“NCIS: New Orleans,” the second spinoff of the CBS monster hit, arrives Tuesday night, with two particularly fine and seasoned actors — Scott Bakula and CCH Pounder. I’ve been a fan of their work for years — as probably you have as well — but I want to use Tuesday's launch as an occasion to throw a spotlight on Pounder.
Wrapping a run on “Sons of Anarchy,” Pounder — the CCH stands for Carol Christine Hilaria, but you may call her CC — is one of the most accomplished television actors of her generation; she is 61. She created memorable roles on “The Shield,” “Warehouse 13,” “Justice League,” “Brothers,” and “ER” -- and a few dozen movies in between. Her career was essentially launched by “All That Jazz.” There have been a few Emmy nods, still no wins. (Another egregious Emmy oversight.)
She’ll play Dr. Loretta Wade, a coroner in the New Orlean’s medical examiner's office, and I think we can all agree that unless audiences are officially sated by “NCIS,” this is one of those gigs that can last a career. (David McCallum, another TV classic, has a 258-episodes-and-counting run on the mother show.)
Pounder’s a remarkable lady. As an artist, she has an installation piece at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles for a show that opens later this month. She is also an AIDS activist, humanitarian, a mother, and — oh yes, almost forgot — allied with one of the most successful films in movie history: “Avatar.” She played Mo’at, and yes, she will reprise the role for the sequel, she told me.
We had a quick chat Monday.
What happens to your “Sons of Anarchy” arc (she plays cop Tyne Patterson)?
“They came to me, after ‘NCIS’ and it was suddenly, oh my God ... the difficulty was probably season six. I came in to finish the job [in 7] but probably at that time they didn't know there was a season seven. That may have been how it went. I was going like gangbusters to get this young man [Jax] and suddenly they had another season. But I’ve already moved on [to NCIS.]”
“NCIS’ is pretty much a job for life — how did that come about?
“It was pretty scary. I just felt that where my career was going ... had been a fairly edgy person from cable, I’d been in cable almost 18 years and, especially on those two shows, ‘The Shield’ and ‘Warehouse 13.’ had been racking up tough and edgy people. How do you take that type of person into a network show and make it different enough for network TV and not frighten people away? I thought it was a good challenge.
And how will that be translated into the coroner's gig — the same one McCallum has on “NCIS?"
“I’m a younger version than McCallum, and if we’re in a town that allows people to give them the illusion that you are allowed to do whatever the hell you want, how would that translate with someone who works with dead bodies all the time? What’s the [emotional] outlet? [After seeing what she called a “joie de vivre” among workers at the LA County coroner’s morgue] I thought this makes no sense to me at all and then I realized that if you are working with that kind of reality then the rest of your life would be enhanced by knowing what the alternative is — a sort of 'I’m going for the brass ring with gusto' sets in. I wanted to do that with Loretta.
There’s another seasoned pro you are working alongside -- Scott Bakula. Have you worked together before?
“Yes, ‘Quantum Leap.' [In an episode — mega TV trivia alert! -- “Black on White on Fire” on Aug. 11, 1965” which aired in 1990.] He still remembered. I still remembered. I have known his work, and loved what he did with Ray Romano and Andre Braugher [“Men of a Certain Age.”] and really loved the Liberace movie ['Beneath the Candelabara.'] I think he’s been as buried as I have been in some ways and not made himself into a specific [screen] personality [but] I finally understood what leading men really meant in a TV series and I thought, 'OK, [Bakula], that’s what they are.’ ”
I think of acting for you as a means to an end — the end being mostly charitable work. True?
“That is spot on. I think that has to do with the beginning of my career, when I looked at the situation and I realized that the actor I thought I was in my head was another actor altogether. Just the constraints of American life, of how we see each other, skin, looks, height, hair, all those things, and the amazing actress that was in my head was not the person in reality. So the person in reality got work and I used that to funnel all the other things I wanted to do. I wanted to help correct, help enhance educational opportunities for young people.”
You were raised in British Guyana on a sugar plantation?
“My father was the first black to run a sugar plantation in British Guyana. It was on the Demerara River [in eastern Guyana] of what was then known as British Guyana, which is known more for Jim Jones. ... I grew up in England ... came here when I was 20. I was in college in England then I decided I wanted to be an American actor while looking at British television and realizing there wasn’t room for me [there.] My father [her parents are Betsy Enid James Arnella and Ronald Urlington Pounder] went to Cornell [and CC went to neighboring Ithaca College] where they just happened to have” a theater program.
Is your Artists for a New South Africa (an AIDS support group) still going?
“We’re almost at the tail end of it [but I am] now working with the African Millenium Foundation which takes care of orphans. It’s a much much smaller charity, but a little more hands on, and I’ve turned my focus to children, and taken care of AIDS orphans. There are 7,000 orphans in Mozambique, and I took on eight in one family. I’ve taken care of the family for six years [and] help others form artificial families [there]. I’m told that in Africa, that between AIDS [and wars] the population of orphans is the fastest growing community. In Mozambique, this one little area, 7,000, [and] they live on dung heaps
What’s your outlook on life in general?
“That I’m incredibly privileged and lucky to be married to an extraordinary man [Senegalese anthropologist Boubacar Kone] and when I finish work and go to such a different environment, that’s what helps me feel very level about my needs ... I get on a coach flight to Africa, get off the plane and don’t have to drive ten feet to appreciate the fact that it’s a very different world I live in. That’s probably the best way to describe me -- that my feet are fully planted on the ground.”