Talking With: Erik Passoja from ‘NCIS’ and ‘The Flight Attendant’
Interview with actor Erik Passoja, caught up in two different missions with his portrayals of FBI and CIA personnel.
This edition of Talking With focuses on Erik Passoja, who means business in his role as FBI Director Wayne Sweeney in CBS’s “NCIS” and must stay undercover as CIA agent Jim Jones in HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant”.
Erik returned to his role as the brash FBI Deputy Director Wayne Sweeney in the “NCIS” season finale after firing Aldan Parker (Gary Cole) from the FBI when he refused to take custody of Gibbs (Mark Harmon) on corruption charges. Sweeney now seeks truth and justice as Parker is framed for murder.
Switching characters and agencies, Erik also portrays the mysterious CIA agent, Jim Jones, throughout Season 2 of the dark comedy, “The Flight Attendant.” Jim secretly shadows flight attendant Cassie (Kaley Cuoco), who catches on when people in her proximity start dropping. Of course, her biggest problem is that all the clues point directly to her.
Erik enjoyed playing these two characters, who are both forces for good, but whose objectives are so different.
No stranger to Hollywood, Erik has worked extensively in film, television and as a seasoned voiceover artist, in addition to being a former nationally touring standup comic. He starred on stage in “Savage World” at the MET Theatre, Actors Studio West’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and originated the role of Claude in Liz Tuccillo’s “Cheyenne.”
To learn more, we are Talking With Erik Passoja.
Tell us about portraying FBI Deputy Director Wayne Sweeney on “NCIS.”
Erik Passoja: The first thing I noticed was his name. It’s not ‘Wayne Sweeney.’ It’s ‘FBI Deputy Director Wayne Sweeney.’ Before his birth name is his job; that alone is an interesting comment on a character’s personal life. Since the job is an actual one, I first went to Google and YouTube. Paul Abbate is the current FBI Deputy Director. He seems like a nice guy with huge responsibility. He’s 5’7”, used to be on a SWAT team and also led operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
So, $125,000 a year, how far does that go in Washington, D.C. with a family of four? Let’s say that’s me, and I’m doing that job, and instead of playing with my kids, I’m coordinating a team of 35,000 people to hunt down the worst people. And I mean, the worst. Terrorists, murderers, drug cartels, cyber criminals, and add the January 6 investigation. And then one of my most trusted agents, Parker, directly disobeys an order. This is not a small problem. This is the FBI. We’re the only thing between terrorism and your family. If I cannot trust a member of this team, then forget it, he has to go. That’s where my character arc begins in Episode 4. Of course, underneath the job is all the invisible work: What is my wife like? Do I have kids? As Sweeney, what is my most reckless fantasy? And on and on. As one of my mentors, the late, great Martin Landau, said, “95% of the work we do on the character, no one sees. But that work is everything.”
Did you know Sweeney would return again this season?
EP: I was certainly hoping! There’s so much more fun to be had with this character, and I am glad that the “NCIS” writing team and Christopher J. Waild, who wrote Episode 21, saw the possibilities. I can’t wait to see where we go with this. My last line in the Season 19 finale is, “This isn’t over,” so I’m definitely brimming with curiosity.
Is Sweeney holding a grudge or is he secretly a bad guy?
EP: Neither. Sweeney is a good guy. The only thing that tells us that Sweeney is a bad guy is the power of Story. Here’s how I see it from Sweeney’s shoes: my order to Parker in Episode 4 was to bring Gibbs to justice. He disobeyed me. So, I fired him. Then Parker got a high-profile job at another agency, NCIS. How did that happen? And now Parker is a murder suspect. A murder suspect. And NCIS is protecting him? Why? Why would they do that? Why would Vance (Rocky Carroll) lie to me? Something is rotten here, and I’m going to find out. However, Story is powerful. We, the audience, like and appreciate Parker.
The audience knows something that FBI Deputy Director Sweeney does not know. That Parker didn’t do it. So the audience sees Sweeney as a bad guy or as holding a grudge. For all we know, Sweeney could become great friends with NCIS. Or, he could be The Raven. That’s all I want to say about that. Why? Because I haven’t read Season 20.
You’re also ‘the cloudy-eyed’ CIA agent Jim Jones on “The Flight Attendant.” What can you tell us about this role?
