Even though she didn’t always know it, Kirsten Vangsness was destined for a career in the arts. She’s always embraced the weird in her life and that started when she was listening to David Bowie and reading C.S. Lewis as a kid. Her imaginative spirit has taken her to the stage as an actress and playwright and the small screen as Penelope Garcia on “Criminal Minds.”
“Criminal Minds” returns to CBS this week and Kirsten chatted with CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith about her early influences, the challenges of playing Garcia and what to expect on the new season of the show.
DJ Sixsmith: You grew up in California. Who was most responsible for leading you down the acting road?
Kirsten Vangsness: I started doing it because I was shy. My mom kind of pushed me into it. She said you are going to take acting or you are going to take shop. I didn’t want to build stuff, so I was like I’ll take acting. My sister and my dad were more of the performers and I was sort of weird looking. I got bullied a lot and this is not the kind of thing that you want to put yourself out there for because that happens. I had a big imagination and was always weird, but I didn’t know how to really translate that. Then I started to do it and I got good grades. I had never gotten good grades at something that was hard, but I was so in love with it. I wanted to be better at it so badly. That passion has always been there for me. I love doing it, I love making stuff up and I love trying to figure out why people do things.
DS: Once you started your career, who were some people that influenced your artistic style at an early age?
KV: I was influenced by C.S. Lewis, Harriet the Spy, David Bowie, Duran Duran and Neil Gaiman. I wasn’t allowed to watch television. I was in to really weird stuff like PBS mysteries because that’s what my grandma would have on television. I would say I’ve always been more influenced by painters, imaginary people and music.
DS: Let’s talk about “Criminal Minds.” You’ve played Penelope Garcia for over a decade. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in playing this character?
KV: It’s been amazing. I’ve never been able to be one person that much. I put on her shoes or hold certain things and I’m like that’s her, that’s how she walks and that’s how she stands. You don’t have to think about it. I know all of that about her. In addition, what’s so cool is that I know all this about her, yet there’s a whole team of people that write all these words and I don’t know what they are going to say. I don’t know what they’re going to say about her, so I’m always learning new stuff about her because she is a creation born entirely from a community of people including me. She wasn’t what she was until I started to make her what she was and then everybody else from the costume department to the makeup department started to play this extended game of yes and. Yes, and she does this and yes, and she does this. I love that. The challenge is that you have to do other things. I love acting and I love creating things. Garcia does not exist unless I go and do other things that are not Garcia. Otherwise, there is no difference or contrast. There is a big difference between Kirsten and Garcia. It means that I have to always diversify other stuff I make. I have to be really dedicated to my other things. I do plays, write other things and I perform so I can keep training.
DS: You’ve written a few episodes of “Criminal Minds.” How do you see your character compared to the other writers in the room?
KV: I’m primarily a playwright. Writing for television is so different. I’m good for the weird, I bring in the strange. The episodes I’ve written have been half written by me and the other half was written by our showrunner Erica Messer and then we mush it together. I’ve noticed that that kind of writing is very hard and that linear structure is hard for me. There’s stuff that’s super easy for me because I rewrite a lot of Garcia’s phone calls with other people. The writers expect me to do that. Phone calls and expositions are easy. When Derek Morgan left and we did the thing where Shemar Moore’s character was leaving, I wrote the scene between Morgan and Garcia. I was tasked to write those last two acts. I wrote the scene and I liked it and stand by it. We go to shoot the scene that day and we ran lines once. We ran the lines and then I started to get this weird panic feeling and then we were doing the scene and it occurred to me right then that Garcia has been thinking this whole time she’s got a chance with Morgan, even though he got married and had a baby. I promise you that it had never come into my mind.
DS: What can old fans and new fans of the show expect when it returns this week to CBS?
KV: This is the greatest time to start watching “Criminal Minds.” We just started this experience we’re having with Linda Barnes and she is creating some big problems within the team. What’s going to happen in the first episode is she is coming in, taking over and trying to be apart of the team. It is incredibly distracting and really hard to do our jobs with this critical eye staring at us and then that just builds. The episode the week of March 14th is one of my top five favorite episodes ever. Things are really going to start ramping up and when we did the table read, all of our jaws were on the floor. The whole deck of cards is coming down and you have to figure out how it’s going to get rearranged.
“Criminal Minds” returns to CBS on Wednesday, March 7 at 10pm EST/PST.