CBS’s CRIMINAL MINDS is now in its thirteenth season on Wednesday nights. The long-lived procedural drama series has survived a lot of cast and personnel changes, chronicling the exploits of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) as they track serial killers and other dangerous individuals.
Kirsten Vangsness has been with CRIMINAL MINDS since its first season as emotionally committed, crime-scene-photo-squeamish computer expert Penelope Garcia; she has also written several episodes. Breen Frazier has been a writer/producer on the show since 2008 and is now an executive producer and show runner (with fellow exec producer Erica Messer). The actress and the EP are hanging out together at a party thrown by CBS for the Television Critics Association (TCA) and bounce off each other as they talk about all things Season 13.
ASSIGNMENT X: At the end of Season 12, almost everybody was in a fatal-looking car crash. It seemed like Penelope might wind up running the BAU, because nobody else was alive.
KIRSTEN VANGSNESS: Yeah. It’s a cliffhanger, and he wrote it.
BREEN FRAZIER: I did.
VANGSNESS: So you’re on the cliff, and then you’re hanging, and then in the middle of the show, you will fall, and he will support you with his writing.
AX: Did you know at the time you wrote the cliffhanger that you had a pickup for Season 13, or were you risking angry fans with pitchforks and torches?
FRAZIER: We did not know if we had a pickup or not. In fact, part of the reason that Erica Messer and I wanted to do a car crash is it would force CBS to pick us up. Because there’s no way they could leave the fans hanging not knowing who lived or who died. And it is a triumphant episode, it’s a powerhouse of a season premiere, but there is some sadness, there is some tragedy in the episode. We say goodbye to Damon Gupton, which was a difficult thing to do. It was a difficult choice to make. But we also introducing Daniel Henney to the show, playing Agent Matt Simmons, and of course, we’re inheriting him from CRIMINAL MINDS: BEYOND BORDERS. He’s the hot, hunky, incredibly smart tall Asian. The character is married and has two kids and he basically is the muscle of the team, but he’s also incredibly smart and brilliant.
AX: The show has gone through a lot of comings, goings and returnings lately. Are you happy, sad, confused …?
VANGSNESS: I think confused and happy would be two good … no, I think all of those. Of course you get sad when people go and you don’t want them to, and then you don’t expect someone to go, you’re planning on that, but the additions that we’ve had, the additions have been astonishingly wonderful. Damon [Gupton], Aisha [Tyler], Adam [Rodriguez] – these are gifts that the heavens are giving. Harold Perrineau, from LOST [was] a recurring guest [in Season 12]. It’s always been an embarrassment of riches.
AX: Does Damon Gupton have somewhere else to be, or …?
FRAZIER: Yes. Damon is now a lead on The CW show BLACK LIGHTNING, and we couldn’t be happier for him.
AX: Did you feel you needed a big, muscular guy on the show?
FRAZIER: No, because we still have Adam Rodriguez on the show. Let’s be honest, the show didn’t need anything. It’s an awesome show. But we wanted [another] strong male presence on the show –
VANGSNESS: And Daniel was so great on BEYOND BORDERS that why can’t we have that flavor, too, right?
FRAZIER: And the character of Matt Simmons is married, whereas Adam’s character Luke Alvez is not married. So we just wanted to present all the different sides of the team that we could, and also, it’s one of those things where we also felt with Daniel’s character, we could tell stories that we couldn’t play with Adam’s character, which is a big part of it. And Kirsten and Daniel have a big runner in the first episode. You get to see the characters of Penelope Garcia and Matt Simmons bond.
VANGSNESS: And that’s really fun, because we didn’t know each other until we were working all these late nights, and we were on set together, so it’s really nice.
AX: So Penelope takes to Matt much more quickly than she takes to Alvez; she still gives him a hard time …
VANGSNESS: Yeah. I think she’s got a stone-cold crush on Alvez. Whether the writers ever do anything with that, who knows, but I just know what my character work tells me, in the night when I wander through my house alone, learning my lines, and that’s what it says. So that’s why she has to be so mean to him.
AX: Did you and the writers talk about what the dynamic would be between Garcia and Alvez?
VANGSNESS: They wrote that first scene where Garcia meets Alvez. You always knew it wasn’t going to be like, “Oh, we like each other” immediately. I noticed, and I swear to you, I don’t mean this as a bulls*** actress thing, when I am doing Garcia, Garcia does not want to like him. So when we are doing scenes, I will find myself improvising things that are like, “What are you doing? Get away from me! Don’t touch that!” It is an organic experience that she is having. When I am with Adam, I love Adam. When I put on the shoes and they put the camera on and we’re filming, she is unkind to him, and I don’t totally get it, but no one has argued with me. No one has said, “Garcia ought to tone it down.” So I’m letting her have the dignity of her process. What’s weird is, Adam is still lovely to me. Luke is so lovely to Garcia. It’s just evolving that way. I think there’s a big punch line joke. I don’t know what it’s going to be. They’re either going to have a “come to Jesus,” like, “Why are you being such a jerk to me,” or – but there’s more to that. She also resents the fact that she likes him. She likes him. And who wants to be like, “Oh, my God, I had a meaningful experience with this guy [Derek], and now this guy shows up – I can’t have a meaningful …” You compare your relationships and all that.
AX: The BAU is now under the leadership of Paget Brewster’s Emily Prentiss. Is there anything different about the unit under her than under Mandy Pantinkin’s Gideon or Thomas Gibson’s Aaron Hotchner?
FRAZIER: Paget Brewster brings an authority to the role, but she also brings a mother hen protective quality to the role. And I’ve got to be honest, that is very much in line with Erica Messer, who is our executive producer, who is total Mama Bear, and would do anything for this show.
