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'NCIS: Los Angeles''s Renée Felice Smith on why size doesn't matter

Barrett Foa as Tech Operator Eric Beale (Barrett Foa) and Intelligence Analyst Nell Jones (Renée Felice Smith) on "NCIS: Los Angeles."
Barrett Foa as Tech Operator Eric Beale (Barrett Foa) and Intelligence Analyst Nell Jones (Renée Felice Smith) on "NCIS: Los Angeles."
CBS/Cliff Lipson

"NCIS: Los Angeles" switches things up and puts Tech Operator Eric Beale (Barrett Foa) and Intelligence Analyst Nell Jones (Renée Felice Smith) into the field on Tuesday night's "Zero Days" episodes. The action begins when a college friend of Eric's is shot at and the shorts-wearing computer genius goes to investigate. As a result, Eric is the key witness when his college buddy Ira (Tate Ellington) is coerced by people wanting info that can be used to redirect a Russian missile.

Of course, not being a true field operative, Eric gets arrested and thrown into jail with two burly biker dudes, and Nell has to seduce Eric's college buddy Ira into telling her what is really going on.

"There are a lot of sweet moments between Eric and Nell," Smith tells in an exclusive interview. "Eric is a little jealous because he sees Nell interacting with one of his old friends in this flirtatious way. It gives our characters something to have conflict over and it creates a little drama for us."

We also chatted with Smith about how she sees the Eric/Nell relationship, whether or not size matters, being groomed by Hetty (Linda Hunt) for bigger and better things, and more. Check out what she had to say:

In this episode, Nell uses her female wiles to try to seduce information out of a friend of Eric's. Is that comfortable for you?

You know what is so funny, I am always seen as this tomboy character. I think it has a lot to do with my voice, because it is has a raspy, childlike-quality to it. But it was fun, because I got to play something that I am not usually perceived as. I got to put on some glasses, a classy suit and play this hard-hitting lawyer, who uses her charm to get the information out of Ira. Females do this. They can be manipulative and we see Nell, basically, have the opportunity to use her female prowess in that way. I have to say, a highlight was reprimanding LL Cool J [who plays Special Agent Sam Hanna] and throwing him out of the interrogation room to give me space to do this with Ira.

What else can you tease about the episode?

Nell welcomes Eric back from jail, where he had been caught in the slammer between these two burly, hairy men. It is totally Nell's style how she welcomes him back, she cracks a joke about prison food. I really enjoy the way these characters are written in this way, where they incorporate humor, just like we do in our own lives to do with stress or tragedy. When our world is crashing down, we need someone to help pick up the pieces and put a smile back on our face. Nell, a lot of times, has played that role on the show. She offers a little bit of wit. It acts as a way to lift a scene.

When Nell started at NCIS: Los Angeles, she was mainly there to do research and computer investigation, but now they have let her out in the field. How did you convince Executive Producer Shane Brennan to let you do that?

I don't know. I guess he gives me these little tests and every time I prove myself, so they give me a little more and we see Nell becoming this little Mighty Mouse, kind of Hetty 2.0. She can handle herself in the field. We saw her in a knife fight in the boat shed, battling this brawny dude who was probably three times her size, so she can hold her own. Whatever training Hetty has given her off screen, which we have not seen, I think it's paying off. Shane has hinted that Nell is Hetty in the making. I think Hetty sees a lot of herself in Nell and wants to groom her and help her develop and realize her full potential.

What do you think the qualities are that Hetty sees in Nell?

I think they are both fiercely independent. I think they have strong opinions. Sometimes, it gets them into trouble, but they are not going to shy away from it. I really respect that about both women. I think oftentimes they are the outsider. They are the odd man out. They are not necessarily physically intimidating or the bombshell agent, but they use what they have, and they use it to their advantage. That is what appeals to me most about both characters. They are really strongly intelligent and they use their smarts to survive.

So you would say size doesn't matter in this instance?

Yeah. Obviously, I play a character who is slight in frame, as I am. Sometimes in life people treat you differently. People treat you differently because you're a female, People treat you differently because you sound like you're 16 on the phone. But you have to use those moments to assert yourself. I think that is what Nell has learned through her experience in the workplace. She was fresh out of college when she started and she was working with these really intimidating field agents -- LL Cool J, Chris O'Donnell, Daniela Ruah and Eric Olsen -- these are big, formidable people. For me, as well, being an actor, I remember my first day on the set, I gave LL Cool J a hug and I thought I popped a rib. You learn your value and you learn how to assert yourself.

To me, sometimes it looks as if Nell is interested in Eric, other times it seems more as if she just thinks they are work buddies.

I think that Nell really admires Eric. I think she really respects him and his intelligence. I think that, for me, if I work that closely with someone, it would mean a lot to forge a relationship with them outside of work. I wouldn't want to jeopardize losing that strong friendship and working relationship just for some flirtation outside of the workplace. I think Nell feels that as well. She is trying to see where is the line and have we crossed it. I think it is something that a lot of young people grapple with in the workplace: Do I start a relationship with this person I have become really close to? It is interesting for me to play the levels of that. I think Eric definitely comes on strong sometimes, and he gives up more than Nell does, but I think that is because Nell is a little guarded. Who knows where that comes from? Maybe she has been burned in the past. Maybe she hasn't felt this attention before from a male counterpart.

You wrote produced and directed a short film, any aspirations to direct an episode of "NCIS: Los Angeles"?

"NCIS" is a beast of a show. There is a lot of action. There is a lot of slick camera moves. It really takes an experienced director. I am not there yet. For my own projects, I prefer to work on a little bit lighter material. I enjoy comedy. I enjoy family drama. So, that is where my interests lie.

"NCIS: Los Angeles" airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

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