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Joe Mantegna On Stepping Back Into David Rossi's Shoes For Criminal Minds: Evolution - Exclusive Interview

CBS' "Criminal Minds" rode a wave of success for 15 seasons before coming to an end in early 2020. Not long after, rumors started swirling that the hit series would return — and after much speculation, that time has come. A revival of the series, "Criminal Minds: Evolution," will premiere on Thanksgiving on Paramount+.

Featuring much of the original cast, including Joe Mantegna as Supervisory Special Agent David Rossi, the series picks up after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the FBI agents from the Behavioral Analysis Unit trying to pick up the pieces and regroup in order to track down a sophisticated serial killer who is recruiting people to do his dirty work.

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Mantegna talked about what it was like to reunite with his "Criminal Minds" co-stars, the biggest challenge he faced getting back into character, and his humble hopes for the revival.

'This is just more icing on the cake'

The "Criminal Minds" revival premieres on Thanksgiving, which has me wondering, what are you thankful for when it comes to your career and this second chance at a very popular TV show?

I'm thankful every day for my entire career — period. This is just more icing on the cake. I feel very blessed. I've been doing this for over 50 years now, acting as a professional actor, and it wasn't always the most financially successful job in the world. But I've always enjoyed what I did, and I still do. I don't enjoy it any more or less now than when I did it in high school or junior college. It didn't matter what level I was doing it; I feel very blessed to be in an occupation that was a passion for me. 

To get a second chance on something that I was already happy with ... I was very comfortable doing the 13 seasons I did on "Criminal Minds," and [I thought], "I did it. It's over. We'll chalk that up to experience," and it was a wonderful experience. To get that second time around the track, it's a second blessing. I've enjoyed the people. I enjoyed the lifestyle, which was the main reason I did it in the first place. 

[Before "Criminal Minds"] I was doing more film work, a lot of travel, and for personal reasons, for my family and stuff, I was looking for a work situation where I could have more control over being able to come home every night and know what I'm doing for a good portion of the year.

I'm not complaining about my lifestyle before, but it was a little easier when the kids were smaller, and we'd all travel and go to all these crazy places. But I never knew from one month to the next where I was going or what I was going to do. I like the logic of doing a series, especially one I enjoy, so doing it again is a double blessing.

The returning cast is 'as tight as ever'

"Evolution" makes the switch from network TV series to Paramount+ streaming series, which showrunner Erica Messer has said gives you more creative leeway, especially when it comes to language. Did you feel the difference on the set or in the scripts at all?

Somewhat. You work within the parameters you have. Network television is going to have certain parameters that are unique to it. With all the travel I've done in my life, you go to Europe and you see that they've been doing things on normal TV that we [in the U.S.] still don't do in terms of language and what they show. It's a different philosophy. But now, we have been able to open it up a little bit. It makes it more realistic. It makes it more in line with what really happens out there in the world. I don't think we've lost any of what made the show unique and successful.

The language is a factor, but even the way we shoot the show [is different]. When you shoot network television, there's a certain aspect ratio you have to be concerned about in terms of how it fits. I've done some directing. I was able to direct my 10th episode this season. It's even visually different [on Paramount+]. It's more cinematic. You're able to take it to that next step.

All these things, though, don't really affect the heart and soul of the show. It is what it is. But I do think we've been able to push the envelope a little bit. With a show like ours, we were pushing the envelope pretty strong anyway in terms of what it's about. Now, we'll see how things go, how things play out, and God willing, we'll have the opportunity to do more [seasons] and embrace this format.

A good chunk of original actors came back. How did it feel to be back together again, even though it hasn't been that long since the original series ended?

It was great. We've all stayed in touch. This cast is very, very tight. We've had a text thread going from the day that [the original series] ended a few years ago. That never ended, that friendship. Of course, people had to go on and do their own thing, go their own way with other projects. But there has always been that connection, even before we got the word that ["Evolution"] was going to happen. I think it was Adam [Rodriguez] who instigated a dinner reunion. He called everybody and said, "Hey, we should do this." And we did. We all got together at a restaurant, and it was great. It was almost like we took a long hiatus and now we're back. It's great, and we're as tight as ever.

There's 'a very good chance' that Matthew Gray Gubler and Daniel Henney will return

Any funny or memorable behind-the-scenes stories you can share from the "Evolution" set?

There's always something humorous going on. That's the nature when you do a show that has the serious aspects that our show has. You almost have to insert a degree of levity when given the opportunity, just to offset the seriousness of what you're doing. That hasn't changed. That still goes on. Kirsten [Vangsness] is a great instigator of that because her character lends itself to that. It was such a joy to walk into her little world again, where she does all her computer stuff, and see all that stuff that fans have sent her over the years that she has adapted and uses and incorporates into the show. 

