After starring for 13 seasons on NCIS as the skilled and wisecracking Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, actor Michael Weatherly announced he was leaving the most-watched series in the U.S. and around the world. The risky move seems to have paid off, as Weatherly is now the lead in Bull, one of the top-rated new series of last season. The CBS drama focuses on psychologist Dr. Jason Bull, who heads a team of trial experts working at a jury consulting firm. Employing behavioral analysis and high-tech data, they help clients going to trial and in the process shed light on what makes us all tick.
TV DRAMA: When Bull was created, did anyone realize how timely a show about human behavior analysis would be in today’s political climate?
WEATHERLY: No. They started developing the show in 2014. It takes a long time to go from concept, to pitch, to somebody buying the pitch, to finding a writer, to selling that pitch to a network. Then you have another year to develop, so it’s a longer process than a lot of people understand. So there’s no way that anyone could have known—Donald Trump didn’t even know—that he was going be President of the United States, except in that weird part of his narcissistic brain that already thought he had Air Force One! But I think you’re right; it is an absolutely timely show. It’s not just because of the human behavior and the analysis of why people do what they do—what are these populist swings? What is it a reaction to? We all understand that fear is this driver that can move any animal on Earth into a herd mentality, and in these elections where you have confirmation bias, people vote against their own instincts and interests. It is an astonishing time, and that’s why a show like Bull, rather than being disturbing, is comforting for us. It helps us understand that predictive analysis of behavior is choice, because every day, every minute, every second, we’re making choices about how we want to be.
This is a show that is totally for our time, and what I like about what’s happening in season two is that we have Glenn Gordon Caron coming in. Glenn was the creator of Moonlighting and Medium. Paul Attanasio created Bull, but he’s never written another episode after the pilot and he’s not involved on the ground. We had Mark Goffman come in, and he did a terrific job of trying to explain to the audience what trial consulting and trial analysis are, but I don’t think the show is about trial analysis, and I don’t think Glenn Caron thinks so either. The network and the studio wanted the audience to understand the world of the show, but does anyone really understand the world of NCIS? What do we do? We investigate crimes in the Navy and Marine Corps. OK, if you say so. I don’t think M*A*S*H was really about the Korean War and geopolitics in the 38th parallel. I don’t think anyone needs to know anything about advertising to enjoy Mad Men. So when you bring in a guy like Glenn Gordon Caron, this show hasn’t even begun to see the level of resonance that it’s capable of.
TV DRAMA: The first season of any series is a little trial and error. Has the first season of Bull delivered on the vision that you had for the show?
WEATHERLY: Yes, and I can only compare it to my experiences. When I was on Dark Angel, the show changed too much between seasons one and two. They changed our time slot, and we had different things all across the board. I was present for the creative discussions—how about if we have a dog man who lives in a house on the edge of town and it’s like Beauty and the Beast? But Dark Angel wasn’t about that. It was very confused.
On NCIS, things also changed between seasons one and two and three, especially between two and three—big changes—and it made the show stronger. So I’ve seen both happen. My instincts tell me that bringing in a guy like Glenn Caron, who writes from a very specific point of view—it’s a very authorial writing style, it’s unmistakably Glenn—is what the show needs. Bull is this charismatic cult leader who has his team of dedicated people, but they’re doing a dodgy bit of business. Any time you try to get away from that and be earnest and pure about what Bull is doing, you’re just being insincere, and I don’t think it helps anybody engage with the show.
TV DRAMA: Jason Bull changed during the first season—he shed his vest, his beard came off. Are we supposed to read something into that?
