Michael Weatherly Makes the Transition to Leading Man on CBS' 'Bull'

The actor reveals why it was time to say goodbye to Tony DiNozzo and 'NCIS' after 13 seasons.
David M. Russell/CBS

At first glance, it’s easy to mistake Michael Weatherly for, say, the high school football team captain whose table you would never dare to sit at during lunch. He’s got the good looks. His charm is undeniable. He’s amazingly successful. As it turns out, though, Weatherly is actually more like the kid who not only lets you sit at his table, but also shares his egg salad sandwich with you and offers to introduce you to all the cute seniors.

“My first impression upon meeting was, ‘Gosh, he’s handsome!” Mark Goffman, executive producer on Weatherly’s new CBS series Bull, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I can see how that might be off-putting to some people, but he’s so likeable with this amazing intelligence and wit about him. He’s somebody who can be very brutally honest with you, but he does it all in a way that’s incredibly endearing.”

Given that, it’s no surprise that the actor's first post-NCIS gig is playing a likable but brutally honest jury consultant named Dr. Jason Bull. “There’s a little bit of P.T. Barnum in Bull, which I love because that is always interesting,” explains the 48-year-old actor. “Bull’s a salesman trying to run his business, and sometimes when you’re selling something there has to be a certain degree of misdirection. If you show that in a non-cynical way, I think that’s very appealing.”

Leaving NCIS after 13 seasons wasn’t easy, but Weatherly admits that he’d started considering the move two years ago because of “several things." In addition to having a young family — he has a four-year-old daughter, Olivia, and a two-year-old son, Liam, with wife Bojana Jankovic — Weatherly explains, "I was financially stable. I was in my mid-40s and looking at the world around me realizing I felt a yearning creatively. It was clearly time to do whatever comes next, and I had the support of everyone around me.” He started to develop a series based on a book he’d optioned, but nothing seemed to grab him. He was waiting for “a very specific thing I wanted to do next and unless something that fit that description popped up, I wasn’t going to make a change.”

At first, he wasn’t sure that even Bull fit that bill. Then CBS execs explained that this show based on the pre-Oprah career of Dr. Phil McGraw was also co-created by Paul Attanasio (House, Homicide: Life on the Street), directed by Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment) and exec produced by Steven Spielberg. And the deal was done.

As much as he enjoyed playing charming rogue Anthony DiNozzo for 305 NCIS episodes, Bull felt like someone he was born to be from the first day he stepped on the show’s New York set. It didn’t hurt that, according to Weatherly, both DiNozzo and Bull have plenty in common. 

“They’re both fascinated by human behavior,” he says. “And Bull is more of a humanist but not a sucker, a realist but never cynical.”

“Bull is someone whose M.O. is to read people, to understand why they do what they do,” adds Goffman. “That means he might seem passive at times, but Michael has so much going on inside his head, he makes that interesting. He can be the alpha, the largest personality in the room but also be quiet and connect with people on an individual level. That’s a rare skill.”

Goffman praises Weatherly for “working hard to make Bull into his own character.” That’s a tough task considering that the jury consultant is modeled after someone who has had a well-established public persona ever since his consulting firm worked with Oprah Winfrey after she was sued by a group of Texas beef ranchers.

“It’s easy to dismiss the show by saying it’s just about a talk show host named Dr. Phil,” Weatherly says. “But it’s not just the cattle case that is interesting. He was also involved in a whole world of litigation that required his trial science.”

He’s so intrigued by fictional Phil that he’s been known to keep Goffman on the phone for hours on weekends, talking over his ideas for the direction of the series. He’s also fond of hanging out with the writers, letting them know “what I’m enthusiastic about in my own life.” That has led to future episodes getting more personal, like one where ex-subway busker Weatherly is given a guitar and another where he gets the chance to indulge his lifelong passion for playing baseball.

It’s not just with what Weatherly does on-camera that has impressed Goffman. It’s also what he does when the cameras stop rolling. From day one, he says Weatherly has been “the ideal number one person to have on your call sheet, someone who really knows how to lead the troops and keep everyone’s energy up."

He learned the importance of being a leader after watching ex-NCIS co-star Mark Harmon for more than a dozen years.

“I learned great things from Mark about how to be a leader, but he and I are very different people,” explains Weatherly. “I have this need to constantly entertain and use humor in every situation. So I move toward comedy a lot. Mark is more straight — the stoic captain — and he approaches things from a different angle than I do. My big takeaway from working with him is that this can be a hard job and everyone’s going to look at you to see if you’re tired. If you are, then they will be too. That happened the other day, when I was feeling exhausted. So I ended up doing a five-minute riff on being exhausted.”

While moving on from NCIS was important creatively for him, though, Weatherly wanted to first make sure DiNozzo fans understood his decision. The actor is proud to report that his move was “embraced by everyone with open arms.” He stays in regular contact with his former co-workers, and even spent time during the summer FaceTiming with Wilmer Valderrama, who was hired to replace him on the long-running procedural. Clearly, you can take the charming rogue out of NCIS but you can’t take the NCIS out of the charming rogue.

Still, he’s ready to get bullish on Bull because, well, it’s just what he does.

“I just co-hosted with Kelly Ripa on her show, and it reminded that this is called the entertainment industry for a reason,” Weatherly says. “The world is a very difficult place, and if you can offer somebody a smile to take the edge off, why wouldn’t you? We can’t be sticking our heads into the ground and ignoring everything around us. And that’s what Bull has already become for me — a fun experience that goes at the basics of human nature but in a way that I hope people find entertaining.”

Bull premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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