NCIS: LAkicks off its 12th season on Sunday with the fan favorite character, played by Linda Hunt, making a welcomed appearance, updating viewers on what she's been up to and where she currently is.
ET exclusively premieres a sneak peek from the premiere, titled "The Bear," revealing that Hetty -- dressed in fatigues, as revealed in an early behind-the-scenes photo -- is in the middle of a secret war-torn location. She's specifically sought out former NCIS team member Nell (Renee Felice Smith), who took time off to grieve her mom's death, to fill her shoes for the time being.
"I'm so sorry to hear about your mother's passing, Miss Jones, and I want to apologize for calling you so late but I need a favor," Hetty begins her pitch, involving missing Russian aircraft.
"Hetty, I don't work here anymore," Nell reminds her. But when Hetty asks for a favor, you just don't say no. "I know dear, but the team needs someone to run point on this," Hetty says, before she abruptly signs off when the confidential location she's posted up at begins to undergo heavy fire, promising to "check in when I can. Good luck."
Smith spoke to ET about Nell's de facto new position as operations manager, sharing that viewers will see a new side to the character as she balances added responsibilities and oversight of the NCIS team.
"At the start of the season, we see Nell as sort of this baby Hetty role, which is really exciting. It's been quite a change-up but in a really good, really refreshing way," the actress teases. "I can confirm that we will be seeing another side of Miss Jones. She's really finding her voice. She's learning how to manage and engage her team in a new way. There are some really, really beautiful moments with other characters throughout this season, including moments with Callen in Hetty's office and a really sweet heart-to-heart with Kensi and quite a touching scene with Deeks. And Sam gives her a talking to as well about her new position and her intentions with it. Nell will have some big decisions to make."
"We knew she left last year, she was dealing with her mom who had fallen ill, and she -- as a lot of young people today are -- torn between career and family. I think that she got the time to spend with her mom and I hope is returning to NCIS: LA with a renewed spirit and commitment to her work," Smith adds. "I'm also looking forward to Nell growing into this role. Will she become more confident as the operations manager? Possibly even build an understanding as to why Hetty made some of those morally questionable decisions that she had witnessed over her time there. And maybe Nell's perspective on Hetty's decisions will shift and change as she takes on the responsibilities of being the operations manager herself. We never truly know what it si until we are standing in those shoes. We never know why or how another person arrives at their conclusions or their decisions, so it's exciting to be in this new position for sure."
The 35-year-old actress shared that Nell's transition as a "baby Hetty" will be rocky at times, especially in the beginning.
"In a conversation she has with Eric, Barrett Foa's character, in the season, he expresses that he's still get trying to get used to Nell being in charge," Smith says. "And Nell replies saying, 'Yeah so am I. I'm still getting used to it to so it's a period of adjustment for us all. You're not alone in this period of transition. I'm experiencing it too.' What I love about Nell is that she's so honest and she says how she feels and sometimes that's to her own detriment. In the beginning she put her foot in her mouth or said too much, but nowadays, the team has really come to appreciate that from her. They know they can turn to Nell and get a straight answer. And I think that is one of her many strengths. I think that will serve her quite well in this new position as de facto operations manager/baby Hetty."
As for Nell and Eric's romantic future, Smith confessed they haven't explored much of that in handful of episodes that they have filmed for season 12.
"We don't know yet. I'm curious to know as well. That has yet to be divulged to me even," she reveals. "We do know that they are on great terms. Eric is back working with the team in a new capacity, which is also very exciting. They're exploring this new level of their friendship and relationship, and yeah, I'm excited to see what will come of it all as well."
"I think of them as my good friends. It's kind of funny," Smith says with a laugh. "I just have so much respect and admiration for the characters that it's kind of like however it ends up will be the right way. It's meant to be, in a way, if that makes sense. Of course I think they are just the quirkiest, most idiosyncratic couple and that's really fun to watch onscreen. But I can also see them being best buds 'til the end of time and fading off into the sunset together. I don't know! It could go either way. It's a coin toss really. But I'm excited to see what the writers in store for Nell and Eric."
With production resuming amid a pandemic, Smith praised the smooth execution of COVID-19 guidelines that have been put in place to ensure the cast and crew are safe and able to complete the 18-episode season.
"Everyone was a bit anxious just in terms of our COVID protocols and we wanted to make sure that we were doing everything right and everyone would stay safe and protected and ultimately healthy throughout the beginning of the season and throughout the entire season because COVID isn't going away anytime soon. I think we've done that really effectively," Smith says. "Everyone is taking the protocols quite seriously. It's brought the team together and we're all looking out for each other on that front as well. We've gotten off to a really smooth smart. The season's rolling along now. It's kind of unbelievable to think we've already filmed six or seven episodes in such a short amount of time. We have some momentum now and the protocols are really second nature and we can make our show and present it to our audience. That is such a gift that we're still able to make our show given the circumstances."
As for what Smith is personally looking forward to this year, it's the continued development of Hetty and Nell's mentor-mentee dynamic, confirming that viewers will get a "fair share" of Hetty this season.
"I'm really excited for Hetty to mentor Nell in a new way potentially, in such a way that we haven't seen before. She's kind of been training her on the sly here and there over the years with these secret missions or 'errands' that she would need to run on behalf of Hetty. But I'm excited to see their relationship develops," she says. "Nell is pretty much keeping Nell in the dark about a whole lot at the top of the season and I'm interested to see how that progresses if Nell becomes frustrated or concerned with Hetty's whereabouts and how that will impact her role as operations manager. And how things will essentially fall on Nell's shoulders in Hetty's absence. I'm excited to see how Nell and Hetty both together will navigate that new relationship."
"[Hunt] is one of my favorite people on the planet, so I feel so fortunate to get to work with Linda Hunt," Smith adds. "Her talent is immense. Her spirit is just so bright. She's like a magical fairy nymph. She's just an amazing, amazing being. Just to share any time with her is such a gift, so I'm very grateful to work with Linda."