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Joe Mantegna Interview: "'Criminal Minds' Is Not Some Pretend, Made-Up Kind of Program ... What We Show Is Not Fantasy"

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Image attributed to Joe Mantegna

Joe Mantegna

Chicago native Joe Mantegna is best known for his current role in the CBS series Criminal Minds as David Rossi, Supervisory Special Agent of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and for film roles in Three Amigos, The Godfather Part III, Forget Paris and Up Close & Personal.

Mantegna’s numerous other film appearances include Elvis, Big Shots in America, The Money Pit, Homicide, Searching for Bobby Fischer, State of Emergency, Above Suspicion, Underworld, The Simpsons Movie, Hank and Mike, Witless Protection, Cars 2 and Compulsion.

“We portray a real organization. We are the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. This is not some pretend, made-up kind of program. In other words, what we show, what we depict, is not fantasy. We don’t glorify it, and we don’t show things any more intense or gruesome just for the sake of doing it or than what it would really be. Yet on the other hand, we don’t shy away from it.”

Television appearances are: Bosom Buddies, Archie Bunker’s Place, Simon & Simon, The Twilight Zone, Saturday Night Live (host), The Simpsons (Fat Tony, voice), Frasier, The Last Don (miniseries), Rugrats, The Sopranos and First Monday.

The actor has been nominated for Emmys in three miniseries: The Last Don (1997), The Rat Pack (1999) and The Starter Wife (2007). He starred in the CBS family drama Joan of Arcadia with Mary Steenburgen and Amber Tamblyn from 2003 to 2005.

The tenth season of Criminal Minds will premiere on October 1, 2014, at 9:00 p.m. eastern.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Joe, how does it feel to have such a successful run on television?

Joe Mantegna: Well, it’s great. It’s what I had hoped for. It happened at a time in my career when I was looking to get a little more stable. I’d been traveling all over the world, but as I got older and my children got older, it was attractive for me to maybe try to hook into something that would have some stability where I’d know where I’d be for a major portion of the year. The trick is to find something that has that kind of stability. It’s one thing to be on a television series. It’s another to be on one that’s run ten years. That’s very difficult.

I was looking for that at that time of my career. I gave it a whirl with a couple of other series. I started with this one called First Monday, which I loved doing, but we just had thirteen episodes. That was just the way it goes, and then after that, I did Joan of Arcadia, which ran two seasons.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Such a great cast in Joan of Arcadia.

Joe Mantegna: It was a wonderful show, and I wish it could’ve gone longer, but it didn’t. That’s the reality of the business, but finally now number three was the charm for me with Criminal Minds. When that came along, I felt it was really a quality show and had a lot going for it. As it turned out, it has. I’m very happy about that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will there be any familiar serial killers returning for season ten?

Joe Mantegna: Well, a lot of that, I don’t even know because we have six to eight writers, and during the hiatus, they spend their time coming up with thoughts and ideas. We have some input. In the past, they’ve reacted to some input that I’ve had. It was my assistant, Dan Ramm, who co-wrote the episode two seasons ago that dealt with this character that Meshach Taylor played who was my commanding officer from Vietnam. That character was brought in again last season. We continued on with that story.

It turned out that actor passed away this last year, so we may find a way to address that whole thing in this coming season. Past serial killers? Yeah. There’s a chance. Having been around ten years, we have that opportunity to delve back into other cases, so that’s always a possibility as well. Then we have a new cast member with Jennifer Love Hewitt who has been really tremendous. It has been great fun having her around. She brought a whole new energy to the show. It’s all good. We’re all looking forward to this season.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you be directing the episode that ties up the Meshach Taylor character?

Joe Mantegna: Yeah. There’s a good chance I will direct the episode that has something to do with that storyline.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are your fellow actors good about taking your instructions as a director?

Joe Mantegna: (laughs) I’ve been there eight years now. I purposely waited until I paid my dues, you know. I didn’t want to jump in too soon. I purposely didn’t want to jump in until I felt comfortable with everyone and they with me. We have a tradition on our show anyway. Thomas Gibson is directing an episode we’re shooting right now, and he’s done a few.

Matthew Gubler has done more than any other cast member. He’s done five or six already if not more over the course of the last ten years, so there’s a history to that, and it’s not so unusual on other shows as well. What you find is if an actor has that kind of propensity to want to direct and has that skill set and desire and has been on the show for a while, they often can bring something to the table and let the other actors enjoy and appreciate that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you joined the cast eight years ago, you basically replaced Mandy Patinkin (Jason Gideon) who left the show because he was disturbed by the dark content. Does any of that ever bother you?

Joe Mantegna: No. If indeed those were Mandy’s feelings about leaving the show, he’s entitled to his opinion, and that’s fine. The reason it doesn’t bother me is that I look at it a little differently. I look at it this way. We portray a real organization. We are the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. This is not some pretend, made-up kind of program. In other words, what we show, what we depict, is not fantasy, we don’t glorify it, and we don’t show things any more intense or gruesome just for the sake of doing it or than what it would really be. Yet on the other hand, we don’t shy away from it.

I think it’s important that the audience understands what these real men and women have to confront every day. So to say that I’m upset by what we’re showing, which is basically just pretend stuff which simulates what these real people do, is almost an insult to what they do. If we did less than that, then we would be saying, “Well this is kind of what these people do, but not really because we’re afraid. We’re going to go easy on you and give you the cookie-cutter version of what this job is.” My feeling is if we did that, I don’t know if we’d still be on after ten years.

