NCIS: Los Angeles interview: Eric Christian Olsen on co-writing 250th episode, Hetty’s past

Come Sunday night on CBS, you will have a chance to dive into the big 250th episode of NCIS: Los Angeles — and it will be different from any other you’ve seen before! This is an exploration into Henrietta Lange’s past, anchored by an emotional story about violence and what happens when someone is corrupted by it. Expect some fantastic stuff from Linda Hunt throughout as we focus in on what makes this character so compelling and formidable.

To go along with this being an important milestone for this series, cast member Eric Christian Olsen wrote it alongside Babar Peerzada. This was an opportunity for Olsen to embrace this show and its characters in a different way, and to pen a spotlight for someone he cares for greatly in Linda Hunt.

In our interview with Olsen, he tells CarterMatt about the origins for this story, meeting with Hunt to discuss it, if he’d be down to take on the role of writer again, and also what appeals to him from a developmental standpoint (Olsen and his Cloud Nine Productions have a development deal at CBS Television Studios.)

NCIS: Los Angeles videos: Be sure to also watch our most-recent NCIS: Los Angeles video breaking down this interview at the bottom of this article and subscribe to CarterMatt on YouTube for our weekly NCIS: Los Angeles videos.

CarterMatt – How did this idea first come about? Is this something that you’ve been planning for a while?

Eric Christian Olsen – I first pitched to [R. Scott Gemmill, showrunner] two years ago that I wanted to write an episode and talked about the themes I wanted to explore. I knew that this was something I wanted to do. I think that muscle, as you know, was one of the favorite parts of my education — creative writing. Then, you get your job and you kind of lose that.

But, over the past two and a half years with our development company, we really get into the trenches with character, theme and story. That gets you reignited with passion about storytelling. I thought that there were some opportunities to explore things with the characters that we really hadn’t, and I wanted to do that.

So once you decide to write it, what comes next? Are you work-shopping ideas in your head or having communication with other people?

I think I probably have about 15 episodes written in my head right now (laughs). You wake up in the middle of the night and you’ve got an amazing new cold open.

I think that for me, the thing that I love the most about the show — the pillar of the show — is Linda. After her accident, it’s something that I really missed and I think the audience feels that as well — her POV,  her character’s POV and the strength and gravitas that she brings to the show, but also to the dynamic of the team. I really wanted to do a deep-dive with a story for her and I knew that when I got an opportunity to write my first episode, that’s what we would do. It’s a heavy Linda-driven episode that really taps into the emotional repercussions of a life of violence. There are some pretty existential crisis moments for her, but also for Callen.

It was massive (laughs). It was the most scenes we’ve ever shot in the history of the show. There was so much intercutting and the third and fourth act is just a freight train.

While you were planning this out, were you in communication with Linda and giving her a sense of what was coming?

I gave her a heads-up on some of the themes I wanted to explore. I’d bring it to Scott Gemmill, who was incredible through the whole process and … I remember when I turned in the first draft, it was a lot of Linda. I brought it over to her house and we read over all of those scenes. I remember sitting in her kitchen when she said ‘don’t change a word.’ She was so excited to explore what these themes meant.

Our shows can be difficult — exposition and procedural logistics are not easy to act. So, what we gave her were these great character-driven acting scenes that we set up with incredible stakes based on choices she made in her past.

Once she said yes, I knew that we were in a wonderful place. Then, she came in and she crushed it! She was incredible, and we had a director in Dennis Smith who’s done a ton of episodes of our show. He said it was the most ambitious episode he’d ever done (laughs). It only happened because of how amazing he is. He is so good.

With this being the 250th episode, I’m sure you were able to craft things that were nostalgic and celebratory. I feel that it would be a little different than, say, writing episode #253.

Yes. I got to go into some stuff because it felt like a big, massive episode. John Peter Kousakis, Scott Gemmill, and everybody on the crew stepped up their game, being like ‘hey, the kid wrote an episode. Let’s give it everything we got.’ And they did. It is across the board, everybody stepped up and we got to do some cool stuff. We built a natural history museum out of an old bank building downtown.

