‘NCIS: LA’s Renée Felice Smith Opens up About Nell’s Decision & Looks Back on Her Favorite Moments
NCIS: LA has officially bid adieu to the Wonder Twins, with Eric Beale (Barrett Foa) recruiting Nell Jones (Renée Felice Smith) — filling in as operations manager while Hetty Lange (Linda Hunt) was MIA this season — to co-run the international office of his company with him in Tokyo.
The offer came in the finale as Retired Navy Admiral Hollace Kilbride (Gerald McRaney) told her she had to either take Hetty’s position permanently or resign. She chose the latter. (Eric has only held a consulting position with NCIS this season.)
“The door always remains open for Nell at NCIS, but it may be time for her to be pushed out of the nest a bit and see where this new opportunity takes her,” Smith tells TV Insider. “We’ll just have to wait and see with this new chapter. Nell is like a lot of us. She’s a smart girl and she chose stability for a good long time because it was the smart choice. it was the safe choice. Although she will always be committed to her team, which has essentially become her family, I think she needs to put herself first when it comes to this sort of decision and I commend her for [it].”
Below, Smith opens up about saying goodbye, reflects on Nell’s time at NCIS as well as her own on the CBS drama and ponders the future for Nell and Eric.
So this is officially your farewell?
Renée Felice Smith: Yes, this is official. Nell has made an exit. It’s surreal to say this out loud, but I think it’s time. I think that I spent more time at NCIS: LA than I did in my entire school career. [Laughs] I guess it was K through 11. I was there for 11 seasons, and it was an absolute gift, such an incredible opportunity. It became a little film school for me. I made my own short films. I made a feature that went to South by Southwest (SXSW) and then went on to Hulu. I’m currently developing a few television projects, which is very exciting, and just released our very first children’s book [with Chris Gabriel]. Lots of good creative juices have been flowing and will continue to flow.
Nell did try to leave NCIS last season. Did she need this time back with the team before she could decide it was truly time to move on?
I think so. I think more than anything Nell was fulfilling the wishes of her boss, her mentor, Hetty, who called her back in and asked her to fill in for the time being. And I think she had to make this tough decision when faced with the people on her team who have become her friends or family, her whole world really, and she had to really put herself first and make this choice for herself. It’s not something she took lightly.
She says that she’s not sure about the job in Tokyo, but she does know that she doesn’t want Hetty’s job. What is it about this job in Tokyo that might be the right thing for her to get closer to figuring out what she does want?
I think it’s just safe. I think she needs the time and space away from NCIS: LA. She was a good girl. She made the smart choice. She chose stability for so long. But now it’s about really asking herself those tough questions: What does Nell want to do with the rest of her life? She’s in the driver’s seat. She’s her own boss now, which is just so empowering. I think her future will be very bright.
Nell and Eric say this is going to be “strictly business,” but might they be able to make a relationship work away from everything that may have reminded them why they couldn’t make it work before?
Hey, that’s a possibility! We should get you in the writers’ room. I think when you spend so much time with someone at work and then outside of work, it can become trying in a relationship setting. Your guess is as good as mine as far as what will happen in the future with Eric and Nell. I do think they have a very lovely mutual respect for each other. They really respect one another’s intelligence and those are always the best building blocks for a long-lasting relationship.
Talk about working with Linda Hunt again in that farewell scene.
It was quite emotional to have Linda Hunt back on set again for our final day of the season, and that scene was shot on our final day of the season. She was essentially sidelined by the pandemic this year, so to be able to see her in the flesh, let alone share a scene with her, with the Oscar winner, it was a chef’s kiss, the perfect sendoff. But this scene was really bittersweet. It was a bittersweet reunion for Nell. She wants to stay and catch up with Hetty, her mentor who has been MIA really for the entire season, but she can’t. Eric’s waiting for her. She has this opportunity in Tokyo that she’s committed to now. It’s this goodbye for now scene. But we just had the best time filming it. Linda is a dear friend of mine, and so to be able to share that time with her was truly a gift. Anytime I can watch her work, it’s like a masterclass, and I’m just a student and I bow down bowed down to the great Linda Hunt.
I was happy to see Nell’s goodbye with Kensi [Daniela Ruah] because that’s been one of my favorite relationships over the years.
