By Steve Beard
Photos by Bob Stevens
The first time that Pauley Perrette excused herself from the room during our interview, she said: “The best thing to do is sit her on my chair. As long as you don’t stand up while I am gone, you’ll be fine.”
She was talking about her Chihuahua, Cece. I had been warned. When we were arranging a time and place to talk, she told me that she would be bringing her two dogs along. “One of them bites,” she said. “I just wanted to let you know.”
Thankfully, Pauley is passionate about rescuing Chihuahuas and not Rottweilers. When she excused herself from the room, she looked in my direction and gently whispered in Cece’s ear, “Friend, friend.” While she was gone from the room, I even found myself sheepishly repeating the refrain. I survived. At one point later on, Cece even sat next to me on the couch. After three and a half hours, I was on Cece’s VIP list. Well, that may be a stretch, but at least there were no flesh wounds.
Pauley goes everywhere with her dogs. Our time together was spent in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, the Sunset Strip hideaway in Hollywood where Jim Morrison lived temporarily, and John Belushi died tragically.
Despite her Goth babe character on mega-hit NCIS, Pauley is not attracted to a place like this because of morbid Hollywood lore. No, she digs it because the bungalows are dog-friendly—complete with little doggie snack bags for the canine visitors.
She’s red-hot passionate about animal rescue. Several years ago, she read a story about a puppy-breeding ranch that was abusing dogs. When the authorities moved in, it was suggested that the dogs be euthanized. Animal rescuers tried to find good homes for the abused pups. Pauley got on the organization’s website and read about their efforts and ended up having a dream about a white faced dog named Joker. That next weekend, she was volunteering for the cause.
In real-life, Pauley is every bit as engaging, inquisitive, and tattoo-and-mascara attractive as her character Abby Sciuto on NCIS. I never told her this, but I watch the show just to see her banter with Mark Harmon, work her techno crime solving mojo, and pace around with her lab coat and school girl miniskirt. I am probably not the only one. CBS bags more than 17 million viewers every Tuesday with NCIS—a certifiable top-l0 show.
She didn’t start off in show business. Her journey in front of the camera began when she dropped out of grad school while pursuing a degree in criminology. She fled to New York City and found herself wearing a sandwich board on roller skates in the Diamond District of Manhattan passing out fliers and bartending at night. When she heard she could make good money making commercials, she went for it to the pay the rent. Since that time, she has appeared on Frasier, The Drew Carey Show, and CSI before finding a niche at NCIS. When she is not filming for TV, she likes to work on independent film projects.
Goth purists may be disappointed that she was not bedecked with fetish boots, black lipstick, or skulls and crossbones. Instead, she was kicking back in old jeans, a white tank, and tennis shoes. She is far more of a very cool grad student than my generation’s Elvira. Truth be told, she’s a party girl with a brain. Her mind grapples with the big questions of life at a frenetic pace, producing both theories and uncertainties about life. In the midst of the swirling notions, she still has faith that one day she will understand the pain and joy of humanity’s existence.
Do you ever feel like you are the pin-up girl for science nerds?
Yes, Abbey is. Are crime-fighting techies—the forensic experts—the new superheroes?
Maybe in real life. No actor should be considered a superhero. But the people that we portray—I could tell you about a real person who I met with and trained me—those people really are making a difference by solving crimes. When I was taking forensics in school, no one even knew what that word meant.
You went to grad school for criminology. What was the attraction?
I always say, “I have a theory on that.” I have a theory on crime and it goes a little something like this. I don’t know what we are doing here. It’s a weird planet. It’s all f—ked up. But things happen to all of us that suck—like cancer and AIDS and awful things and car accidents and all this crap that no one planned for and nobody wants. And no one is immune from it. I cannot understand why someone, on purpose, would rob your house and steal your stuff or rape your daughter. We are all just trying to survive on planet earth. I don’t understand it. Maybe there is a humanity thing there that is a missing link. Don’t you understand about how tough this life is already? It is hard.
There are fleeting moments of joy and happiness and fun. They are hard to come by, and they are so awesome. A lot of the rest of the stuff that we have to go through sucks. So someone makes a decision—on purpose—to steal somebody’s wallet. Why would you f—k it up even more? It is hard enough. That’s kind of what it was about. It’s not crime, its just people being awful to each other.
