NCIS stars reveal challenges of filming season 18 in a pandemic: "Everything has completely changed"
"It really threw us off for a big loop," says Sean Murray, who plays McGee.
By Paul Simpson
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, the producers of NCIS shut down the set, curtailing the 17th season, and entering a longer than usual hiatus. But last September (two months later than usual), with industry-agreed guidelines put into place for the health and safety of everyone involved, the procedural series began work on its 18th year.
“Our producers have put so much effort into making sure things are going smoothly, and everyone feels safe and taken care of,” maintains star Emily Wickersham, who’s played Eleanor Bishop on the investigative show for the last seven years. “We’re all just grateful to be working, but it’s definitely been weird.”
It may look normal when we watch the episodes on screen but behind the scenes, everything has been stripped back as far as possible to keep the risk of infection low.
“I remember coming on set that first day, and everyone’s wearing masks plus face shields,” says Sean Murray, whose Tim McGee been part of NCIS since its first season back in 2003. “You’ve got 17 or 18 years of associations in your head – how you walk from the trailer to the set, how you get breakfast – and everything is completely changed. It really threw us off for a big loop. We had to adjust; there was a lot of just nodding and pretending that we could hear each other.”
As Wilmer Valderrama, entering his fifth year as Nick Torres, explains: “We have thirty different protocols and guidelines that we have to follow to do one episode. We created these little pods [with] a group of people – the director, the writer and the actors. We rehearse the scene and then have to leave the sound stage and the cameraman and lighting department comes in. They do their job, then they have to go out of the soundstage and we come in with the selected cameraman and we shoot it.”
Everyone – cast and crew – wears a mask and face shield. “We have to have that no matter what, at all times for 12 hours a day,” Valderrama continues, “and then right before they say action, we can take it off. We do our tech and we do a take for two or three minutes, then we put the masks back on and we go back to our holding area where we’re sitting about ten feet from each other.”
Regular testing has become part of the daily routine, not just for those in front of the camera but for everyone involved. “The producers are really taking care of our crew,” says Valderrama. “We test for COVID maybe three or four times a week.”
The new protocols have had an effect on the way the actors react to each other. “It’s like a barrier,” Wickersham points out. “In acting the whole thing is not having a barrier between people and it’s this barrier that we have to have now during rehearsal. You really have to focus on people’s eyes because it’s really weird to not see people’s mouths – it helps us connect.” She found the non-masking on camera for the early episodes “therapeutic” (the early episodes of the season are set in the autumn of 2019 pre-COVID) but in later instalments “we go to crime scenes in masks, and we do what we do in real life”.
All the actors are full of praise for the production team’s actions. “If people are going to work and get things done, you’ve got to take care of each other,” Murray says. “We’re known as one of the better productions for keeping everyone really safe.”
Wickersham agrees. “The hours are basically the same as they were [pre-COVID]. I can’t even imagine managing two hundred-plus people every day, and working within the hours we’ve been working. It’s really a testament to them.”
Valderrama believes that “returning to do television and film is really important – important to morale and important for families. We’ve had nearly no COVID positives, and that’s because we’re doing our job and we’re very, very thorough.”
“Once you get used to the rules it becomes second nature,” Sean Murray concludes. “We were able to fall back into our thing, and now that protocol has become second nature to us so we’re able to do our thing and not get caught up in all of that.”