Mark Harmon is the reigning king of drama on television. With NCIS in its 9th season and NCIS currently the number one drama on television, it is good to be Mark Harmon. It is fascinating that a man who is busily working on such a high profile show would find the time to jump into a made-for-TV film on another network. To answer what lured him to undertake such a challenge, Mark talked with press in a recent conference call and shed a bit of light on the appeal of CERTAIN PREY.
What is it about Lucas Davenport in John Sandford’s book “Certain Prey” that attracted you to the role?
MARK: Well, he’s an interesting guy. He’s a very successful businessman who dresses nice and drives nice cars and chases the ladies, and yet what he likes more than any of it is just being a cop — and then there’s the other side of it which is [the darkness]. I mean he’s as nasty as anybody he’s chasing. So that’s fun to play. There’s a darkness to that and to defining that character. Then certainly John Sandford gives so much information about that over the course of these 22 novels that it’s a field-day for an actor, so much to lean on and to know about a character you’re trying to portray. I just knew, more than any of it, that I want to do it right — and to do that you jump off and you take an opportunity to develop a project, and you do that based on the book. I think collectively when we were all sitting in a room a couple years ago talking about which direction to head in this I think straight across the board we targeted CERTAIN PREY as the place to start. That doesn’t mean there won’t be more on the backside of that. But, for right now, to jump off in this direction with this character and to try to just be honest with the material was the target of what we were trying to do.
Did you notice any similarities between Lucas Davenport in CERTAIN PREY and your role as Jethro Gibbs on NCIS, and do you know if there are plans for more John Sandford films?
MARK: I was a fan of John Sandford’s going back into the ‘80s. I’ve read his books and when the opportunity came to meet with people who had the rights to the stories I was excited by it, just because I like this author and I admire this character. I think there are certainly similarities, but they’re very different people to me. Otherwise, the attraction as an actor to play something different is always there. But it’s not so far outside the box that it’s hopefully shocking unbelievable. I mean Davenport’s a very different guy than Gibbs certainly. But I just hope we honored the book and the material and did it right. And there’s opportunities here obviously because this is the tenth of 22 books so far written about this character and this piece, and USA [Network’s] been a great partner. And together we’re kind of putting our foot in the water here to see whether it can work.
Do you think Lucas Davenport and Gibbs would actually get along?
MARK: I think there’s a part of them that would totally understand each other. But I think most of it would have to be involved in the work part. I think on a personal level they’re total opposites. I mean, what they enjoy and don’t enjoy are very, very different away from the job. Jobwise, there’s an arc to the way they get it done that is familiar to me from playing Gibbs, though I think in many ways Davenport can be as nasty as the people he’s chasing.
Since you played many cop roles over the years, in what ways did Lucas Davenport give you something new as a character?
MARK: Oh, I’ve never played a guy like him before. I mean just physically, I think Sandford does such a great job of setting that up. And I have the advantage of knowing his background, having read all the books. But where we pick up this story is ten novels in. From the way he dresses to the cars he drives to what he is personally, it’s all very different from what he is as a cop. And then the other personal side of that is almost the personal path he goes on his own to try to solve these things, to try to push through these cases. He’s a driving force and yet I think all these characters in these books are every bit as important as his character. And we tried to put that together and cast that accordingly, that these will be characters that should we do more than just one will continue on. But, for me, I’m looking to play something certainly somewhat different than what I’m doing on the series but not so much different that it’s blaringly shocking. Actors are attracted to characters they want to play, and that was true to me with Davenport. Whether I pulled it off or not is going to be up to you when you see it.
Since CERTAIN PREY is later on in the series of books can you talk about the decision to introduce Davenport with this project?
MARK: Well, it just was in a room with five or six people sitting there talking about the whole series of books and talking about where do you start. Certainly some of the earlier books have Davenport as a blue shirt, and it would also drive him younger. And we were trying to jump off here directionally also story-wise with something that wouldn’t conclude in a one-movie format, something that would continue on. And that’s there also you have to give credit to USA [Network] because that’s not something that movie-wise is normally done where you kind of leave it open-ended and you let people know that this has the potential for continuation to it, that really the end of the movie is just the start of the movie.