WEATHERLY: Those changes came from me. I decided that when Eliza Dushku’s character, J.P. Nunnelly, a top criminal attorney, appeared, something shifted inside of Bull. If she appears again, I think it will be interesting, but the show isn’t about a couple. The show is about this guy and his experiences, and she’s a major game changer for him. If you look at the life of Jason Bull, he built up this great company, he used to be a little sleazy, and now he’s decided he’s going to be principled and pure—it took somebody blowing up his office, a fight with a huge real estate developer, and a flirtation with possibly a girlfriend. Bull was also once married and his wife had a miscarriage, and that was painful for both of them. He was not able to fix that. So here’s a guy who can’t fix everything, and his team is starting to question him. They were uncomfortable being put into these positions and boxes, and they pushed back. That never happened on NCIS. Nobody ever pushed back against [Special Agent Leroy Jethro] Gibbs. I engaged in that concept: here’s Jason Bull trying to put together a team, and he doesn’t know why but [the whole team is] mad at him! It’s because Bull is an unstable element. So When J.P. Nunnelly appeared, I thought, the cardigan, the glasses, the scruff, this sort of Mount Rushmore edifice that Bull had constructed for himself [had to go] and he started to take himself apart. The thing I love most about [television] acting is that when you’re making a long show like this, arcs can be different. When you’re making a film, you have to figure it all out beforehand. [But on Bull] we don’t know what’s going to happen. The character is still a mystery to me. I said at the beginning of last year that I don’t know what he’s capable of. He might kill someone! He might defend a murderer. He’s so curious about things that I think he’s a bit of night crawler; he gets involved in things he shouldn’t. I think he’s probably a gambler. He probably drinks too much. I’m not sure he trusts himself, so I see a lot more happening in him.
TV DRAMA: DiNozzo on NCIS was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy. Bull has many more layers; he’s quieter and more introspective than DiNozzo. As an actor, is there more challenge in silences than in the constant putting out?
WEATHERLY: Yes, the challenge is to continue the thought, and the way Bull tends to think is: this person just told me X, I don’t know anything about this person, I don’t have any of the data points on them. I’m going to take it at face value, then I’m going to look at them and I’m going to decide on instinct if face value matches body language. Bull can see if pupils are shrinking or enlarging, if your neck is pulsing faster, if you’re licking your lips—any tells. If he sees that the two things match, face value is what he will go for. If they don’t match, Bull’s next line is now going to be in the camp of, Would you say you didn’t love your father when you were growing up? He’s a psychologist, so everything for him is about getting people to tell him things. He’s not there to tell anything. After all, when does your shrink tell you, “Here’s what’s wrong”? You are the one who has to make the discovery. So if you carry that to its full conclusion about a TV show, the audience at home should be the ones making the discovery. My big arguments in season one were about telling people the answer. Let’s show them and get them to say, [gasps] It’s that guy! Glenn Caron knows how to do this in a way that would be very satisfying. That’s going to be the show that we can do for a lot of years.
TV DRAMA: Is there anything from your experience on NCIS that you’re carrying over as the lead actor on Bull?
WEATHERLY: It’s different. I grew up in Connecticut. My father was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, was born during the Great Depression, went to Princeton, went to Harvard Business School, spent two years in the army in occupied Europe, was an ad man in the ’50s and ’60s in New York City, was a very successful businessman, was the president of his own company from the time he was 32 years old, and retired at 55, wealthy and well off. So I grew up in an environment with a true alpha male, from a certain generation. As a father, I’m very different. I raise my family differently; I interact with my wife differently. So when I look at my experience on NCIS, Mark Harmon came from a certain world of television, he grew up a certain way and his leadership style was a certain way and mine is very different. And I have absolutely no intention of trying to replicate that, but what I did learn is one major, major thing that Harmon showed me: it’s all about the team, and if they don’t feel plugged-in, if they don’t feel their characters, and if they want to play someone else’s character or want to change their character so much that it’s a different show, that’s not going to be good. If you don’t want to play shortstop, that infield’s going to suck—sorry to make the baseball analogy—but to me [it has to be a] tight infield: you go around the horn, bang, bang, bang, back to the catcher, back to the pitcher, and let’s play ball. NCIS has that, and that’s something I strive to do with our team. It comes from the writing; it comes from being present on the floor, not being on Instagram or being distracted.
I remember a table read during season six of NCIS [for the episode that introduced the spin-off] NCIS: Los Angeles with Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J. Everyone came onto our stages and we had our table read at lunch. We were shooting in the squad room; we didn’t get lunch, we came to do the table read, then we went right back to the squad room. There was no time to prepare. But Sean Murray [who plays Special Agent Timothy McGee] and I huddled together before the table read and I said, Let’s give them the razzle-dazzle. We wanted to show them, You’re going to be in a spin-off, but this is what we do. I remember those days very, very fondly. I learned a lot, and I try to bring that spirit and enthusiasm to Bull, which you can’t fake or manufacture.