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Aisha Tyler On Reuniting With Her Criminal Minds Family For Criminal Minds: Evolution - Exclusive Interview

Aisha Tyler has quite an extensive résumé. She has appeared on "24," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," and "Friends," and she has voiced Lana Kane on the animated series "Archer" since 2009. She played Mother Nature in the second and third installments of "The Santa Clause" and has even tried her hand at directing, including episodes of "The Walking Dead," the "Wonder Years" reboot, and "Evil."

But Tyler might be best known as Dr. Tara Lewis on "Criminal Minds," on which she starred for five out of the 15 seasons it originally aired. Now, she's back for the series revival, "Criminal Minds: Evolution," which premieres on Paramount+ on November 24.

As a forensic psychologist for the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, Dr. Lewis will be at the forefront of solving what might be the team's biggest case to date, tracking down an elaborate group of serial killers scattered across the country who are all working together.

When Looper recently sat down with her for an exclusive interview, Tyler gave some behind-the-scenes insight into what it's like working on the "Criminal Minds: Evolution" set and what to expect from the new season of the show.

Tyler calls co-star Joe Mantegna 'Papa Joe'

What's it like being back together with the "Criminal Minds" gang?

It's been great. It's been a dream. We didn't feel like we were done telling these stories at the end of Season 15. Then, magically, we were talking about making another season by the end of that year, and then everything stopped for everybody all across the planet [because of the COVID-19 pandemic]. So the fact that we're here now and making the show again has been really transformational. We're all thrilled to be back.

I've interviewed Joe Mantegna a few times, including just minutes before talking with you. What's he like to work with? Any funny or memorable moments with him from past seasons or this season?

Joe's the best. I was very welcomed by everybody [to the show], but he was the person on set who made me feel right at home on my very first day on set. He was very welcoming. We all call him "Papa Joe." He's the Don Corleone. He's our Papa Joe. He's so experienced, so talented. He's the venerated member of our team. We look at him as the captain.

He's also so funny. We joke around so much on set. A lot of these jokes are not safe for work, so I can't repeat them. [Laughs] It's a real family, and he's our captain.

You and your character both went to Dartmouth College. What else do you have in common with her?

Great question, and one I haven't gotten yet. Tara came into the BAU in a relationship that ended pretty quickly, leading into her work there, and she has devoted herself to the work, and I definitely think I share that with Tara. I'm a real workaholic. I don't apologize for it. I love what I do, and I find immersion in my creative life and my work life very energizing. 

Also, especially as a woman, I don't believe in apologizing for ambition, and I don't think that Tara does either. She's really driven, unapologetically, unequivocally driven. I love that about her. She knows how important the work is that she's doing, and she is literally saving lives. That devotion, I really respect. I really admire it.

It's important to her to respect the real-life work of the BAU

The show can be quite dark, but what makes your character fun to play?

It's dark context. It's dark subject matter, but they hold on to a brightness and to a drive and to a commitment to their work that is really inspirational. We also share a gallows humor that real profilers have told us they engage in all the time as a way to lighten the load of the work they do. They tease each other; they tease themselves. There's a brightness and an intensity to the way that they move in the world that we all love playing, and we love playing the family of it all. The BAU is a family, and that is built on the backs of the actual family that we built as a cast. There's real support and love for each other there that hopefully translates onto the show.

Is there something that's challenging about playing her?

What you pointed out — it is very dark work. It's very intense work, and it's important to me to respect it and give it veracity and authenticity. We're never going to know what it's really like for these people doing it in the real world out there. But we want to respect it and honor it because it is very difficult work, very important work, and work that takes a lot from the people that do it and requires a lot of personal sacrifice. The toughest part is making sure we respect that ... As long as we seem like we're being respectful, that's the thing that's important to us.

The Criminal Minds characters are the 'Avengers' of their field

What can we expect from this coming season, both in general and [from] your character specifically?

What you're going to see this season is that we are finding the BAU affected by the same thing that affected us all over the last couple years, which is the pandemic, the lockdown, and how it took a lot of resources away from our team that we were used to relying on. The office is closed; they don't have their jet; they're working out of their cars; they're working off their phones.

My character has been on the road for a very long time. She's been working and sleeping out of her car, working out of roadside motels and eating in diners. She hasn't cut her hair since the beginning of the pandemic. She's really devoted to the work. And a lot of the other BAU members feel that this work is more important than it ever has been because we've seen how the pandemic affected people, [especially] how it affected people who are psychologically challenged and how it tightened up those challenges. It made them devolve and made them break down.

We're seeing that play out in the field for our characters. They've been taxed like they've never been before. They're under more pressure with fewer resources, but they've rededicated themselves to doing this really important work. It's going to be exciting to see the BAU come back together, because as good as all these people are on their own, they're best when they're working as a hive mind. They all are a very specific puzzle piece that add up to one great profiling mind. It'll be great to see our team of Avengers assemble.

Directing The Walking Dead was 'a dream come true'

You've directed a few "Criminal Minds" episodes, including one this season, as well as episodes of "The Walking Dead." How does directing "Criminal Minds" compare to "The Walking Dead" in that respect?

All filmmaking shares a certain amount of DNA, but "Criminal Minds" is much more of a slow burn. There are these moments of intellectuality and a lot of classic psychological thriller and horror moments. "The Walking Dead" is much more muscular, much more intense — running and fighting and shooting and stabbing.

I'm a big "Walking Dead" fan. I have been for a long time, and I was very lucky. When the pandemic happened, I ended up transitioning into directing, and I was directing full-time between 2019 and now. I've actually directed all of the "Walking Dead" shows — "The Walking Dead," "Fear the Walking Dead," and "The Walking Dead: World Beyond" — and it was great as a fan to get to lean into that universe.

My episode of "The Walking Dead" recently aired. I got to do one of the last episodes of "The Walking Dead" ever. As a "Walking Dead" fan, that was a dream come true for me, to get to play with these characters that I've adored from afar for a very long time.

I'm still a baby director. It's probably just my 10th episode of television, but for me to go out in the world and integrate into other creative environments with other artists and get to learn about how they work and then bring all that back to direct with my family at "Criminal Minds" was a real treat. I think people are going to love the episode. I'm really excited about it.

Matthew Perry said the 'kindest words' to her on the set of Friends

You have quite a résumé, with a lot of impressive shows on it. I know it was 20 years ago, but what is your best memory from appearing on "Friends"?

I have so many great memories from that experience. When I was cast on that show, it was the biggest show in the world. I had been on a little show called "Talk Soup," which maybe got a million viewers a week, and I went to a show that was getting 100 million viewers a week. It was a very different experience, but everybody was so kind to me. I have friendships that I formed on that show that I still carry to this day.

I will say, because he's been in the news a lot lately because he's got a new book out, Matt Perry was so kind and generous and sweet to me that season. At my very first curtain call — we would do the show live and then we would come out and bow at the end like a theater production — he sidled up to me when we were standing in the wings. I'm literally going to cry. He leaned in and said, "Get ready for your life change." He didn't need to say anything to me in that moment, but it was the sweetest, kindest words. It's "Friends," and you're just trying to stay in your lane and not be too intrusive, and it was this lovely, gentle, supportive moment that I have never forgotten. And he was right. It did change my life.

You can watch Aisha Tyler on "Criminal Minds: Evolution," which will premiere with back-to-back episodes on Thursday, November 24 on Paramount+.

This interview has been edited for clarity.