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Rocky Carroll On What It Takes To Direct An Episode Of NCIS - Exclusive Interview

As Director Leon Vance, Rocky Carroll has helped keep the "NCIS" team on track with his guidance, expertise, and dedication to the job for 16 seasons. Having played the part since 2008 when he joined the cast in Season 5, Carroll has struck up a good rapport with his fellow co-stars, including Wilmer Valderrama as Special Agent Nick Torres, and Mark Harmon, who starred as Supervisory Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs until midway through Season 19.

Now, in Season 20, Vance is as present and in control as ever, and Carroll himself has branched out behind the scenes, having directed numerous episodes of the hit CBS series, including tonight's "Big Rig" episode. In it, an old acquaintance of Torres desperately reaches out to him for guidance amid an undercover FBI operation before mysteriously disappearing, leaving the NCIS team to figure out what's going on.

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Carroll readily chatted about exactly what it takes to direct an episode of "NCIS," why he doesn't like being on camera when he's directing, and the biggest legacy Harmon left behind on the set of the long-running series.

'You don't have to be a raging lunatic to be a director'

You aren't in the "Big Rig" episode, but you directed it, and this is not your first time directing an "NCIS" episode. What does directing allow you to do that acting doesn't?

As an actor, I'm solely responsible for myself and my character. [When] directing, I'm responsible for everything. You are the Royal Wedding Planner. Not only am I responsible for the actors and their performances, I'm responsible for sets, locations, wardrobe, hair, makeup, etc. You find out very early if you're equipped to do it.

Being equipped means being open and accessible and allowing yourself to delegate to other people who are very good at their jobs. It's not to micromanage or hover, but to remind yourself that all these people that work on the crew and all these people that are in every department, they were hired because they're the best at what they do. I don't have to be a genius as far as camera, lighting, and sound, because we already hired those people. If I have the wherewithal to give them the room to create and to present options to me and to delegate and allow them to be creative the same way I do with the actors, then directing doesn't become all-consuming. You don't have to be a raging lunatic to be a director. That's the thing I learned very quickly.

He doesn't enjoy acting and directing at the same time

In past episodes that you've directed, you've directed yourself. What was that experience like, and does it have anything to do with you not being in "Big Rig"?

I found myself to be very difficult to work with [Laughs.) I don't like being on both sides of the camera. If I had my choice, I would be in front of the camera as little as possible when I'm directing, because you're in two different head spaces. Not everybody can sing and play the guitar at the same time. That's how I feel. I can either play the guitar or I can sing. It's hard to do both.

I always jokingly say, "I don't think I have enough space in my brain to do both." I always feel like a very mediocre actor when I'm a director, because as a director, I'm watching the scenes. I'm watching what's going on as a whole. As an actor, I'm playing a character. I don't have to watch everything. It's two different mindsets. It's two sets of eyes. I have not mastered it yet.

I love the fact that there was so much action involved in "Big Rig" — we've got stunts, we've got fight scenes, we've got all these things to shoot, and I didn't have to focus on playing a character and learning dialogue. I could focus on trying to shape and shoot these very busy scenes. We have a scene in a warehouse where there's about 10 people in it at the same time. There's a fight scene, the FBI breaks in — NCIS guys — guns are drawn, fights are happening, all sorts of stuff is going on. The last thing I needed to focus on was, "Do I know my dialogue for the next scene that we're about to shoot?" I was very happy to only have one job on "Big Rig."

He believes being an actor gives him a leg up as a director

Wilmer Valderrama is the star of the show on this particular episode. What's it like working with him?

I'm guessing that what people respond to positively with me as a director is, because my first language is as an actor, I understand the actor's process. What I understand that I don't think a lot of directors innately understand is that every actor has a different process. Because I'm very respectful of that, the actors respond very positively toward that. I can't give Wilmer the same kind of direction I would give to Sean Murray or Katrina Law, because they're different actors. They have different ways of working.

Also, I was very fortunate because Wilmer and Zane Holt, who's one of the guest stars on the show ... not only have they worked together, they have a great friendship. That chemistry that you see between the two of them on this episode of "Big Rig" is very organic. It was not manufactured. They didn't have to make that up. They genuinely clicked. As a director, I was a mile ahead.