CERTAIN PREY finds Lucas at an interesting point because he’s between romances. He’s also a little bit more self-aware than he started and now very much in the upper echelon. It was interesting because in this book Davenport is really surrounded by strong women, both heroines and villains, and it really is a case where the spotlight is dominated by these strong female characters. As the star and executive producer, how you felt about that. Did you find it risky or did you think that was part of the appealing quality of this book?
MARK: You sound like you were in the room on that first meeting, and I say that respectfully because the report’s certainly in this material — And you’ll see it. It’s a big part of the plot obviously. But I think more than that – I mean this provided certain problems for a screenplay just because the first quarter of this book is setting up the two gals and setting them up well. And Davenport – I mean, you as a reader and reading the novels, you don’t need to know about Davenport because you’ve read the previous nine. This was so glaringly, the place to start in the room. People looked at this, looked at the two female lead characters and said for a lot of reasons this is the place we want to start. And should this get a chance to do another then hopefully you get the opportunity to follow Clara and not in a linear fashion like Sandford did because that was four novels later. But, ideally, I mean you can pick up “Buried Prey” and you can read that and you can put that at any place in this line of books and it works the same for a reader. And we tried very hard to honor the material and honor the author in doing this. And so I hope we pulled that off. And someone like you will be the biggest judge because you know it as well as you do.
How would you describe Lucas’s relationship with the villains Clara and Carmel in CERTAIN PREY?
MARK: Adversarial. I mean, part of what drew the appeal too, is you’ve got two really terrific female bad guys here. And casting those people and finding the right people to play those people was part of that. But in a day and an age when those kind of roles are rare this project had two of them — and one of them will continue. One of them continues into other books. So I think the setup for this is the bookend novel to this – John Sandford actually wrote four novels distant from where we would go if we had the opportunity to do a second one, but this is a continuing story. And many of these characters will continue from book to book.
It seemed interesting how hands-off John Sandford was about this. Would you have liked him to have been a part of the project?
MARK: I’d like to meet him. I think that’s just a common interest. I mean I’ve read these books for a lot of years and admired the character and admired the author. And then as an actor you develop something and you’re in the room and you’re really just going on the books on and some cases it’s very pure. Everybody has a different interpretation. It’s one of the great things about reading is everybody has a different idea. And certainly when you start casting people to put to these characters that you’ve spent a lot of time with I think most actors would be excited by the opportunity to try to play someone like Davenport. As an actor, I don’t know what he’s making a parallel between Bundy and Davenport. I don’t know. That’s kind of weird. But listen. I hope we from the beginning we went in trying to honor the material. We were trying to do it right. And I hope we pulled it off. We’ll see.
Did you have to go through any special preparation to play Lucas Davenport?
MARK: Well, we had to grow my hair as long as it could be given the schedule on NCIS. So we cheated a little bit at the end of last year. But aside from that, I’m a fan of the book and certainly a fan of the character because of that. But we so tried to be not only respectable but honest with the material in the book, and we tried to do that right up front. That was a walking order so to speak. And I hope we did that. I just think it’s a different role and certainly one I enjoyed playing. Whether we do more of these or not, I don’t know yet. But right now I feel good about the experience.
Will we get to see any of Davenport’s fear of flying? It’s kind of a fun vulnerability for what is otherwise such a tough guy kind of character.
MARK: It’s interesting, to me, because you’re picking on things that are all so important to the storytelling. And they’re all there. Every one of them is there. So that makes me feel good. You know the material. And we hit all those. And whether we hit them enough or the way you perceived, that’s part of the fun of trying to take this and make a movie out of it where before everybody’s reading it and has their own opinion.
Do you think that USA Network is a good home for CERTAIN PREY because USA Network viewers are already really comfortable seeing you there?
