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BREAKING THE MOLD: Sean Murray Talks Life, Music, ’NCIS’ And Creative Evolution!

Sean Murray – Photo By Bobby Quillard

He may be known as Special Agent Timothy McGee on CBS’s long running hit naval drama “NCIS,” but 38-year-old Sean Murray has been acting since his early teens. His credits include cult favorites “Hocus Pocus” and “Jag” and talent-heavy drama “This Boy’s Life.” He’s acted alongside such greats as Leonardo DiCaprio, Bette Midler, Robert De Niro and, of course, the backbone of “NCIS” Mark Harmon. Going on 14 years on “NCIS,” Murray has been able to progress and develop his character from a probationary field agent to a mainstay of the program. Where would “NCIS” fans be without McGee? However, there’s more to Murray than his iconic character and his acting career. There’s his deep love of electronic music and hip hop, as well as helping to heal the coastal waters and watersheds of the Greater Los Angeles area. There are many sides to the talents of Sean Murray. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently had the pleasure of sitting down with him to discuss his career, creative evolution and much more!

Let’s go back to your early years. How did you get involved with the arts early on and decide to pursue your passion professionally?

As far back as I can remember, I was always a little performer. Whether I was doing book reports, oral presentations in class, doing some sort of imitation or putting on a show for my parents when they came home from work, I was always doing something. Performing, and acting specifically, is something I have always known I wanted to do as far back as I can remember. It was the deal for me! I did a little bit of theater and dabbled a little bit in acting but what made me want to do it professionally was when I saw “Stand By Me.” River Phoenix’s work on that film had a big impact on me and I would say is what made me want to pursue it more than anything. Luckily, I had a mother with a pretty adventurous spirit, so she was down to give it a go and go on the adventure with me.

It’s funny because my mother was great about facilitating and helping me pursue what I wanted to do but at the same time was not like a stage mother in any way. I am blessed I had the opposite of the classic stage parents. My parents were like, “God bless ya. Good luck. We have no idea what is going on over there but we wish you the best!” [laughs] A couple of years in, I found out that my mother’s grandmother, my great-great grandmother, Hilda Dorrington, was a pretty famous actress in Australia where my family is from. She was the leading lady at the Sydney Opera House around the turn of the century — the early 1900s.

It sounds like performing is definitely in the blood!

Yeah, I guess so! [laughs]

What type of impact did getting started in the industry have on you and the way you approach things today?

I knew what I wanted to do back then and I know what I want to do now. I think that has just become more focused and crystallized a little bit as I have grown and gotten further down the road. I am always ready to jump in there!

Sean Murray – Photo By Bobby Quillard

An entire generation will recognize you from your role in “Hocus Pocus.” How did you get involved with that project and what impact did it have on you?

I got started professionally around 12 or 13 years old. “Hocus Pocus” came to me a few years later. I was on the audition circuit, like most kid actors, at the time and I was lucky to get involved with the project. It’s funny because we had such an awesome time making that movie and that set was one of the most amazing of all time. The stages we had built for that movie were unbelieveable. It was such a big Hollywood undertaking and to be a part of that was pretty amazing. When the movie released, it was kind of a sleeper. I think it did just OK for a few weeks and kind of faded away. I think the weekend it came out it was number four or five at the box office, something like that. Over the years, it really became this cult thing. It was airing every Halloween and now it has become this big thing. Everyone has been running around talking about if there will be a sequel made for it for about the last 10 years! [laughs]

With the current wave of ‘90s nostalgia it seems it could become a reality!

Yeah! Who knows what will become of it! I would not be surprised at all to see it franchise out and show up again. That was really kind of an original flick with some very cool characters that you don’t see all that often. I was 14 when I made that and I will get kids that are 11 or 12 years old and say, “Hey! You are Binx from ‘Hocus Pocus!’” [laughs] That is wild to me but their parents were my age and watched the movie when they were kids and now their kids watch it! It is wild! I have even been told by a number of people that physically I haven’t changed much! I guess I still look like I am 14! [laughs]

In the scheme of things, that is a good problem to have!

Yeah! That is what they say! I could have worse problems!

What are your favorite memories of that period of time and making a true cult classic?

