Chris O’Donnell: It’s funny — that’s the first thing I thought about when I got to the first day of filming, because the first scene, I’m there barbecuing with my wife, and the dog comes and tucks in this baby and goes into his house, and it was the producer’s sleeping baby and this dog, and I was like, “We’re gonna be here forever. This is nuts.” And sure enough, they say “action,” and this dog grabs the blanket, tucks it in, goes to its spot, and sits down. And I’m sitting there, going, “Oh God, we gotta finish this scene.” I learned real quick that you gotta be ready, because as soon as the dog does a good take, you’re probably moving on. So be prepared.
IH: When you first found the script, were you concerned about the fact that, no matter what you do in this film, you’re going to be overshadowed by animals?
CO: Absolutely. But I did this for a very particular reason. I’ve got five kids. I go see these kids’ movies all the time, and not everything I do is appropriate for my kids to see, and I wanted to do something fun for them. It was not a huge commitment; I was only working on this thing for a few weeks, so I just thought it would be fun. I’m the kind of guy who will sit and watch The Dog Whisperer and Cesar Milan on Animal Planet. I’m fascinated by people that can communicate with dogs that way and get them to behave in a certain way, and this was unbelievable. This dog was… It was just insane. And it wasn’t just the one handler; they had a group of them, and he would respond to any of them. They would go through the routine. Some of them were more elaborate, like they obviously had been practicing how to get the dog to grab the blanket and tuck in the dog, but then something would arise, like, “Could we get the dog to do this?” “Yeah, we can do that. Just give me a couple of minutes.” And you watch, and they start running this dog through its paces, and it’s all a reward system thing, but sure enough, it does it, and it’s unbelievable. Holding a toothpick in its mouth — you gotta be kidding me! It’s crazy!
IH: Was it fun?
CO: Absolutely. And Brad Peyton is terrific to work with. This guy is really talented. He’s young, and I was just blown away – this is a big movie to be taking on, and he’s real confident, handled himself well, was real specific. The crew really liked him because he was a mellow guy but knew what he wanted and was real consistent and patient and good at telling a story. I did these scenes and I was watching the film, I’m talking to Diggs, and he’s in his kennel or whatever… I’m looking at the reactions he got out of this dog and I’m thinking, “How in the hell did he get these right reactions?” And not only that, he recognized it and put them in the right places. So much of the movie is CGI, but that stuff is not, and he knew what he needed and he got it, and it was pretty amazing to see.
IH: Brad paid you an interesting compliment at yesterday’s press conference; he looked forward to the days you were there because you could go home early because everything went smoothly while you were there, especially with the scenes with the dogs.
CO: I’m just above the dogs, I gotcha. No, it’s true for me — I only had a couple of scenes where I was interacting with a human being, but those were the quicker scenes.
CO: No, I liken it to when I was working with [Al] Pacino on Scent of a Woman. I really wanted to stay out of his way because he’s working and I didn’t want to get in his space. I did get my time with him and some pleasantries and that sort of thing, but otherwise he was all business and work, and this is how Diggs was. It’s true, though — it’s like a seeing eye dog, or a bomb squad dog — you don’t mess with those dogs. If they say, “Go pet the dog,” go pet the dog, but otherwise, stay out of the way. I wasn’t petting Pacino or anything.
IH: You had five kids?
CO: It’s true.
IH: Any pets?
CO: We do! We’ve got a little black Lab named Kimmy, and I think we’ve got four or five goldfish; I’m not sure because they don’t really last that long.
IH: What’s the story with Kimmy?
CO: She’s a great dog. I got her when she was two. She was a seeing eye dog who had a skin condition and didn’t get placed, so we were lucky enough to get her and she’s an amazing dog, but it’s funny because most dogs have the routine and they go around the house and chase balls and squirrels and keep themselves busy. She just wants to be with me. So when I’m home, she stares at me like, “What do you want to do?” It’s like having a houseguest that you have to constantly entertain. She’s always looking at me. Right now, my wife and kids are out of town, so it’s just the dog and I, and I get in bed and she just sits by my bed looking at me. I’m like, “Go to bed, go lie down,” and she’s the greatest dog, so she will go lie down, but if I make an abrupt turn in bed or something, she gets back up and just sits there, like, “Do you need me? Is everything okay? Can I get you anything?” Which is actually the relaxed version. When we first got her, she would stop me at corners and lean in to me like she thought I was blind. I could take her anywhere. I didn’t even put her on a leash. I could walk through a crowd of people and she just would stay right next to me. She’s so funny because she just wants to curl up at your feet, so when you get in a car or something, she doesn’t want to be on the seat — she wants to be down by your feet, curled up. It’s very funny. She’s cute. Really sweet dog.
