Chris O’Donnell’s perpetually youthful features belie his impressive credentials. Despite looking like he’s 30, the actor — actually 43 — is a bona fide veteran of the often ruthless Hollywood system, with three decades under his belt.
The Winnetka native built his name in the ‘90s with roles like Charlie Simms in “Scent of a Woman,” Chris Reece in “School Ties” and as the feathered-capped D’Artagnan in “The Three Musketeers.” He starred in 15 movies during that decade, even playing Robin to two different Batmans. He drove fans into a fervor with his piercing blue eyes, effortlessly swooshed hair and trademark smirk. People worldwide knew his name.
Things cooled off slightly during the early aughts while the actor focused on family (he even turned down Will Smith’s role in “Men in Black”). But now, thanks to his role on “NCIS: Los Angeles,” his star is as bright as ever. The show, which is in its fifth season and has shot more than 100 episodes (a milestone for any series), is broadcast in 200 countries and is in syndication, with regular marathons on channels like USA. It reaches about 16 million people per week, a viewership greater than any of O’Donnell’s films. “It’s astonishing the reach of a show like this,” he says. “This is definitely as big as anything I’ve ever done in my career.”
“NCIS: Los Angeles” follows O’Donnell’s character, G. Callen, a special agent in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, as he and his incredibly attractive team go undercover to solve crimes. O’Donnell reveals that this season, which premiered Sept. 24, viewers will learn more about his character’s past and complicated family history, though he admits that he’s unable to divulge much — mostly because he doesn’t know. “It’s funny, I never ask what’s coming up. I don’t even know what my [character’s] name is,” O’Donnell says, referring to one of the show’s mysteries: the full name of G. Callen. “It’s fun not knowing. Every week we get new scripts and every week you learn something new about the character.”
Off set, O’Donnell’s life is almost as hectic as Callen’s. With his wife, Caroline Fentress, he’s juggling the grueling schedule of parenting five kids: Lily (14), Christopher (12), Charles (10), Finley (7) and Maeve (5). “It’s chaos here,” he says. “Saturday morning when I wake up I’m just so exhausted. The kids are raring to go and there’ll be a half-dozen sporting events on Saturday.” Though O’Donnell tries to prioritize his family, his intense shooting schedule takes its toll, costing him precious family time. “There are a lot of days where I wake up in the morning and it’s dark out and everyone’s asleep, and I come home and it’s dark out and everyone’s asleep.”
He’s put down roots in LA, but O’Donnell admits that California life comes with its share of baggage. “It’s a tough place to raise your kids and have them be grounded,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to have been raised with Midwest values.” He has no plans to move back, but he’s still a Chicago guy at heart. He got his start here, landing his first modeling gig for Montgomery Ward. (Comparing that first shoot with his Splash cover shoot, he jokes, “There wasn’t as much polyester today.”)
Though he proclaims to “love everything about Chicago,” he only makes it back a couple of times each year, so he makes the visits count. A trip back last winter ranks among his most memorable. “The Blackhawks were playing the [Los Angeles] Kings and I said, ‘We’ve got to go to this game!’ But I couldn’t go without my boys, so I called my wife and said, ‘Just put them on American Airlines.’ We picked them up and went straight to the United Center. It was such an amazing game; the Hawks won in triple overtime.”
Spending days off with family and the rest of the week filming doesn’t leave O’Donnell with much time for the gym. So how does the actor stay in peak crime-fighting shape? “You really have to watch what you eat,” he admits. “For me, I have to avoid the kids’ plates. Sometimes you feed the kids early and they’re having something that looks really good, and all of a sudden you start finishing their plates and then you go out later to another dinner. You start having double meals.”
When he’s in need of a rapid fix, O’Donnell turns to Derek Johnson, founder of New Metabolism, for a quick cleanse, cutting out alcohol, sugar, caffeine, dairy and wheat for two weeks. “It kick-starts me,” he says. “All of a sudden you’re eating healthier. Though I’ve been known to cheat on my healthy programs,” he adds, laughing.
After three decades in showbiz, O’Donnell knows how superficial Hollywood can be. Now that his daughter Lily is 13, the age O’Donnell was when he started, and eyeing acting, life is coming full circle. And just like his own father did, O’Donnell takes a cautiously supportive position, saying, “You’re going to get your education and be open to different opportunities, and if you still feel passionate about it, that’s great.”
His awareness of the industry’s pitfalls is what’s kept him grounded. “The roller coaster of this business is really tough,” O’Donnell says. “I’ve had a good career and I’ve dealt with enormous disappointments. If you’re not comfortable with who you are, it can be devastating.”
Though other actors with his longevity may become obsessed with Hollywood’s Neverland mentality — never age, never grow up — O’Donnell has moved past that, finding contentment both at home and on set. “For me, where I’m at with my life right now, I could not be happier.”
We turn back time: O’Donnell reflects on some of Splash’s favorite flashback films:
Men Don’t Leave (1990)
“[Joan Cusack] and I were supposed to be having a relationship in this movie [audition], but she was just so much older and taller than me. We were doing this scene together and I just started laughing. I talked to the producer in the hallway and said ‘No one is going to believe this. Thanks for your time and I’m going to get out of here.’ ” (Later, they both got the parts.)
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
“It was my 21st birthday, and I pulled into the Holiday Inn and was all excited, like, ‘I know all the crew, we’ll have a party.’ They were like, ‘No, we’re doing night shoots tonight.’ So I had takeout Chinese food and a six-pack of beer by myself. It wasn’t what I imagined for my 21st birthday, but it’s OK.”
Scent of a Woman (1992)
“I think getting the part was one of the greatest satisfactions I’ve ever had in my life. I wanted it really bad, I worked really hard preparing for it. I remember I was standing in the sunroom with my mom and I got the phone call and it felt amazing.”
Circle of Friends (1995)
“Minnie Driver was funny. She started crying during the table read, and I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ It was because in the room next to us there was a TV and on it was a tampon commercial she was in. And she was so embarrassed. Here was her first movie, and in the next room they were airing her in a tampon commercial.”
Batman & Robin (1997)
“That one was kind of a mess; it wasn’t ready to go. George [Clooney] was great to work with, though. Arnold [Schwarzenegger], even though I’m in scenes with him, we never actually filmed together. Every time we were in the same scene it was his double. The movie was a disaster, but we had a great time.”
Behind the scenes
Shoot credits: Photographer: Mark Sacro; Stylist: Claire Zimmerman for The Wall Group; Groomer: Sydney Zibrak for The Wall Group; Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios; Venue: Tavern Restaurant (11648 San Vicente, Los Angeles)[ooyala code=”FjYzdlZjpx4ExlkZRoishttogCcxenFG” player_id=”6a2df3b63e284329878af255b1be229d”]
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