Exclusive: Brian Dietzen on His ‘NCIS’ Success & His Love For ‘Modern Family’

brian dietzenEven if you don’t yet know this actor’s name off-hand, you definitely know his face. Brian Dietzen has played the lovable assistant medical examiner, Jimmy Palmer, on NCIS for over 8 years now and his story is not anywhere close to being over. In fact, his character is in the midst of planning for his own wedding which is scheduled to air in the spring. Yes, Dietzen has remained a constant presence as part of the NCIS gang, but did you know that his character was only supposed to be a one-time thing? I had the pleasure of speaking with Dietzen about the hit drama, what life is like on-set, his relationships with fellow characters, some of his favorite television shows (besides NCIS), and any other upcoming projects he has in the works.

One thing that I love about the show NCIS is that you always get a great mix of drama and humor. There are the actual investigations where everyone’s trying to solve the case, but then there’s also some great interaction and dialogue between the characters and I just really love that. It just seems like everyone clicks really well together. What’s the atmosphere like while filming an episode?

The atmosphere is pretty great on the set. There are not a lot of shows that have been around as long as we have and by the time a show gets to this place in its life, people aren’t the best of friends anymore and I’m very happy to say that our set is not like that at all. Everyone in the cast gets along fantastic and it’s a great place to work. Everyone is there to help out and make the show better and I think that’s the big secret that we’re hiding from everyone is that everyone shows up to really try and really make the show as good as possible.

Yeah, you can really tell. I mean this is your ninth year for the show and I just think it really shows during the episodes how strong you guys all are together, so that’s really great.

Yeah, everyone’s always hunting for the funniest moment or what can make this more powerful for the audiences. Everyone’s a big fan of the show itself and the characters. We all love the characters I think as much as the people that watch it, so we all work together as a team pretty darn well by now.

Your character, Jimmy Palmer, is the assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner known as Ducky. When you first were cast to play that part, did you have to observe or follow around a real medical examiner?

Yeah, David McCallum and I had the opportunity to go down to Craig Harvey who is the Chief Medical Examiner for L.A. County and tour around and observe a few autopsies down in Los Angeles and it was pretty grisly. It was pretty amazing to see all this stuff. Not many people get to see it and I don’t think many people would want to, but what struck both of us about these people were that they’re just normal folks and they talk about their personal lives while they’re working. They talk about sports while they’re working. They tell jokes here and there, not being inappropriate whatsoever with the dead, but they have to lead their lives normally. They can’t lead their lives with some sort of reverence and whisper around dead bodies and that sort of thing, otherwise they’d drive themselves insane. They have to just be normal people and I think that’s one of the things David and I have been happy that the writers have infused into these two characters – that they’re just living their lives and they may be cavalier about certain subjects, even though there’s a dead body within the room they can still talk about daily life and go on about their life and it lends a certain degree of levity to an autopsy room you wouldn’t expect, but I think that’s what has kept us going strong til now.

I think that’s also a really good point in that Ducky speaks to the dead people. It’s a way to cope and deal with the type of work that you’re actually doing.

Yeah, if you think about it. I’m not around real dead people all that often, most people aren’t, but when you are you tend to be very, very respectful and quiet and people do tend to whisper cause you’re trying to show massive amounts of respect, but if this is your daily life you have to figure out a way to go about it and not go insane by the time you reach Friday. So the way we’ve done that is that there’s a bit of humor in the autopsy and there’s good times had by both of us.

So this definitely made you grateful that’s not your real career?

Oh gosh, yes. I’m so thankful there are people out there that do this for their real career because they are amazing scientists that can use forensics and autopsies to solve these crimes and to give some peace and closure to the families of the victims, but myself I could not do it. There’s no way. This is probably on my all-time list of No, I don’t think I want to do that with my life.

Totally understandable. Jimmy’s always been a little socially awkward, but in such an endearing way. He has that sort of lovable nerd persona who seems to have a really big heart, so that makes him really likable. When you first entered into the role, did you see any part of yourself in Jimmy?