I think that’s part of the strength of our show. People know when they watch it, it’s gonna be what it is. If intensity and grimness and darkness are part of it, so be it. Certainly everyone has a choice not to watch something like that if it disturbs them just as a person has a choice not to act in it if it disturbs them. Again, who am I to be upset coming up on a corpse in a scene? Somebody might say, “Oh that’s gruesome.” But when they say cut, the actor gets up and goes to get a sandwich whereas in the real deal, that doesn’t happen. So no, it doesn’t bother me at all, and I do it out of respect for the men and women of the FBI who do this job every day.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It is very realistic, and some of the episodes are based on real-life criminals.

Joe Mantegna: We’ve done episodes based on real criminals, real cases, certainly inspired by a lot of stuff that’s happening. There’s not much we do on our show that is inconceivable or wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some say that “ten” is the magic number for TV seasons. Could this be the last one for Criminal Minds?

Joe Mantegna: Personally I don’t see why that would happen. We’ve consistently gone up against high profile shows like American Idol, like Modern Family, and we still tend to win the night. In terms of total viewers, especially now with the weakening of American Idol, we tend to have more total viewers on Wednesday night than anybody on television.

I don’t know about a magic number, but you look at CSI going into their fifteenth year, and right now we draw a larger audience than they do. If you do the math, I don’t see it logical for Criminal Minds to go anywhere anytime soon.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Godfather, The Last Don, The Simpsons – what is this character trait that you have that is so mobsterlike, Joe?

Joe Mantegna: (laughs) I … I don’t know. I know there’s obviously that Italian-American aspect of it that I guess has been that history of it, but for that reason, that’s why I tend to pick an Italian-American character whenever I play a positive character. That’s why David Rossi in Criminal Minds is an Italian-American character. Take a guy like Joey Zasa from The Godfather or Fat Tony from The Simpsons and say, “Okay. He’s an Italian-American mobster.” On the same hand, we’ve got an Italian-American as an FBI guy.

When I did First Monday, I made him Italian-American because he was on the Supreme Court. In Joan of Arcadia, I made that character’s last name “Girardi” to make him an Italian-American because he was Chief of Police, and his daughter spoke to God. In other words, I try to balance the scales. There’s a certain degree of typecasting in this town.

Robert Deniro, Al Pacino and I have all made pretty good careers out of occasionally playing guys who walk on the wrong sides of the street, but I take every opportunity to do the opposite to pay some homage to my ethnic background and to show that a very small percentage of Italian-Americans were involved in crime, yet they get a lot of play, so let’s just balance it out a little bit.

We’ve got two members of the Supreme Court who are Italian-Americans right now. So there’s that. But I enjoy doing it all. I love being Fat Tony and being in movies like The Godfather and The Last Don. If the roles are good, I’ll play ‘em. I just don’t get asked to play Swedish sea captains very often, which I understand.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) You are also involved in Gun Stories?

Joe Mantegna: Yeah. This is a show on the Outdoor Channel I’ve done for four seasons, and I think we’ve already been renewed for a fifth season. Sports’ shooting is something I used to do years ago, and I’m still somewhat active in it. It has been one of the best educational shows on the Outdoor Channel in the last few years because if people want to know the history of certain historical firearms, it’s kind of a niche show that way in terms of people who have that interest.

We had an episode that ran last night about the guns of Little Big Horn. It was a two-parter where last week they showed the guns that Custer and his men used at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and last night’s episode was from the Native American side with the weapons they used and why they were successful. It’s kind of a fascinating show, and I enjoy doing it. It has taken me to places like Italy and Germany and all around the country, so that has been fun.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still slated to executive produce a new film on Dean Martin?

Joe Mantegna: We’re trying to get that done. Actually the movie would be about his daughter Deana. That’s what makes it unique. It’s based on her book about life with her dad, and I thought it would be a fascinating story especially having played Dean in the movie, The Rat Pack, for HBO several years ago. I have a strong and fascinating attachment with Dean, and I thought it was a fascinating book.

I think people would find it interesting to see what the life and world was through the eyes of the daughter of somebody that was such an icon, such a huge star and because she’s a performer in her own right. I still think that’s a very viable idea. We’re still working on it. It’s one of those things that … the wheels turn slow in this town. Sometimes things are in the fast track, but sometimes things take a long time to generate. I’ve seen it happen time and time and time again. If it happens, it’ll happen in its own time, and I hope it does.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any other upcoming projects?

Joe Mantegna: I’ve got a few things in the works. My assistant is a writer, and he’s written a couple of things that are possible pilot ideas that are out there. I’ll continue to do The Simpsons. I still do the National Memorial Day Concert every year. I’ve done that for thirteen years now. This will be my fourteenth coming up with Gary Sinise. We host that. I try to stay active and do things that support our military. Criminal Minds keeps me pretty busy though. That’s a ten-month out of the year job, so that certainly takes up my time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any free time?

Joe Mantegna: I find it. Luckily, the show is such that all of us do not have to be there all of the time. It’s a strong ensemble, which is what I like about the show. It’s not just a one-man band, so we all get our time off. I like to golf. I have two grown children who are active in the things they like to do. It’s a good life. I’ve got no complaints. I can handle it. I don’t feel overwhelmed. I’m very grateful.

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