Friday, June 9, 2023
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James Todd Smith, better known as LL COOL J, is a rapper, songwriter and actor. He has won two Grammy Awards, received a Kennedy Center Honor and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. One of the first hip-hop artists, LL COOL J crossed over into acting and appeared in numerous films and series. In 2009, he joined NCIS: Los Angeles, a spin-off of NCIS, as Sam Hanna. He talks to World Screen Weekly about his journey through 14 seasons of the show, which airs its two-part finale on May 14 and 21.

***Image***WS: What is the legacy of NCIS: Los Angeles?
LL COOL J: The legacy is determined by the people who view the art. So I’ll leave that up to the fans to decide. For me, it’s been a growth journey. I learned humility and patience. I learned to have more empathy for people around me. Working with so many people from all over the world in such a tight-knit family unit, not just in front of the camera but behind the camera and even further into the production all the way up to the office, has been an amazing journey.

WS: And along that journey, what factors have kept the show fresh year after year?
LL COOL J: As actors, we always respected the moment that we were in and never treated it like an afterthought. That’s why these characters will hopefully live on for a long time because we just didn’t take it for granted. When you honor the art, you honor the moment, and you honor the opportunity to speak to people’s lives through art with entertainment, to help them forget about their problems, to help them [enjoy] some heroic stories. You honor that by putting your best foot forward and putting 1,000 percent into everything you do. That was what kept us fresh. Plus, the writers always paid attention to current events and what was going on in the world. Then they would incorporate that into whatever we were doing. It was built very well. One thing I will say is Shane [Brennan], in establishing the trajectory, and then R. Scott [Gemmill], manning the ship, did a great job of delving into those stories that were happening worldwide every day and tying them to our characters. So our characters lived in a real world.

WS: How has NCIS: Los Angeles contributed to the worldwide popularity of the NCIS franchise?
LL COOL J: For many years, we were the new kids on the block, and we took full advantage of that. We put our own—no pun intended—spin on a spin-off and gave people something that they could vibe to. It had action. It had humor. It had banter. We all got along as a cast. That’s very important, too, walking in the door with humility. To have friends, you’ve got to befriend them, and as a cast, we all got along very well.

WS: How did the character Sam Hanna evolve over the years? He’s been through a lot. Did that give you a broad range to play with?
LL COOL J: It did. This is a guy who experienced a lot. This is a guy who was a former Navy SEAL. Once a SEAL, always a SEAL in your heart. He was always a team guy. He joined NCIS, and he did everything he could to protect his family, his team and his colleagues. He evolved over the years. I think he grew as a man, getting a better relationship with his son, getting a better relationship with his daughter and gaining a deeper understanding of his partner. On some levels, Callen was a mentor to Sam, and Sam was a mentor to Callen. Sam Hanna is a super solid character. And I’d be honored to play Sam Hanna at any point—if he survives the finale! [Laughs]

WS: He has an extreme sense of duty, doesn’t he?
LL COOL J: Extreme sense of duty, a high sense of honor, strong integrity, strong character. He puts his life on the line every day. This is the guy who runs into danger. He runs at danger, not from it. And that speaks for many men and women around the world who are in the military or law enforcement, who deal with danger and crazy, wild scenarios every day. He is the embodiment of them. He represents them. He’s the archetype of someone who’s about duty and honor and putting the world first, laying down his life for the world. He’s an honorable guy.

WS: So the show is fiction but inspired by real events?
LL COOL J: 100 percent. There were stories that were loosely based on what may have happened in the world. We solved the cases a lot quicker than NCIS solves the cases in real life every day! Some cases might take two years or six or seven months, but we might solve them in a week! But that’s for the audience. But [the show] is based on the real world, the kind of work these men and women do every day.

About Anna Carugati

Anna Carugati is the group editorial director of World Screen.


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