Eric Christian Olsen: peripatetic funny guy, newly minted goofy cop, culinary school student. Olsen might look familiar from one of his dozen or so TV roles — Community, Brothers & Sisters, The Loop, Get Real, Tru Calling, etc. — but these days he’s Deeks, a mysterious and occasionally silly investigator on NCIS: LA. Deeks is the subject of tonight’s backstory-heavy episode, so Vulture caught up with the actor to ask him how one goes from playing a perpetually bare-chested skeaze on Community to a gun-toting ex-undercover cop on a show with 17 million viewers a week.
There are a lot of fan-made romance videos about Deeks and his partner Kensi (Daniela Ruah). Did that catch you off guard, given that you’re on a procedural?
I remember the first time we went on to YouTube [to see these videos], and there’s literally hundreds of them … I mean, I get it. I watch the show, and I’m emotionally invested in [Deeks and Kensi] getting together.
And they seem to be set to a wide variety of music.
Some of [the videos] are set to Justin Bieber music, and some are set to “Adagio for Strings,” and that’s sort of the crazy thing about the demographic for NCIS:LA. It’s the widest spectrum of fans.
You have been on other shows without … such a wide demographic.
Yeah, I’ve been on a lot of shows that don’t have 19 million viewers. [Laughs.] I mean, Community is one of my favorite shows on TV — I’m a huge fan of the Russo brothers and Arrested Development, which is why I did it … What other shows [have I been on]? Oh, Brothers & Sisters. I never watched Brothers & Sisters. I did it because I loved Rachel [Griffiths] from Six Feet Under.
Do you think Vaughn will be back on Community?
I would love it. I love those guys, and it’s always a possibility. I talked to Dan Harmon about trying to do it this season, but I shoot 80 hours a week on NCIS: LA. Maybe next year.
TV Guide says that you get an “A in sexual chemistry.” Was that always your best subject?
I mean, I will take the compliment. [Laughs.] I was better at organic chemistry. I’m actually blushing right now. I’m in my car watching a woman load watermelons into her Toyota Tacoma, and I’m dangerously close to getting out and helping her. I guess that would be rude to you. Uh … sexual chemistry … I was trying to change the subject, but now I changed it back.
I like how you’re trying to get away from sexual-chemistry talk by announcing your desire to do something chivalrous.
Is there a burning tree with a cat in it somewhere that I can go save?
Most of your previous work is in the goofy, physical-comedy vein. Was being on a more traditional cop show something you pursued specifically?
I usually do two movies a year, and that means I’m gone [from L.A.] for about six months. Last year I said, “I think I want to stay in Los Angeles.” So during pilot season, I went to Le Cordon Bleu for culinary school. I was doing auditions and meetings during the day and going to culinary school at night. And then NCIS happened. So I dropped out of culinary school.
Tell me about culinary school! What prompted that?
I had read Bill Buford’s Heat, and [cooking] was something I didn’t know anything about. I knew I was going to be doing pilot season, and the idea of just doing that without scattering in new information didn’t sound appealing. At culinary school, none of the things we use to define ourselves outside that world — actor, producer, student — none of that matters. It’s a magical art form. I was only in there for six weeks of an eight-month course before I had to drop out to start filming, but I’ll go back. You’re doing five hours a night, and you’re doing three entrees and two appetizers and side dishes and sauces, and you’ve got six stoves going and there’s fire everywhere — and it becomes zen. It’s like a runner’s high. But, uh, cooking … Man, I can’t wait to see how you put this kaleidoscope of nonsense into a story.