Yeah, I think so. Most people have that inside of them – the insecurity and kind of the underdog inside of most people and I think that’s a very fun thing to play for me because I don’t generally act too much that way in real life, but everyone wants to root for the underdog and that’s what I hear from a lot of people. “I love your character because sometimes I feel that way, especially around people like Gibbs and I think that often times I have that inside of me. I think we all do and it’s fun to check out and put into a character. But it’s interesting because when I first auditioned for this role, it was only supposed to be for one day in the first season and they just kept asking me back and so yeah eight years later I’m still flaking around, but so when I first came up with the character I thought “Well, just kinda make some bold choices” as far as being very insecure and second guessing myself and all that sort of stuff cause I thought, well it’s just going to be one and done and it will be something good for my actor’s reel – a different character. And then eight years later I’m thinking, wow, okay, still around so I gotta keep figuring new ways to keep the character the same because it’s an endearing character, but also to give him small amounts of growth in certain areas so people realize he’s not just a low robot.

Well whatever you’re doing, it seems to be working because Gerald was the name of the guy who was originally Ducky’s assistant and then you were brought in and I think it’s been great and it seems like Jimmy has really grown throughout the course of the series both professionally and personally. Professionally, he was always just assisting Ducky, but now he’s actually gotten to perform autopsies himself. Were you excited to be the one holding the reigns and should we expect to see that a lot more of that this season?

I think that whether or not Jimmy gets more responsibility as far as the autopsy is concerned I can’t really speak to. That’s a decision for the writers and Gary Glasberg. Gary, our executive producer, has a really great feel for the characters and the directions each one of them are going last year, this year, and in the future. So I’m really excited to see where Jimmy is going to. I do know that he’s going to push Jimmy forward a little bit story wise and we’re going to have Jimmy getting married by the end of this season. So pretty much any sort of material that they put up for Jimmy, I’m sitting there ready to go, chomping at the bit. I really love the character and the show, obviously, so anything they have to give to me, I’m absolutely ready to take it.

That’s great. And like you said, Jimmy is now engaged. Do you happen to know whether this will be smooth sailing for these two or if there’s going to be any bumps along the way?

Well so far, we’ve seen a little bit of nerves coming out of Jimmy saying “Oh I’m just not sure. There’s so much trouble going into planning a wedding.” So that’s kinda where the bumps have been coming, so I think that he still really loves Breena and is extremely happy to get married with her, but I’m interested to see what’s going to come up if there’s going to be some sort of crime involved or how a dead guy is going to fit into a wedding (laughs), I don’t know. Or if Tony DiNozzo’s going to head up the bachelor party or something. There could be a lot of fun stories there, so I’m really looking forward to see what they have in store for us and it’s kinda cool because as actors, they really keep us in the dark about a lot of stuff, so we don’t really know until we get those first few white pages and then we go “oh my gosh, wow, he’s engaged – great!” So that’s kinda the moment we get to be fans, just tearing through that script and saying “oh this is going to happen? And this is going to happen? That’s so cool.”

Yeah, that’s a really good idea that you just thought of. That would be so funny if Tony was throwing you a bachelor party or something.

Wouldn’t that be great? I thought it’d be really funny and I was thinking also within the NCIS universe, who would be Jimmy Palmer’s best man? You know? I mean, I’m not sure, but it would be boring if it was just some guy we’ve never met right? I think it would have to be one of the guys.

Exactly. That would be kinda cool.

I think that Ducky would have to be involved somehow he’s been not just a father figure, but also a huge influence and mentor. It would be really great to see something happen where a lot of the NCIS folks are a part of ceremony. I don’t know, I’m just throwing it out there, but it would be fun.

Yeah, it would be fun and of course Tony’s always given Jimmy a hard time. He’s even given Jimmy nicknames like Autopsy Gremlin. Do you think Tony and Jimmy’s relationship will eventually blossom to be equivalent to the relationship between Gibbs and Ducky?

I would love to see that. Michael and I have talked about that a lot because at the beginning of I believe Season 4, we had a scene that a lot of fans write to me about still about how Tony DiNozzo was coming to Jimmy Palmer for advice on a case and they met in the evidence garage and it was very cloak and dagger and “no one can hear this that I’m actually getting advice from the Autopsy Gremlin, but here’s where I’m at in the case. What do you think?” And it wasn’t so much that Jimmy had a mastermind behind this whole thing. He was just a sounding board much as Ducky is for Gibbs at certain points and I always thought that was kinda cool. It was very much in secret. I would love to see how that relationship has kinda blossomed behind closed doors and see if we can see anymore of that coming up.