IH: You mention wanting to do a film that your kids could enjoy as well. Sometimes when you say “family film,” it’s viewed as a pejorative label. Was there something about this that made you think you could endure it? This seems like a movie that kids will love but the parents won’t mind being there, but they’re not all that way.
CO: No, they’re not. And believe me, I’ve sat through just about everything that’s come out in the last few years. If it hadn’t been in a theater, I’ve had to watch it at home. There’s even been ones that, when the popcorn and the slushie runs out, the kids want to leave. Then you really know that’s a bad movie. Thankfully, they show these trailers and there’s been a couple lately that even the kids are like, “I don’t wanna see that,” and I’m like, “Yes! It’s another one we don’t have to go see.” Thankfully, we live in Los Angeles so we don’t have a lot of rainy days where you’re looking for the movie activity. I mean, you live in Chicago, you’re marking the calendar for Toy Story to come out, and all these different movies, like, okay, I’m safe that weekend. It was a good script, and Warner Brothers…I had worked with them before. I had a feeling they had a pretty good idea of what they were doing with this. I hadn’t worked with Brad before, but once I got there and spent a little time with him, I knew they were on the right track. I was really just hoping it would be good. Not any certainty, obviously, but I wanted to do something my kids and I could go see together.
IH: What’s the age range of your children?
CO: Ten, nine, seven, four, and two.
IH: Could you talk about NCIS: Los Angeles? Have you started shooting the second season, which is set to premiere this fall?
CO: We just started, yeah.
IH: What’s happening with your character this season? Is he going to find out where he’s from?
CO: I have no idea. I only read the first episode. Actually, I just started reading the second episode. We start that on Tuesday. Shane Brennan, who writes the show, is pretty good about stringing along little plots and planting little seeds of things that are going to happen in the future, but if I sit down, he’ll start to tell me further in advance where he’s going with things and what’s going to happen. Part of me doesn’t like to know. I think it’s fun every week to get that script. It’s like opening a present, and I love to read what’s next and where they’re going with it, and learning about my character that I didn’t know before. It’s a different experience, in that respect, than making films. And of course, if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you.
IH: What’s the best thing about doing TV versus films? You’ve been doing films since you were a kid. Is it more regimented?
CO: The best thing for me, personally, is that I’m here in Los Angeles because I have five kids. They’re at that age where I think it’s really important for them to be here and have some consistency, so that’s the best thing for me [because films are made] all over the place. Also, it gives you a sense of peace of mind. I’ve never had a steady job. Even when I did Scent of a Woman and Batman, I was like, am I ever going to work again? What’s my next job gonna be? And this one, you start to get into a routine. It’s very strange to have any sense of job security in this business. At least for the time being, we’ve got a little sense of that so that’s really nice, because I got a lot of tuition bills to pay here. But it is a totally different experience — the amount of pages we do every day and the pace we work at is mind-boggling, and I think there’s so much I learned from making films that I think is so valuable in making a TV show, and the experience I’ve gotten…and I think going back to films, there’s so much I’ve learned from TV. I think it’s made me a more well-rounded actor and much more confident at what I’m doing and how to make things work and make scenes work because we were doing so much stuff on the fly. Scripts get written and they have a lot of cooks in the kitchen approving scripts and a lot of notes, and it comes out and we’re the ones that have to make it work and make it sound right. So you’re scrambling to make scenes work and break down the scene on the spot and figure out how to make it work and what needs to be changed and what isn’t right and what is right. It’s like on-the-spot movie making, in a very small way. But I think I’m learning a lot, in that respect, and maybe I’ll use it in the future.
IH: How did you start acting?
CO: I was 14. I was doing commercials and that sort of thing in Chicago. Mainly I just wanted to be on TV. I thought, “I can do that.” They were doing it in Chicago. My first film I did right before I went to Boston College, which was Men Don’t Leave, the summer before my freshman year, first semester. That was a Paul Brickman movie I did with Jessica Lange. Then I went to BC. I continued to be a business major because I thought, “Well, I got this part in this movie, but what are the chances that this actually works out?” And even though I’d love to do this, I was just more of a realist at the time. I thought I’d better be prepared in case this doesn’t work out. And then I just continued to evolve.
IH: No acting classes?
CO: No. When I was at school, it was funny — my agents were like, “You should do something to keep yourself acting,” and I was like, “I wanna be in college and have fun.” And they said, “Well, just to keep yourself in the game,” so I said, “All right.” So I went to some class and they hooked me up with some place in Cambridge, and it was just goofy. They had these people there and I was like, “What? This is not what we did on the set! I know that you don’t have to do this stuff, because we had a great experience, and it was really dramatic,” so I wasn’t into that. But I liked the guy who was teaching the class.
IH: Do you recall who that was?
