It takes a rather special person to run CTU – the fictional super-secret counter-terrorism agency that is the focus of the popular Kiefer Sutherland adventure series 24.
Which brings us to Marisol Nichols, the actress and philanthropist that spent season six of the show as Nadia Yassir, the beautiful and competent agent who took over the organization when the former head had to retire due to political wrangling.
The role was yet another step forward in the career of Nichols. She has been working in films and television for over a decade. It was also one of the most intense jobs she has taken so far. She spent the entire year living out one single day. Of course, a CTU day isn’t like a normal day for the rest of us. There are nuclear detonations, kidnappings, firefights, hostage situations, torture, car crashes, assassination attempts and the threat of World War III.
For several months, as Nadia, Nichols had to try to keep it all under control without ever once cracking under the pressure. Perhaps the weirdest part of the whole thing is she spent the entire time wearing the same outfit.
“Oh, my God, I learned that lesson,” Nichols chuckles. “I didn’t think [about that] when I first got [the role].”
However, being boss had its good points, Nichols assures us. It did have one downside, though. Since Nadia was trying to run the whole out-of-control situation, she never got out of the walls of the agency. So as much fun as it was portraying a strong, conflicted, over-her-head career woman, she did not get into as much of the action as she would have liked.
“Everybody wants to get out of CTU Headquarters,” Nichols says. “All I wanted to do was get out of CTU and go fight bad guys. Fortunately, Kiefer gave me that great scene where I got to take out the bad guys with him in CTU. And I think that the next best thing to getting out of CTU would be running CTU.”
It was a role that Nichols was able to pull off in stride. The actress has had a bit of an odd career dichotomy. On television this was just the latest of extremely dramatic roles she has played. She had starring roles on the respected-but-short lived dramas Resurrection Road and Blind Justice. She was saddened that the shows didn’t last longer, however Nichols is philosophical about it.
“It always is [disappointing], I think. I guess it’s sort of like dating,” Nichols laughs. “You find one that fits and that’s the one that you stay with. I kind of learned not to be heartbroken over series getting cancelled – because there is always another one around the corner that is great and that I will fall in love with. I’m like, okay, then I’ll go do this. Otherwise I think I would have quit this business a long time ago.”
Other dramatic TV roles have included a middle-eastern princess who gives up her life to move to the US with her lover in the acclaimed TV movie The Princess and the Marine. She also played the mentally-ill and suicidal ex-lover of Danny Pino’s character in the first season of the popular series Cold Case.
“I played an old best friend-slash-fiancée love of Danny Pino’s life,” Nichols says. “She had schizophrenia. She was in and out of hospitals. Finally he had to sort of let her go. It was heartbreaking.”
However in the many films that Nichols has done, she has always worked on much more broad comic films – including portraying the final Audrey Griswold in the Vacation series (Vegas Vacation) and playing love interests in Delta Farce and Big Momma’s House II.
Nichols has no idea why her career has worked out this way, either. While she loves comedy, she wants to be taken seriously as an actress – on the big screen as well as on television.
“It’s just happened that way,” Nichols explains. “I finally just finished a drama that’s a movie. I’m going; thank God! Because I kind of want to do the work in television dramatically, but in film as well, so to transfer over there was really good.”
That dramatic film is Felon. “Well, it’s a great, great film. The best script I’ve read in several years. It’s by Sony. It stars me, Stephen Dorff, Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard. Anne Archer plays my mother. It’s a hell of a cast. Also Harold Perrineau from Lost.
“It’s extremely dramatic,” Nichols continues enthusiastically. “It’s basically about… my fiancée is Stephen, who in order to defend his family from an intruder kills the guy – by accident. In California, that’s an automatic murder charge. Automatic million-dollar bail. He gets thrown in jail and it basically shows what prison life does to someone going in – and also me on the outside. It shows how it affects both sides of the family. And it exposes… if you remember several years ago, 60 Minutes and 20/20 did a full expose on Corcoran Prison [in California] and how the guards were placing bets – having prisoners fight each other. It’s loosely based on that corruption that was going on in Corcoran Prison at the time.”
However, she still has a soft spot for 24. At the time of the interview, the show is not in production due to the on-going Writer’s Guild Strike, and Nichols is still in limbo – not sure whether or not Nadia will be coming back to CTU.
She is not in the episodes that were filmed for season seven before the break, but the series has a long history of bringing characters in and out of the storyline throughout the season.
“I think they’ve gotten about ten episodes done,” Nichols says. “They sort of restructured the whole show. With the writer’s strike, it’s sort of on hold. So, who knows, I could get a call saying, ‘Yes, please come back.’ Or not. I don’t know.”
It would be a shame if she doesn’t return, because after a harrowing start she grew to love the experience of filming 24.
