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Kirsten Vangsness Interview: "Criminal Minds" Star on Garcia, Cast Changes and Giving Back

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Kirsten Vangsness

Actress and writer Kirsten Vangsness is best known as the bespectacled, brainiac FBI Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia on the CBS crime drama Criminal Minds. She played the same character on the now defunct spinoff series Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.

Vangsness has had a long and varied career prior to joining the cast of Criminal Minds in 2005. Stage appearances include Perfuct, The Book of Liz and a number of plays at Hollywood’s Theatre of NOTE, including The Learned Ladies, The Fan Maroo, Spider Bites and A Mulholland Christmas Carol.

“I’m basically passionate about creature care whether that is the earth or human beings. Personally, I try to tread as lightly on the earth as possible. I don’t always do a great job, but I try. That means I’m really passionate about environmental stuff. I’m a vegetarian because I feel like that’s a way I can directly tread lighter on our food chain and our fossil fuels.”

Film appearances include A-List, In My Sleep, The Chicago 8, Kill Me Deadly (as executive producer that also stars Joe Mantegna and Shemar Moore) and Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse. The versatile performer is engaged to actor/writer Keith Hanson.

The 12th season premiere of Criminal Minds airs Wednesday, September 28, 2016, on CBS.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Kirsten, congratulations on another season of Criminal Minds!

Kirsten Vangsness: Thank you so much! We’re already on episode … I can’t remember. It’s already becoming a blur! It’s six or something like that. It’s so weird because you’re like, “Oh, my gosh. Everyone’s going to see it now!” I keep forgetting people actually watch it, which is strange. We go to work and play pretend, and everyone gets to see it. That’s going to be fun!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s discuss the Thomas Gibson exit. Do we find out in the beginning of the season why “Hotch” leaves the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU)?

Kirsten Vangsness: You know, no one was expecting what happened, and no one knew what was going to happen or what the network was going to do. The writers go back about a month before we go back to work, so they all had storylines and things we had to do to move the season along on the whole. It’s a real balancing act, like how do you continue that train running without screeching to a half when no one knew what was going on for a while?

I’ve been there since the beginning, and I’ve got to say they were pretty graceful about how they managed it. They did some really elegant water treading, and just said, “We’re going to keep going and do this.” We’ve worked together for so long that we can all pick up the slack really easily even with new people like Adam (Rodriguez) and now with Paget (Brewster) there, it’s all moving along really great. Erica Messer, our executive producer, wrote the episode that puts the button on it, I guess you’d say, and we are filming that right now. Hotch is an integral part of the show, so it’s acknowledging it and all of that. From my vantage point, it’s handled really gracefully.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was very emotional last year when Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) said his goodbyes and left the BAU. Derek and Garcia had such a special relationship. Do you miss the words, “baby girl”?

Kirsten Vangsness: Oh yeah, of course I do! But, he didn’t want to stay, you know? That wasn’t the choice of the show or the network. That was Shemar’s choice. When someone makes a choice, then you support the choice. He said, “I have a few other things I want to do.” Then, okay. Go do those things. Whether you’re an actor or not, I think every single person knows when you’ve come to that place and need to go. So, that’s where he was.

But, him playing Derek? Absolutely. I miss that. But, that’s part of what’s great about playing a character because in real life, this kind of thing happens all the time where you have a hope or dream or somebody you really love to be around is suddenly not there anymore, and you don’t get to experience that thing. There’s that big hole that cannot be filled. Imagine if Criminal Minds was a big room. Where Morgan was, there’s a giant hole right there. You just put up caution tape and say, “There’s a hole there.” You’re not going to put a rug over it. It’s just right there.

Kirsten, as a person, really likes the character Luke Alvez played by Adam Rodriguez, but Penelope Garcia does not like him at all. That’s really interesting. I’m like, “Hey Adam!” Then, in a scene, Garcia does not like him one bit. It is taking her a long time to warm up to him.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Garcia sees Luke as replacing her best friend Derek?