After #250 I know there’s another big episode coming [on December 8] entitled “Answers,” one that’s going to contain some big moments for a lot of characters. What was it like for you to shoot that?

I was so exhausted from 250. I showed up on set for 251 and the first day of filming was Dani [Ruah] and I in one location and twelve pages of dialogue between the two of us. I was just like ‘wait, what? (laughs). What just happened?’

The great news is that we had Frank Military as a director and he was amazing. We were able to tell the best version of what was set up for Kensi and Deeks.

Let’s say NCIS: Los Angeles gets a season 12 — are you interested in writing again?

I know the reception to this episode has far exceeded any expectations that I had. If they were to say ‘yea, let’s give the kid another shot,’ I’d love to do that. It’s such a fun exercise and I know the mistakes I made the first time around and I have ideas on how to fix them. There are scenes that we lost in the episode that can be perfectly placed in another episode.

It was so life-affirming and work-affirming to have this exploration. I hope that people like you and viewers who follow the show and do deep-dives about characters and themes enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it with Babar.

Do you have a sense of what the arc is going to be after your episode?

Scott can speak more to this, but I know that there is a rising architecture for the whole end of the season, building towards a massive pinnacle, as we say. Then, the show is what the show is — it’s either going to go out swinging or we get another season — which, if that happens, there’s a lot of stuff that will need to be resolved.

What was it like getting Barrett Foa back on set after some time away?

Angels in America is one of my favorite plays. For him to do that deep dive on that kind of work and come back … It’s life experience. You come back and that plays out in everything else we do. Those kind of opportunities, and that CBS and [R. Scott Gemmill] and [John Peter Kousakis] our writers gave him the opportunity to go do that, are so human. It’s such a wonderful example of humanity. This is a big hit TV show that has serious restrictions and they always choose the human element. In this case, that human element was giving Barrett the opportunity to go do Angels in America. Our show is better because of it.

When Barrett comes back, he carries with him that confidence. The reason that episode in San Francisco is going to be so good is because he’s bringing that to this role. It was wonderful to have him back. We missed him deeply.

We’ve had serious loss. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Miguel and what he brought to the show and to the family. Now, Linda [Hunt] is kind of in and out. We missed Barrett, and we miss Linda when she’s not around, and I think about Miguel every day.

I know you’ve got a development deal and you’re working on a lot of different stuff. At this point in 2019, what are some of the stories that are speaking to you? What do you want out there in the world?

In my childhood, the biggest things that landed for me came in the form of stories. My dad was an English professor — understanding the Holocaust came through Sophie’s Choice. Understanding racism in the fifties in Chicago came through Richard Wright. So much of my understanding of the world came through these great stories. My goal is to find unique and diverse POVs and voices that have universal themes and the power to evolve perspective. That’s a complex way of saying what Will & Grace did for homosexuality in America, I think there’s a lot of different ways to do that.

I think that we, as a country, have become so divided, so to have any storytelling that brings us together as a nation or gives us something that we’ve never understood before is something that I’m looking for. That’s one of the things I’m working on with Frank [Military] in Cascadia, and we talk about the genocide within our borders and the Native American relationship and the scorched earth within our own history. We do it through two great characters — from a macro perspective, it’s a love story of these two FBI agents who find identity in that relationship. You’re getting to explore all these things that I haven’t seen on TV before, and CBS is giving us an opportunity to give it a shot as a pilot there.

We have that, we have Woke, which is the racial awakening of a black cartoonist after a run-in with the SFPD in San Francisco. We have another one that we just sold that deals with mental illness in a way that is so intelligent and entertaining and dark and emotionally authentic. We have another project that is about a Korean rapper and his struggle with identity from so much success in the rap world and how to shift back to who he was, his family, and everything that he lost. All of these stories, thematically, are very similar — unique POVs and universal stories with a way to bring us together as an audience.

For more great stuff from our Eric interview…

Be sure to come back on Sunday after the episode! We have some more stories from him to share and interesting quotes so stick around for more!

What are you most excited to see on this NCIS: Los Angeles episode?

Be sure to share right now in the comments, and let us know what you want to see coming up on the show.

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