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Joe Mantegna Looks Back On The First Half Of Criminal Minds: Evolution - Exclusive Interview

Joe Mantegna has been playing David Rossi for 14 seasons now on "Criminal Minds," resurrecting the character for the latest incarnation of the series, "Criminal Minds: Evolution," which streams on Paramount+.

On the new series, which the cast and crew actually think of as Season 16 of the original show, the agents at the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) return to work after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to hunt down a sophisticated serial killer who has woven a cross-country web of murderous minions. Mantegna's Rossi is once again spearheading the team, which also includes returning castmates Paget Brewster as Emily Prentiss and Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia, among other revitalized characters.

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Mantegna discussed his surprise at the direction the show has taken, how he and his castmates keep things light on such a dark set, and what he hopes happens with the series going forward.

'My job is to interpret what a writer has put on the page'

At the beginning of this season, we learn that Rossi's wife has died and that the BAU may be dismantled. Were you surprised by these two revelations when you first got the scripts?

I was somewhat surprised. I didn't know exactly where they were going to go with these storylines. But it made me think about one of my favorite cartoons, and it's just two frames. The first frame is a caveman looking up to the sky, saying, "God, why are you doing this to me?" And the second frame is the voice of God saying, "Why not?" It's a little of that.

I thought, "Okay, this happened, and now where do we go from here?" That's realistic. That's what happens in life. It's not something that you want to happen, but it's something that does happen, and now what do you do? Where do you take it from there?

In Rossi's case, we find him in a really tough spot. Where does that lead us? He's down, but is he out? Or is he going to get up again? That's the way life is too. So I was taken a little by surprise and like, "Oh, so this is where we're going. Let's take that ride now. Let's see where that goes."

How did those two huge storylines affect the way you approach playing David Rossi?

I don't know if it affects anything differently than I would normally do as an actor. What you do is tell the story. You tell the story as it's been given to you, as it's been written. My job is to interpret what a writer has put on the page, whatever that may be. It's my job to translate it. They wrote it, and now I have to translate it in terms of whatever my acting ability is so that those people viewing it say, "So that's what the story is. That's what's going on." It's no more than that, and it would be no different if it was a comedy or a tragedy, if it makes you laugh or is something that might elicit tears. It's telling the story as truthfully as possible.

There's plenty of humor on the set of Criminal Minds: Evolution

At one point in Episode 2, Rossi and Garcia have a conversation about absorbing trauma and what it does to a person. The series can be very heavy at times, but how do you and the other actors keep things light on set?

I often get asked that: "How do you handle the grimness of it?" But when you watch the show, you're watching ... maybe 50 minutes of the show, but it takes us eight days to film that show. You're only watching 50 minutes of grimness, but we spend seven to 23 hours' worth of [time filming it]. So there's plenty of opportunity for [keeping things light].

How do you get through a [gruesome] scene like that? As soon as they say "cut," that scene is over, and now you're back in reality. I have no problem jumping between David Rossi and Joe Mantegna when I'm on a set, as it should be. That's the nature of the business, and you learn that. You don't necessarily have to live the life of your character.

Is there someone on set who stands out as a comic relief? Is there someone that's always cracking jokes?

At any given time, any one of us can take up that slack. It goes around. Everybody has their own sense of humor. Paget has their own way, as does Kirsten and Aisha [Tyler] and Adam [Rodriguez]. I do too, and so does A.J. [Cook]. There's no one jokester. It changes around. And we've had different people in the cast in the past, and they may be popping up again, and that will be an opportunity for other kinds of input. It's always been a pretty lively set. I think that's on purpose because you almost want to counterbalance the subject matter you're dealing with, so you tend to lighten things up when you're off-camera. Everybody has the capability to do that.

He hopes the show is resonating with fans

Tackling one big, ongoing case is something new this season. How does that change the perspective of the series from your point of view? Does it make it more exciting or more intense?

That's a question that's probably better asked to the fan base and the people who watch the show. We're putting it together, [and] we tell the story, but as to how effective it's going to be, it's hard for me to be objective because I'm creating it. I'm doing it. I'll be very interested to talk to people who watch the whole thing — see all 10 episodes — and see how it resonated with them.

We think we're telling a pretty interesting, cool, serialized story underneath other specific things that are also happening in the episodes, but that one storyline is pretty strong. We've got great people involved. Zach Gilford [as the main UnSub] is a tremendous actor. His wife [Kiele Sanchez] is also on the show, and she's wonderful. All the other guest actors on the show this season have been exemplary, and all those different storylines prop up the things that have already been really good. We'll see how ultimately it resonates, but I feel really good about it myself. I think we all do. ... I directed the 3rd episode, so I'm hoping that one resonates well.

Do you have any insight into or hopes about what the next season of "Criminal Minds: Evolution" might bring, assuming it gets another season?

That would be the first hope and wish, that we get that next season. Then, when we do ... I think it's an apropos title that it's called "Criminal Minds: Evolution." We are evolving, and we're evolving out of what's happened in the world, out of a pandemic. We've all matured a bit, all of us within the group, the cast.

I'm hoping that we're going to get some opportunity to revisit some old characters, whether they were regulars or not. Those opportunities can hopefully arise, and there are plenty of stories yet to be told. In other words, serial killers unfortunately aren't going anywhere. All you've got to do is turn on the television, and something's going on today. That's apropos. In the best of all worlds, there wouldn't be a need for the FBI or the BAU or any of that stuff, but we do need it. As long as we do, we'll hopefully be able to tell stories about what these men and women thankfully do with this job.

"Criminal Minds: Evolution" streams new episodes on Thursdays on Paramount+.

This interview has been edited for clarity.