Being a rap artist may not seem like the perfect background for playing undercover agent Sam Hanna of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on CBS's 8 p.m. Tuesday sophomore hit "NCIS: Los Angeles," but LL Cool J — aka James Todd Smith III, or Todd, as he's known on set — has picked up a few skills along the way.
He says he's a "good shot" and is a few lessons short of being a certified scuba diver — helpful for playing a former Navy SEAL — but he did have to get better at one thing that just wasn't as important in the music world.
"The one thing I've had to learn the most? I guess, it's being on time," LL Cool J says.
On this day on the set of the show's Los Angeles headquarters, a refurbished Spanish mission built inside a soundstage at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, a new episode is just starting, one LL Cool J says will reveal more about Hanna's background.
"Without giving it up," he says, "we go into Sam's past in a real deep way."
Fans already know Hanna's Navy history and that he served in the Middle East. "That's the macro," LL Cool J says, "now we deal with the micro, which is what took place when he was in the Middle East, what took place when he was a SEAL, what took place in his life that shaped and molded him into the man he is today."
In the first scene, the agents are being briefed on their latest case, a missing military officer in possession of serious cyberinformation. Finding the officer isn't just a case of running and gunning, as LL Cool J has discovered.
"I've had to learn the whole idea of how every little piece matters, and how one spark can set a prairie on fire. It's actually more about the thought process than the running and gunning. The running and gunning comes later, after you put some thought into it."
LL Cool J says the show is based on a real division of NCIS, and while there are similarities to the original "NCIS" show, airing at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, they're not the same. "It's like 'NCIS' in the wit and banter and some of the humor. It's unlike 'NCIS' in that we really are chameleons, and we go undercover. We don't only investigate crimes after they've been committed, we investigate ongoing crimes, as well.
"We deal with high-level terror threats as they are being posed. That's very different, and it is real. It's the Office of Special Projects, although they don't mention it."
Behavioral analysts and NCIS officials have been on set and consulted on "NCIS: Los Angeles," but LL Cool J — the son and grandson of veterans — also has advice from the military side in the person of a former Marine, Jordan-born Master Gunnery Sgt. Osama Shofani.
"I call him Master Guns," LL Cool J says. "He's really shown us a lot and taught us a lot from a true standpoint. That's what's important to me, to do this right."