Wilmer Valderrama talks “NCIS” season 21 premiere, ‘high-concept’ stories to come

“I think these 10 episodes are going to be very surprising.”

CBS ratings juggernaut NCIS returned to our screens tonight with the first of 10 episodes that star Wilmer Valderrama says “might shock a lot of people.”

In the crime procedural’s season 21 premiere, Valderrama’s character, former lone-wolf agent Nick Torres, copped to the murder of his family’s childhood tormenter after learning the man was victimizing another mother and son.

“Something breaks,” he tells EW. “Something breaks in Torres’ heart. It's almost like he's been waiting for this moment for way too long.”

Torres' actions in “Algún Día” set up a run of episodes abbreviated by the Hollywood labor strikes that Valderrama says may cause jaws to drop. “The fact that we have a shortened season allows us to be like, “Can this be the season where every episode is like crazy?”

<p>Art Streiber/CBS </p> Wilmer Valderrama

Art Streiber/CBS

Wilmer Valderrama

Below, the That '70s Show alum talks moving away from the case-of-the-week, yukking it up with Gary Cole, and saying goodbye to David McCallum, who died in September at 90.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The season 20 finale closed with Nick Torres holding a mysterious man from his past at gunpoint. How did it feel to be the cliffhanger character who kept audiences speculating during the hiatus?

WILMER VALDERRAMA: We were working on that season finale the whole season. We were talking, having a lot of conversations about, “What is the season?” And I have this crazy idea: Why don't we send Torres to prison? And then we worked backward from that. Like, why would he be there? So we ran with it, and we were able to build something that was really interesting and it was still sustainable for our season finale.

We've gotten glimpses of his past over the last several seasons, but “Algun Dia” gave us maybe the deepest look at that family history that we've gotten so far. Is it different for you to hit those beats compared to the quips and the crime-solving that you do with a more standard episode?

It's refreshing. It's just really refreshing. Moving forward, we're going to lean a little bit heavier on the souls and the hearts of our lead characters. I feel like our audiences have been so giving and so beautiful to just tune in and watch us and watch these characters. For the actors, it’s very refreshing to exercise all of our muscles to really, really go there and to really find the root of your pain, your trauma, or your patterns.

And the relationship between Parker and Torres is also going to evolve a little bit more. I talked to the showrunners and I was like, you have Gary Cole, who’s a comedic genius, and then you have me, which I have some, you know, comedy experience in my past too.

A little bit, yeah.

And I was like, why are we not doing this, dude? Why are these two characters not running wild in the field? And they loved the idea. There’s some laugh-out-loud stuff that we're about to do that’s really unique for NCIS. With NCIS there are some funny moments and then you're back to the complexity and the darkness of these cases. In this episode, we just went for the comedy, like, let's make it really funny, but not compromise the tonal DNA of our show.

You sound really excited about these upcoming ten episodes of the season.

I am very excited. I'm excited because this is the rare opportunity where a show that by the grace and the love of the fans has the runway to try things. We're going to swing in directions that are a lot more personal and a lot more high-concept. It's still very much grounded in the mothership. We're not doing unnatural stuff for our characters, but we are really exploring storylines that I think could really help the following seasons

<p>Robert Voets/CBS</p> Wilmer Valderrama as Nick Torres in the NCIS 21st season premiere.

Robert Voets/CBS

Wilmer Valderrama as Nick Torres in the NCIS 21st season premiere.

The second episode of the season is going to deal with the death of David McCallum and honoring Ducky by jumping into an unsolved case of his. What was the experience of filming that episode like for you and for the rest of the cast who’ve been working with him for so long?

It's tough. We needed that episode. As much as our audiences want to have a tribute, for us, the actors, this was our humble way of saying goodbye. All the way up to the last scene I did with him, the dude knew what he was doing. He'd come in and then they said, “Action,” and he’d never drop a line. I mean, I was in awe, and it reminded me that we should always do more and that we should always swing harder. That's the only thing you'll take with you is the commitment you gave your art, and that's something I feel he reminded us all.

Ducky’s episode is going to be, I think, not just emotional, but it'll be a journey. Brian Dietzen is writing it, and I couldn't imagine anyone else really handling that memory the way that he did. There’s beautiful stuff happening in that episode.

In the premiere, Torres fights off a cell block’s worth of angry Russians and then ends up slightly shivved. So I'm curious, which is more stressful: filming the fight scene or filming the shirtless scene afterward?

[Valderrama, whose character is shown shirtless and bandaged in a prison hospital bed, laughs and covers his eyes with his hand]

That’s a great question. They both have a great deal of pressure. It's funny, you know, I pride myself in just loving getting to the gym and staying fit and all of that stuff, but in my career I've never been the guy that does the shirtless stuff. Am I confident doing shirtless stuff? Sure. I'm not insecure about that stuff, you know? But I've just never been that guy.

I love doing my own stunts. I have a great partner, Brennan Mejia, who does some really difficult stuff for me, but I felt like I needed to do that [fight scene] because you need to understand how dangerous that moment was for him. And then, afterward, when they tell me, “Hey, do you mind wearing this?” I'm like, “I know what you're doing, sure, fine.” It was silly, and obviously my costars had a lot of fun with that.

I bet they did. 

They made a lot of fun of me. It was funny. But I don’t feel pressure for either one. I feel happy to do what it takes for the story. But sometimes it doesn’t take that to tell the story, and somehow it’s still on the page.

This is my favorite combination of the cast in years. I mean, it's been through so many, but the chemistry that you all have right now, it’s working.

I agree with you 100%. That's why I can't wait for people to see this this season. We're literally finishing each other's sentences, and the level of difficulty to pull off the stuff that we're doing, it’s so high, and somehow this cast is making it amazing. And it's been a joy. It's been a joy to spend all that time with these incredible individuals.

NCIS airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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