Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Joe Mantegna Reflects On Criminal Minds And His New Series As We See It - Exclusive Interview

Joe Mantegna has done it all during his nearly 50-year career. He's won a Tony Award for appearing in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Glengarry Glenn Ross," voiced mafia boss Fat Tony on "The Simpsons" for over 30 years, and starred on the wildly popular series "Criminal Minds" for more than a decade. One thing he hasn't tackled before is a role near and dear to his heart in his new series "As We See It," which premieres today on Prime Video.

"As We See It" follows the lives of three young adults who are on the autism spectrum as they maneuver through life and try to fit into society. Mantegna plays the aging father of one of the characters, Jack, who struggles with holding onto a job and maintaining friendships. It's a role that hits close to home for the veteran actor, who has an adult daughter who's on the spectrum.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Mantegna opened up about what "As We See It" means to him personally and how his own experiences influenced his role, and looked back on his time on "Criminal Minds."

How As We See It reminds Joe Mantegna of Searching for Bobby Fischer

"As We See It" is the first major project you've worked on since "Criminal Minds" ended. What was that feeling like, moving from a series you had been on for many, many years to something fresh out of the box, so to speak?

Well, the "Criminal Minds" experience was wonderful and I enjoyed every minute of it. I was happy to do 13 years of it, but I wasn't really quite sure what the future held for me. I'm not a planner in that way. Usually, doors open and hopefully I can walk through them, depending on the door. It wasn't long after the show had ended when my agent started sending me different things. They sent me a pilot script for "As We See It," and when I read it, all I can relate it to is it reminded me of when I first read the script for "Searching for Bobby Fischer," which, when I read that script many years ago, I thought, unless I'm crazy, this is one of the best things I've ever read as an actor, in terms of material.

I remember running into Ben Kingsley at a party, and we had done the movie "Bugsy" together prior to that. I said, "Ben, they told me they made you an offer on that film too ["Searching for Bobby Fischer"]. What do you think?" He goes, "Oh, well, Joe, I think it's one of the finest scripts I've read in my career." I said, "Okay, I'm not stupid then. All right," and we both wound up doing that film. I felt that way about this project ["As We See It"].

I feel very lucky because I've been around long enough to know that it's not always the case — finding good material, finding that kind of good writing. It's not as easy as people may think, so I really wanted to take a meeting with [writer/executive producer] Jason Katims, not even knowing if I would wind up doing the series, but I just wanted to meet with him because it resonated with me so much, especially since I have a 34-year-old daughter with autism. There was a lot of things about it that made me want to do it.

Hitting close to home

Now, you just mentioned your daughter, which you've been very open about her being on the autism spectrum. Was it that personal background that drew you to this series?

No, I don't think that's what initially drew me to the series, but it augmented it and gave it that extra layer of "wow." I would think I would've appreciated the writing and the subject matter and all that anyway, but because it resonated personally with me, it may very well have just upped it, taken it to that next level. Look, I've spent 50 years playing pretend. I'm not a real FBI agent. I'm not a real disc jockey. I'm not a real kidnapper of babies in "Baby's Day Out." I'm not a real mafia don. I'm not a lot of the things I've portrayed in my career, but playing the father of a child with autism, I am. There was that extra layer of, "Oh wow, there's a lot about this I can really understand and relate to and know."

I was fascinated by it too, especially in a way I wanted to know what the subsequent stories were going to be beyond that pilot, which I then found out. I'm very pleased to say that I feel all eight episodes confirmed my hope that it would maintain that integrity, maintain that intelligence.

He 'tapped into some real emotions' on the set of As We See It

What do you hope people who watch this show learn about autism and/or people with autism?

I've never been one to think, "Oh, I hope people get this or get that or whatever." I hope when it's all done, they say to themselves, "that was time well spent." In other words, they're glad they devoted the time to see it. What they take from it, I don't know, but I do know this: Here's a show that is as funny as it is touching. It runs the gamut of all of that, and I think it's a very honest portrayal of what aspects of that world are like, not just as a parent of a child with autism, but the day-to-day life that these people are going to have, seeing it from both sides. The young people who were the leads in the show portraying these characters are on the spectrum themselves.

When my daughter was diagnosed 30-plus years ago, it was a one in 1,500 kind of thing. It's much, much more prevalent now, and all these children have all grown up to be and continually grow up to be adults. Now what? They're not going to go away. The world's not going to change. Everybody has to adapt, and I think this is a great portrayal of what that experience is like. The feedback I'm already getting is that regardless of what their connection is, people who either don't have a child with autism or don't even know anybody with it or whatever, still can appreciate the show for what it is and be able to say, "Wow, this is really interesting. This is funny. This is touching. This is shocking. This is all of that."

I find that's the case with good writing, period. That's what I meant about "Searching for Bobby Fischer." On the surface you're going to say, "Oh, it's a movie about a kid who plays chess," and it might not sound like the most interesting thing in the world, just like the play "Glengarry Glen Ross" that I did back in 1984. "Oh, it's a play about real estate salesman in Chicago." Well, it wound up winning a Pulitzer Prize, and there is a reason for that. Sometimes, you have to take that thing for what it is, regardless of the subject matter.