Our fans are so loyal, so strong, and so embracing — and we reciprocated. Speaking for all of us, I know we all feel that way. We value that support that we've gotten.

We haven't had that moment like we did with the bear on the set with Shemar [Moore] yet or anything like that. But we'll see. Of course, COVID has its own restrictions that we're very conscious of, in terms of being tested constantly. Even set visits — you can't do stuff like that, which is fine. It's a matter of adapting to the current situation.

Do you hold out hope that those actors — like Matthew Gray Gubler and Daniel Henney, who played Spencer Reid and Matt Simmons, respectively — who didn't return might at some point? Have you spoken to them about it?

I do hold out hope, and I have spoken to them about it, and there is absolutely a chance of that happening. In a way, it's fortuitous that out of eight of us that ended the show together, six of us were able to come back without any qualms or obstacles that would make it difficult to do. But [for Gubler and Henney] there's no other reason beyond practicality reasons that they're not here. We certainly would love to have them back in some capacity, and I think they would enjoy being back in some capacity. There are other factors involved that have kept it from happening so far, but I absolutely think there's a very good chance that we haven't seen the last of those two characters on our show.

Mantegna drew upon his real life to help flesh out David Rossi

Are there any new agents or long-term characters, outside of the unsubs?

There may be, [because] even though we've been on for 15 seasons, coming back after a couple years off gives the writers a chance to be like, "Let's rethink this," especially since it's a little bit of a new configuration. There's six of us as opposed to eight, though we did fluctuate. There were times, as I recall, we had as little as five members of the cast and as many as eight members of the cast. It was always kind of fluid over those 15 seasons.

Those are the kinds of things that get discovered within the process of creating the episodes. You start doing a storyline and you think, "You know what? This storyline is really interesting." And it's interesting because of the insertion of this particular character or characters. Then maybe that creates another direction to go in. I think that's the strength of any successful show. You have to be somewhat fluid and be able to make adjustments, and if you think you can benefit by bringing in a character and giving them an important position within the show, then you do it. You see where it goes. So yeah, there's a chance of that happening.

You had previously played David Rossi for so long — 13 seasons. Was it easy enough to slip back into character?

It was. I learned a long time ago, when I did my first series of any note ... I did this show called "First Monday." It was about the Supreme Court. It only ran for 13 episodes, but that [was the] first time I made that decision that I wanted to embrace this lifestyle. I was looking for something to do that would ground me a little bit, keep me home a little more often. Don Bellisario, the wonderful producer who created "Magnum P.I." and "JAG," created the show.

James Garner and [I] were the two leads, and I remember him saying to me at the time, "I know you've done mostly theater and movies. Now, you're going to embark on a TV series. There's no telling how long it's going to run, but because there's that possibility it's going to run for an extended period of time, try to embrace as much of who you are [as you can] in that character, because then you have all that to draw upon. Who are you? What's the essence of you?" And it made sense to me.

So I did that right from the beginning when I got the role of David Rossi. Even in terms of choosing his name, choosing his nationality, I purposely wanted it to have some aspects of who Joe Mantegna is. I drew upon the things about myself and my life, whether it's the fact that I'm Italian-American, that I like food, that I like Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis music, my connection to the military, which is kind of my hot button. I'm very involved in a lot of military programs and charities and things like that.

All of that got incorporated into my character, so to be able to come back to that was not that difficult. It wasn't like I had chosen a character that was so far afield of who I am that it was like, "I have to rethink this. I have to jump into the brain of this guy who's so different from who I am." That helped a lot.

Even tiny details have 'significance' on the show

Speaking of getting back into character, is there anything special you do to bring him to life? Any kind of rituals?

That's a good question. A lot of people have different ways of working. I have often said that I build a character from the outside in. I've spent many, many times at Quantico. I've done a lot of research in terms of what it would be like to be a real member of the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. But beyond that, a lot of it is in my wardrobe. That's important to me. I'll be in discussions with the costumer, and we'll come up with, "Who is this guy? What does he think of himself? How does he dress?" From the kind of watch that I wear to the clothes that I wear to the shoes that I wear or the car that I drive or the pen that I use on the show, all of it has some significance to me.

There's always going to be the research you have to do to hopefully be truthful to what it's like to be a member of the FBI. But those personal aspects of it ... They have had episodes where I'm cooking in the kitchen. Those are the little things that I like to incorporate that help me flesh out who my character is.

Getting back into the swing of things, was there anything about the role that you forgot was challenging?

