As the popular adage goes, all good things must come to an end. Sadly, that saying rings true as CBS’ hit crime drama Criminal Minds has its final curtain call starting this January after 15 years on the air. Through the years, many of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) agents have come and gone, but flamboyant and fun-loving technical analyst Penelope Garcia, who is portrayed by actress Kirsten Vangsness, always stuck around as a critical component of the BAU.
Based on Vangsness’ confident and outgoing portrayal of Penelope, one would never guess that as a child Vangsness was incredibly shy growing up.
“When I was a kid, I was painfully shy, I was weird looking and got made fun of a lot,” Vangsness said. “My dad hadn’t taken care of himself enough to be an opera singer, which is what he started to do. So we moved to the Central Valley [in California] and he would always be the lead in community theater plays. My older sister would always be, like, one of the young girls and I would always play the old lady in the back, so things that basically didn’t require speaking. When I went into eighth grade I didn’t talk the whole eighth grade and I did really badly in school. When I got into high school, my mom told me that I had to take shop or drama. So I took drama and the first two assignments we did required no speaking. It was all pantomime and I got an A. I never got an A in anything and then I got really fascinated by it. I had no idea that it would ever be an option as an actual career. It’s super strange and wonderful.”
Dedicating 15 years-worth of her life to her character, Vangsness feels protective of Penelope because she created her. She even brought in her grandma’s candy dish to put on her office desk that she sits at on the show.
“I love her. It’s an honor,” Vangsness said about her character. “There’s literally no one I can think of that I’d rather be the guardian of because I made her up almost out of thin air. In the first episode, they said ‘bring your own clothes. We don’t know if we have your size.’ I dress like a 7-year-old pirate from space or something so when I brought my clothes, they wanted business clothes, which I didn’t have, so they hybridized the way that I dressed. When I first sat down at her desk, there was nothing on it. So as the show became popular, fans would give me pens or send me stuff and I started to litter the desk with it. So her whole environment is like a love letter to the fans and serves as a little living document. I made her up and I knew what I wanted her to be. I care a lot about her and how I portray her. My scenes were very, very quick to film. A lot of what people saw was in one take because we shot things very quickly. I was usually in my makeup chair for longer than in my office shooting. That’s because I spent so much of the time when I’m not at work working on her. She’s important to me. I think she was important to other women especially, but to people who also felt different.”
“Hey, baby girl.” If you’re a longtime fan of Criminal Minds, you most likely had a smirk on your face whenever Penelope and BAU agent Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) flirted with each other. What most might not know is that the flirtatious relationship between the two on-screen was actually a reflection of what happened off-screen.
“In the first episode I’m in, he’s the first person that I talk to on the phone, so I had never met him and I didn’t know who I was talking to,” Vangsness confessed. “In the second episode table read, he came in and he had seen the pilot and he introduced himself and said, ‘We talk on the phone.’ I don’t know if we knew each other in another life or whatever, but I had such an admiration for him and I care about him. I never felt intimidated by him. I felt very comfortable with him from the jump. So that day, when we did the table read they told us that the main cast has to stay because we have to watch the sexual harassment video. So I’m sitting next to him and the video starts. This is probably bad, but he’s making jokes to me and I’m making jokes back to him. We’re basically sexually harassing each other, but we’re whispering because we didn’t want to get in trouble. That night, I got a call and was told that they were sending me different pages and I didn’t really know what that meant. They made changes to the scene and the pages that they sent were things that Shemar and I said to each other in that sexual harassment meeting and it was very bizarre. The next day, we start filming this scene and almost immediately we knew we had chemistry. We still text each other and talk. He’s gone to so many of my plays and sat front row. I love him.”
From in front of the camera to behind it, Vangsness also had the unique opportunity to have co-written a few episodes of Criminal Minds.