EP: What a fantastic amount of fun. This was a much quieter role for a much quieter job. Same suit, mind you. My job as a CIA agent was to collect information and stay off the grid. There’s a whole bunch of clandestine stuff going on, and I’m trying to find and report the answers. I also feel like my boss, Benjamin Berry (Mo McRae) is playing me. I don’t know what he’s up to and definitely don’t understand why he has brought in this sloppy amateur, Cassie (Kaley Cuoco). Every time I feel like I’m close to reporting something useful, I lose the scent. It’s like a maze. Jim Jones smokes. I don’t personally smoke, but each time I held a cigarette on the show, I thought maybe it was the way I could ever really breathe, like the only real oxygen I get. The quiet, brooding frustration of a man caught in the middle of opposing forces who eventually pays the price for it.
We have to ask, what was it like working with a cloudy eye?
EP: First, I didn’t know that there were people whose sole job was “lens tech.” They are officially part of makeup departments, and they are fabulous contact lens experts. These folks could pop a lens in or out my eyeball in twenty seconds. I once had an optician try it, but let’s just say they don’t do as many lenses. There aren’t a lot of lens techs out there, and they’re all extremely busy, so over the course of the season, there were four who alternated. They were also working on a new Marvel movie and flying back and forth to Georgia. One of them, when not on set, was at her home lab painting on contact lenses for different characters. I couldn’t see a thing out of my right eye when the lens was in. Thank heavens for the assistant directors on set; I wasn’t used to having zero depth perception, and they helped me not bump into things. It was also white, so whenever it was bright outside, zowie! Oh, and when I got shot in the other eye, I had the lens on my right eye and a prosthetic on my left. I was completely blind.
Did you know his fate before you started or was that a surprise for you, too?
EP: I did not know until I read that episode and was honestly crushed. It may be because I take my characters personally or because I absolutely adore the show, probably both.
Clearly, you know how to play the FBI and CIA types. Do you have any real-life experience with that or what do you attribute it to?
EP: I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you. But seriously, these were new kinds of roles for me, and I love that. The danger is the concept of FBI and CIA that we have from other performances, because playing a reflection of someone else’s idea is devoid of truth. Our job as actors is to explore. To ask questions, read, talk to people, and watch real interviews. If possible, hang out with real people doing these jobs, like if someone in the CIA had let me join a covert operation in Belarus.
I attribute it all to doing “The Work” for decades, to realizing that we are playing human beings, and even if we are playing aliens, we are dealing with human themes. And I’ve played so many different things. I like to joke that I have played more serial killers than there have been serial killers, have played Nazis longer than WWII happened, and I am Jewish. I’m a Shakespeare fanatic: “Richard III”, “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Shylock,” “Benedick.” I’ve also played a water diviner, a robot, a transvestite, Mozart. I did standup for decades, playing for 2,000 people, and also one night for two Norwegians and a stripper.
Where do you start when preparing for a role?
EP: First, I read the script, because there is nothing more challenging than writing a script. Even more challenging is getting it produced, so I have to assume that writers plumbed their souls and bled words, and someone ponied up the money. There is so much temptation to get to my lines and start acting, and I battle myself not to do that. Once I finish reading, I start with questions. By the way, I also end with questions. I only answer with behavior and only stop asking questions when the director says, “Cut! Okay, moving on.” The questions start globally, like what is the piece about? What is the style and how would the style affect behavior, such as a sitcom versus British period drama? What is the journey of my character in relation to everyone else in the piece and how does it relate to the theme?
Eventually, it all boils down to the microcosm of the moment. Let’s say my character is waking up. What wakes me up? What time is it? How long have I been sleeping? Did I get enough sleep? How do my eyes feel? How light is the room? Does anything ache? Who is this person next to me? How do I feel about them? In that microcosm, answers are in the body, put into action. The brain interprets the script and begins the exploration, and eventually, the body delivers the psychology.
What inspires you the most creatively?
EP: Being surrounded by brilliant, creative people. When I’m with artists at the top of their game, all working to create something bigger than we are, this is heaven on earth. I absolutely love when everyone brings their A-game. It means we’re all ready for the flow state. If you’re on a Spielberg set, you can bet that the person putting a figurine on the shelf in the background is among the best in the business and spent time obsessing about that figurine. Looking forward to that! Somebody please show Mr. Spielberg this article.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
EP: Only that I have an amazing and supportive family, that I am so lucky to do what I love for a living, and that life is a miracle.
Follow Erik Passoja on: Facebook.com/ErikPassojaActor / Instagram: @erikpassoja / Twitter: @ErikPassoja
About the Creator
I write about entertainment and the inspiring people who create it. Interviews with actors and filmmakers revealing their latest projects and what influences them creatively.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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