Abby, the pony-tailed forensic scientist on America’s most popular scripted show ”NCIS,” is probably the happiest Goth in history. Sure, she wears an all-black wardrobe, dark hair, a spider-web neck tattoo and toe rings but enjoys hugging everyone in sight.
Pauley Perrette, the actress who plays Abby, is very much the chipper personality (the hugging is all Perrette) but doesn’t wear anything goth-like at all. And the spider-web tattoo is fake.
“Pauley’s actually a blonde,” said Kevin Lawson, an Atlanta native who’s been friends with Perrette since he met her at the Point in Little Five Points nearly two decades ago. “Pauley normally wears big baggy Levi’s, sneakers and men’s white T-shirts.” The Nashville musician does agree that the hyper, caffeinated persona on TV is very much Perrette off camera.
“It’s hard to pull them apart. I think she got the job as Abby because she walked in and they said, ‘That’s her!’ ” he said. “She brings light any place she goes. Guys go ga ga over her because she’s strikingly beautiful, interesting and sexy but ladies are not threatened by her. She’s totally disarming.”
Perrette, who spent nine years in Atlanta and graduated from the now demolished Crestwood High School, is scheduled to be at the Atlanta Film Festival Monday to promote her short film “To Comfort You.” In it, she plays an HIV-stricken daughter.
The 41-year-old actress has fond memories growing up by the Chattahoochee River in Roswell. “I spent a majority of my childhood sitting by the river reading books,” she said. “I’d be there all the time with my dogs jumping in and out of the water.”
And no, she wasn’t reading romance novels. “I would read science textbooks,” she said. In fact, she picked up her interest in crime thanks partly to the notorious Atlanta child murder cases in the early 1980s. She studied sociology, psychology and criminal science at Valdosta State University and pursued (but never finished) a masters in criminology at Georgia State University.
She wanted to be a cop or FBI agent but fell instead into acting. “I’m fighting fake crime instead!” she said.
“NCIS” is an odd bird. In 2003, it began as a CBS spinoff of “JAG,” with no fanfare and decent but not spectacular ratings. But the show kept building fans. Perrette, part of an ensemble cast, was particularly memorable among the mostly straight-laced characters on the show. “Even people who don’t watch the show know who she is,” Lawson said.
When USA began airing repeats, viewers who avoid CBS began catching the originals, which now regularly draw 20 million viewers a week. And for the week of April 5, 21 repeats of the show on USA drew a whopping collective 58 million viewers.
“It’s a smart, funny, fun show,” Perrette said. “It’s a total blessing. I love my job!”
How popular is she? Her Q rating, a measure of celebrity likability, is comparable to that of Morgan Freeman and Tom Hanks.
Fans say they appreciate Abby’s quirky good girl/bad girl blend. “Despite her Goth look, she views the others as her family,” said Karen Port, an “NCIS” fan in St. Louis, in an email. “She is both salty and sweet. Has anyone just eaten one pistachio… very Abby.”
Amanda Beals, a digital strategist from Boston, loves how she’s the brains and humanity behind “the pretty people” who run around shooting people. Abby “is subversive with a smile and her dog collar chain; however, the viewer trusts that she will save the day.”
“People adore Abby,” Perrette said. “I love her. I think she’s awesome. I want to be her. I’m just proud I’ve been able to move forward in this industry, keep my head on straight and not lose my mind!”
Her friend Lawson said he appreciates that Perrette does not play “the game,” meaning eating at the cool restaurants, going to the “right” parties, schmoozing with the “right” people. “She’s changed like we all have,” she said. “But not in a bad way. She’s true blue, the real deal.”
Kevin Flatow, a high school friend of hers who is now a film producer and director in Los Angeles, said he’s flying out Monday with Perrette and will be at the Midtown Arts Cinema for the film at 7:20 p.m. (He wrote a song for the movie.)
They both plan to do a quick memory lane tour of Atlanta, including Little Five Points, Midtown and that spot at the Chattahoochee River.
Off camera, Perrette pens poetry, sings and writes music (pop and Americana). She has directed documentaries. Abby in an 2009 episode said, “I work 16 hours a day.” Flatow said Perrette, too is a workaholic.
“I think back to the time we spent in high school,” Flatow said, “and I never thought she’d wind up as a public figure. But I always knew she was destined for some kind of greatness.”
IN ADDITION: Nancy Bistritz, a Crestwood High School Class of 1990 grad, said her sister confirmed with her that Perrette (who went by Laura back in the day) was homecoming queen one year. In an email, Perrette said that was indeed true.