Kirsten Vangsness: Oh, yeah. It’s terrible!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Although, I think Garcia finally realized she was in love with Derek when he left.

Kirsten Vangsness: Oh, I agree with you. Actually, I wrote that episode where he left last season. I wrote that last scene we had. I wrote the scene as two friends saying goodbye. Then, I was Kirsten, the actress, doing the scene, and I was like, “Oh, God. It’s really sad!” It hurt my feelings for Garcia. I agree with you, and she couldn’t have moved on with her life at all if Derek had stayed. You have to make lemonade out of those lemons because he’s not there. Let’s all thank God that we’re not watching a play. This is a television show, so you can always go back and watch those episodes where Shemar is there.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will Garcia have a romance this season?

Kirsten Vangsness: I don’t know. I love it when they go into Garcia personal life world. But, it’s not something we can afford to do when there’s a lot of stuff happening. Last year, it was mentioned. This happens to all of us. We’re like, “What’s happening to our character?” Then, “Oh, yeah. That’s right. There are crimes to be solved.”

I think Garcia’s still with Sam because they mentioned him, so I know she still has the same sort of boyfriend, but I imagine it’s a little lackluster because it’s not mentioned very much. The stuff with Thomas happened. We just got Adam in. Aisha (Tyler) is back and Paget’s back, which is great, so you have a lot of lady bonding time. There’s been a lot of that, and we’ve been having a good time with that.

I know that in the first episode, Garcia’s still sad about Derek being gone. During a break, I told Erica that I don’t want her to be over that fast. Garcia’s sad and really into work right now. She’s really on fire in terms of doing her job. She has some new clothes, and she got a haircut. That was one of the things I decided I wanted to do when I came back. For me, when I’ve gotten really sad, that’s something I’ve done before. It’s like needing a big change, a big change, so I cut Garcia’s hair. I think, at first, I was afraid and made it a little shorter, so she’s got a Marilyn Monroe thing going on right now.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A big change in the show for the upcoming season is that the regular cast is now majority female!

Kirsten Vangsness: You are correct, my friend. It’s delightful. Not that I don’t love the guys, but it’s great. That’s one of the reasons I think why the show is so popular. You’re watching characters, and then behind the characters, you have human beings who are actors who genuinely care about each other and protect each other and understand that we all want to support each other. It’s so consistent throughout.

All three of those girls are so dear to me, and I know that the feeling is absolutely mutual all the way around. It feels criminal that I get paid to hang out with them.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): With four girls and three guys now as regulars, has that changed the dynamics of the show in any way?

Kirsten Vangsness: I don’t think in a bad way at all. Emily (Paget Brewster) is going to become the new Unit Chief. And, this show constantly has women victims, right? There are women victims all the time. It is only appropriate that you would have badass, strong, confident females who problem solve. That only seems right to me. That brings more balance to it, I think, if it does have a little more heart, a more nurturing kind of energy, which is weird to say for a show that’s so gruesome. But, Erica is about the most nurturing, warm-hearted human you ever want to meet. That’s so weird because the show is so creepy (laughs).

But, yeah. It’s good. It’s a good time to act with them. I can vouch for what it’s going to be like to observe. I’m very curious about that because I can have a good time and feel like we’re doing good, solid work, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone watching doesn’t say, “Oh, I really miss …” No one’s saying we’ve got to make the same thing we were making before. We’ve got these ingredients now, and we’re making stuff with the ingredients, and they’re delicious, so I feel good about it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you writing an episode this season?

Kirsten Vangsness: I am. I tend to co-write because we have a finite number of episodes per year and a certain number of writers. So, if I take a writing slot all to myself, that takes a space away from a writer. Where I usually wiggle myself in is when Erica has an episode that she’s writing because it’s just the kinder thing to do in the situation that we have. I could write one my myself. I have now written two with her, and it’s so gratifying. We have such a good time writing together, and it’s really fun to have that bouncing board. So, we’re going to do the same thing.

