In the CBS drama’s Season 12 finale, Smith’s Nell Jones made the decision to not officially sign on as the “new Hetty”/Operations Manager, but instead join partner Eric Beale on an adventure to Tokyo, to head up his tech venture. But before driving off into the sunset, Nell briefly reunited with long-MIA Hetty herself, in costar Linda Hunt’s first on-set appearance of the season.
With NCIS: LA bidding adieu to both her and scene partner Barrett Foa, Smith — who joined the show early in Season 2 — spoke with TVLine exclusively about that emotional if bittersweet Nell/Hetty reunion, being an inspiration to smart girls, and what’s next for her as a legit storyteller herself.
TVLINE | How did you learn that this would be your swan song, and what was your initial reaction?
Well, I think it’s complicated. I mean, I think that I’ve been ready for my next chapter for a while now, in whatever form it will take. But it’s surely to be centered around storytelling. I hesitate to be part of the “cliché actress” calling herself a storyteller, but I really am one. I’m a writer. I’m a director. We are developing television currently. We have another indie in the works. I want to tell compelling stories, poignant stories that offer an escape and chance of reflection for the viewer, so that’s where my focus is.
TVLINE | But as far as Nell leaving, I for one was quite surprised, because I felt like this season was such a journey for the character. They’d really been shaping her to assume this position of authority.
It’s so true. I absolutely loved Nell’s journey this season. She really got to stand in her power. She really found her voice, and as a young woman it was empowering to play that side of the scene. Nell, I think, is a natural leader, and I really do think her strength as a leader is her vulnerability. I think that Nell has empathy for all players involved in the story. She can see multiple sides of the story. She’s a person that’s not only intelligent but she has emotional intelligence, and that has been such a gift for me as an actor to play. I’ve just loved her evolution, really. She started as a sidekick and she really, quite effectively, was the boss this year, and I had a fantastic time playing it.
TVLINE | Kilbride (played by Gerald McRaney) recently spoke to her unique strengths, saying to “stop asking yourself what would Hetty do” and just be Nell.
And that really is such a necessary message. There’s a scene that I absolutely love with Miguel Ferrer, my dear Miguel, from a while back, and it was a similar sort of scene where he was trying to instill confidence in her as a leader. I actually have the quote: Miguel’s character, Granger, says to Nell, “Never belittle yourself or your accomplishments. You deserve the respect you’ve gotten. You’ve earned it.” I remember feeling so choked up in that scene, and I’ll get choked up now thinking about it.
Kilbride, similarly to Granger, has a real kind of affection for Nell and saw that potential in Nell. He wanted to foster her confidence in herself, and it was very moving to play those scenes. I feel like as a young woman we are often in a position where we may doubt ourselves just because of the social climate, but in the end I think it’s about trusting yourself. Nell really grew into a person who started trusting herself and making decisions for her, rather than trying to please. I’m a natural-born people pleasure, and I think Nell is, too. High-functioning overachievers always are. So, I think Nell’s decision at the close of the season really is her ultimately finding her voice and really having agency over her future and what it is she wants to do.
I know how difficult that is. It is reflective of my own journey and my own life. So, to be able to step forward and say, “You know what, this is the path I want to take now and I’ll potentially disappoint people while doing it, I commend Nell for her bravery in that.
TVLINE | What did it mean to you have Linda Hunt back for one final scene with you?
Oh, my God…. My heart. Linda is just a magical creature. To have her back was really quite emotional. She was essentially sidelined by the pandemic, as you could imagine, so to even see her in the flesh, let alone share a scene with her—
TVLINE | And a hug.
And a hug, come onnnn! Chef’s kiss, you know? And the scene is really a bittersweet reunion. Nell really wants nothing more than to stay and catch up with her mentor, but she can’t. So, it’s kind of this “goodbye for now” scene.
TVLINE | [Showrunner] Scott [Gemmill] told me that Linda was thrilled to be back on set.
She was like a kid in a candy shop. She was glowing. She was crackling. She was so alive in the scene. Whenever I’m in a scene with Linda, I’m a student. She really is such a master of the craft, and I’m a little sponge. I’m soaking it all up, and really, truly watching her work has been the most educational process for me. I just feel like truly I’ve been attending the MasterClass with one of the best, one of the greats, and I’m so grateful for my friendship with her as well. She’s my bud. She texts me lots of emojis.
TVLINE | You once told me about how you would go to lunch and you’d get all these Hollywood stories, including about her “Mary Tyler Moore moment” when she first went to live in New York….
My God, she dropped that story on me right before a walk-and-talk where I had tons of technical jargon, and I remember I was welling up just at the image of 16 or 18-year-old Linda Hunt getting into a cab and drinking in the big city and the possibilities that it held for her. She’s such a gift.
TVLINE | How nervous were you to shave Barrett’s mustache?
I knew we only had one take and I knew it had to be good. My mom is a hairdresser and I watched her kind of do all of that kind of beard shaping for years, so I just kind of channeled my mom. I knew I needed a steady hand, and I just went for it. But I think he was a little nervous.
TVLINE | Would you like to be a part of Episode 300 (airing late next season), if asked?
TVLINE | What’s next for you?
Like I said, storytelling. We just released our first children’s book, Hugo and the Impossible Thing, which is inspired by our canine son Hugo. Chris [Gabriel] — my partner, my other half, my creative partner — and I wrote the book about our dog who recovered from a really life-threatening illness. It was an inoperable brain tumor that most everyone told us would be impossible to beat. But through the help of some truly brilliant doctors and Hugo’s own determination, he made it to the other side and he lived a full life. It was this miracle that we witnessed, and we knew we needed to pass on Hugo’s message and let it inspire others.
I think oftentimes challenges in life are labeled as “impossible” when in reality they’re just extremely difficult. Of course, yes, certain things are impossible — I’m not going to be 6-foot-2 any time soon — but most of the time an obstacle or a challenge is just something we have to work our way around. So, we created the metaphor of the impossible thing. It’s out in the world now.
TVLINE | Lastly, any message for the fans?
Oh, for sure. Ultimately, I could say something profound but I just want to say thank you. Thank you for respecting Nell. Thank you for embracing Nell, for embracing her intelligence. I’ve always been cast as kind of the “funny friend,” the quirky turkey. I was the nurse in Romeo & Juliet when I auditioned for Juliet in high school. But with Nell, I really got to play so much more, and I am just so grateful to have been able to play the “smart girl,” quite frankly.
Someone shared a really touching story with me not long ago, actually. I was standing in line at a coffee shop in New York, and someone behind me asked, “Are you Nell Jones from NCIS: LA?” I kind of winced, afraid to turn around — I know native New Yorkers, and was thinking, “What did I do wrong? Did I accidentally cut the line or not cover my mouth when I sneezed?” So, I turned around to face this person and they proceeded to tell me about their 12-year-old daughter who wasn’t like the other girls in her class. She was interested in science and forensics and computers. This woman told me that a lot of times as a mother, she didn’t know what to do with her daughter, and that Nell and the character that I played for the last 10 years had helped her daughter to find some confidence in who she was and what she wanted to be.
So, if my time at NCIS: LA helped a young girl to see the possibility in pursuing a career in intelligence or technology… visibility is everything. If the image of Nell Jones as the brightest bulb in the room can instill confidence in a 12-year-old girl and affect her future, I mean, that’s the ultimate win. That’s it. That’s truly more than I ever could have asked for.