NEW YORK — It figures that Pauley Perrette would excel playing forensic scientist Abby Sciuto, the Goth lab rat on CBS's crime procedural, "NCIS."
On the job in her high-tech lair, Abby is an information magnet and a bloodhound for clues to help crack the latest case with a link to the Navy or Marine Corps. And in the process, she's brainy, beautiful, charmingly quirky and totally gung-ho — which is to say, a lot like Pauley Perrette.
In its ninth season, "NCIS" (which airs Tuesday at 7 p.m. MST) remains a smash hit, averaging 20 million viewers a week. And even among its crazy-popular ensemble (including Mark Harmon, Michael Weatherly, Cote de Pablo, Sean Murray, David McCallum and Rocky Carroll), Perrette is a standout, having landed at the top of a recent Q Score roster measuring TV stars' fame and likability among viewers.
But in person, as herself, Perrette can even upstage her performance as Abby. Hear her jazzed accounts of a life that led from her Atlanta upbringing to a role on one of TV's hottest shows:
She describes her early-on aspirations: "to work with animals, be in a rock 'n' roll band or be an FBI agent."
She recounts her scramble in New York, where she moved to study at John Jay School of Criminal Science but worked several jobs at once to make ends meet:
"Not only was I bartending in the club-kids scene, but I wore a sandwich board on roller skates passing out fliers for Taco Bell in the Diamond District, and I worked on one of these boats that go around Manhattan — way down in the galley, knee-deep in fish water, cooking food for the rich people upstairs."
She thinks back on the days of her own hard partying and substance abuse: "I've done everything. Everything! I can't believe I survived it."
And she reports how, along the way, the bartender broke into show biz: "A kid in coat-check told me, 'I know this director who would really like you.' I started booking commercials like craaazy."
Then she moved to Los Angeles, landing roles in shows such as "Murder One," "Frasier," "Time of Your Life" and "JAG," where a guest shot led to "NCIS" with its premiere in 2003.
Perrette is an unapologetic cheerleader for her show — and her character.
"I'm the biggest Abby Sciuto fan on planet Earth," she announces. "I mean, I didn't invent her. I just have the honor of playing her. She fascinates me."
For a recent interview, Perrette looks a decade younger than her 42 years, dressed in jeans and a green T-shirt that echoes her luminous green eyes. Her raven hair (dyed for the role of Abby from her natural blond) is in pigtails. If she looks short at 5 feet and 10 inches, it's because she isn't wearing Abby's towering platforms, but instead tennis shoes. She flaunts a radiant smile and a flurry of hands when she speaks — say, about the joys of acting.
Meanwhile, she found her lifelong interest in crime a big help in her newfound acting pursuit — and not just for playing a crime-buster such as Abby.
"Even without having any acting training whatsoever, I spent my time studying human behavior through psychology, sociology and criminal science," she says. "I was a voracious student, and I ended up with the best background to be an actor ever, because I'd been studying human behavior in science for years and years."
That said, a question naturally arises: What drew Perrette to criminal science in the first place?
"I feel like life on planet Earth is incredibly hard," she begins. "There are things we just can't stop: floods and fires and earthquakes and tsunamis — crushing events for people to deal with. But I DON'T understand someone making the world more difficult on purpose, to harm people with no empathy whatsoever, saying, 'I'm going to make things even worse. Watch me!' That's the motivation for me wanting to be a crime fighter."
As Abby, she is. But when her fantasy life ends and reality resumes, Perrette slips into a different kind of role to make things a little better — that of do-gooder for a variety of causes.
"Giving back and helping other people is the most solid experience a human can have. To go to some high-end store and buy shoes or jewelry or something — I don't understand it. I would much rather donate my money to an animal shelter or a woman-and-children center — that gives me such joy and makes so much sense to me," she says.
"I'm very reclusive and love being alone, so fame is incredibly jarring for me. But it gives me a huge platform for the same things I was saying about giving back and volunteering when I was a bartender. And that makes me very happy."
She's also happy writing poetry, and performing rock music in a number of bands, and dreaming of future acting roles ("bring 'em on!") beyond Abby.
"I wear a lot of hats," says Perrette, heartily attempting to sum herself up. "I have a large hat rack."
Today on TV
The Big Bang Theory (7 p.m., Ch. 2): Amy is caught in the middle when Penny and Sheldon get into an argument over a pre-owned chair.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (7 p.m., Ch. 4): Charlie Brown and Linus search for the meaning of Christmas in this holiday classic.
Community (7 p.m., Ch. 5): Abed decides he and the group must rediscover the meaning of Christmas when he awakes in stop-motion animation.
The X Factor (7 p.m., Ch. 13): The contestants face elimination.
Miracle on 34th Street (6 and 8 p.m., AMC): An adwoman's lawyer boyfriend tries to prove that Macy's Santa Claus is the real thing in this 1947 classic.
Presidential Debate (7 p.m., FOX News): Republican presidential candidates discuss issues in Sioux City, Iowa; anchored by Bret Baier.
Rules of Engagement (7:30 p.m., Ch. 2): A battle of wills ensues when Audrey won't admit she hates an armchair that Jeff pretends to love.
Parks and Recreation (7:30 p.m., Ch. 5): Leslie asks Ben, Andy and April to help host a Model U.N. for the local high school.
Person of Interest (8 p.m., Ch. 2): Detective Carter faces fallout from her encounter with Reese and Finch.
The Year With Katie Couric (8 p.m., Ch. 4): Celebrities, newsmakers and special guests reflect on the events of 2011.
The Office (8 p.m., Ch. 5): Pam teams up with Dwight to prove that Jim thinks her temporary replacement is pretty.
Bones (8 p.m., Ch. 13): When the remains of a maritime museum security guard are found in the Florida Everglades, Booth asks a former Iraqi soldier for help with the case.
Whitney (8:30 p.m., Ch. 5): Whitney and Alex try to out-romance each other.
The Mentalist (9 p.m., Ch. 2): When Jane is attacked during the search for a firefighter's killer, he loses his memory and reverts to his former con man identity.
Prime Suspect (9 p.m., Ch. 5): Jane and Blando investigate the death of a Jewish diamond dealer.