Also, to be perfectly honest, the episodes that Erica writes, and this one will be no exception, tend to be larger plot-turning points like Gideon dying and Morgan leaving and the one this year, which I can’t say what it’s about right now. But, I promise you, it’s that kind of thing. It’s good to have more than one hand on deck for that because you’re covering a lot of ground and history. You know, those personal kinds of episodes. It shifted because everything got wacky with Thomas leaving, but that episode will be in the middle of the year basically.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s a typical day at work for you?

Kirsten Vangsness: I’m usually the first in, and I get there at about five in the morning. I don’t go on location like everybody else. I always put on my costume first because they do so much precision work on hair and makeup, you don’t put anything over your head once that’s done. So, I put on my costume, and I pick up my glasses that Garcia’s going to wear. I usually pick out two or three different ones. We have a fashion show in the makeup trailer to decide which one we all like. I spend about 45 minutes or an hour in the makeup chair doing my makeup, and I spend the same amount of time getting my hair done.

Garcia takes the longest out of everybody, all the series regular people. I go on set. I do all of my “in Garcia’s office” stuff. On days when I’m not working, I spend the day learning my lines because I usually work way less than everybody else. Because of that, it’s really important to me to make the time that I’m there as easy and effortless as possible. I’ve got that thing down. I usually re-write the lines how I think Garcia would say them, and the writers are always very approving of that. But, I always learn it the other way, too, in case they don’t like it.

Matthew’s directing this episode, so I go and sit down and put on my earpiece. We run through it, or sometimes they just say, “Do you want to shoot it?” I go, “Okay.” For my office, we usually do one take of each scene, and we don’t do another one. We just go boom, boom, boom! Sometimes, I can do seven scenes and be done in an hour. That is a result of doing a lot of theater and a lot of homework. It’s not like I’m a genius. I’m a hard worker, so my magic comes from hard work. I go in and pop that out. By that time, usually everybody else has shown up and are dressed. They go in, and we do the roundtable stuff. We shoot things, we talk, shoot things and talk. Those take a while because there are so many camera angles and stuff.

Sometimes, we have a little break or during lunch, we’ll have the table read. We have about half an hour to grab something to eat or take a nap, then we’ll go sit down. We have one table read per episode. Every single episode, we all go into a trailer, all the series regulars and all the people in the cast for that episode, for every part even if they have no lines. We all sit at a table together.

Everybody introduces themselves, and everybody’s there. We have executives from the network, all the people who work behind the scenes, all the writers and all the actors. We even have the parents there of kids who are in scenes. We read the episode together. Then, we have about five minutes, if we’re lucky, to get lipstick redone or whatever and get back to work, do work and go home. They’re long days, but they’re fun.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any other projects going on right now?

Kirsten Vangsness: Yes, I do. I just did a movie called David Made a Maze that’s going to come out early next year. I’ll know more about that soon. My movie, Kill Me Deadly, is on iTunes now, so anyone can see it. Shemar’s in it, as is Joe Mantegna. It’s really very funny and very like Young Frankenstein kind of Mel Brooks kind of thing. It’s very sweet and good.

I have a movie called Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse that I did with two fantastic actors. They directed it themselves. It has Arye Gross. It’s funny because Arye Gross and I play a married couple in this movie. I play this hippie girl named Fawn. The year we were doing the episode of Criminal Minds where Gideon is killed called “Nelson’s Sparrow,” we needed a bad guy and wanted someone really famous. I said, “What about Arye Gross?” They said, “We can’t get him, Kirsten. He plays the M.E. on Castle.” I said, “Oh, I just did a movie with him. I know him.”

I Facebooked Arye and asked if he’d be the bad guy on Criminal Minds, and he said, “Yes.” Barry Bostwick, Harry Groener, Armin Shimerman, Janet Varney and Jonathan Silverman are in the movie. It’s like a modern-day Abbott and Costello road movie, and it’s so adorable. It’s just about to premiere at the Austin Film Festival in October.

