Joe Mantegna on Criminal Minds and more – Exclusive – Looper

You mentioned having visited the people who actually do this job in your life, can you talk a bit more about the research that went into playing this role and playing someone who does that type of job?

Yeah, for me it was very important that there was as much research as possible, because it’s one thing as an actor when you’re playing roles that are… I mean, there are different gradations of that. In other words, let’s say you’re doing a role like I played in one of the first movies I did, a thing called Compromising Positions. I played a dentist, so obviously it was important for me to find out as much as I can of what it was like to be a dentist, because there were scenes where I’m actually doing stuff, and I didn’t want to have every dentist in the world look at me and say, “What the hell? That’s not the way you clean a tooth.” So you do that kind of research.

But beyond that, the personality of character is all on me. Research doesn’t come in there. Then, you go to another extreme when I had to play Dean Martin in the movie The Rat Pack — that was much more daunting, because this is a character, it’s not just a dentist. This is Dean Martin, a character many human beings on the planet think they know who he is, what he looks like, what he sounds like, all that. So my research was so much more in-depth on something like that, because it’s not that you want to totally impersonate this person, but you want to leave them with a semblance when they see it that okay, for the next 90 minutes or whatever, I buy that you are that guy.

In terms of David Rossi, it’s somewhere in between that. In other words, much of it was me, but that was intentional. I requested that we make him an Italian-American. I learned this lesson from Don Bellisario, who was a producer on the first series I did, which was called First Monday and was about the Supreme Court, years ago. Don suggested to me when I played that character, he said pick a name and character and personality not too far from yourself, because the difference between doing a movie and a TV series is this thing goes on and on and on. You may live with it, as it turned out I lived with it for 13 years.

So I think that was good advice, so I purposely made him an Italian-American, and gave him qualities that I appreciate, whether it was food and music and just my personality in general of always being the wiseass at times. So that was important, but then the occupational aspect of it, again was very important, because it’s the real deal, these people really exist. So for me, it was paramount that I go to Quantico, and luckily we had the opportunity to do that, because one of our staff writers from day one was — at the time — still active with the FBI and actually retired during the run of the show.

And so he arranged for that to happen, so I was able to go there and spend time, and really… first of all, I was impressed at how close we were to the real deal in what we’re doing. And they appreciate it, and I will say that was very important to me. In other words, I think they understood that it’s still a TV show, we have to create this drama, but at the end of the day we tried to honor them and be true to what they have to do. Of course, it’s condensed, concise and we have 44 minutes of excitement, while they have things that may last over months and years. But I got from them that they really appreciated about our show that we took it seriously and we tried to represent in a pretty honest way what they really do. I remember meeting some of the women who did the kind of job Kirsten did on the show playing a technical analyst, and a lot of them would say, “Ever since watching the show, we dress a little more casual. A little more extravagant.” Because they realized, why do I have to be always so buttoned up because we’re behind a computer all day? So I thought that was kind of fun.

So anyway, bottom line is, research was very important to me, because you never want to feel that you’re just faking it. It’s one thing if you’re doing a movie about playing a supernatural hero and just inventing s***, but it’s something else when you’re portraying somebody who could be watching the TV and saying, “Wait a minute, that’s crazy, I do that job and that would never happen.” So you try to avoid as much of that as possible.

There’s obviously the technical side of the job that you had to learn about, but was there anything you learned about the type of people, when we talk about personality, that get into this line of work, that you used in the show?

Yeah, that’s a good question, and that’s a difficult question because to tell you the truth, I’m not so sure about that. I think there must be one kind of thing that must run through them all in the sense of, it’s the same thing almost as being in the military. You have to have that one kind of grain of not ambition, but desire to perform service. In other words, I want to be in the service industry. I want to in essence wear a uniform, even if it’s not a uniform. What defines me as a person is doing service to those others, whether you’re a soldier, a policeman, a fireman, a doctor, or an FBI agent, that’s in your DNA almost in a way.

