Kirsten Vangsness Interview: Talks "Criminal Minds," Apocalyptic Film Role and New Man in Her Life
Image attributed to Kirsten Vangsness
Kirsten Vangsness is best known as the lovable, quirky brainiac tech analyst, Penelope Garcia, in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit on CBS’s hit series Criminal Minds. Other television credits include Phil of the Future, LAX, Pretty the Series and Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (short-lived spin-off).
Vangsness began performing in plays and improvisation in Los Angeles after college. She has been a member of numerous theater companies in Hollywood and is currently an active member of Theatre of NOTE where she has served as president of the Art Board and earned the coveted Golden Betty Award.
“The thing most people have seen me do is Garcia on Criminal Minds. Very few people get the privilege to play the same character for ten seasons, but this last year, I was playing a dumb blonde named Fawn in this film who’s a total ditz, and then I was doing this whole other part, a character named Ada in this play. I did a three-page monologue just very angry and totally opposite from Garcia.”
In 2007, the versatile actress starred in the West Coast premiere of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig at the Geffen Playhouse for which she received a Best Actress Garland Award. She has also written various pieces that have been seen in the LA area.
The California native’s current project is Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse, an indie feature comedy set during the collapse of civilization written by and starring Gabriel Diani and Etta Devine. In addition to Vangsness, the film features Barry Bostwick, Robert Pine, Harry Groener, Arye Gross and Janet Varney. It is available for preorder now at the film’s official website.
Criminal Minds wraps up its tenth season May 6, 2015.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Kirsten, let’s first talk about your involvement in Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse.
Kirsten Vangsness: Gabe (Diani) and Etta (Devine), who created the movie, are members of a theater company called Antaeus in Los Angeles. There are all these little 99-seat theaters all over LA. I’m a member of one called Theatre of NOTE, and I did a movie with some people I know from there called Kill Me, Deadly that we just finished last year. I’m a big fan of Etta and Gabe. I think they’re amazing. They’re so hilarious and such comedy geniuses. They said, “We’re doing a Kickstarter for this film.” I said, “If you need any help or advice or whatever, let me know.” Then I jokingly said, “If you want me to hold the lights or say a line, let me know.”
That was so cool because then they had a part for me. It turned out to be a neat crossover because they ended up performing at a fundraiser we did at Theatre of NOTE. Weirdly enough, the guy who plays my husband in their movie, Arye Gross, plays the medical examiner on Castle and is a very good actor. I was co-writing an episode of Criminal Minds this year, and we needed a really good bad guy.
I was like, “What about Arye Gross?” They said, “Oh that’s great, but we don’t know him, and he’s really fancy.” I said, “I know him! I know him from theater,” so I went on Facebook and said, “Hey Arye, will you be a bad guy in this episode of Criminal Minds?” He was delighted. Everybody at work was acting like I was a rockstar because I got this guy. Then Stephen Simon is in this movie also, and he plays Garcia’s current boyfriend on Criminal Minds! The theater community in LA is very incestuous, so it’s nice.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool. Tell me about your character named Fawn.
Kirsten Vangsness: I play a flower child, like a very dumb blonde hippie girl. A lot of hipsters live on the east side of Los Angeles. She’s supposed to be one of those kinds of girls. We have a commune, but in our commune, we’re trying to protect it, so I have a big, heavy gun that I carry around. It’s a really fun part.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I heard the film described as a Hope/Crosby road movie meets the end of civilization?
Kirsten Vangsness: Yeah. It’s a really weird movie, but I think it’s going to be really hot. They’ve released a small trailer, and I think they’re going to release a second trailer, but I don’t know the movie release date yet.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you enjoy comedic roles?
Kirsten Vangsness: I like doing all kinds of stuff. I’m lucky that my job, when I’m working, I’m really at work, and I can’t really do anything but that. So those days when I’m at work are very intense sixteen-hour days. A lot of the time, there’s usually one day I work with everybody, and then all the other scenes are me by myself, so it has afforded me a lifestyle where I could do the film. I did another play that ran for about six weeks, and it was a complete drama. I played an angry wife. It’s just different.
The thing most people have seen me do is Garcia on Criminal Minds. Very few people get the privilege to play the same character for ten seasons, but this last year, I was playing a dumb blonde named Fawn in this film who’s a total ditz, and then I was doing this whole other part, a character named Ada in this play. I did a three-page monologue just very angry and totally opposite from Garcia.
It’s fun to do different things, but I do think that I tend to like comedies a lot more. After college, I started writing my own stuff, and that stuff was very personal. I’d perform it, and people would laugh. I’d think, “Why are they laughing?” A lot of the things people found amusing sometimes are things that I find deeply personal. I just happen to have a sort of a natural vibe for comedy. Comedy has it all. Good comedy has drama, pain, happiness and joy, and good drama has pain, happiness and joy, so I really just like acting basically.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Criminal Minds is one of my favorite shows, and Penelope Garcia is such a great character. In the beginning, what were you told about her, and were you given free rein to mold Garcia over the years?