CO: Peter Kelley. I still work with him to this day. That was probably 15, 20 years ago. I worked with him for a long time and then I stopped for a while, and then I work with him again now because I think he’s got really good ideas and he helps me out, as far as preparing. It’s like having a swing coach for golf. I remember when I was starting, I was like, “Is it cheating to have someone to work with?” And then I worked on Scent of a Woman and I was listening to Pacino in his dressing room, he had guys in there every day! He was working on scenes and I would be like, “Oh my God, we’re doing that scene today?” Then I’d look at the schedule, and be like, “That’s next week!” And I realized that’s what I do now on the TV show because I have to. I cannot do this many pages without preparing days in advance. So Peter [Cambor] will come by, and we’ll run scenes and work on things, and then he’s gone and I do it.
IH: Do you have a business degree?
CO: I do.
IH: Have you run into Pacino since then?
CO: Yeah, I run into him at a lot of awards things, usually him getting an award and me talking about him. He’s got twins now that are about the same age as one of my kids, I can’t remember which one. We ran into each other at a children’s shoe store in Santa Monica, which was surreal. We were shopping for shoes for kids the same age. Here I was with this kid and, like, how did this happen?
IH: You mentioned having worked with Warner Brothers before, and you did have a particular outfit you were wearing [Robin of Batman & Robin]. Do you try it on every so often?
CO: I still have it. It takes a lot of space. I’ve never taken it out of the box. It’s in this massive crate. It’s in storage, not in my house, but I had it at the house at one point and my kids were like, “Can we see it?” And it’s all bolted up and drilled, and I don’t even know why I asked for the thing. I’m just like, “I want it. Can I have it? I gotta have it!” They’re like, “Okay.” So I get the power drill out, and I had to charge the battery because it was dead, and I’m drilling, my kids, and it’s like Geraldo opening Al Capone’s tomb, drilling this thing, and they open it and are just sitting there, staring at it. They just couldn’t get over it. We’re about to move into a new house the next six months, and maybe when we get it back we’ll goof around with it, play with it or something. I got a few of the toys and they think that’s pretty cool.
IH: George Clooney sometimes jokes about almost killing the Batman franchise.
CO: Oh my God. We did a pretty good… Thank God for Chris Nolan and those guys for reviving it. But that was all greed. They’d always done those films three or four years apart. I think Returns got a little too dark, and people really responded to the first one, Batman Forever — it was a good film — and let that simmer for four years, whet people’s appetite for it, make sure we got a good script that works, and Warner Brothers said, “We gotta have it now,” and they jammed ahead. They didn’t have a script on and they just threw money at it and thought, “It’ll come together,” and it wasn’t. It was a disaster. And everyone is like, “What was Schwarzenegger like?” I was never onscreen with him at the same time. We’re in scenes together, but not a single time with Arnold. I know Arnold from the days and days of publicity together, and he lives in the same town I live in. I’ve seen him around. But it was always his double or it was my double, or it was something different. It was just a bizarre way to make a film.
IH: When did you start shooting for NCIS: Los Angeles‘s second season, and what’s going on right now?
CO: We started a week and a half ago, so Monday we finished the first episode and start the next one on Tuesday. To be honest with you, I don’t know what they’ve released as far as what’s happened, so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut.
IH: And you have a seven-year contract?
CO: Thirty-two years. I went for the long one. [Laughs] I got an opt-out after 32 months, but I have a player’s option. I don’t know, probably six years, I guess. Six and a half?
IH: And you’re in a film called A Little Help…
CO: Yes! I did do that! I don’t know if it ever got distributed.
IH: It’s going to festivals right now.
CO: Jenna Fischer, the girl from The Office, is in it. And Michael Weithorn directed it… He created The King of Queens. Really nice guy. It’s a small part, but I have some great scenes with Jenna. I won’t get into the details.
IH: Is it a comedy?
CO: Maybe a dark comedy, in some respects, but no, I wouldn’t call it a comedy necessarily. Some pretty juicy scenes before the thing ends, and that’s about it.
IH: I always thought it was so cool that you bought a bed from the LA Four Seasons Hotel after you got married.
CO: I think I was the first person to do that. They didn’t sell those things, and then when I did it, it was in the press everywhere — the news in Chicago — when I did it. I’ll never forget. And now it’s in the gift shop. Now you can get it. But I remember going to all the junkets there, and I had never seen a nice hotel in my life, and suddenly I’m doing these films and they put me up in the Four Seasons Hotel, and I’m a big shot here, and I was like, “That’s the best bed I ever slept in.” So I got one. And I almost couldn’t get it up in my place in Chicago.
IH: Is it still in Chicago?
CO: No. We sold Chicago. It’s no longer the A-bed. It’s been demoted to the guest room. Five kids will do that to a bed.