Are crime-solving television shows a reflection of an innate sense of justice that we want to see things corrected or is that something that is tutored in us?
I don’t know. I think it is completely different. I have a theory on this. I think that it is just the mystery. Because there are not a lot of mysteries for us to figure out. People don’t usually sit around and try to figure out mysteries. Sure, some try to figure out how they build those little ships in the glass bottles, but that lasts for only a few moments. If you are going to solve a mystery, you only have so many options through stories to do that. You have ghosts, or aliens, or coincidences, and then you have crime—which is a big one.
I remember reading a book when I was younger about “entertaining ourselves to death.” Sometimes I think that being able to entertain ourselves is the kindest thing that God has ever given us the ability to do. If you look at the big questions, at the big mysteries—For example, what the hell are we doing here?—you can go through it a million nights and some nights you come up with the same answer. You go, “You know what, I don’t know, so we might as well entertain ourselves.” I think that the crime thing has more to do with mystery solving.
I love John Walsh. That is someone who is actually trying to solve crimes. That show started for a reason. People’s fascination with it may be that they are really fascinated by crime. Could be. But I think that most people find mysteries interesting.
You internalize your character to a certain degree. What factors of your own personality do you bring to that role?
I can’t lie. I don’t know. I didn’t go to acting school. At the end of the day, I still think that the greatest thing you can learn is empathy, which you learn by talking to people. Leave your acting class, walk up the street, and go sit at a bar. Care about people’s days. Care about what they feel. I love people.
Right now my character’s name is Abbey. And when I have had a crappy day, Abbey didn’t. None of that crap happened to her that day. She’s absolutely fine. She’s got her own problems, but I don’t have to figure them out because our writers do that.
What kind of mail do you receive because of your character?
I get letters every single day. Every kid in the world wants to be a forensic scientist. Girls getting into science is great. I am incredibly proud of being an independent female. I like to be proud of what I can do. I am so glad that the letters that I get from young girls did not say “How do I meet a rich guy?”
The deal with this weird business is that there are not very many Abbeys. I think Abbey is an incredible role model. Me? Not so much. Everybody has great days but others totally suck. I’m alright, but Abbey is great. She is a superhero. I portray scientific superhero. I am just a real weirdo who has a great job. A lot of people get confused. It’s hard for some to separate me from my character.
Is that the #1 drawback from being the public’s spotlight?
I can’t figure out why anyone would want to be famous. There is not one positive aspect to it, whatsoever. None. It is terrifying. It is something that I don’t understand. I understand people saying, I want to do this. I think the biggest drawback—the awful, awful thing—is that your life becomes far too important to people for all the wrong reasons. If I accidentally bump into somebody with my cart at the supermarket, when I was 15 it would be like, “Whatever.” But now, it’s like “That girl from that show” bumped into me with her cart.” It becomes way too important.
As your career moved into television, did you ever worry that you might be changing because of fame?
I talk about my job just like when I used to work on a car lot. Or when I worked as a hostess at some chain restaurant. I still don’t consider myself part of the Hollywood community.
Do you find being in acting and entertainment a form of escapism?
It is. It is exactly why I do what I do. There is no drug anywhere that can solve what ails you like spending a majority of your life being someone else. I don’t have to think, I don’t have to decide what to say—somebody wrote it. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to figure out what I am going to wear.
What do you do to relax?
I write, not just poetry, but I write. And I read, read, read, read. I read the news every morning and every night. I read books. I read everything. I am a news junkie.
Do you process through your writing?
Yes. Sometimes you have to get on the other side of something to write about it. I think that we are vessels for art in every form. I don’t think that we come up with anything that spectacular. We are just people who are vessels for our work. I think art is connected to God and all that is good.
Jack White said that once he realized he could not create like God, it was both humbling and freeing to pursue his work with the White Stripes.