You and Mark Harmon were previously on "Chicago Hope" together. Is that connection how you landed your role on "NCIS"?

It had a whole lot to do with it. Also, my relationship with CBS started around 1993 with several series. I had worked on a couple of pilots. I worked on a series called "The Agency." I worked on another series with Christine Baranski called "Welcome to New York" with Jim Gaffigan. Having established a long relationship with the network and a great friendship and a working relationship with Harmon, when I came in to "NCIS" at the end of Season 5 in a four-episode arc as Vance, I'm sure it helped a long way.

Mark Harmon's door was always open on set

Can you tell us about Mark, having worked with him for so long? Any fun stories you can share?

It's great because he was an athlete long before he was an actor. I always felt like Harmon — I used to say it jokingly, but it was true — he truly was a quarterback. When you have somebody who's used to leading a team down the field the way he did in his UCLA playing days, it doesn't go away. That mentality, that work ethic is something that stays with you. Harmon, he didn't pontificate a lot, but he led by example.

The one thing that I will always remember about working with Mark Harmon on "NCIS" is here's this guy, the Number One on the call sheet, the star of the show, probably the most sought after. He was in practically every scene when he worked, but the door to his trailer was always open.

When people would come to visit our sets, they would say, "There's such a great working atmosphere." It all starts from the top. If the star of your show is unreachable, unavailable, standoffish, doesn't make himself accessible, there's a trickle-down effect that happens. Mark Harmon was the quintessential star of the show because he was always accessible. His trailer door was always open. If he was in his trailer, that door was open, which said, "You're welcome to stop in." That was the first step.

People always ask about why this show is still on the air and why it has lasted for 20 years, and I've said this many times ... a lot of times, the greatest enemy to a good show is success. Sometimes, when a show becomes successful, people start to separate themselves and corner themselves off. The more successful this show became, the more accessible Harmon was. That's the one thing I'll always remember about him.

He hopes there's more romance in Vance's future

You mentioned the longevity of the show, and we're just a few episodes away from the 450th overall episode, which you've been on a majority of. What does playing Vance mean to you?

That's a big question. It has been a crowning moment for me as an actor. First of all, to work in Hollywood, to work in television, and have any type of job security for five years is incredible. To have it for 15 or 20 years is insane. Playing this character, for me as an actor, it allowed me to grow and learn. To learn the language of directing, to branch out, and at this stage in my life to do something that now challenges me in a different way — I'm still learning the language of directing. I've got a long way to go. I don't feel nearly as confident about myself as a director as I do as an actor because it's my second language. I'm still learning, and playing Vance gave me that opportunity to do it.

Playing the character ... when you worked for so long and you're in your own bubble for so long, it sometimes takes somebody from the outside to point out certain things. When Wilmer came on the show, he said, "To see you playing this character, you being the director of this agency, maybe you don't realize it, but you broke the color barrier on this show." As far as being a character in a leadership position, especially in the world that we live in now where there's so much emphasis on inclusion and diversity, I'm happy to say that [the show] and the network have been doing that for a very long time.

Is there something about Vance that fans would be surprised to learn?

We touched on it with the episode when Vance and Agent Parker go to Germany and all hell breaks loose. Vance is still a bit of a romantic, and I'm hoping that we go down that road and address that again. We found out that he had a secret love interest and he was really close to making it official, but what happens in a drama is she got shot. I'm hoping that character resurfaces in his life. That would be a pleasant surprise for the audience.

He equates being on NCIS with starring in the MCU

Outside of "NCIS," you've done some voice work in some DC Comics-based Superman animated films, but do you aspire to be part of a live-action superhero film one day? If so, what's your dream role?

There are times when I feel like what we are doing on "NCIS" is as close to the TV version of being part of a Marvel franchise. We're 20 years in, and there have been at least three spinoffs of "NCIS." We're as close to a Marvel kingdom as you could possibly get with regard to television. In the feature world, my dream would be [playing] Professor X in the X-Men, where you know the character's got to exist because he runs the ship. My resume of several hundred episodes of "NCIS" would be pretty good [experience] if I ever get a chance like that.

The "Big Rig" episode of "NCIS" airs tonight, January 23, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

This interview has been edited for clarity.