“You know, I would think that they – [director] Jon Cassar and probably a few others – would be like: ‘Oh, she fit in right away.’ Inside I’m going: Am I doing all right? Are you going to tell me off? Is this okay? Is this how I should do this? You know, I’m still trying to figure out how to do it. It took me a couple of months to get totally comfortable.”
However, once she did get comfortable, she grew to cherish the fast-paced and varied rhythms of the series.
“It was something that had gigantic turns for me,” Nichols says, “but I loved it. I loved the challenge. I love the show. I love the people I work with. It’s one of the best filming experiences I’ve had. It was just great… I think the most challenging thing was the fact that it [all happened in] 24 hours. I had never done that before.”
Another thing that made it more comfortable – and in some ways more uncomfortable – was the fact that many of Nichols most dramatic scenes were played against Eric Balfour, formerly of Six Feet Under.
“Oh, he’s awesome,” Nichols says. “I’ve been friends with Eric for about ten years. So to work together was great. The only thing that was funny was the kissing scene. I’m like; I can’t kiss you. It’s weird. Okay, all right. All right, come on.” She laughs. “It was very funny. He’s great. He’s an awesome guy to work with. He’s real nice and very fun.”
Her character of Nadia – much like the character she played in The Princess and the Marine years before – was of Middle-Eastern descent. Nichols is not, however she doesn’t feel like she’s being typecast, nor did she feel uncomfortable playing the role at all. She’s open for any sort of role and while she isn’t necessarily looking for this ethnicity, she will be happy to take roles if they work for her.
“It’s only the second one, because Princess and the Marine was the first one,” Nichols says. “Unless I’m forgetting, which could be possible. That does happen with me. But, basically, it doesn’t surprise me. I’m half-Mexican. I’m Hungarian and Romanian. I’m a mix of ethnicities. So I can go back and forth in a lot of different characters.”
Beyond her acting career, Nichols has also been very active in social and political issues. She is grateful for the higher profile her acting career affords her because it gives her an opportunity to promote causes that she feels are special.
“I’ve been doing that for about the last ten years,” Nichols says. “It really makes me happy that being on shows or films that are liked and watched sort of opens the door to talk about things that I think are very important. You can really make a difference. I feel really grateful to do 24 for that. I recently went to Washington DC with one of my organizations – CCHR [The Citizen’s Commission for Human Rights] – and I got to meet anybody I wanted to. It just opened the doors to so many senators and representatives that I could meet with. As a result, it helped getting a bill passed. Those doors wouldn’t have been open if it wasn’t for being on 24 last year.”
Another cause near and dear to Nichols’ heart – and very personal to her – is helping people with alcohol and drug abuse. When she was younger, Nichols had substance-abuse problems herself. Therefore, it is vital to her to get the word out to people who are caught in places that she had escaped – that the addictions can be beaten.
“I tell people all the time that you can get past that – without using drugs,” Nichols says. “The problem with most – and this is my opinion – but the problem with most of these quote-unquote drug rehabilitation places is: great, now you’ve thrown them into therapy. Now all their problems are right in their face. Giving them no solutions. Telling them they are going to have a problem for the rest of their lives. Your choice is: be miserable or you can do these psych drugs now. That’s not your choices.
“There is a great place called Narcanon that gets people off drugs without the use of drugs – with just vitamins and minerals. Their success rate is through the roof. There are obviously great, great solutions. I’ve been drug-free and alcohol-free for a very long time. My life has been spectacularly better – without going to therapy or substitute drugs or any of that. From coping, you know what I mean? Those aren’t your only choices.”
The choice that Nichols no longer buys into is the whole glamorous Hollywood party lifestyle. Been there, done that. Nowadays, her life is much more settled, if – as she acknowledges – a little more tame. She now enjoys working, helping her causes and being with friends.
“I’m a total geek,” she acknowledges, good-naturedly. “I’m a complete geek. I’m a sci-fi freak. I love science fiction. I read all the time. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’m a geek. And I’m goofy. Goofy as hell.”
This legacy of being able to help people is as important to Nichols as her legacy as an actress, where Nichols hopes she will be remembered as “a true character actress, who was extremely successful in her career and kept her integrity the whole time – because you can do that.”
Mostly, though, Nichols just hopes though, that people will chase their dreams. There is an insidious belief out there that it is nearly impossible to make it in the arts. Nichols thinks many people get frustrated or frightened of the idea of following their muse. In fact she is living proof that the opposite is true. You can make a living in the arts.
“There’s this whole thing about it [being] really, really hard,” Nichols says. “It’s really difficult. I think it takes a lot of people away from actually trying to fulfill certain things. I think it’s like any other business, if you work really hard and you dedicate yourself and you try to keep your life clean – it’ll work out. I think there’s a lot of people that wanted to be out there – musicians or artists – that didn’t and were turned away by that sort of false thinking that was put out. That it was impossible. It’s not. Not if you really dedicate yourself and you really work hard. I think you can do anything.”