NCIS' Emily Wickersham on New York, nicknames and being the new girl.
When Emily Wickersham replaced Cote de Pablo on NCIS, people who like to talk about these things said she had big shoes to fill; Ziva was, after all, a dearly departed on TV's most-watched drama in its 11th—and counting!—season. But rather than just filling those shoes, Wickersham has put on a new pair and run free as "probie" agent Ellie Bishop, a Midwesterner with bright eyes and an even brighter mind.
In real life, the Kansas-born actress (whom you may know from The Sopranos, The Bridge or the movie Gone, with Amanda Seyfried) is somehow even lovelier than her character. Over a basket of fries at Hollywood's 101 Coffee Shop, she opens up about everything from taking her first bullet to what Michael Weatherly calls her when the cameras stop rolling. (Hint: It ain't "probie.")
Watch!: How has it been so far?
Emily Wickersham: It's my first big TV job, really being on a show as a main character, so I was nervous in the beginning. Coming onto a show where this tightknit cast has worked together for 10, 11 years was intimidating. Nerve-racking!
Watch!: Only tens of millions of people watching every week.
Emily: Just a few eyeballs. Just a wee bit. Yeah, so that was scary. But it's been fun, and the cast has been so sweet and welcoming. They made it a pleasant transition for me. I hope it was easy on their end! [Laughs.]
Watch!: When did Michael Weatherly start calling you—
Emily: "Wham-Bam Wickersham?" Growing up, people called me "Wickersham," and then it kind of died out for the past, oh, 15 years. Michael really brought it back. He brought it back strong. It's sticking. Wham-Bam Wickersham.
Watch!: Were you surprised when you got the part?
Emily: I was shocked! By no means was I expecting to get the job. I had learned not to get my hopes up in this business. You can feel like you've done such a great job and the powers that be will say, "Nah." Luckily this one clicked. I think my agents called me and I was probably home, studying for another audition or something. [The french fries arrive at the table.] Are you into ketchup? Are there sweet potatoes in there? I'm really going to go for it with the ketchup.
Watch!: Nice. Have you gotten better at handling a firearm?
Emily: I had never held a gun in my life, but my character becomes an agent so I had to know how to shoot. The tech advisor took me to the gun range, and I felt like the gun was going to turn around and shoot me, even though I was pointing it away. So I had that training, and I went up to Camp Pendleton—hardcore!—and met with real NCIS agents, which was pretty cool. We also had a Skype meeting with the NSA because my character was an NSA analyst. I was like, "What am I doing here?"
Watch!: It didn't take you very long to get shot.
Emily: I took the fall pretty well, I thought. Like a champ! [Laughs.] I've never taken a bullet before, so we have a stunt person there who advises us on those kinds of things. I grew up as an athlete but I'm not the best at running into something and falling gracefully, so luckily I have a good stunt girl.
Watch!: Which sports did you play?
Emily: Every sport! Tennis, soccer, volleyball, track. I was a big tomboy.
Watch!: What was the best advice you got when you joined the show?
Emily: When I first started I said, "Wow, this is a lot of work and we're here a lot," and Mark Harmon was like, "It's a marathon, not a sprint." And it is.
Watch!: How much attention do you pay to the fan reaction?
Emily: I try not to read some of the stuff online, but for the most part I feel like people have embraced the character in a much more positive way than I expected. People were very attached to Ziva! I wasn't replacing her, but it was scary to come into that. People are crazy about the show. [We] have such wonderful fans.
Watch!: Have you found yourself getting paparazzi'ed more?
Emily: No, I haven't! Things have been pretty normal. [Laughs.] But try walking through the airport with anyone in that cast. I traveled to New Orleans for the spinoff with Mark, and basically every person recognizes them.
Watch!: Do people ever ask if you helped kill Tony Soprano? Wasn't your character, A.J.'s girlfriend, one of the few people who knew they were at the diner at the end?
Emily: A few people in New York asked about the ending, but I just answer, "I don't know!" [Reaches for a fry.] This is, by the way, what happens when you put french fries in front of me. I eat the whole thing!
Watch!: So where'd you grow up?
Emily: I was born in Kansas and then—my dad's side of the family is from Kansas and my mom's side is from Chicago—we moved to Chicago. But from first grade on, I grew up in New York—just outside the city, in a town called Mamaroneck.
Watch!: Did you go to college, or was it straight to acting school?
Emily: I went to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., for two years before I dropped out. Then I was in New York—just kind of living in the city, not really knowing what I was going to do—and I started taking acting classes because I felt like, "If I've dropped out of college, I should probably do something worthwhile and challenge myself." Before that, acting had not been on my radar at all.
Watch!: Did you love it right away?
Emily: I did. I mean, I found it challenging. It was hard for me because at first, I didn't really know what I was doing. But with acting, you get the bug; it's intoxicating. I started getting smaller roles, TV and film auditions, and didn't want to stop.
Watch!: When did you decide to migrate West?
Emily: I moved to Los Angeles five years ago. That was a big move because I didn't go that far away for college, and my family is still in New York. But I don't think I would have had this opportunity if I had still been living in New York.
Watch!: Thoughts on L.A.?
Emily: When I first moved, I thought: "I don't know about this L.A. thing. It's so weird here and people are weird here." But I've made the best friends—I have a good group of people around me, and I really like it. I go to yoga a lot, I go on hikes, I hang out with my friends. [Laughs.] I also just ate all of the french fries.