Kirsten Vangsness: First of all, thank you! I wouldn’t have a job if you didn’t watch it that much, so I appreciate that. The story on Garcia was that they had a man whose name was Garcia. They shot the scenes with all the other characters talking to this man named Garcia. When they looked at the footage later, they suddenly realized that they had this pilot that was going to come out, but it was too guy heavy. There wasn’t enough female characters. So they thought they’d put in these two lines, have a woman come in and say those two lines and figure it out from there.
I auditioned, and I knew I wasn’t going to get it. I never thought in a million years that I was going to get that part. Then I did, and it was a miracle. It was just this little two-line thing. I remember they called me and said, “Bring your own clothes because it’s just going to be this one scene.” I’m a size 10-12, and in Hollywood, there’s either a size 0 or a size 22. Middle ground is kind of rare sometimes.
I’m a very creative dresser, so when I brought in my clothes, they said, “Are you crazy? This is the FBI. You can’t wear any of this!” They put me in an argyle sweater, and I remember them saying, “We’ll use this crazy red lipstick.” But it was just red lipstick. There wasn’t anything uncommon about it at all. We shot the scene. I was only supposed to be in that first episode, and then they added me into the second episode because when they had done testing on the first show, my character was very popular.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And your first meeting with Shemar Moore?
Kirsten Vangsness: I went to the table read for the second episode, and Shemar Moore introduced himself to me. I’d never met him before. He said that we had a scene together. I said, “Oh, could we talk for a second?” We did a table read, and at the end of that, they said, “We have to have a sexual harassment meeting now.”
I didn’t know if I was supposed to stay or not because I thought I was leaving for good after that episode. I stayed though because I didn’t know what to do, so this person comes in, and they start this sexual harassment meeting. I’m sitting next to Shemar, and he and I start to sexually harass each other. We’re making jokes, and we can’t stop. We’re writing dirty pictures to each other and giggling, but I’m scared because I don’t want to get into trouble. At the same time, his jokes are making me laugh. We did this back and forth.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) No wonder the playful banter between you two seems so natural.
Kirsten Vangsness: When I went home that night, they sent me more pages. I had a different scene, and it’s a scene with Shemar, and the things I said in that sexual harassment meeting are written in the script! You know, things like “honey,” “baby” or whatever. I’m like, “Oh. That’s weird!” We go to shoot, and I’m wearing a girl’s business suit. I kept getting uncomfortable in it, so I was pushing up my sleeves just unconsciously, and then I’d think, “Oh shoot! I shouldn’t be doing that.” I’d push my sleeves down again, then they’d say, “No. No. Leave them up.”
The next scene, a producer came up to me and said, “I like your costume.” I’d say, “I’m not in costume. These are my clothes.” So they told the costumer to dress Garcia like Kirsten. Garcia’s office was all me. I brought in my grandma’s candy dish, a toy, a little light up thing. I’d say a line a certain way, and they’d go, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Then I’d say it the way they wanted and they’d ask me to go back to the way I was saying it in the beginning.
That first season was a very slow burn, but I’m very proud that I created her. She’s mine. I’m very possessive of her because I do write most of those lines in the office. It is a co-creation most definitely because once the costume designer knew this was the vibe we were going for, she made Garcia be a weird dresser, but she’s a different weird than I am in real life. I dress weird, and she dresses weird, but we both dress different. I talk a little strangely, and Garcia talks a little strangely, but we talk different strangely.
The hair and makeup people … everybody got on board. What’s really beautiful is that the writers write her how I would have her talk. Sometimes they say, “We’re just putting that down, but you can say whatever you want.” Honestly, that’s most of the time. I definitely made her. She’s very dear to me, and I love her very much. I am very proud to say that she is a figment of my imagination entirely. I feel so honored that they let me do that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’d love to see more of Garcia’s romantic escapades next season and perhaps more about her family.
Kirsten Vangsness: I think we’re all pretty confident that there’s going to be a next season especially since they’re doing the spinoff. I actually hope for that, too, about the romance and family thing. I have some ideas. Some actors are all about going in and telling the writers, “Hey, write this about my character.” I’m much more hands off. I want to see what they do. But I am very curious about all that. That’s something I’m going to ask for and see if I can get it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you interested in directing an episode?
Kirsten Vangsness: No. I co-wrote an episode this season, and I do like writing very much, so I’m probably going to do that again next season if they have the space and want me. Matthew, Thomas and Joe like directing. I don’t like telling people what to do. It’s just not my thing. You have to be able to know how to do stuff that I just don’t know how to do. They have such good eyes about that, and that’s just not my thing, but I do like writing very much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who’s the worst (or best) cutup on the set?
Kirsten Vangsness: Thomas (Gibson). It’s usually Thomas. Everybody is sort of silly. Matthew … I’d say Thomas. The other day, we had to take this big end of the year photo. Everybody. Every department. Hundreds of people were all in the bullpen. Everybody.
