For actor Vanessa Lachey, starring in a Hawaii-based television show is more than just a “dream job” in a “dream place.” While she is not originally from Hawaii, it’s a homecoming of sorts — and a chance at redemption.
“I did my very first pilot here. It was called ‘The Break,’” said Lachey, who stars as NCIS special agent Jane Tennant in “NCIS: Hawai‘i,” the latest major network show to be set in Hawaii. “It was this massive pilot and it didn’t go (wasn’t picked up), and I was TERRIBLE in it! I was so bad. It was like ‘Blue Crush’ meets ‘Hawaii Five-0’ before the new ‘Hawaii Five-0’ came out.
“Ian Anthony Dale (later a star in ‘Five-0’) was in it with me. We were cops together, and when I got this job, he said it best. He said, ‘Vanessa, the islands have called you back.’ And that is exactly what they did.”
Whether it’s a newcomer to the islands or a frequent visitor, the cast and creators of the new show seem to already have a special attachment to Hawaii and are happy to promote its unique qualities. They plan to explore the culture of the islands while also providing thrilling plot lines.
“We are trying constantly to make it feel like it is ‘of’ this place, rather than just being ‘in’ this place,” said Jan Nash, one of three co-creators and executive producers of the show. “We’re going to present (Hawaii) as authentically as we can, to try to really have this feel like a show that could only be in Hawaii.”
The idea for “NCIS: Hawai‘i” first sprouted when Nash and co-creator Chris Silber worked together on “NCIS: New Orleans” and were looking to add a new character to its cast. The agent would be brought in as a transfer from another NCIS installation, and wanting to be authentic, they looked for real NCIS units and came across the Pearl Harbor unit.
“We’re sitting there thinking, ‘Why has there never been one of these shows set in Hawaii?’” recalled Nash, whose credits include “Rizzoli and Isles” and “Without a Trace,” as well as a stint as an investment banker.
It would take several years for Nash and Silber to pitch the idea to CBS, who accepted it so long as it “was true to the place,” she said.
Matt Bosack (“SEAL Team,” “Shooter”) joined in as a third creator, and together they developed a show that features a team that is diverse not just in ethnicity and gender, but “also in terms of their life experience and their point of view on things,” she said.
Perhaps that is why Lachey immediately identified with Tennant.
“When I read the role, I was like ‘This is me.’ Maybe not literally, in that, no, I’m not an NCIS agent in real life, but in the sense that she’s a mother,” said Lachey, who has three children with her husband, singer Nick Lachey.
Her character, Tennant, is the SAC (special agent in charge) of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service team based at Pearl Harbor. Lachey calls her a tough, “bad-ass leader with a heart,” who battles spies and criminals while also raising two children, including a daughter portrayed by local actor Mahina Napoleon. Unlike many crime procedurals, scenes with the children are expected to be commonplace as Tennant juggles career and family.
“That’s the feel that we want to portray on the show, but that’s also what we have in real life,” Lachey said. “When you’re at work you’re thinking about your home life, and when you’re at home you’re thinking about your work.”
There are other ties between Lachey’s real life and Tennant’s fictional one. Lachey’s father was in the Air Force, and her stepmother was a microbiologist in a military crime lab. “A lot of this is very familiar territory, without me even realizing it,” she said.
A former Miss Teen USA, and host of MTV shows and “Entertainment Tonight,” Lachey has had several television appearances in comedy and drama, but this is her first lead role in a drama, an occasion so momentous that she cried upon hearing she got it.
She already feels a spiritual connection to the islands.
“I talk to the islands,” she said with a laugh. “I ask it to protect me when I’m in the water, or if I’m in an explosion scene or if I’m driving in a fast car. If the island does what it can to protect me, then I will do what I can to protect it.”
Tennant’s NCIS team includes Lucy Tara, an ambitious but inexperienced junior field agent, played by Yasmine Al-Bustami. There are parallels between Al-Bustami’s career and her character, with this being her first role as a series regular for a major network show. “Lucy is still very much an eager person,” said Al-Bustami. “Everyone is kind of taking her under their wing in some capacity.”
In preparation for the show, the cast visited the real NCIS offices and met their counterparts. That did a lot to address one of Al-Bustami’s initial concerns about the role: her petite size.
“There was one agent in particular, the SAC,” Al-Bustami said. “She was tiny, but she had a strong personality. … To see that for myself and to hear her stories, I related to that. That was really helpful for me in the beginning, when I was questioning whether I should be here.”
It’s not unusual for crime procedurals to use police officers and attorneys as consultants. “NCIS: Hawai‘i” will have local NCIS officials review its scripts, and some of what Lucy undergoes as a junior agent will help flesh out some of the details and methodology of what they do.
“She’ll try to put things together; sometimes she’s good at it and sometimes she’s not, and sometimes it takes her a little longer than other times,” Al-Bustami said. “It’s very much teaching moments for Lucy.”
Al-Bustami’s mixed ancestry — Filipino, Jordanian and Palestinian — would seem to make her a good fit for the islands’ diverse culture, but her occasional drawl might cause her to stand out, if she gets to use it. Born in the United Arab Emirates, she moved to Texas as a child, and there’s talk that her character’s background could include Texas as well.
“When I have a few drinks in me, and I’m around Texans who have the accent, it’s there,” she said. “I find that I say ‘y’all’ a lot.”
While Lachey’s and Al-Bustami’s characters will be seen out in the field taking down bad guys, Jason Antoon’s realm will be a computer room. He portrays cyber intelligence specialist Ernie Malik, who will be hacking into suspects’ social media accounts and tracking their online activities.
Ernie will occasionally wield a gun — Antoon got the training like everyone else in the cast — but he’ll mostly be seen “tapping, tapping, pressing return, going to another monitor and quickly moving the mouse and clicking,” said Antoon, who added that he’ll be trying to make it all look exciting.
One of the perks of the role is that he gets to dress in aloha shirts and board shorts. “He’s in his lair, with his computers, so he’s got to be as comfortable as possible,” said Antoon, who jumped at the chance to work in Hawaii and has moved his family, dog included, to the islands. “The rest of the cast is in their detective agent gear, and they’re pretty jealous of me.”
Antoon has had a few “mad scientist” roles before, such as in the film “Minority Reports” and the TV show “Claws.” His character in “NCIS: Hawai‘i” won’t be “as manic and crazed” he said. “I get to be funny, but I also get to be more grounded.”
Why does he tend to get those roles? “It’s my giant eyeballs,” he said. “They’re not Marty Feldman eyes, but it’s in that bracket.”
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