NCIS: LOS ANGELES' Eric Christian Olsen on humor, his hybrid hit and whether Deeks and Kensi are this year's Brangelina.
Standing on the back lawn of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills amid a sea of silly implements—a Wiffle bat, a plastic gun that blows bubbles, a croquet mallet—Eric Christian Olsen is multitasking, whacking away at a wicket while cracking up the Watch! crew. The center of our attention, he eases any awkwardness by calling out to looky-loos in the windows above. "What's up? Just doing a photo shoot. Don't make it weird."
The real-life scene shows how Olsen fits perfectly into his series, NCIS: LOS ANGELES, which also manages to accomplish two things at once, serving up nail-biting action scenes while somehow also making us laugh. The 36-year-old actor joined CBS' Tuesday hit at the end of its first season and his character, the troubled yet wisecracking former LAPD Detective Marty Deeks, quickly became a fan favorite.
During hiatus, Olsen can often be found at his home outside Jackson Hole, Wyo., where last June, in a converted barn, he married his longtime girlfriend, Sarah Wright, with whom he appeared in the 2012 indie film Celeste and Jesse Forever.
Watch!: How did you decide to go for this career?
Eric Christian Olsen: I grew up in Iowa, and the improv comedy club Comedy-Sportz across the river in Illinois held auditions. They took me even though I was only 16—you really had to be 18, but they never checked me for ID. Everyone else was in their 30s to their 50s, and would make references to Glenn Miller, and I would have no idea who that was. It was an energy rush, knowing you had nothing prepared, but you had to entertain for two hours. It gave me confidence more than any other schooling I've ever had.
Watch!: Were you a class clown? How did you know you were funny?
Eric: All my buddies were funny. We were all on a hockey team, and went mountain biking. They mostly were jocks. I had done some acting in middle school, but none of the others did any kind of theater.
Watch!: So where NCIS: LOS ANGELES is this hybrid of two worlds that don't normally meet, so are you.
Eric: That comes from my dad. He's the last of the true Renaissance men. He's an English professor who teaches African-American literature and Holocaust remembrance. He's also a track and cross-country coach—and he took a sabbatical to tour high schools to get kids excited about poetry. So there are no boundaries to anything. You pursue what you love, and if you find beauty or truth, you go with that. My brother is the same way. He studied science all through college, and then became a Navy SEAL.
Watch!: What does your Navy SEAL brother think of NCIS: LOS ANGELES?
Eric: He's out of the SEALs now and has five other jobs, including working on the show. He does stunts and some technical advising. Anytime you see a building explode and a person in a fireball, that's my brother.
Watch!: What was your first big gig as an actor?
Eric: I was at Pepperdine University in Malibu, and during my sophomore year, I played a dying burn victim on ER. The makeup artist put burn makeup all over my body and I couldn't move or eat for 12 hours. I lost 8 pounds that week.
Watch!: You've made quite a few movies. Any favorite memories?
Eric: When I was in the gunner's bubble of a B25 bomber, taking off from an aircraft carrier 100 miles off the coast of San Diego, I remember saying to myself how amazing it was to get the chance to do that. And I still have those moments. There are times when I'm sitting across from LL COOL J, shooting an action scene for a show that 20 million people in the U.S. watch. How amazing! I was a kid who grew up rolling up one pant leg and singing "Mama Said Knock You Out"!
Watch!: So you were a big LL COOL J fan?
Eric: Huge! And usually, you meet people you've idolized and are deeply disappointed. But Todd is one of the few people who has exceeded my expectations. He's one of the most intelligent, compelling human beings I've ever worked with.
Watch!: And Chris O'Donnell?
Eric: He's like an additional older brother. There are such similarities—he's Midwestern, with a similar kind of upbringing. He was a superstar early on, and has had life experiences that would have ruined so many other people. But instead, he has a beautiful family. Both of these guys are true success stories not only in their art but also in life. To get to go to work with them every day, I couldn't be happier.
Watch!: All this well-adjustment and admiration … frankly, it's boring. Please tell me you have daily verbal smackdowns with Linda Hunt or something.
Eric: [Laughs.] She's my favorite to do scenes with! As much as I love Chris and Todd, there's a gravitas about Linda that commands your attention, and a different kind of interaction, because you can't read her at all.
Watch!: Speaking of that B25 bomber, you often get cast as a military guy. Why do you think that is? Certainly not the haircut.
Eric: I think they've got the clean-cut military guy in spades. They needed someone to come in and play against that type. Deeks uses comedy to defuse situations, which is what makes him such a contrast to Sam and G. Callen.
Watch!: Before NCIS: LOS ANGELES, these kinds of procedural shows didn't really integrate humor.
Eric: I've had multiple conversations with buddies of my brother and with cops who say that that it's your instinct to use humor when things get that crazy. We've had a lot of cops tell us that's the part of this show they really love, because that's the truth.
Watch!: What do you like best about Deeks?
Eric: The writers have created a great character. He kind of raised himself, put himself through college and got his law degree. And I think the relationship we've developed for Deeks and Kensi is fantastic. People have found such an attachment to them. On YouTube there are literally thousands of videos that people have made with these two characters.
Watch!: Correct me if I've missed something, but they're still not officially an item, right?
Eric: They're not an item. They just have that banter, and they've got great chemistry. The show has come up with great scenes for them that walk that very fine line.
Watch!: Speaking of mixing things together, do you think you two should have a Brangelina-like couple name?
Eric: We have two! "Densi" and "Keeks." And there's a battle between the two factions.
Watch!: Which are you on, Team Densi or Team Keeks?
Eric: That's not for me to decide.
Watch!: That is way too tactful an answer.
Eric: It's the truth! I should be so lucky that people are watching the show, let alone that they're so moved by this relationship.
Watch!: I think you should pick the name that uses more letters of Marty's name versus hers. Like actors who count lines.
Eric: "Densi" has just the "D." But in "Keeks," I get 4 out of the 5 letters.
Watch!: I knew I could trick you into being petty.
Eric: But I think I actually like "Densi" better, if that makes any difference. So really, I think I just foiled your whole plot.
By Jim Colucci
Photography by Adam Secore
Stylist: Ilaria Urbinati.
Photographed at Four Seasons hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills
Check out Eric's Watch! Magazine photoshoot.