MARK: I see it actually twofold. I think that’s part of it. I mean that in many ways is why USA [Network] has been a great partner in this. They haven’t done this since really ’05. This is their first step, in some ways, a new direction should it work. I’m thankful to be part of that, and they’ve been great partners. It doesn’t take much to look at what they do with NCIS on USA [Network] and the marathons to realize that this on top of that is potentially a pretty smart business move that you run this after a marathon. Now, that’s all the positive side of it. The negative side could potentially be that this is a very different character and intended to be so. So I see risk in both directions. And at the same time it made sense to me at the time to try to develop this in hopes that someday you could do a movie this at a time when nobody’s getting anything done, nobody in any direction. So the fact that USA [Network] was willing to pull the trigger on this and with me in the role and with the idea of should this work doing more is interesting. I don’t know with my schedule at the moment how many of these I can do a year. I mean we did this in a 20-day schedule, and that was 20 days of a basically 40-day hiatus. So it gets relatively busy. But I think if the decks were clear the formula for this would probably be four a year if you had that. But I don’t have that at the moment.
Do you think Davenport is more like Gibbs on NCIS, or more like Dexter?
MARK: Wow, tough question. Yeah, you know, I can only probably answer that in a general way because actors look at opportunities to play different characters based on things that stretch them normally, and this stretched me. But I think going in that’s the reason you get interested in it because you’re doing something that you haven’t done before and you’re walking a path that you hopefully have a lot of help on with other people there to keep you on line. I hope it worked. More than any of it I hope it worked. And if it did work there’ll be more of these. But if it didn’t work there that’s the other part of it.
We hear a lot of actors who have these literary properties that they always dream one day of turning into a TV show, series or movie or something. But here’s a case where you pulled the trigger and rounded up the troops to do it. What was it that really motivated you to do that, to make it happen especially in a time when so many the networks at least have pretty much sadly abandoned the TV movie format?
MARK: In this case, I’m glad that it’s USA [Network] and in some ways happy to be separate from network that way. This is a project in many ways that has the benefit of being a different kind of film on cable than it would network. And that’s good. Whether they do or don’t do these kind of projects anymore, I don’t know. I just know that I was a fan of this material prior to getting a chance to develop or at least develop in partnership with other people. And I’m fortunate because I think the people that I had the opportunity to work with on this were good at what they do. I think we all have ideas of things you want to do and play, and maybe the game as an actor all along is to hopefully someday get in a position where you can play the roles you want to play versus the ones you have to play. This is certainly 2-1/2 years ago when this idea first came about and we started developing this toward hopefully getting a chance to do it, it was one idea. And then last April, all of a sudden they said, “Hey let’s do it.” Then guess what, you’ve got to go off and do it, and that’s a different thing. That’s maybe not resting as much as you should on your hiatus and taking the opportunity to try to work really hard again and on a different direction on something else. And more than any of it I hope it works. And if it does work then there’s reason to talk about this having a foothold and doing more. But it was designed in kind of an exciting way I think. I think potentially both for the people involved in front of the camera and behind and certainly for USA [Network] as a network it is really potentially a stepping-off point should it work, to do others.
As executive producer, how protective were you in terms of translating this character to screen?
MARK: Well, there was a gathering of people on this show who all read the books and all were fans of the material and all had done their homework. So my concern for the protection of this character was probably an equal concern with everybody else. There were a lot of people there to keep me in line, and then if I had questions there were certainly people there that could answer them or give an opinion. We all came to this in kind of the same manner. Michael Jaffe and Howard Braunstein and myself, I mean we all came to this as fans of the book. And then it was about getting USA [Network] on board. And they were fans as well and certainly fans in some direction of NCIS and what that has done on that network. So you had a partnership that potentially is exciting. Whether this goes on from here or not, I don’t know. But at least at a time when so few things are getting done an opportunity to actually develop this and be on a [level to work with] the material and the author and try to get a script from that that both tells the story and is dynamic enough to be like the books are as a page-turner where you’re on a ride for a couple of hours and from that ride want to continue on and see the next one. That was the intent. And I hope we pulled it off. We’ll see.