I absolutely love Daniela Ruah as an actor, as a person, as a friend, as a mother, as a dog mom. She is just the most generous, giving scene partner. We have this mutual appreciation for each other. Nell and Kensi do as well, so I think that comes through in our scenes. We just have the best time working together.
Among the most entertaining scenes this season have to be pretty much anything with Kilbride, and you’ve been part of quite a few of them. What has he brought to the show?
Mack is an absolute legend. He is a bulletproof scene partner. He does not mess up. Iron sharpens iron. He’s witty, he’s prepared, He is everything you want in a scene partner and I would work with him for the rest of my days. Maybe we should go off and do NCIS: New York or something together because he is just unmatched. I really am very fond of Mack and we have great conversations off-camera. He’s a dear friend.
And Kilbride’s really pushed Nell to make choices about her career.
For sure. Kilbride sees all of Nell’s potential and I think Kilbride has a different bedside manner than Hetty does. Whereas Hetty will mysteriously put the puzzle pieces together in your favor and lead you with breadcrumbs along the path, Kilbride just says it point-blank. It can be startling as a young woman anytime an older male figure speaks to you with that stern quality. You go, “Wow, OK, just relax dude.” Or at least that’s what I do. “Pump the brakes.” That was Nell and Kilbride this season: Nell encouraging him to pump the brakes and “chill,” so to speak, and Kilbride not really getting down with that. These two characters have a mutual respect for each other. Though they come from different worlds, they can see each other’s value and obviously they show respect to one another, which is key.
What are the moments stand out to you for Nell over the years when you look back?
Wearing the elf ears. The mistletoe scene with Eric Beale. Riding in the Jaguar with Hetty. Going out and partnering with Eric [Christian] Olsen, Deeks. A lot of the fans were like, “Oh my God, it’s Velma and Shaggy,” a Scooby-Doo reference, which I thought was spot on whenever we were paired together. That was during Daniela’s pregnancy. The show was great in that way that it would morph and kind of accommodate for Daniela’s pregnancies, which were truly a gift to me and my character, because I was able then to go out into the field and do some action sequences: jumping up on the desk and roundhousing the guy to the face, sprinting. The camera guys who were positioned in a golf cart realized they had to drive faster because I was running so fast. I was a sprinter in high school on my track team, and yes, I can run very fast, but obviously, our crew didn’t know that because I was always in the office. [There were] these fun discoveries that would happen whenever I was out in the field with our incredible crew.
A recent scene with Sam I really loved — LL Cool J is just an incredible scene partner. And we were talking about what a different flavor this scene had brought to the show because Nell is usually quick with a quip, but she does not often drop the hammer. [There was] a conflict between the two of them, and Nell just has this moment where she really shows her stern side. That was great, just to watch the reaction on Todd’s face as the scene was playing out. And I remember our camera operator said, “Ooh, you scared me. I would do whatever it is you said I should.” It was refreshing, it was something different for Nell to play. I appreciate that too this season.
Every time I think of Nell in the field, I think of the episode “Kill House.”
Yes, that’s right. That’s an incredible episode. At the end of that episode, Daniela’s character Kensi shares a little exchange with Nell. And then we walk away and Daniela just instinctually grabbed me and put her arm around me and leaned in. I think she might’ve kissed my head or something like that. That’s kind of the beginning of the on-camera love fest between me and Daniela Ruah.
When I spoke with her early this season, she actually brought up that too.
Oh, no way! That’s so crazy. It made an impact on both of us.
You mentioned the children’s book that you wrote. What made now the right time for you to tell that story?
We wrote Hugo and the Impossible Thing as a celebration really. Hugo, our canine son, overcame a life-threatening illness, a brain tumor that nearly everyone told us would be just impossible to beat, but through great determination on his part and our part and with the help of some really very generous doctors, Hugo made it to the other side of his impossible thing.
We knew we wanted to share his message and we knew we needed to find the right metaphor to do so. Enter “the impossible thing”: this labyrinth of raging rivers and thorny mazes, giant boulders, towering cliffs. We really wanted to challenge the idea of “impossible” and reframe it. I feel like oftentimes we’re told something is impossible to accomplish because it’s just quite simply never been done before when in reality it’s just extremely difficult, but it’s possibly possible, but you just need someone who’s willing to try, someone who’s brave enough to try. We wanted to share Hugo’s message and hope always that it could inspire children as well as adults to conquer whatever their impossible thing may be.
NCIS: Los Angeles, Season 13, Fall 2021, CBS