I remember when we were filming in Salem, Massachusetts. I remember all of the falls in the Fall and the twilight there where we were. It was really special. I think we were in Salem for three or four weeks. We all got along really well too — me, Omir [Katz], Vinessa [Shaw] and Thora [Birch]. Thora was very young but she was 10 going on 40! [laughs] She is a very smart girl! We were a pretty inseparable little bunch! That was super cool! Sarah Jessica Parker was awesome and Cathy was very cool as well. We were having fun bringing this story to life with Kenny Ortega. It is cool to look back and to have that! To have it be popular all of these years later is very interesting!

Sean Murray - Photo By Bobby Quillard
Sean Murray – Photo By Bobby Quillard

Another project everyone knows you from is “NCIS,” which also has a huge following! How did you get involved with the series and what has it been like to grow through the years alongside this character?

It has been quite a journey! Ya know, McGee was originally a one episode character that was written as a rookie agent who was stationed in Norfolk. In that particular episode, episode seven of season one, there was a body found at a Naval Base in Norfolk. I was a local rookie agent there and was helping them a little bit on the side with the case. The end of the episode was left open ended, meaning my character wasn’t killed or in prison, which was a good sign! It ended on a nice light note, with an inference that I was possibly going out on a date with Abby at some point. It was a one time deal. They did the next episode and I had no part in it, of course. Two or three episodes later, they had finished putting together one of the episodes in editing and they came up around three minutes short and they realized they had a lot of time to fill. Three minutes short is quite a bit of film! They said, “Hey! How about we bring back the McGee character and have a little C story with Tony going on and film a few scenes of that. A little isolated deal. Then we will have that to fill the three minutes.” We did that and it went well! After that, my character started appearing in each episode with a little more to do each time. Eventually, we got to an episode called “Dead Man Talking,” which was kind of a quintessential stake out episode. It was one of the first times for me, McGee, and a lot of the characters and the basic layout of the way things were going to be on the show occurred in that episode. That is the episode where we start to see the slices of the pie that everyone would be filling. It was feeling right, if that makes sense! There was more to do and it was vibing well! It felt like the family was working and it was really in the air. I, of course, was hoping something would come of it but you never know! I have been in this business for 26 years and nothing means anything until it is already done! [laughs] We finished out that first season and I had been with everyone for several months at that point. I said, “I hope to see you guys again in the future!” Luckily enough, McGee became one of the main agents in the first episode of Season Two. It has been growing ever since.

He started out as a very rookie agent with no social skills, big problems communicating, book smarts, no street smarts, no common sense, very studied, computer wiz, MIT and Johns Hopkins studied but really a rookie in all kinds of ways! I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity of playing a character that has been around for going on 14 years now. I’ve been able to have the character grow and grow with him. That is something not a lot of actors ever get to do. You might do a show and it lasts a little while or do a movie that lasts a year at the most. To be able to inhabit a character for that long, some would say it’s a curse but it is a blessing! You get to explore all types of little nooks and crannies and dive into some interesting stuff. The character has grown very much. That is something I pushed from the get-go and everyone from the writers to the show runners have been very receptive of it. I didn’t want this role to be like “The Simpsons” where the baby, Maggie, resets to default at the beginning of the show each week! [laughs] If you are going to have a rookie agent on the show, as the show moves forward, it would only make sense that the agent would continue to learn, improve and you would travel along with him as it went. That has been great! I hear it from a lot of people and a lot of fans have really been excited about the growth of McGee and the changes he has experienced throughout the years. Now he is a senior field agent and has a fiancée. It’s a lot different than when he first started out there! Things have changed for him and he has been through a lot. He has a confidence and a little bit of street smarts that he picked up from a few people, along with the common sense that comes from the job and life experience he couldn’t have begun to dream of in the old days! It has been so much fun because, as an actor, you can really get bored with a character or environment pretty quickly. We are now in our 14th year and I have never gotten bored with my character ever or with what we are doing. I think that is because we are constantly pushing it. If everyone were just phoning it in and saying, “OK, those are the character, rely on that,” that would sure be easy but I don’t know if it would be fun to watch!

I imagine you have been able to form great relationships with the people you work with behind the scenes.

Oh, yeah. Not just with the cast but with cast and crew alike. The shorthand between everyone is really unparalleled! We take it for granted sometimes how quickly we are all able to jump into a situation, both in front of and behind the cameras, and get some really amazing and cool stuff done without painstakingly orchestrating every little bit of it. There is an intuitive thing to what we all do! When we have day players come in as crew members for the day, it affects what everyone does and affects the days greatly because there is a shorthand on the set that we have with each other. We also shoot out on these stages in the desert alone, not next to any other big Hollywood shows, and we are in our own little universe out there. It’s really been a blast and as it goes it has been more and more fun to keep exploring those characters. Now, we have a lot of interesting stuff going on, so we are able to play with new dynamics. It has been a lot of fun so far!

