!: Have you gotten into any dust-ups with him?
CHRIS: I'll kid around with him, but he can literally grab me by the arm and I'm on the ground. He's the strongest human being I've ever been around. He's a force of nature.
WATCH!: I read about the LL thing on Twitter. You're on there, but you barely tweet.
CHRIS: Twitter can be really dangerous. I signed up in case I want to promote stuff for the show. But I don't want to put something on record that I don't have to. What if you have a few too many cocktails? I don't need to be doing that.
WATCH!: What about a memoir? I know you've got some crazy stories in that vault.
CHRIS: Yeah, but how much do you want to put on paper, and how much do you want to tell your buddies on the golf course?
Check out photos of Chris in the majestic landscapes of Ireland.