BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — NCIS is the top drama in America. It’s now the most-watched drama in the world and it’s home to the highly energetic and lovable Abby Sciuto.
But what’s really behind her jet black hair and tattoos? Lauren Sisler with WANE’s sister station WIAT 42, had the opportunity to travel to the Valencia Studios in California and visit with Alabama native Pauley Perrette.
Sisler sat down with Perrette to talk about her childhood, Alabama, NCIS and more.
“I’m just some redneck from Alabama”
Lauren Sisler: You’ve ventured around the south, Alabama maybe being considered home base. What is it about Alabama that you consider that to be home?
Pauley Perrette: Well my mom and dad are both from there and we moved a lot when we were young. I was actually born and hatched in New Orleans, and then we moved 13 times all around all over the south. But then where my dad lives, he lives in the middle of the woods in Alabama, but the piece of land that he lives on they’ve had since we were born. So when there was any kind of holiday, Christmas, summers and all that, we were always in Alabama so it is pretty much the only solid home base that we’ve ever had.
SISLER: What is it about Alabama that stands out to you as being home? What’s different about Alabama then maybe some of the other places you’ve lived?
PERRETTE: Well where my dad lives, the Alabama that I know is just woods. He lives in the middle of the woods where the street signs are, you hammer a little piece on the tree, turn here at the fork in the road. Actually this shirt was my dad’s. I wore it special for you. Because this shirt was born and raised out there in the woods, and I have pictures of my dad in this shirt when he was younger than me standing right on the land where he lives now.
SISLER: So you just decided to hold onto it. Does it bring you some good luck?
PERRETTE: Well, you know, old soft flannel shirt that’s good.
SISLER: So what kind of role does your father have in your current acting career and in your life right now?
PERRETTE: My dad doesn’t have anything to do with my acting career. My dad is a firefighter and as are all my cousins, and I am incredibly proud of that. But this is all me being out here, and it’s a total accident and it’s really strange. I am the only person in my family that’s in the entertainment industry. And I studied sociology, psychology and criminal science in school, so this was just a complete accident.
SISLER: Tell me a little bit more about that accident.
PERRETTE: I wanted to get my [master’s degree] in criminal science, and then I had moved to New York and I was trying to make money to finish my master’s degree. I had overheard a girl say she had made over $3,000 shooting a commercial and I was like, “Oh my gosh!” I couldn’t believe it. So, this other guy came up to me and said, “Hey I know this director that would really like you.” And it was as simple as that. And I didn’t know how it worked. I just went into this director’s office when I was like, “Hey, Walter from coat check said you would like me. Then that guy hired me for like 15 commercials and then music videos and short films in a row. And then one of those commercials I did got really big and somebody called me out to [Los Angeles], and then I started working in television. I’ve been working in television ever since.
Life as a star on NCIS
SISLER: So a very unique adventure to get to where you are today. You are pretty much working one of the most watched shows in television across the world.
PERRETTE: We are actually officially the number 1 show in the world. We had a big celebration, a big celebratory party. They announced that like a few months ago, officially. At any moment in time there are 59 million people watching NCIS.
SISLER: I mean could you have ever envisioned that you would be working for the number one show in the entire world?
PERRETTE: I mean, not when I thought I was going to be a cop when I was young. It’s pretty funny. I am incredibly blessed, and I mean it’s so not lost in me. I am incredibly grateful. Right when I wake up every morning: “Thank you God for my job!” Because I love my job and I am really grateful, but I am still kind of like, “What? Me?” It’s so weird. And I often make that joke. I am just some redneck from Alabama. I don’t know how this happened!
SISLER: Your background in criminal justice and forensics and some of the studies that you’ve had, how does that play a role in your role and character as Abby?
PERRETTE: I think studying sociology and psychology and criminal science, and then studying forensics I think at the base level it helped me with all the big words. I was pretty good with that. But also I have such a sincere interest in that — real life crime fighting and real life mystery solving and real life detective work. I think that my character is going to have that as well. I don’t have to fake that, because I’ve got that. I’ve always been obsessed with crime. Not committing them but solving them.