Turning real life into fiction

Now, I have to admit, I cried through a lot of your scenes, because I think every parent wants to know that their kids are going to be okay when they're gone. Was it hard to hold it together during some of your scenes? Your character seems very stoic, to some extent, so I feel like it might have posed a challenge to not be more emotional during your scenes with your on-screen son...

Yeah, I think that's true. I don't think that you can help that. This was a unique situation in that there were instances where I can relate in many, many ways. Usually, when I go to work, I'm entering a totally separate world from what my life is. In other words, I'm going from my world of reality to this pretend world that I do for a living, but this is an instance, there's a little more of the reality mixed in with that pretend. Obviously, it's scripted, fictional characters and all that, but it's based on reality and it's somewhat based on a reality that I live.

I don't think I could have avoided tapping into some real emotions at times. None of us know what the next second of our life's going to be, and I'm not a planner anyway. I never went to fortune tellers. I never did believe in any of that. My feeling is, I don't want to know what's going to happen tomorrow. Let me find out. I'll find out when I'm supposed to.

Is there any moment on set that stands out to you, a memory you'll cherish forever or a funny incident that happened that you can share?

There was a lot. I think I loved the initial bonding, what we all did before we even started filming, having all of us together. I loved the fact that we were able to have some people on the crew that were on the spectrum, and I was able to, in fact, get sons of a couple friends of mine considered for crew jobs, which they were able to fulfill. We had our dear person Elaine Hall from The Miracle Project that was always there on set, so that's what I really enjoyed about it. It wasn't just some make-believe TV show. It was the whole package. It encompassed the whole ball of wax. It was steeped in that kind of reality, which I think was really, really good. The fact that I've got two daughters — Rick [Glassman as Jack] was like the son I never had in a way. He and I, I think, bonded pretty strongly, and hopefully we'll have the opportunity to continue that relationship for episodes to come.

He's 'ready to go' when it comes to a Criminal Minds revival

As we touched on at the beginning of our conversation, it's been almost two years since the last episode of "Criminal Minds" aired. Do you miss it? And do you hope there's a revival that you're involved in?

I do, and I know we have such a huge fan base around the world and I would imagine they would appreciate it. I think we all, especially that last eight of us that finished the show that last couple of seasons, we all have maintained a very strong bond. We still do a thread with each other, as well as some of the people that were on it for just a certain amount of time and moved on. I would be more than happy to continue that.

I think there's more stories to be told, and the family link — I know that word gets thrown around lightly sometimes in this business, but we really did create a pretty strong family there. If and when we're given that opportunity, I think we'll all be ready to embrace it, but still, the verdict's not in yet, but hopefully it's moving in a good direction.

In terms of a revival, there's been some back and forth about whether that will actually be happening on Paramount+. What are your thoughts on that situation and what do you hope a revival of the series would accomplish?

I don't know that we need to accomplish anything more than to just keep doing what we're doing. You don't look a gift horse in the mouth. What worked in the past should work in the future. I think we were onto a good formula, a good chemistry of people, and telling good stories. I think all that remains now are all these business decisions that are probably just holding it up. In other words, I don't think it's an artistic kind of thing. I think we're ready to go. I think, artistically, all we would need to be is given the go that says, "Yeah, hit it!" and we'll jump in and see where it takes us.

I'm realistic about it. Who's to say? Could we do another season? Three more? Five more? I don't think we'd do another 15 more. I certainly don't think I could do another 15 more, but we'll see. I'm just happy to see that there's still such an interest in it, and that it still does well in syndication, and that people have embraced it as they have.

Having no regrets

One more question and I'll wrap up. Is there a role or genre of work you hope will come your way in the future?

Like I said, I'm not a planner. I didn't know I was going to do "Criminal Minds" 'til the day that I got the phone call from my agent saying, "Hey, they're looking to cast this role, because this other actor left." I looked at it and thought, "Oh, I'll do it." The same thing [happened] when I read the script for "As We See It." The day before I read that script, I didn't know that the next thing I was going to do was to play a father of a child with autism, which is what I do in real life.

To me, that's the scary part of our business in the sense that there's the unknown. You just don't know. I remember seeing an interview years ago with Tom Hanks, where he said even as successful as he is, he still worries every day, will I ever work again? I get it, that's the actor's life. It's not that I worry about it, but I also don't hedge my bets. I don't like to say, "Well, I remember playing this, this, this." My feeling is, look, I've been doing this for 50 years. It's too late to change course. This is what I do. Hopefully, there's going to be something out there where somebody's going to think that I'm maybe the right person to do it, and let's see what happens. Let's see what door opens for me. I have no wish list. It's not like, "I hope to do this before I call it a day." No. We'll see. Right now I'm happy to do "As We See It." And if "Criminal Minds" happens, I'll be happy to do that as well.

All eight episodes of "As We See It" are now available to stream on Prime Video.