“When I wrote them, I co-wrote them with our showrunner Erica Messer,” she said. “The way we wrote them, at least initially, was very typical. I’ve written five of them. We’d get together with all the writers and you pitch your story with everybody in the room and then all the writers would figure it all out and come up with some outline. Erica and I would sit down with that outline, type it up and then we’d split it. Erica is a writing genius, especially when it comes to television writing. What I like is that all the episodes that we’ve done have had very personal character-driven moments. I would say the hardest one to write was the series finale because you’re wrapping up a whole show. The show itself is a character and then you have all the characters and you want to give everybody time and you never feel like you can. It’s very frustrating.”
So what element of the show does Vangsness think resonates most with fans? Simple. It’s all about connection.
“I think that they feel our connection and they can tell,” she explained. “I think no matter any inception of the cast. I’ve been there from the jump. I wasn’t in episode five, but I was in every single other episode. I can tell you that there has always been this spirit of closeness. This group of us for the past couple of years, we’re like thick as thieves—like it’s crazy. We all have chemistry individually in real life as people and then our characters have chemistry. We care about not just our part, but everybody else. I think when you add to that all this mystery and suspense and the idea that monsters are created by monsters; that becomes a very intoxicating situation. I think that’s why people can watch the show again and again because you’re watching the plotlines and people that are very relaxed behaving with each other, are happy with their jobs and interested in a good product. There’s not a week that goes by where someone isn’t texting ‘I love you so much.’”
The 15th and final season of Criminal Minds is quickly approaching and with the season only being 10 episodes, Vangsness promises that each episode will be worth it.
“I think this is going to be a really great season,” Vangsness said. “I know that our bit we did was very special. It’s very much a love letter to the fans. We wanted the finale to be fun to shoot and watch, and I think we did that. I feel like the whole season is like an homage to everybody on previous seasons, but that doesn’t mean that everybody returns to the show. We do this really cool thing that [show writer] Breen Frazier wrote for this episode called ‘Saturday’ where you learn how everyone at the BAU spends their day off.
There’s more payoff on the JJ and Reid love story. Jane Lynch is coming back, Rachel Leigh Cook is on for a few episodes and we’re going to do more stuff with [serial killer] Everett Lynch, which Michael Mosely plays so incredibly well. There’s going to be some great stuff with that. There’s a lot that happens this season. It’s only 10 episodes, but darn it, they’re good.”
Fans of the show might remember a certain episode that was properly titled “Penelope” during season 3 when Penelope was shot by a man she was dating, who had an ulterior motive. It was regarded by fans as one of the most must-watch episodes of the series.
“She’s not a character that you’re used to seeing in distress and very vulnerable,” Vangsness said. “There were so many parts of that filming that were very vulnerable, whether it was that you’re going to get shot by somebody or we’re going to talk about this character you play. When you’re playing somebody that people are talking about in a certain way, it feels strange. There were scenes where I’m not wearing any makeup so that was vulnerable, but I think it was worth it. I remember feeling very exposed. Even my own sister called me crying because she saw the preview of it. She was like ‘Are you OK?” It was a big deal. I feel good that it got that effect. I feel like in this last season, Penelope has some hurdles to cross over for sure, but that was certainly a big deal.”
Now that the show is behind her, Vangsness has a busy year ahead of her.
“I just made an animated short called ‘Curtains’ that I’ve submitted to a bunch of film festivals,” Vangsness revealed. “I took a couple of plays that I wrote to Edinburgh this summer and I’m writing a new show right now. I’m so excited about who I’m collaborating with, but I can’t share yet. I’m writing a new play and I’m a member of Theatre of Note in Hollywood, so I do stuff there. Then, I co-own a distillery called Blinking Owl Distillery, which is in Santa Anna, so I help out over there. I’ve been auditioning. I’m so appreciative that we have this time still, because it’s airing. It feels like it’s here and that it’s not gone yet.”
The final season of CBS’ Criminal Minds begins Wednesday, Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. with a 2-hour premiere.