He’s been called "The Toothpick" by a subordinate — not in affection — but those who think they know what to expect from new NCIS Director Leon Vance may have a surprise, or so says the actor who plays him, Rocky Carroll.
"We’re making up the character as we go along," Carroll says. "That’s the fun thing of acting a character to a pre-existing series — as you go along, you adjust the base and treble and the contrast and all that stuff."
After beginning as a guest star last season, Carroll has joined CBS’ Tuesday-night hit NCIS full-time this season, as Vance officially took charge of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. This now means he’s the boss of iconoclastic senior NCIS Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), who usually doesn’t take well to being told what to do.
"Gibbs doesn’t really have a boss," Carroll says. "Gibbs knows that if there’s a person he doesn’t respect, he’ll just walk right over them or just ignore them. But there’s something about this guy, Vance, that refuses to be ignored. That’s really what it is, when it comes to the relationship between Vance and Gibbs, that Vance can’t be ignored, and Gibbs knows that."
Told that Vance is kind of a wiseacre, Carroll laughs.
"I haven’t heard that since junior high school," he says. "I had a teacher call me a wiseacre. Vance is a bit of a wiseacre. But he’s a wiseacre that knows who’s sitting behind the desk.
"He knows that he’s not going to be sent for detention, because he knows who holds the cards."
Vance takes his first name (and his toothpick) from former NCIS agent Leon Carroll Jr. (no relation), NCIS’ long-time technical adviser. But Carroll hasn’t modeled his Leon entirely on the original.
"He’s a slow-playing 33 rpm record," he says of Leon Carroll. "I can’t see him even in a position of leadership. He’s not the kind of guy that’s going to chew you up and spit you out, whereas this character that I’m trying to embody here has much more of an edge to him."
So far, Leon Vance has shown himself to be tough, decisive and tech-savvy.
"This guy," Carroll says, "he’s a take-no-prisoners kind of guy, but his belief is, the agency’s primary objective is not to put out the specials menu, it’s national security. If he burns a few bridges along the way or gets a few people on his bad side along the way, he doesn’t really care, because we’re dealing with issues of national security."
But as fans of NCIS know, the show’s heaping plate of intrigue, action and drama is always served with a side order of laughs.
"There’s a comedic thread," Carroll says, "that makes NCIS a little different from some of the other procedurals. Somewhere along the line, you’re going to see that this guy, he’s got his own — whether it’s offbeat or off-brand — humor as well.
"I’m sure they’re going to explore it more as this character gets developed more."
Vance has already dazzled geeky Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) with his computer knowledge, and he has yet to go toe-to-toe with Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum), the team’s wise and worldly forensic pathologist.
But, according to Carroll, face time with the team’s quirky, Goth forensic specialist, Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), is on the docket.
"We have yet to have a Vance/Ducky relationship," Carroll says. "In one of the upcoming episodes, there’s a very funny scene with myself and Pauley Perrette, who plays Abby, where I find myself in Abby’s lab, and it’s like, worlds collide.
"By the end of it, she’s Abby in all her glory, and all Vance can do is say, ‘God, beam me up. Get me out of here.’ It’s very funny."
Carroll previously starred with Harmon in CBS’ medical drama Chicago Hope, where scrubs were the daily wardrobe.
"It’s the most comfortable outfit in television," Carroll says. "You’re coming to work in your PJs."
On NCIS, while Gibbs favors sport jackets and open-collared shirts, Vance is a button-down, suit-and-tie kind of guy.
"The wardrobe people love it," Carroll says, "because they get to dress him up. We’ve decided to make him a little more Saville Row, a little dapper, which is funny on television, because the reality is that government agents, even guys who run government agencies, don’t make a ton of money.
"If government agents dressed the way they do on the procedurals in real life, people would think they’re dipping into the till."