I have a web series that I’m writing, but I’ll have to tell you about it later when it’s happening because I’m still in the middle of editing it and learning about it. I am the co-owner, with two of my best friends, of the first craft distillery in all of Orange County. It is called Blinking Owl Distillery. It’s in Santa Ana, California, and there actually was a speakeasy called The Blinking Owl in Santa Ana in the 20s.

We’re just about to open. We have a tasting room, and you can actually go down there and visit. We make vodka and gin and will make a bunch of different kinds of whiskey eventually and a Scandinavian spirit called aquavit. We are 100% locally sourced. It’s like this weird, fun think I’m doing with my friends, and I’m so happy about it. It’s about three blocks away from the train station, so I can pop on the train here and be in Orange County in under an hour and at my gorgeous, beautiful distillery. I’m like a legal bootlegger now. It’s the strangest thing.

I’m writing some stuff theater-wise and a web series, but I’m really excited about Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse because it’s such a great movie, and I’m so happy to be a part of it. I can’t wait to share all of the distillery stuff with people of legal drinking age.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The last time we spoke in April of 2015, you told me that you had gotten engaged. Will there be wedding bells soon?

Kirsten Vangsness: You know, I am the worst at the planning. There’s the question, “Will you marry me?” I answer, “Yes. I will do that.” I don’t know when that will happen, but I’ll give you an answer. We don’t have any plans in the works right now, but that’s alright because love is messy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know that you have several cats. Are you passionate about animal rights?

Kirsten Vangsness: I’m basically passionate about creature care whether that is the earth or human beings. Personally, I try to tread as lightly on the earth as possible. I don’t always do a great job, but I try. That means I’m really passionate about environmental stuff. I’m a vegetarian because I feel like that’s a way I can directly tread lighter on our food chain and our fossil fuels.

I’m very passionate about taking care of human beings, especially small human beings and all human being care. I do stuff with Read Across America and Alex’s Lemonade Stand and refugees because most refugees are children. I feel like our little humans of the world need a lot of eyes on them because they’re small. They don’t get a lot of attention.

I’m a big animal rescue person. I had a dog for a really long time. He was 20 when he left the planet, and he lived a wonderful, long life. He was my dog rescue and there all of my adult life. Then, I got a kitten. He was a rescue and so sweet, but very sick when I got him. I didn’t know he was sick, but he was found at a dumpster. He died pretty fast, and then I found a kitten at the park, and have had him for about a year. He was so mean. Oh my gosh, meanest cat in the world, so mean!

These two cats that were brothers were going to have to go in a shelter because their owner was very sick. They were going to be separated, so I decided to foster them. But my cat’s so mean, I thought there was no way it would work. Well, I brought them into the house, and my cat is so nice now. I kept them, and they’re the sweetest things. Their owner ended up passing away, so I’m glad I took them. I have three very sweet rescue cats. It feels like there’s a racetrack in my house because they make laps all the way around it. So, yeah, I love all kinds of animal charities.

I’m also a big gay rights activist, especially for kids, the Trevor Project and all that. Julia Roberts is 9,000 times more famous than I am and has a lot more clout in the movie business thus far, but she said that the best part of her job is that she gets to be a finger pointer. She gets to point at things she thinks are important, to have people look at them. I love being an artist, but my favorite part of being where people see you is that I can be a finger pointer and let people know about things. I know the world can be scary, but I can point at things and say, “That’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid of that.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): To give back.

Kirsten Vangsness: It’s my favorite thing about the job, being able to help. This last weekend was Alex’s Lemonade Stand which provides cancer research for childhood cancers, and I’ve been doing that the whole time it has been in LA. This was its 7th year. Parents are there who have lost children, but they’re still helping the cause, and kids are there that have gotten better because of research.

Alex’s Lemonade was started by a little girl to raise money, and by the time she died, she had raised over a million dollars for cancer research. That money created enough research so that kids who were in the hospital with her are now in college. They’re now healthy and alive because of what she did. It has been going on for years. What that little kid did just takes my breath away. So, to be able to be a part of that and celebrate that is the coolest part of the celebrity thing.

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