Posted On Aug 08, 2016
By Andrew C. Stone
Few actors can boast as long and varied a career as Chris O’Donnell, 45, star of NCIS: Los Angeles. This handsome, affable fellow from Winnetka, Illinois, has been a fan favorite from the word go when he appeared in Men Don’t Leave, Fried Green Tomatoes, School Ties, and Scent of a Woman—the latter earning him a Golden Globe nom for Best Supporting Actor. He donned body armor in Batman & Robin, went extreme in Vertical Limit, and played Dr. Finn on Grey’s Anatomy before teaming with LL Cool J (aka, James Todd Smith) on CBS’s crime show NCIS: Los Angeles—a choice gig he’s had for seven years. Meanwhile, he and his wife Caroline Fentress, a former schoolteacher, are parents to five children and live a peaceful life in L.A. Aren’t celebs who grew up in front of the camera supposed to implode? Not O’Donnell. We caught up with him to find out why.
Chris, you earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What does that mean to you?
I go by my star every day and polish it up. No, actually I haven’t seen it since the ceremony, but it’s exciting to feel that sense of permanence among the stars of Hollywood Boulevard. The ceremony ended up being very special, among the people I truly care about—my kids, family, cast, and fans. When I got up to speak it was overwhelming. I got pretty choked up. It meant a lot.
You are seven years into NCIS: Los Angeles. What has this show done for you?
It’s a serious chapter of my life. I’ve spent more time working on this than anything else by far. Would I love to be signing the next Scent of a Woman right now? Sure. But I’ve got five kids in school and I work on an incredible show. I can’t think of a better job for me.
How do you and Todd [LL Cool J] interact when no one is watching?
We’ve spent so much time together, we have a million inside jokes that come up as we’re sitting on set that we bring up at inappropriate times. We complement each other well and balance one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Todd’s an amazing people person who loves to go out and entertain. With me, it’s like pulling teeth to put me on a press line. He’ll get me out there and make everyone comfortable. Meanwhile, I’ll keep him on task on set, like when we do a take a million times. I tend to be a pessimist, expecting disappointment. Maybe it’s the Catholic upbringing. He’s the eternal optimist, always channeling positive energy toward things.
Ever imagine you’d be paired with LL Cool J?
If you had told me in seventh grade that the guy in the videos on MTV would be the guy I would hang out with on set, I never would have believed you.
Why are NCIS and its offshoots so popular?
We had the good fortune of being a spin-off of the original show, which had a built-in, devoted audience. It’s a procedural [show] with a comedic element; a comfort food. We’re all about character. If the audience falls in love with characters, they’ll tune in.
When did the crossover from big screen to small become desirable for actors?
A lot of people are saying this is the golden age of TV. Jessica Lange and Kevin Spacey have shows, and I even hear Woody Allen is doing a series for Amazon. From what I can tell, nobody makes money in film anymore. Studios cut back on the films they make, and they’re not making as many films at the budgets they used to. Television is where the opportunity is, especially with outlets like Netflix and Amazon.
We’ve watched you morph from teen star to the man you are now. How have you survived the scrutiny of Hollywood so long and so well?
It’s a good thing no one had iPhones back then to document the stupid things I did at college. I found college to be a safer place to make mistakes, and I was relatively careful. When I was a young guy doing films and coming out to L.A., I wasn’t into the whole club thing. I’m a Chicago guy who likes to go to bars. Plus, I got married at a young age. What can I say? I met the right girl.
You and Caroline Fentress have five kids together. What’s been the secret to your marriage success?
I probably, definitely over-married. Caroline was more mature than I was back then and still is. She’s very reasonable, not high maintenance, and comes from a great family. Plus with this many kids, we don’t have enough time to figure out if we like one another.
What do you do to stay connected?
We tend to be pretty good about going out on date nights, and we’re social with our close group of friends. We also have a couple of spots where we like to go, when it’s just the two of us. We just went away to San Isidro and had a great time. Little getaways are important.
Anyone on TV is going to face a certain amount of scrutiny over the way they look. How do you keep trim and healthy?
It can be a struggle—especially toward the end of shooting a season. I’ve been waking up to the fact that I’m in my mid-forties and there’s a big difference in how the body behaves. I used to go on films and think I could tighten up the body really quickly beforehand… I don’t do that as quickly at all. Still, I’m a very active person. I love beach volleyball, and like to do yoga at a place called Yogahop in Santa Monica. I recently got a Peloton bike and stream live classes to it, which is amazing. I also have a trainer who’ll come over at 5:30 a.m. When you know the guy is going to be there, ready to go, you have to get up. The biggest thing for me is to try and eat healthy. I have a sweet tooth and I love all of that fattening food. Then there’s Caroline, who is really healthy and who works her butt off five days a week at Tracy Anderson’s gym. I’ll come home from a long day wanting comfort food, and she’ll bust out the kale salad and quinoa… She’s good at keeping me on track.
It seems like you’ve got a great crew of people around you who keep you on the right path.
I do, and I always have. I can remember early on in my career when I’d see Movieline magazine with my contemporaries dressing a certain way and acting all mysterious. I’d ask myself, should I dress differently? Should I act mysterious? At the time, my parents would say to me, “Remember who you are.” So I remained brutally honest and dressed as I would normally. They helped me stay true to who I am.