Renée Felice Smith was only supposed to be on NCIS: Los Angeles for six episodes. As she puts it, “I just kind of stuck around.” The truth is, the producers enjoyed the depth and chemistry her character, intelligence analyst Nell Jones, brought to the story lines, and they made her an integral part of the show.
Acting is nothing new for this NYU Tisch School of the Arts honors graduate. A year before she joined the cast of NCIS: Los Angeles, she appeared in the off-Broadway production of Wildflower. Yet, for all the love this native New Yorker has for the arts, her passion for animals runs just as deep. This past June her French Bulldog, Hugo, turned 3. To Smith, he is much more than a pet; he’s her inspiration. So much so that Smith is developing a children’s book series starring Hugo.
“It’s like a day in a life of him. In each book he learns a new activity,” Smith explains. “Like real-life Hugo, he’s kind of resistant. He has that bully attitude of, ‘I know all about this. I’m the coolest kid on the block.’ As each story goes forward, Hugo shows his vulnerable side, and he learns. Although he doesn’t fully change, he incorporates his new knowledge into his life.”
One activity Hugo has mastered is sleep. TAILS caught up with Smith to find out what happens when a day in the life of Hugo comes to an end, and it’s time to turn out the lights.
TAILS: Before we talk about Hugo, tell us what it’s like being a part of the cast of NCIS: Los Angeles.
Renée Felice Smith: It’s a great group of people. Everyone was so welcoming [to me]. We really are friends. I think it shows onscreen.
How would you describe your character, Nell Jones?
Nell is smart, and she’s not afraid to show it. She’s confident. She’s sassy. She has a lot of wit. She’s a good girl to have on your side.
Is she similar to you?
I think Nell is Renée to the 10th power. She’s the better-spoken, more well-read version of myself. I think I have some of the confidence Nell has for sure. I can speak my mind when I need to, but I trust Nell over Renée. She’s more informed.
What’s it like working with LL Cool J?
Oh man. He’s a really cool guy. We call him Todd on the set. The first day we met, he gave me a hug and nothing on his body moved. It’s like hugging a brick wall. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I just hugged LL Cool J!” He’s got so much energy—he’s the life of the party.
Let’s talk about the other man in your life who likes to party—Hugo. Is he your first dog?
He’s my first dog on my own. I grew up with dogs—large breeds—Labs, Great Danes, and a Chinese Shar-Pei at one point. So, I really wanted a large dog, but I knew I couldn’t with all my traveling. Frenchies are really large dogs in small bodies.
How did you select his name?
I made a list of about 40 different options. I ran it by my mom and my boyfriend. They were like, “Renée, these names are crazy.”
What was one of the names?
Meatball. So, I went back to the drawing board, and I just came up with Hugo. I really didn’t have any inspiration. I think it fits him, though. He has a strong presence.
He’s a ball of personality. Although, right now he’s curled up in the armchair on a pillow. When he sleeps, his head is always on a pillow.
On the subject of sleep, what does your bedtime ritual look like?
We always like to go for one last walk. We have to make sure we empty the bladder. Then Hugo jumps in my bed, and he usually crawls underneath the covers and sleeps around my feet. As the night goes on, he gradually makes his way to the air. He inches up throughout the night. By morning he’s half on a pillow and half under the covers.
He’s a pillow hog?
He sleeps like a human. When he sleeps under the covers, he rests his head on my knees. Then when he makes his way up, he uses a pillow. He thinks he’s a real boy.
So, Hugo is a good cuddler?
I love it. He keeps me warm. He’s like a warm water bottle. He’s good, too. He doesn’t kick or anything. I grew up with a Great Dane, and she would sleep in my bed. She would have these wild dreams, and I’d wake up with black-and-blue legs. So, Hugo is a dream compared to that.
Speaking of which, do you think he dreams?
Yeah. When he was a baby, he’d kind of make that suckling noise—like he was remembering his mother. I would just watch in awe and be a little sad about it. Once in a while if he’s really tired, he’ll still do that—dream about his mama’s milk.
Does he snore?
Yes, but only if he’s lying directly on his back.
Does he sleep in or is he an early riser?
He loves to sleep in. He comes to life around 4, 5, or 6 o’clock at night. Then I have to really tire him out.
What is the first book about in the Hugo book series?
Hugo goes to yoga class with his mom.
In college you minored in history. What do you love about history?
It has to do with the story of the people. I’m always interested in what it was like then. What were their days like? What were they doing? I’m interested in the more personal side of history, not so much of “this battle was fought here on this date.” I’m interested in: Who were those soldiers? Who were their families?
If you could go back to any time period, what would it be?
Probably the Revolutionary War time.
We talked about what Hugo dreams about, but what do you still dream of doing?
When I was a kid I always said I wanted to be a director, but I didn’t really know what that meant. Now I do—and I still kind of want to be a director.
Who inspires you?
My mom. She’s a really creative person. I’ve always admired her. Professionally, I’d have to say Penny Marshall or Carol Burnett. And Lucille Ball. She was an amazing woman who ran her own studio and took care of her kids at the same time. I hope I can embody even just a sliver of that.