LL Cool J and Chris O'Donnell
Emelyn Yniguez of Las Vegas invited her mother, Nicole, to compete with her on Come Dance with Me.
When Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J were cast as Special Agents G. Callen and Sam Hanna on NCIS: Los Angeles, little did the actors know they would become close personal friends. Thirteen years later, they have joined forces to create and executive-produce Come Dance with Me. On the new CBS reality show, young dancers invite an untrained family member to partner with them for a chance at a $100,000 grand prize. Emmy contributor Dinah Eng caught up with the two producers to talk shop and friendship.
When did you two first meet?
Chris O'Donnell: CBS introduced our characters on NCIS [in 2009] for the spinoff. I had originally talked with them about doing the show without a partner. But CBS had a deal with LL and said, how about putting you two together? So the first time we met was at a table read for the pilot.
LL Cool J: The chemistry felt really good. We come from different backgrounds, but we had a lot in common. Having large families with lots of kids, loving music. We'd both been in the business twenty or thirty years. We connected on a human level.
CO: I didn't know what to call him at first, so I asked, "Should I call you LL?" He said, "No, call me Todd, cuz." [LL Cool J was born James Todd Smith.] He had on earphones and was listening to "Don't Stop Believin'" the whole time. He just has a positive attitude that infuses everything he does.
LL: I try to see the positive energy and vibe. But it's not enough to just think positive. You have to put the work in and be willing to sacrifice personal comfort to get to your goal.
And now, thirteen seasons later, you're close friends.
CO: We see each other every day when we're working, and when we're not working, we text or talk on the phone like siblings. After thirteen years, we have a shorthand.
LL: Chris likes to joke. I like to joke.
CO: He's so funny with his sayings. I was giving him a hard time about something once, and he said, "I don't receive that." I said, "I didn't know that was an option." I laugh because he gets a kick out of me and the sayings my family has, too.
LL: I even know what his father said when he wanted to be polite and had to go to the bathroom. He'd say, "I have to go conjure." When it comes to talking about success, Chris is always saying, "You have to feather the nest."
LL, we know you have direct experience in reality TV — you've been Emmy-nominated three times as a producer of Lip Sync Battle. But how did the two of you come to executive-produce Come Dance with Me?
CO: A friend of mine, Reinout Oerlemans, came to the U.S. from the Netherlands, where he was a TV star. He's got a production company [3 Ball Productions] and had this idea. I didn't know anything about reality TV or dancing, but I looked at his sizzle reel and took it to Todd. He said, "I'll do it if you do it," so we all got together.
LL: I loved the idea of young kids aspiring to dance, inviting someone important to them to dance with them. I love to do things that bring joy to people, to make their lives a little easier, even if it's on a half-hour television show. It's good mojo. We need shows that bring people together.
CO: We started talking about it close to four years ago, pre-Covid. CBS always seemed interested, but in a weird way, Covid tipped the scales. With the pandemic, we were having theme dinners and parties at home because you couldn't go anywhere.
LL: You could see mothers and fathers and sons and daughters dancing on TikTok and social media. CBS understood what we were trying to do, and the green light was illuminated.
So what did each of you do as producers?
LL: I had long conversations with Reinout, [executive producer] Jeff Altrock and 3 Ball about the diversity of music genres. I wanted to make sure people from all walks of life who enjoy different genres of music would enjoy the show. We've got hip-hop, dance, country, pop.
CO: It was fun doing the early-stage, big-picture thinking for a family show. I brought my relationship with CBS and whatever 3 Ball needed to get the idea to the table. I get very particular about authenticity when we shoot NCIS: Los Angeles. Todd and his team brought the same kind of authenticity and technical experience to Come Dance with Me.
LL: Executive-producing is about taking a vision and bringing it to reality. Whether it's the casting, the look of the stage, the look of the shows. We filmed in Australia and 3 Ball did a lot of the work. We talked before filming and then they sent me selects and different intros. We shared ideas about how things were going while they filmed.
CO: I love going on set and acting. Give me ten pages of dialogue, I go into a zone and it feels natural to me. Producing is different. There's a lot of salesmanship to it. It involves deal-making and relationships. I've been acting since I was fourteen and was a finance major in college, so I'm always interested in business opportunities. Producing has been a learning experience for me.
What makes the two of you good producing partners?
CO: As an actor, you feel a little like an island. You have your team around you, but I was always competitive and private about things. It's nice to have a real partner at work — on all fronts — from talking about scripts to our families. It's something I didn't have in the past.
LL: For me and Chris, his analytical way of looking at things and pragmatic approach complement my visionary and idealistic approach. He's taught me how to navigate the world with more clarity, and that family is extremely important. Chris loves his family and runs off set to be with them. He's helped me privately that way, and I think I've helped him to be more available publicly.
CO: He's taught me to embrace fans and welcome them as part of my acting career. The two of us are brutally honest with each other in private. We both have been around the block. We've seen highs and lows and recognize opportunity. We come from different backgrounds, but at our core, it's about hard work and family.
LL: I don't think we've ever had an argument. We just cool. We click.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "Click Mate."