Abby Sciuto, the character
SISLER: Who is Abby? Define Abby’s character for me.
PERRETTE: I am like as big of a fan of Abby as everybody else is. I want to be her when I grow up. She is so great. She is such a unique being, because she is like this little alternative anime, but she’s tattooed and like in her own little thing. We stand and sit completely differently. I am very slouchy. And I was very upright. But she also has the biggest heart. Several things that wouldn’t seem to make sense about her on paper but they all go together so well with this character. She’s a church kid, and she’s a scientist and all these things. Actors have their one thing they have to figure out to get their character. I have one friend that can’t do it until he knows every piece of his outfit. And then he works himself into the clothes. Mine is how the characters walk. Their gait or the way they stand, that kind of thing. I’ve got to figure that out. I can’t go any further until after that. And when I first got this role I had this little dog. Unfortunately, she has passed away. I had this little brain-damaged mutt named CeCe and I patterned everything Abby does after this dog. And if you know that when you watch the show it’s pretty apparent, because Abby sits up and she goes from point to point with her head and she cocks her head, and everything was patterned completely after this little dog I had.
SISLER: So when you put yourself into that Abby role, how much does it take you to really sync into that role when you come onto the set every day?
PERRETTE: I’ve been playing Abby a long time now and I can’t wait to come to work. I love being here and it’s like one great thing. I would say the greatest thing about an actor is that you get you get to disappear for a while. So whatever is going on in my life or whatever, Abby doesn’t have those problems. She’s got her own problems. But they are different you know. It’s funny. When I drive to work I always pass this little sign that’s a few blocks down that says “technology” on it. And every time when I drive past that sign, that’s going from Pauley’s world to Abby’s world. But once you get here we do the work rehearsals, it’s wonderful to play a character for this long because I know so much about how she feels and what she does. How she moves and where she is going to go. I know her pathways and everything. It’s just an incredible blessing to be able to play a character for that long.
SISLER: Abby has become somewhat of a role model. The Abby Effect. You hear a lot about that. Tell me more about the Abby Effect and how that has transpired over the years.
PERRETTE: The Abby Effect is this really incredible phenomenon that’s happened because of this TV character. She is like this math and science whiz. And basically what it is, there are young girls from around the world — not just a few like thousands — millions at this point that have grown up watching Abby. It was like five minutes ago a woman couldn’t even vote and certainly we are not encouraged to go into the world of math and science, so this character, Abby, on a TV show that is so involved in math and science and [Abby’s] so good at it. She is a super genius. Nobody is as smart as Abby. But it’s encouraged all these kids that were 10 when they started watching this show or eight, and now they are going to college and actually getting degrees in science and math just because of a TV character that said you can do this.
Birmingham, Selma and returning to Alabama
SISLER: Speaking on that topic Birmingham is perhaps considered ground zero. Your involvement with civil rights – maybe expound upon that and why that is so close to you.
PERRETTE: I think I was just a born civil rights activist. It’s funny. My sister and I both are, and its part of who I am. I believe so sincerely in the Martin Luther Jr. quote that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I believe that with all of my heart, so I feel like whoever it is, whatever it is, if someone’s rights are being violated or if someone is not being treated as equally, then we have to fight for that. That’s our job. I consider it my job, and if you really think about the enormity of that statement — injustice anywhere is a threat to justice — everywhere then we really are required to make sure that there is justice for all.
SISLER: Have you had the opportunity to see the movie “Selma” yet?
PERRETTE: I have not seen “Selma.” I have a phobia of movie theaters, so I don’t go to movie theaters. I haven’t been in one 15 or 20 years, so I have to wait to get things on DVD. But I am such a huge Martin Luther King Jr. fan. I’ve been to his church, I’ve been to his memorial. I went on my own and stayed in Selma and stayed in a little motel, because I wanted to walk that grounds. That was years ago. I’ve actually been there a couple of times.