We’re all there, and my boss gets up, and she goes, “Okay guys. Actually I have something to tell you. The network wants us to do another episode. Everybody starts whispering, “What?” Then Thomas yelled angrily, “What!” And he storms off. We’re thinking, “What’s going on?” Then I remembered at that moment, it was April Fool’s Day. Thomas came back in, and everybody was laughing. That guy does a lot of kooky things.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Perhaps it’s because his character Aaron Hotchner rarely smiles (laughs).
Kirsten Vangsness: Oh absolutely, yeah. He’s always making jokes. He’s always doing stuff … always.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Final thoughts on this season?
Kirsten Vangsness: We had a really nice season this year. It was another one of those weird seasons. I’m the only girl that hasn’t left, like ever. I’m just so amazed by that. It was fun to have Jennifer Love Hewitt there. She’s leaving after this season. It was really fun to have Jennifer, and she was a great addition to the team, but she’s moving on because she’s having another child in July.
What’s also going to be weird is that A. J. Cook is having a baby in July. She’ll come back, but everybody’s trying to finagle it saying, “How do we put her in the first episode?” There are some things underway that we’re actually trying to do so that she’ll be there without actually being there in the first episode, but I can’t say anything more than that. We had a really fun season that went by really fast as they always do. We’re all madly in love with each other, and I think that shows. I’m just really happy that I get to be around all of them so much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you know you wanted to be an actor from a young age?
Kirsten Vangsness: Yep. My dad did opera and musical theater, but he didn’t really take care of his voice and didn’t really do with his career like he wanted to. We lived in this little town in the Central Valley, and my dad would do a lot of community theater. My sister and I would always be the background. I’d be seven years old and play the old lady because I always seemed like an old person. I was always playing an elderly lady in the background. Then I got into school, and I was very shy to the point that all of 8th grade, I didn’t even talk.
When I got into high school, my mom said, “You can take shop, or you can take drama.” I didn’t want to take shop (laughs). Our first assignment in drama class was a pantomime thing, and I remember painstakingly doing this project and getting an “A,” and the teacher saying, “Can you come into my advanced class and show them? I want them to see what you did.” The next time I did something, she’d say the same thing. I never had gotten an “A” in anything before. I had never been good at anything. I was so in love with it. I was so in love with the craft of it and how to make it work.
I knew full well that I’d never make a living doing it. I was very at peace with the fact that I was going to be a starving artist, and that I was going to live on cat food for the rest of my life. But I knew I was going to do it for the rest of my life, and since I was thirteen, I’ve been in at least two plays a year. Most of my time creating, I’ve not gotten paid for it nor has anybody seen me do it. That’s one of the great things about it, though, is that it can’t ever be taken away from me. This is all I ever wanted to do. It’s so amazing that I get paid for it. It’s just astounding to me. It’s so cool.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a new film called Kill Me, Deadly which also stars Dean Lemont, Joe Mantegna and Leslie-Anne Down.
Kirsten Vangsness: We just got accepted to the SOHO International Film Festival in New York City, and we are very excited about it. We’re their Opening Night Feature, which is so thrilling. We’re seeing what will happen with the film festival and try to get the movie distributed. Once it gets distributed, people can actually see it. It’s so amazing if I do say so myself. It’s such a neat movie.
I’m taking a play I wrote a couple of years ago called Potential Space, and I’m making it into something that I’m going to put on the Internet which will really be interesting if I can figure out how to do it. I think it will be a fun, neat creative thing. Actually this Saturday I’m going to be on stage with Paget Brewster doing this thing called the Thrilling Adventure Hour in LA. I keep myself really busy. I don’t know what my summer’s going to hold besides promoting Kill Me, Deadly, but yeah, that’s what’s happening right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any time for fun?
Kirsten Vangsness: Oh yeah! My whole life is fun! Are you kidding? My whole life is fun. I guess when you are doing what you love, it’s fun. I’m doing it constantly. My house is nothing but theater rehearsals. It’s like we’re always doing a thing or putting on a show or writing, but it’s what I love to do, so it never feels like work to me.
My boyfriend and I are going to go on a meditation retreat at the end of April. That’ll be fun. I fell in love with this guy, which is like the craziest thing. I was engaged to a woman. I was perfectly comfortable and happy with the nature of our relationship, but sometimes relationships fall apart. The last thing I would’ve thought was that I would meet a guy and fall in love. But I did it. That has been an interesting thing. It’s like discovering new parts of my sexuality, I guess, so I’ve been figuring that out, which is fun and interesting.
It’s weird because coming out is sort of private to me, but I came out and said, “I’m in love with a woman. I’m gay.” Then I guess I have to come out again and say, “Oh, I’m not straight, but now I’m with a guy.” I guess I’m somewhere in between. Not that it’s anyone’s business, but it’s also important, I think, to normalize those things. Just make them normal because they’re not a big deal. Love is wonderful, and it’s wonderful to love people. Who it is, to me, is not a big issue. So I’ve been enjoying that. I’m probably going to get a new rescue cat. Just exciting stuff like that.
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