Sean Murray - Photo By Bobby Quillard
Sean Murray – Photo By Bobby Quillard

When you look back at your career to date, how have you evolved as an actor?

I have never really brought this up but I have been thinking about it. There is a lot to be learned from mentors. A lot of young people, regardless of whatever their craft is, tend to overlook that. There is a world of knowledge that people have learned from experience in those crafts and with the same things you are trying to pursue. I know that I’ve sought out mentors along the way, not even consciously. There is a lot to learn from people who have been around. There are a lot of teachers out there who want to teach you and have a lot to teach you. You can really learn a lot from those guys. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the biggest and the best in the business and you usually take away something from all of them. I have worked with Robert DeNiro, Bette Midler, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Harmon, in addition to plenty of people who have come through the show that are huge A-list names who have been amazing! What really sucks is when you meet someone you love and they are an asshole! [laughs] That’s horrible! Luckily, I have been fortunate enough not to have that happen. There really is something to that. Stuff that will take you decades and decades to learn, you can get a little head start on sometimes from a mentor and that can be very helpful.

I heard through the grapevine you are a huge music fan. How did first music come into your life?

Oh, I am a total music nerd! My first memories of life are related to the music that was played during my childhood. My first memory is looking at the back of a seat, being a young child in a car seat in the back of a car, and looking out the window seeing the sky and hearing Neil Diamond. I remember the melodies and I learned later on it was Neil Diamond. I listen to everything! I mean, if it is good I’ll listen to it! In a way it is how I tell time and all of my memories are associated in some way with music. It always has been. I have got an ear for it and I play guitar. I taught myself guitar and piano. I have been playing a lot of synthesizers, some 808s, some 303s, some drum machines lately. I am a real big fan of electronic music. Two of the biggest types of music I am into is electronic music and hip hop.

Since we are talking music, who have you been listening to lately? Anyone we should be on the lookout for?

I love talking about this stuff! Any hip hop fan who is not listening to Earl Sweatshirt yet should be! He is a local guy out of Los Angeles who has a couple of great albums. His most recent album is a 36-minute album. There is no filler. It’s all genius! It’s called, “I Don’t Like Shit. I Don’t Go Outside.” It’s brilliant! He is doing hip hop on another level. They asked Kendrick Lamar recently at one of the Reddit AMA “Ask Me Anything” deals who he thought was the next thing to look at and he immediately said Earl Sweatshirt. I was so happy to read that because I have been a big fan of his for a long time and he is truly amazing. He is coming up and is totally unreal. My favorites of all time? I grew up on Aphex Twin and Run DMC. Aphex Twin, to me, is the godfather of electronic music. I think most people involved with electronic music would not argue with that! Richard D. James recently came out with the “Cheetah” EP under the Aphex Twin moniker. It is actually cool because he gave himself a little parameter. It is an EP made strictly out of sounds he could get out of the Cheetah MS 800, which is a notoriously difficult machine to program. The self-imposed parameter was that he could only use strictly what he got out of the box. The whole EP is gorgeous! He is really a guy who likes to challenge himself and I find that really inspiring. In the field of electronic music, he is the real exception to the rule. He is definitely a prodigy. You know, I drive to work every day, a 50 miles round trip, so I am listening to music constantly. I have an insatiable appetite for ingesting stuff! If it’s good, I’ve got to get it! It doesn’t matter what it is! I could sit here and name off 100 great albums from this year but I don’t want to bore anyone to death! [laughs I just can’t get enough when it comes to music!

Sean Murray - Photo By Bobby Quillard
Sean Murray – Photo By Bobby Quillard

You live in a great area to check out live music. What are some of the best live shows you ever attended?

The best live show I have seen happened about a year and a half ago. I was at the Staples Center, seventh row, to see Jay-Z! Oh man, that was so good! You know, when you are in the seventh row at a show, you are pretty sure he is just performing for you guys because you forget about the million people behind you! [laughs] It was unbelievable! I love Jay-Z! When it comes to hip hop, he is the king!

Since you are so deeply into music and create in your free time, is there a chance we may hear something from you in the future?

Believe it or not, yeah. I think that is something I would like to pursue at some point. Making music is something I have done and will continue to do. As far as making it publicly available in the future, we will see. Music will always be a vastly important part of my life. I would love for people to hear some of the sounds I can make, so it is a possibility!