Exactly. That is exactly it. It’s an astounding thing to really understand, and realize, and appreciate and be so grateful and happy about the fact that there really is nothing that spectacular about any of us. I think that we should be very aware of what our contribution is. I don’t know anyone who just sits down and says, “I am going to write this incredible piece of poetry.” That’s not how it works. You are cooking brisket and all of a sudden you say, whoa! And you write stuff on napkins and paper towels and the countertop and the walls until you can transcribe it somewhere else.
Your creative process works like that? So you don’t go away in order to get the juices flowing.
Oh, hell no. I never wanted to write anything. Ever. I never meant to. It is like a sickness. There really is nothing beautiful about it sometimes. It just hurts until you get rid of it.
What percentage of your heart and soul is poetic and what percent is scientific?
It’s the same thing. 100 percent. Both.
Some people would say that poetry and faith are on one side of the spectrum, while reason and science are on the other.
That’s bullsh-t. I would disagree with that. I would always be like, Huh? Are you kidding me? I think that is the same thing. Science vs. God? What? I don’t understand that. The most mind-blowing thing about God is science. Wow! No human being can create a body. You can take everything apart and put it back together, but you can’t give it life. Because that’s not us—that’s God. Science is one of the most “stand up and applaud” things about God. People put those things up against each other? Are you kidding me?
Did you grow up in church?
I grew up in the church and what it made me do was fanatically examine and think about all faiths. God, religion and faith—which are completely different. Faith is what people are talking about when they use the word religion. Religion is horizontal and faith is vertical.
I have this theory on horizontal life and vertical life. I read a book about it one time. It is long and hard to explain, but fascinating. It deals with the church. The problem with the church is that it tries to take your vertical life and turn it into your horizontal life. And that is how people get confused. I think that we are all going on a journey and no one can explain it to you. If they tell you they can, they’re lying.
Right now it is a weird time, although I am sure that everyone thought that their time was weird. But I think this time is really weird. People say, “Jesus says…” “God says. . .“ They have turned God into this creepy, awful, mean, terrible thing. Can you tell that I have thought about it way too much? I talk too much about all that. That’s all I do. I sit around and talk about it. Think about it.
Do you ever look up and ask, “Why?”
For the first time in my life — this last year has been a weird year — I came to a point where I was yelling at God, “Why is this happening to me.” I mean, I don’t understand. But you know what, tribulation and adversity let you know immediately who your friends are. I went through a lot of crap in the last year that was of biblical proportions. I lost everything in my life from a really good con artist.
What is going on? The sky is falling.
I got really confused for a while about why. Look, I never talked back to my parents. I make mistakes all the time but I have never been intentionally cruel to anyone in my entire life. Ever. I was left asking why. But then I thought, no one is immune to this. You are not immune to it. You just have to roll with the punches and go. I am not supposed to understand it. But I think that I will. Eventually, you’ll go, “Oh, alright.”
© Steve Beard and Thunderstruck Media Syndicate. This interview originally appeared in the March/April 2006 of Risen Magazine.
• “Some of the nicest people I have ever met were in bars and absolutely some of the meanest people I have ever met were in church. That’s sad. But then again, I don’t understand church. I’m into God.”
• “It took me a long time to figure out — and I did figure it out — that it certainly is easier to be a more effective human being if you are not doing drugs. That was great reality.”
• “I have a great job that I love, but you know what? It is no more interesting than anyone else’s job or their life. I have had a pretty interesting life because I have gone everywhere and done everything and I have never stopped. I can’t stop.”
• “I feel like I’m terminally bored and terminally overly stimulated at the same
time. Every single life is fascinating, and every single one is different. And that’s
from someone who doesn’t know why the hell we’re here anyway.”
• “When you stand in reflection of God, I think that God is love and we are a portion of love, each one of us. But I think about this all the time. That is what we’re supposed to be. I cannot understand one person saying something mean or cruel to another person for whatever reason—because they’re mad, because they’re drunk, because whatever.”
• “Who on earth has ever called somebody else ugly? I think about that four-letter word all the time. Who would say that to somebody else? It’s not true. Nobody’s ugly. When you find out about somebody’s soul, or soullessness, they can become ugly immediately, but no one is physically ugly. Not one person.”
• “Kindness is the most beautiful thing in the world to me. And it’s exactly what should happen—it shouldn’t be an exception. It shouldn’t be anything, it should just be.”