SISLER: How often do you go back home?
PERRETTE: When you are on an hour drama it is kind of hard to go anywhere because you are under contract except for like two seconds out of the year, but you get back when you can, and I’ve got family in Tennessee and Georgia and Alabama, so I try to do a little southern tour whenever I can.
Filming NCIS and future projects
SISLER: You guys are in the middle of filming a season right now. Tell me a little bit about that and how things are transpiring.
PERRETTE: We are in the middle of shooting NCIS season 12, so 12 years. Mark Harmon, David McCallum, Mike Wedley and myself have actually been playing these characters for 13 years, because we started the year before. We are here making this magic little show with the magic little NCIS family, and it’s just great. When you work with the same people that long, not only do you get to know your own character but you get to, kind of like the dance, you know how these characters interact. It’s so much fun. It’s really just a great group of actors which always makes your job so much easier and so much more fun because we are having a blast.
SISLER: Do you have any projects coming up that we may not know about right now?
PERRETTE: I am a songwriter as well. I wrote this song called “Beautiful Child.” The song is to benefit the Trevor Project. I wrote this and called up some friends, other musician friends of mine. So, the video is releasing on Feb. 14. I wrote the song and I sing, and a friend of mine from Georgia came out here, Kevin Lawson, and then Michael Weatherly. He’s a piano player. He plays in all my songs. He is an amazing musician. And then Lance Bass and Kirsten Vangsness from “Criminal Minds,” so I had all these people come together, and the video is so beautiful. I am going to be doing backstage at the Grammys again this year, which I do every year — social networking correspondent for them — which will be on Feb 8. I can’t wait. Then I have a book coming out. We have a bakery in New York city called Donna Bell’s Bake Shop. That was my mother. Born and raised in Alabama and she passed away in 2002, but me and two of my best friends started a super southern bake shop right in the middle of Manhattan named after my mom. People kept asking us about a cook book, so we ended up making this book. It’s a cook book but also the story of our lives. It’s the story of growing up with my mom being in Alabama, cooking in the kitchen and the whole southern cooking culture, and then the story of me and my two friends and us coming together and making this bake shop in Manhattan. People love it because it is super southern. Its a few blocks from Times Square.
SISLER: Do you have a favorite southern dish?
PERRETTE: Grits. I get so excited they make grits. I don’ t know if they make them just for me to eat my grits every morning.
SISLER: Is your mom an inspiration to you?
PERRETTE: My mom was wonderful. Lost her too soon. She was lovely, beautiful. She was like the perfect southern piece of loveliness.
SISLER: What is something that maybe most people don’t know about you?
PERRETTE: That’s funny because that’s one of the hardest questions for me, because I tell everybody everything, especially on twitter. “Tell us ten things.” Well, I don’t have that. I tell everybody everything. I live pretty simple, I like things to be simple. I live exactly like I did when I was a bartender. I guess there is not much to tell is the secret.
SISLER: Coming from a small town, I know you said your acting career was an accident. But what would your advice be to aspiring actors or actresses?
SISLER: I am not good with advice because my life has just been so crazy, but what I tell myself is deal with what God puts in your path, and I’ve always told myself. I don’t even know if I knew what that meant, but it’s kind of like when an opportunity presents itself, when God puts something in your path pay attention to that. Look at this. It happened because some guy from coat check said you should talk to this director. I did and got a phone call that said you should come out to [Los Angeles] and I was like “alright.” It’s important to me to really pay attention to God and the universe and what’s going on around you because otherwise you might miss something cool.
SISLER: Roll Tide? War Eagle?
PERRETTE: I don’t even think about sports. It’s so funny. If people know you are from Alabama. It happens to me all the time. I know nothing about sports. I can tell you pretty much anything about music, like the most random music fact. I don’t know anything about sports, but if people know you are from Alabama or you’ve driven through Alabama or anything when it’s sports season, my texts are blowing up. “Roll tide.” I am like, “what is happening?”