I know you also lend your voice to a lot of great causes. What can we help you shine a light on?

I have been involved with a project called Heal The Bay and I have started doing a lot with them recently. My family is from Australia originally and I am first generation American. My father was born in America. His grandmother was Australian and they go back in Australia quite a way. In addition, my mother is Australian. Anyway, when I was younger, I spent most of my time in Australia and was raised on beaches. I’m a beach kid and that is how I have always been! It is funny because you come to LA and the worst beaches in the world are here. The place is a mess and it is disgusting. It’s crazy! Take Santa Monica for example, that beach is one of the most polluted and horrible examples of what can go wrong. Somehow they are selling it on the tourism board out there as a reason you should visit America! “Come out and enjoy Santa Monica beach!” Meanwhile, you have more plastic than you have fish! It is kind of ridiculous. It is all about what is going to happen in the future. People talk about being green and of course you have to do all of that stuff but when you have certain data in front of you with numbers showing what will happen at the current rate of pollution, it is staggering! It is stuff that can be easily avoided. You do what you can do there physically but it is also about getting laws passed to cut down on that stuff. For example, when you have paper bags, why do you need plastic bags everywhere? Why do we need that at all? Why aren’t we utilizing a lot of the runoff that ends up getting dumped in the ocean as trash when we could recycle that and put it into a drought ridden area. It is insane! It’s all just nuts to me and to me it is a no brainer. As far as lending my voice what Heal The Bay does, especially for the beaches here, it’s a no brainer!

Something else I am very passionate about, because it is personal for me, is supporting military families. There is a lot of support for people in the military, which is amazing! My father was a 30-year Navy captain and I grew up on bases. I have nothing but respect for the military and everyone who is part of it. There’s lots of support out there for the troops. What I am shocked by is that people don’t give as much thought to the families, the kids and the spouses that are at home while our military personnel serve. They are working just as hard as the person enrolled in the military at keeping everything together at home. Being a military spouse and keeping it together in that situation is something that takes a family to do. I know because I was a part of one. Military wives basically have to live as single mothers and it is hard stuff. There is an infrastructure that the families have as far as taking care of each other when the spouses are deployed. A lot of people aren’t aware of that stuff. You also have a lot of young military guys who are going to war and have a young wife, who may be pregnant, back at the base while they are at war. Someone has to watch out for these people. Inside the base, that is done but there aren’t a lot of funds or anything set up as far as that goes. It is just an unofficial responsibility. My wife is a school teacher and it is very similar to the way a lot of teachers pay out of their own pockets for classroom expenses. It is a similar sort of thing. I think with all the support the military receive, that aspect of it, the families, really needs to be thought about and addressed just as much.

Sean Murray - Photo By Bobby Quillard
Sean Murray – Photo By Bobby Quillard

You have seen and done a lot over the course of your career. What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey so far?

A lot of people come out and want to be actors. They read stories over people being discovered on street corners and put into movies, this, that and the other. They don’t hear the story about Joe Pesci trying to make it for 30 years, barely getting an audience and basically leaving town before he got his first real call, which ended up being “Raging Bull.” You don’t really hear about those stories. I have been doing this for 26 years. I have been fortunate and I have done well along the way. “NCIS” didn’t happen until 14 years into my career! I went through times of working a movie and a series at once to not being able to find a job. That is the career of an actor. I am very fortunate to be in a place where I’ve been able to be an employed actor for a steady amount of time! That is really something that doesn’t happen that often. It’s a blessing! Like I said, I started this journey 26 years ago and it didn’t happen overnight. You have to persevere. I often think back on all of the stuff I went through, all the the times I was told, “No,” rejections and the total downers where I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I think about now, today or what I did this morning with Paulie and Harmon or what I was doing with Michael in a boiler room last year! Even before that, I think about what I did with Bette in “Hocus Pocus.” When I did “Hocus Pocus,” it was the most amazing thing ever to me and it always will be to me! It is all special to me! People don’t realize it takes time and it takes work. Success doesn’t happen overnight. It does happen to a few but it is very, very rare but those are the ones you hear about, not the ones who worked their asses off for 40 years!

You are definitely an inspiration, Sean! I wish you continued success in everything you do!

Thanks so much, Jason! I really appreciate that! Take care!

Catch Sean Murray in new season of ‘NCIS’ when it premieres on September 20th, 2016 on CBS. Follow his continuing adventures on Twitter and Instagram!