Yeah, the physicality of it. [Laughs] Let's face it — there's no denying I'm the senior citizen in that group. Yet they've still got me running after the bad guys and punching guys and doing all that stuff. But it's caused me to be more active, especially during the hiatus. I discovered bicycling. I use an electric bike because it helps me when I'm going up hills and things like that, [and] I really embraced it. My sister-in-law actually turned me onto it, and now I'm an avid cyclist. I put in well over 4,000 miles over my hiatus time. In a way, I can feel it in terms of my physicality. It can't change how old you are, but in terms of physicality, I'm actually in better shape than I was when I first did the show.

I am a grandfather on the show, script-wise. I have grandchildren, but yet I have to prove that Grandpa still has what it takes to be a viable member of the FBI. That's been where you go, "Oh, yeah, that's right. I have to do this kind of stuff too." But I'm hopefully up to that challenge. I've embraced it, and I actually enjoy it.

He loves revisiting his 'fantasy life' on The Simpsons as Fat Tony

Rossi on "Criminal Minds" and Fat Tony on "The Simpsons" are both characters you've been playing for decades now. On "The Simpsons," time never really passes at all. How different is it to revisit those two characters year after year?

It's a joy. In terms of Rossi and all the characters on that show, you see the progression and you see the time spent. That's reality. Then you go to "The Simpsons," and that's something else. That's animation. That's "we're frozen in time."

Fat Tony is my longest-running character. This is my 31st year playing him, which is over double the amount of time I've spent on "Criminal Minds." On one hand, I get to play David Rossi and be on this dramatic show. On the other, my voiceover fantasy life is Fat Tony, where I get to be eternally the same guy every year.

The voice is still there, and it's a voice that I adapted from my dear uncle Willie. When I did that first episode [of "The Simpsons"], "The Godfather: [Part] III" had just come out. There was a lot of anticipation for that film, and here I am, the villain. I thought to myself, "I can't duplicate this guy in a cartoon now, within months of that character." I didn't want that. That's when I thought, "I'm going to adapt my uncle Willie's voice, because it's so unique." And I did it, and nobody said, "Stop doing it." They seemed to like it. I'm still doing it. That's my homage to my dear uncle, who had a lot to do with raising me. My father died when I was 23 years old, and my uncle Willie was around for a major part of my life.

He hopes viewers feel that watching the show was 'time well spent'

The first episode of "Evolution" is called "Just Getting Started," yet it's technically the series' 325th episode. What is your personal hope for this revival?

My only personal hope is that all our existing fans out there are able to say, "We're so glad it's back. This is just what we'd hoped for, and we enjoy it," and that any new people who check it out are able to say, "Now I understand why this thing was so popular and why they're bringing it back."

People always ask me, "What do you want the audience to walk away with?" My one answer would be that they can say, "That was time well spent." That's all. That's all you could ever hope for.

There's no message involved as far as I'm concerned, [no] "I want them to know this" or "I want them to feel that." That's a personal thing. What they take away from it is up to them. But if they can say, "That was time well spent. I enjoyed that time I invested to watch this, and I would like to watch more of it," that's all you can hope for.

People seem very excited to see the revival, so hopefully the Paramount+ series will be popular.

I should hope. We love our fans. In fact, this is an interesting anecdote. We all get a lot of fan mail. We get fan mail from all over the world — China, Japan, Europe, Australia, you name it. Often, they'll send a little photo that they have and a self-addressed, stamped envelope and say, "Would you please personalize this to me? I'm such a huge fan." Recently, I got something that was returned. It came back undeliverable, and I realized it was one of the foreign letters I had received, and when I looked closely, it was a fan letter from Ukraine. I had addressed it to this girl named Denise because she had written a letter that was like, "Dear Joe, I'm a big fan, and we live here in Ukraine."

I looked up the address I had sent it to, and it was now in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine. All of a sudden, here I am looking at this little fan letter, thinking, "Wow. This has some contemporary historical significance for me." Here's this young girl who obviously loves our show living in this small town in Ukraine and wanted an autograph[ed] picture, and I was happy to send it to her, and now it's returned. I felt really bad.

I saved the letter, and I'm hoping that one day I'm able to get it back to her. I'm going to keep writing back to see if something gets delivered and make sure she gets that photo back. But that's a moment where reality hits you in the face after all of the pretending that we do for a living. It's very personal, and one of the reasons I'm so grateful for the success of our show [is] we even have fans living in a war-torn country, and hopefully everybody will sort out what's going on over there.

"Criminal Minds: Evolution" will premiere with back-to-back episodes on Thursday, November 24 on Paramount+.

This interview has been edited for clarity.