Do you feel this project sort of lightened-up some of the darkness of the material to make it a little more friendly for a Sunday night TV movie?
MARK: I’d say it’s more noir. It’s very stylistic. It doesn’t look like a TV movie. It’s not intended to. And we were specific about that and departed on that so really terrific director of photography and had very specific ideas of lighting and what we were trying to do here. And hopefully people will enjoy it.
Being on NCIS for so long how do you keep things from becoming routine for you?
MARK: Well it’s just never happened. I mean we this role originally attracted me because it was about character and there was humor. And yeah there was a case but the case wasn’t what drove the series. And I think that’s still true. And you’ve got a gathering of actors on this show who all like each other. And we all are continually challenged. This show continues to grow. And it continues to do better now than it did even last year. We’re doing better now. And so obviously we’re doing something right. But it’s our job to try to keep it there to try to keep raising the bar. And really from the beginning on this show that hasn’t changed. It’s always been about the work. In the beginning when we weren’t a hit and we were kind of in the midline somewhere there what moved us along the line was just concentrating on the work to try to get a handle on what we were doing, try to figure out a way to do this better every day. And that continues. There’s nobody bored here. There’s nobody phoning it in. And that’s – that goes in front of the camera and behind the camera. And that makes this rare I think for all of us.
Some of the Gibbs things, the back of the head slaps, the way he sneaks up behind people, the caffeine addiction, the thing for redheads, kissing Abby on the forehead when she does good work, did those all originate in the script and in a writer’s imagination or did you have a hand in any of them?
MARK: I think an honest answer to that in all directions for all characters on this show, so much of what we do is based on trust. We’ve worked together for a long time. And it’s one of the great treats of this show to block a rehearsal in general terms with actors that have been there over 200 episodes. And you trust. You trust people jumping off in different directions to try to mine things that may or may not work. And that’s how we work there. That’s how we’ve always worked there. So the answer to your question is that some of those things were scripted and some of them weren’t. And yet some of them stuck and some of them didn’t. But it really brings the format to what makes this show different. I mean we all are open. We all speak our mind. We all team up to get this done. And I could take any episode and any direction and point to numerous points in the episode that came from wherever they came is not as important as that they were. So that’s how we work.
As for NCIS if Abby, McGee and Tony and Ziva were to break Rule 12 which is never date a coworker how would Gibbs react?
MARK: He’d probably react the way most people react on the job site which is thinking it’s not a good idea for a million reasons. And he knows that because he’s been there as long as he has. And it’s also personal with him to some degree. He cares about them being able to do the job. And should they break those rules which people will I don’t think that would be as surprising to him as it would be a concern about how they did their job.
It seems like we’re on the cusp of a two-part episode featuring your son where Gibbs is prompted to look back on his earlier days in NCIS. Can you preview what the catalyst is for this – these plans?
MARK: Yeah. There’s a plane crash and a huge crime scene and investigation that takes part in trying to identify those remains and in some cases remains not being what they were supposed to be so that the case kind of births with that. And then a couple of the flashbacks it’s not so much featured as it forces Gibbs to remember a couple of things from his past and connects him towards this current case.
MARK: Well, no, they’re not so much. As always on this show so much of what we do and certainly what we do when we do the flashback stuff, it’s meant to give more definition of the characters and to answer some of the questions people have.
And there’ll be some of that. But really this more than that is about stretching this cast. And that’s what our writers keep doing regularly on this show. And then the – that’s a two-parter that next week and the week after. And then the third week beyond that which was November, the month of November would be the return of Robert Wagner as DiNozzo’s dad. We all look forward to that too so.
To discover the charismatic charm of Mark Harmon in both his captivating roles, be sure to tune in to see CERTAIN PREY when it re-airs on November 19th on USA Network, and on NCIS which airs Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. on CBS.
“Mark Harmon Gives NCIS Fans a Reason to Watch CERTAIN PREY”