Yeah, I think I noticed that a lot more when Tony took up the reigns when Gibbs left.

Yeah, it was right around when Gibbs left for Mexico and then Tony was the team leader and when Gibbs came back you got the feeling, “oh, I guess Tony’s been checking in with Jimmy this whole time.” So I always thought that was really cool and sometimes we have certain storylines that don’t take as much prominence and that was perhaps one of them, but I would love to see if that thing is still going on at some point.

It’s kinda like a Mini-Gibbs and Mini-Ducky.

Exactly. Like we’re playing grown up.

I especially liked the episode About Face where Jimmy played a significant role in helping catch the bad guy after being shot at. So in a way you transformed from being an examiner to being an investigator. How did it feel to be on that side of things?

Oh, that was a blast. That was really fun to play because it was one of those issues where it was like any man being thrown into a spot where I really should have a lot more training than this, you know, Jimmy’s thinking I should know more than I know, I don’t feel comfortable being around violence, but when you’re thrust into it, you’re thrust into it and it was very, very fun to play. And it was something that I would of course love to do again as far as portraying Jimmy Palmer, but in the moment the biggest concern for him was just not getting shot, but also serving the team somewhat and figuring out how to stop the bad guy and in the end he did it by ramming his car into him, so he did what he could do with the tools at his disposal which were not as many as like what Ziva or McGee or what DiNozzo would have, but boy it was fun to do. It was really great. I had a wonderful time in that episode.

Yeah and I feel like no matter who you are on the team, everyone just has this urge to always try to please or impress Gibbs in some way.

Yeah, isn’t that the truth.

That’s why I thought this was kinda your way, trying to be able to help solve things. Like I want to be able to prove to Gibbs that I can do this. I always feel like I see the characters do that.

It’s a cool dynamic. You have that with Abby for sure with a paternal thing going on there and then the DiNozzo and McGee dynamic. You definitely see that as wanting to please the boss figure and what’s great about the way Mark Harmon plays Gibbs is that he never overdoes it to be the overbearing father. There’s those sensitive moments like this last week with Abby at the end and he’s snuggling up with her on the couch and there’s nothing demanding about it or anything. This was very real and Mark plays that so well and it’s easy to see how all of these characters are drawn magnetically to Gibbs.

Definitely. Is there any character you’d like to have more scenes with in the future? Maybe someone who you haven’t had as much screen time with as you’d like to?

Pretty much everybody (laughs). I mean, I’m so thankful because I get to have most of my scenes with television royalty with David McCallum and that’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty awesome. Most of my stuff is with him and with Mark Harmon so you’ve got these two pretty awesome TV stars and movie stars that I get to share screen time with, so I think maybe I’ve had one or two scenes this whole time with Rocky Carroll, just a couple with Michael as well. I get to do my fair share with Pauley and I really, really love that, but it would be kinda interesting to see how these other relationship would develop between Ziva and Palmer or McGee and Palmer or Tony and Palmer, you know, any of those would just be outstanding. I would love to see how he fits into the mix with some of these other people. And like I said, whenever they send a script, I’m always eager for new stuff.

Are there any traits of Ducky’s that you would like to see Jimmy inherit? Perhaps talking to the corpses?

We’ve seen that once or twice I think when Jimmy’s tried it, but it just hasn’t worked out quite as well (laughs). I think perhaps Jimmy’s not quite as eloquent as Ducky and maybe not as well versed. I do like the way that right now they seem to be putting in a of lot of the stories coming from Jimmy, a lot of like “My uncle did this” or “My aunt did that” and he’s starting to act philosophical just like Ducky. I think a certain portion of that is already rubbing off on the guy.

I know that your character is one of the few that actually listens to Ducky all the way through since Gibbs usually cuts him off at some point because if you don’t stop him, he never will it seems like.

That’s right, absolutely. But Jimmy’s eager to learn so no matter what he has to say, he’ll listen.

And where would you like to see your character go from here? Do you think that at some point Ducky will retire and make you the Chief Medical Examiner?