VANGSNESS: There’s nothing more ferocious than a woman who cares about a group of people. You know what the Dalai Lama said – “The Western woman will save the world.” And I think what we’re doing by having such strong women on this show is a metaphor for that.
FRAZIER: Yes. And the other thing is that we are very sensitive to the knock against our show, that we are a show that exploits and harms women.
AX: CRIMINAL MINDS seems pretty equal-opportunity in terms of endangering and harming men …
VANGSNESS: But there’s a lot of slut-shaming on our show, like dead prostitutes, and those are always women. So you better balance that out with women who give a s*** and are on the other side, or you’re screwed.
FRAZIER: And I don’t think that our reality, the reality of every episode, matches the reputation. I’m just saying, that’s our reputation. So one of the things that we’ve tried to do, exactly as Kirsten said, to balance that, is to provide strong women in the role of protector, savior and FBI agent.
AX: Penelope had a very close, albeit unconsummated, relationship with Special Agent Derek Morgan, played by Shemar Moore. Now that Moore is headlining S.W.A.T. for CBS – although he did come back for one episode to comfort Penelope – do you feel that she’s coming into her own a little bit more, or do you think that she’s becoming even more vulnerable?
VANGSNESS: She’s always vulnerable. She’s by herself a lot. She’s a lonely little bird and she cries a lot alone in her office. She’s trying not to eat too much bread to deal with the stress, and that’s not just me, that’s Penelope. Kirsten’s doing enough cardio, but Penelope might not be. She’s one of those girls that, you met her in elementary school, you met her in high school, and you’re like, “You’re the exact same.” She’s the exact same girl. So I can’t say, “Oh, she’s grown like this, or she’s grown like that.” She’s f***ing perfect – I’m sorry, but she’s perfect. She’s this confident little ball of brilliance who leaves her heart living on her sleeve for anyone to poke at or throw dirt at or whatever, and she just keeps on keeping on. And she somehow manages to do enough positive things in her life to brush off all that goop that people get on her heart. And I don’t know how she does it, because I couldn’t do it, but she does it, and that’s why she’s a magical creature. We’re essentially a science-fiction show because of Garcia.
AX: Are you going to have an episode where the people who’ve been around since Day One are going to say something like, “Wow, we’re still standing, and we’ve got all these new people?”
FRAZIER: I feel that we do that repeatedly. We did it repeatedly last season, when Matthew Gray Gubler’s character [Special Agent Spencer Reid] was in prison. There was a lot of discussion, inside the writers’ room and onscreen, about, “We have been through so much, this team has been through so much, are we going to be able to survive this?” And the season  premiere and the first couple episodes following the season premiere are about the psychic toll that this dark line of work can take on our team. So that’s sort of how we acknowledge it. But it’s hard for us to go, “Wow, we’ve been on the air for thirteen years,” even though we have, because sometimes that can make people go, “Oh, old show with old people on it. I don’t want to watch it anymore.” In reality, I think our model is very much in the LAW & ORDER camp, in the C.S.I. camp, where the cast changes from Joe to Adam Rodriguez to Daniel Henney, always seems to breathe new life into the show. And it gives Kirsten an opportunity to bounce her Penelope-ness off of new people. And that’s what keeps the show interesting and dynamic.
AX: You are wearing an extremely shapely outfit of the sort we do not often get to see on Garcia …
VANGSNESS: That’s what I love about this show. She doesn’t have to be tiny, she doesn’t have to be anything. I legitimately let them put me in anything they want. And it is not based on, “Oh, that makes me look skinny or fat or whatever.” Because I’m a girl, Penelope’s a girl, and we both go up and down, up and down the scale. So I would rather keep her gorgeous, fluffy/maybe-not self. She’s healthy, she’s great. They will showcase plenty of it. Trust me.
FRAZIER:. I don’t want to speak for Kirsten, but for me, what is sexy about Garcia is her relentless positivity. And I don’t mean relentless in a bad way.
VANGSNESS: Thank you.
FRAZIER: That’s one thing, not everything, that Kirsten and Garcia share. And in this dark world, that is inspiring to the audience. They like seeing, for lack of a better word, these knights that are continuing the fight in the darkness. And she is a big part of that.
VANGSNESS: You might be the first person who has ever been quoted as saying that positivity is sexy. I’m totally into it.
AX: Are you aware of Discovery Channel’s miniseries, MANHUNT: UNABOMBER?
FRAZIER: Yes. One of the writers on our show, Jim Clement [co-wrote UNABOMBER]. He was an actual FBI profiler. with his FBI partner, Jim Fitzgerald, he was part of the original investigation. So we are very aware of it.
AX: UNABOMBER is one of the few other shows I’ve seen, besides CRIMINAL MINDS, where the BAU is that heavily featured.
FRAZIER: There’s that, there’s Netflix’s MINDHUNTERS, the David Fincher historical [series] but there’s something about our show that I think will stand the test of time in a lot of ways. And there’s room in the network and cable and Internet spectrum for multiple shows about the FBI hunting serial killers.
AX: Do either of you have other projects we should know about?
FRAZIER: I do not, but I think Kirsten does.
VANGSNESS: I just filmed my one-person show MESS. I’m going to try to put it out somewhere and I have a distillery called Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about CRIMINAL MINDS Season 13?
VANGSNESS: Stick around. It’s nothing but the cream on the top, so come on in.
FRAZIER: Season 13, the stories are dark, but our heroes are not. And it’s amazing to me how, thirteen years in, we can still find new elements of these characters that you didn’t know. And that includes Kirsten, that includes Matthew Gray Gubler’s Dr. Reid, that includes Paget as Emily Prentiss. The entire BAU crew is large and in charge this season, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
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Article: CRIMINAL MINDS: Breen Frazier & Kirsten Vangsness – exclusive interview