In a way, I’m surprised at how diverse the people are who all share that same thing. That’s kind of what makes it interesting: You can actually meet the eight of us, you put us all in a room, we’re different types, we look differently, we’re different ages, we’re different nationalities, we’re different everything. But yet there’s that one common thread of trying to do what you think is the right thing, trying to be one of the good guys in a world of bad guys.

When the show first started, the analogy that Ed Bernero, who was our initial showrunner, made, and which was why they chose to round table… because in the real Quantico, they do have a room like that. That’s pretty close to the real deal, but their table is a very long rectangular one, because they have to accommodate a lot more agents at any given time. Ours is a little round table, and for Ed, he wanted to make the analogy that it was like King Arthur knights of the round table. We are the knights, and the unsubs are the dragons. And thank God we have knights in the world to confront the dragons. Too bad we have dragons, but that’s life.

Just to wrap up on this show, you guys obviously have, as you said, a dedicated fanbase, but what’s something that fans might not know about making Criminal Minds that you think they should?

First of all, I was always amazed by how big our fanbase was in terms of women. Females make up a big part of our fanbase, and a lot of the fan mail and the interest. More than once, I’ve had people contact me because their daughters wanted to go into this line of work, and in a couple instances — I know definitely two where literally I spoke to them when they were kids out of high school and today they’re FBI agents. I used to think about that. What is it about, especially the women that are so taken by this show? Because a lot of people would think it’s so graphic and it’s so this and so that, and scary. And I’ve always defended that aspect of the show. I know others have felt like, “You’re going too far, it’s too creepy.” And my attitude is no, we really can’t go too far, because the real people go that far and beyond. For us to cut corners, and for us to sugarcoat it, is a disservice to what these men and women really do.

We put it in your face, but the point being this really happens, and this is what they have to deal with, and that could be shocking. You don’t have to look at it, and it maybe freaks you out, but that’s why when people say to me, “Hey, does it bother you when you do those scenes,” I go, “Hell no.” When they say cut, that person there laying with the arrow in his eye gets up and pulls it out and gets a sandwich. Ask the real agent if that bothers him.

But to get back to your question about that thing, especially with the women, I think part of it is, it’s about the psyche of these people. And I think women for the most part, and understandably so, find that very interesting and fascinating because it’s something they want to be on top of, be aware of. So it’s got a defensive principle — like these are people out there in the world, and what can I do to educate and protect myself?

And what I kind of in retrospect also felt is that major aspects of our show were very educational. I always point to one example, and that was in an episode in which the unsub was a car park, he was one of those guys that parks your car. Matthew Gubler, his character would often be the guy that put two and two together quicker than the rest of us. There was a scene in the episode in which he goes, “Oh wait a minute; I think I know what happened.” And then they were showing flashbacks of each thing he said. He says, “It’s the valet. What happened is, she gave him the car, he took the car, he punched the button for home on her navigation system, all of a sudden he knows where she lives.”

She’s got a garage door opener on her visor. He takes it, he’s got a device he can copy her garage door opener. So now he knows where she lives, and he has a way to open her garage. And he goes, and he says, “Most people who have a home, with a garage attached to the house, they don’t lock the door between the house and the garage, because they know the garage door is closed.” So in that one-minute speech, I know watching it myself I thought to myself, “Well, f***, I’m not going to label home for my home on my navigation system, I’m not going to leave the thing on the visor, and I’m always going to lock that door.” I’ve gotten letters from people who literally have said, “I want to thank you all because watching your show ultimately saved my life because of dot, dot, dot, dot.” And they’ll go into detail, even the episode that taught them something.

So that maybe is not something that comes first to people’s minds as to why they like Criminal Minds or why it was so successful, but I think that’s kind of an offshoot of it, and in a way a beneficial offshoot of it. Some people say it’s dark, it’s grim, I have to look away. And a lot of the women would tape it and not watch it in primetime at night, but they’ll watch it, they’re real huge fans, and will watch it in the daylight. I get it.

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