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I do know that right now what we have going on is working pretty darn well, so if that means Jimmy’s going to be the assistant for a heck of a long time then I’m all for it. But if sometime in the future, Ducky asks Jimmy to do an autopsy here or there then I’d be up for that as well, so it’s really all about the dynamic of the show and I just think that David McCallum just does an amazing job, so I’m always happy to assist him in this endeavor for sure.

brian dietzen

Do you have any other projects lined up or anything else in the works besides all your NCIS stuff?

Yeah, we actually just did a feature film this last summer that I wrote with some friends of mine and produced this summer. It’s called Congratulations and it was a really wonderful experience. It’s about 30 somethings where a guy says “Will you marry me?” and the woman says “Why would you want to do that? We were so happy.” And it’s kind of an exploration as to why this generation is getting married later, getting houses later, getting kids later, all that sort of stuff. It seems to be less of a priority than it was for my parents’ generation and so it’s a movie that’s kind of exploring those relationships and values that we place on marriage in this country. It was a blast to do. A lot of hard work and a lot of energy went into it from all of my friends who kind of piled in together to do this thing and we had a great time. So we just submitted to Sundance this last week I believe and are kind of in the end stages of composing music and getting our final cuts together and hopefully we’ll be premiering at a festival sometime early next year.

That sounds great. That sounds really interesting too. It poses interesting questions.

Yeah, it’s very interesting, especially with a lot of things that are going on with our country like proposition aid in California. It really lends me to question well what is marriage then? Is it spending your life with someone you love or is it about having a status of being able to tell your friends look I have the ring on, you know? And for a generation that’s becoming less and less concerned with the taxes that are involved or possibly even the religious values that are involved – what is the real, huge reason to get married? And it’s kind of an interesting question for these times right now and that’s the thing that we put across in this movie and boy it was fun to do. I co-wrote it with three other people and we had this tandem of really talented directors, Eric Levy and Juan Cardarelli, and my writing partner Abby Miller who played the other lead role in it and she was just fantastic.

I read that you’re a singer and dancer, is that true?

Not really. I love dancing, but I’m not that good of a singer. I sang in punk rock bands in high school and college and stuff, but that mostly involved lots of screaming (laughs). But I’m about as good of a singer as the average Joe. I haven’t been trained or anything like that, but I do enjoy dancing and we do get some dancing here and there on the set. It’s a very musical set as well. Pauley Perrette has her own band, Michael Weatherly is very talented musically, and McCallum, his father worked in a symphony so there’s a lot of talented musicians going on so I wouldn’t call myself a singer in their company.

Besides NCIS of course, what is a favorite television show that you watch?

Without a doubt, Breaking Bad. It’s so good! This last season, the finale was on I think last week and my wife and I both looked at each other afterward and go “crap, what do we do now? Are you kidding me, we have to wait for more?!” But probably one of my favorite TV shows of all time was Arrested Development. So if I’m every jonesing for some good comedy, I just bust out the DVDs and watch some Arrested Development because it just doesn’t get old for me. I could watch them again and again.

And would you be interested in guest starring in any other shows?

Oh yeah. It’s funny because Breaking Bad is one of my favorite shows and there’s certain shows – I remember when Six Feet Under was on and I felt the same way, I thought, if I never a guest star on this show that’s totally fine because I’m fine just being a fan, like I don’t even want the illusion ruined for me. You know, I don’t want to see behind the curtain, but there’s plenty of shows out there right now that are just brilliantly written and produced. I feel like we’re kinda in a new golden-age of television where there’s so many great shows on right now. Modern Family’s another one that I’m a huge fan of too. I can’t even tell you how many different shows I would love to guest star on because there’s just too many.

Modern Family would be a good one.

Oh boy. That is an amazing show. Really, really well done and really funny.

What about any of the other crime shows like CSI or NCIS LA? Would you feel like you were cheating on NCIS?

Oh absolutely (laughs), I would be. People would be like, why is Jimmy Palmer in CSI Miami, makes no sense. Yeah, I think that CBS knows better than to do that. I think there are some hour longs for sure that are just fantastic. Well CBS has so many good hour-longs. Good Wife is such a good show and some of the other ones look like their good coming up. My buddy’s on Unforgettable and that one’s been kinda cool too, interesting concept and Person of Interest has been really cool too. I love Michael Emerson. But they’re all really great shows.