Time-traveler, starship captain, and now a king?
Scott Bakula guest stars this week and next on “NCIS” as Special Agent Dwayne Cassius Pride, known as “King” to his underlings. If the episodes do well, we might be seeing him and his team on a regular basis in a new spinoff, “NCIS: New Orleans,” next fall.
We spoke with “NCIS” showrunner Gary Glasberg about writing a backdoor pilot like this, the connection between the two shows, and the real-life guy Bakula’s character is based on.
“NCIS” is headed to New Orleans — how was shooting there?
It was fun; we had a great time. We hooked up with some fantastic crew. There’s such an energy and a tone and a specific vibe to what that city is. Our intent in the four days that we were there was to just capture as much of it as we could. We actually didn’t do any interiors at all. It was all street stuff in the French Quarter and out in the bayou.
Scott Bakula’s character is based on a real-life person, isn’t he?
Yeah, this all started last year when I started doing some research for what was supposed to just be a sweeps episode. I learned there was this little office, this little NCIS office in New Orleans, because there’s such a significant military presence there. This office has existed, but it was really run for 25 years by this one man, Dwayne Swear.
And in meeting him, he’s this larger-than-life, eccentric, fantastic guy who I just couldn’t get enough of. And to think that he was running things on his own down there for a long time with people coming in to help him was different and unique. Suddenly, what started as a sweeps episode turned into more.
But yeah, the whole Bakula character is based on Dwayne Swear, and we spent a lot of time together. He’s a terrific guy and was very helpful as a consultant as well. He actually came out and spent a couple weeks with us here in Valencia when we were filming interior stuff here. And of course [he] was with us on set down there as well.
What goes into making a successful spinoff? Or what have you learned to avoid a failed spinoff?
It’s a challenge. I hope it’s successful; we’ll have to see what happens. But the goal here was really to come up with something that connected with the characters I’m fortunate enough to have here on “NCIS,” to come up with a backstory for the Pride character that connects directly to Gibbs. The idea that they were probationary agents back in the day together when they first joined NCIS, then grew up in the ranks together.
So the relationship between Gibbs and Pride goes back all the way to their origins. A good portion of the first episode is about solidifying that relationship, understanding what that relationship is, and hopefully giving people a sense that these guys have known each other a long time.
I think that’s an important part of the trust and the connection of establishing who the new characters are, and then wanting to spend time with them. The characters and the chemistry of this family at “NCIS” is so important, and hopefully people will feel the same thing about the new characters as well.
Pride seems a little more rough-and-tumble than Gibbs.
A little bit. I think he wears his emotions on his sleeve a little more. Gibbs tends to keep his guard up and plays his cards close to the vest, and Pride is very different from that. He shows his emotions; he speaks his mind very quickly. That’s absolutely what separates them in terms of personality. Both [are] very accomplished federal agents who handle things very differently.
Why New Orleans? It might be the hardest city in the country to set a show, because if the locals don’t like it, they’ll let you know.
I have no doubt about that. But we’ve had a lot of people that were involved with it from day one who are locals. We’re doing everything we can to capture a lot of the spirit and the tone and the sensibility in the series.
It’s part of why we made the effort to get down there and capture the backdrop of the city as best we could, and even incorporate this tremendous music presence in the show. We ended up hiring local street musicians, put them on the street, filmed with ambient sound running in the background. There’s always music present throughout the show. It’s another element of things that we wanted to capture.
We really hope we managed to capture even just a little bit of what the city is. Whether you’re talking about the food — we have scenes that take place at Mother’s, which is an iconic breakfast spot — there’s constant mention of restaurants. And the important elements of what the city is, I hope we were able to include.
When you were talking about the show to the writers, aside from the music, what did you give to guide them? How would this show be different from “NCIS”?
These are two episodes of our series, of “NCIS.” Right now, it’s just the two episodes, and I wrote both of them. So it was really me throwing myself into things, visiting down there, doing some research, gaining weight, enjoying the music and the people — meeting some really fantastic people who have just been super enthusiastic about having us there and hopefully coming back.
Did you see Dwayne and think of Scott Bakula for the role, or have you been wanting to do something with Bakula for a while?
Scott’s a terrific actor. He’s a television personality, and I’ve loved him and been a fan of his for a long time. Then when he read the script and responded to it and wanted to sit down and talk about it, I just got really excited about the idea of finding someone who could bring the character to life.
The fact that it’s based on this real individual made it more inviting for Scott, and Scott got to spend time with Dwayne Swear. And every day, he embodied the character of Pride. It’s been terrific with him, and now, looking at the two episodes, he is this character and it worked out great.
When you have your “NCIS” team and you have this completely new team, is it weird to plop them down face-to-face like that? Is there ever a Sharks vs. Jets vibe, or a mirror universe: “Hey, you’re me, but with a Southern accent”?
Not at all. The intention was always, because of the connection between the Gibbs character and the Pride character, to make it feel like this relationship has existed for years and years and years. I’m fortunate enough and blessed to have actors involved in “NCIS” here who are total team players and anxious to make this work on every level. They embrace the idea of having these new people come in, and we found terrific actors to play the New Orleans roles as well. So it’s been a really great combination, and it just worked out really nicely.
How do you know when you’ve got the right team? What was it about Bakula, Lucas Black, Zoe McLellan, and CCH Pounder that says to you, “These are the guys”?
All you can do is roll the dice and hope that your instincts — and working with a bunch of people from the studio and the network and everyone chiming in — actually work. There’s no denying the fact that the chemistry of the “NCIS” group is a big, big reason why the show continues to be a success. I don’t know if it’s possible to ever capture lightning in a bottle like that, but I can try to put together the strongest group of actors I can, and I think we really accomplished that.
Scott Bakula, like we said: just warm and fantastic and fun and outgoing. Lucas Black, who I call my Alabama Steve McQueen, [is] just grounded and real and focused and can do the action and the drama. Zoe McLellan, who is confident and driven and fun and has a spark and a mischief to her. And then this extraordinary actress in CCH Pounder, who instantly steps in and makes it all real for you. And you totally buy her as the medical examiner down in New Orleans.
It just all worked, and you get a few days into filming and you look at each other on set and think, “Wow! We got something.”
So when you’re looking for cities to plant spinoffs, do you just look for places with really good food and music?
[Laughs.] I look for cities where I want to go and enjoy myself! Nah, “NCIS” is a unique setup where it’s all about knowing that there’s a significant military presence there. The Gulf functions as an important part of the Navy. Not only for ships and Navy air stations all the way from Pensacola across into Texas, but then you’ve got the Marine headquarters. The Reserve headquarters is in New Orleans. So you’ve got a lot going on for them.
To know that this little office has been there for “NCIS” and was run by this individual just made a lot of sense. And then to have the backdrop of New Orleans on top of that was just added fun for me on top of the stories I can tell.
“NCIS” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS; the New Orleans two-parter, “Crescent City,” airs March 25 and April 1.