An Interview with Kirsten Vangsness (Penelope Garcia, Criminal Minds)
From Rachel Thomas
Many times when we get involved in a series, we forget that the characters we've welcomed into our living rooms each week live completely different lives than what is portrayed on television. I had the fortunate opportunity to chit chat with the very bubbly and incredibly sweet Kirsten Vangsness from the immensely popular CBS series Criminal Minds.
Q: Before you became an actress, you had several interesting jobs (substitute teacher, grant writer), did any of these positions help prepare you for a career in acting?
Kirsten: "I used to be a substitute teacher for quite some time, I was in a group home, and then sometimes I was a teacher for long periods of time. If they didn't have a teacher for a really rough class, I would be the teacher who would come in and teach them. Someone once told me there are two kinds of teachers: The kind who can get the kids to do anything they want by sheer intimidation and then there's the kind that can get them to do anything they want because you don't know what that person is going to do. I was that second kind. I'd walk in the kids would be like, 'She just came in and she's wearing shoes with kitty cats on them, purple-striped nylons and a Sex Pistol t-shirt.' I just pulled out an apple, a grapefruit, a pan, 12 books out of my purse, 14 kinds of lip-gloss and they didn't know what to make of me. There's an element of almost being like right before school when you're going to see these kids, you're setting yourself up to be eaten alive and chewed up and spit out. There was that element, that quickening, meeting all those people coming from different worlds and creating in like 15 minutes, a community."
Q: If you weren't acting, what do you think you'd be doing now?
Kirsten: "I love music, I collect songs. I have a whole cover collection and constantly when people don't even ask me, like Matthew (her co-star), he's one of my CD victims, I'm constantly making him CD's - he doesn't ask me for them, I just come in and tell him these are the best make artists of 1994. I think I'd be a music supervisor, like the people who make stuff for movie soundtracks."
Q: I understand you have very unusual shopping tastes, can you tell us what your favorite items to buy are?
Kirsten: "I like clothes that make me happy! They don't arrive to me like they're supposed to. I'll get something and say to myself, I know this is brand new, but I'm going to cut the neck off, I'm going to slice the side up and sew a different piece of fabric in there. When I was a child, my mother would give me and my sister like $15 apiece, put us into goodwill and tell us to go get our school clothes. If that meant you spent the whole $15 on a pimp daddy fake fur coat, that was your school clothes, which I did do one year. When I was in first grade, I got this fantastic fake fur coat that I wore every day, when it was 80 degrees. Right now, I'm on a crinoline kick, I have way more crinolines that any human being should have."
Q: After speaking with you and Matthew Gray Gubler, I realize you guys must have a blast on the set - is that true and does any of the cast hang out off set?
Kirsten: "Matthew lives like 5 minutes away from me and my theater company is halfway between my house and where he lives. There has been a couple times when I've been out with my friends at some restaurant and I'll look up and say 'Why are you here?' We have a lot of fun, Matthew is so sweet and he knows a lot of really dumb jokes, so we swap a lot of dumb jokes. One of the best things about doing this show is, if someone had said your Doppelganger is a 30 year-old black guy, I would never have believed it. One of my best friends is Shemar now; we get along so well in real life. We hang out with each other, we talk on the phone, we ask each other for advice. It really is fun, everyone is sweet and has their own weirdness about them and when you combine it all, it really is lovely."
Q: Your character is a computer genius, are you as knowledgeable about computers?
Kirsten: "Before I did this show I never had my own computer and I would go to my mom's house and use her PC. I didn't understand any of it and when I got the job I said this is kind of criminal that I don't know about it. So, I asked my friends, who were technical geniuses and they've helped me out so much. Now I'll find myself in a conversation with someone, I'll be talking and saying technical terms about computers and software that I assume are vernacular to everyone. I'm getting better and better at it, I'm a different kind of smart from Garcia."
Q: Where do you feel your character is headed in the coming months?
Kirsten: "That's always a weird question because I'm so surprised by the things they come up with. I love that surprise element where I read a script and I go, 'She does that?' Very rarely do I read a script and think that's not Garcia would do. I love how they inform me and I deal with what they've given me and build from that. I love that she's getting more involved in the group and I think that's a hard thing to do for the writers because she doesn't have the same sensibility as the other six, she's not a crime fighter. She wouldn't carry a gun, she'd carry a taser. I'm excited because she is getting into the field more. I saw the car that Garcia drives last night. We shot a scene where I drive the most amazing car that you ever saw in your life! It's very vintage."
Q: Do you watch anything on television other than your show?
Kirsten: "I love British television a great deal. I'm a little obsessed with Heroes right now. I love The Office and I love cartoons, I'm a big Simpsons freak. I actually collect Mr. Roger's DVDs because I love him so much. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Q: I've heard you love doing theater, going forward is your plan to continue performing in both mediums?
Kirsten: "Yeah, that's my first love. Theater is the one thing any actor can do. It's so valuable in our society, it's the first place you see a germ of an idea that starts as a conversation and then gets made into a movie or a television show. It's really accessible to everybody. I'm a member of Theater NOTE in Hollywood. I wish we had bigger audiences; sometimes we have like 8 people in our audience. I'm in a play right now that we do every Christmas at my theater company. It's hard to juggle the two things, I try to make it work. I'm writing a play, I've written a couple of plays before when I couldn't get work as an actor."
Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Kirsten: "I took acting because I was so shy.
Q: Anything you'd like to say to the fans?
Kirsten: "Thank you for watching our experiment. I think it started out as this theory, a nuts and bolts kind of show and it's really spinning into its own little child, it's a toddler now, a crime show toddler. I'd like to thank them for watching it. It keeps getting better, it's so exciting. I'm so lucky to be a part of it all."