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Catching up With Kirsten Vangsness of 'Criminal Minds'

Kirsten Vangsness has been on the stage for most of her life and unexpectedly became a TV star on the hit series. But no, she can't fix computers.

By Michele Wojciechowski

When Kirsten Vangsness went to audition for the role of Penelope Garcia on a new show about a group of FBI agents working for the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), she wasn't worried at all.

She had already been told that she wouldn't get the part.

A still from Criminal Minds: Evolution. Next Avenue, Kirsten Vangsness
Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia in 'Criminal Minds: Evolution'  |  Credit: Michael Yarish /Paramount+ . © 2022 ABC Studios Inc. and CBS Studios Inc.

At the time, Vangsness was in a play with friend Gina Garcia-Sharp, a writer and actor, who was also a casting associate for the show to be called "Criminal Minds."

"When you get in an office like that with casting, it's good to prove that you can bring in actors who can come in and do the work," says Vangsness, 51.

"I think it's important to hear that everybody has Imposter Syndrome."

When she learned she wouldn't get the part because she wasn't right for it, but by coming in and reading for it would help her friend out, Vangsness was all in. She knew the audition would be a breeze because it would also help her with Imposter Syndrome.

"I think it's important to hear that everybody has Imposter Syndrome," she says. At other auditions, she would sometimes be terrified because she wanted to keep doing what she loved — acting —and there was so much pressure.

But not in this case. "There is no freedom like that — to know that you're not going to get the part, and that my job was to make my friend look good," she recalls.

Vangsness read for the part. But that's when the unexpected happened. She got cast, and her life changed forever.

Do You Know Shemar?

The pilot was being shot in Canada, so Vangsness booked a hotel room and got on a plane. This being nearly 20 years ago, they asked her to bring her own clothes for the show.

"Thankfully, we live in a different world now, but when you explain that you're a 12/14/16 in size, back then they said, 'We don't have that size,'" recalls Vangsness. "So I brought my clothes. But I dress like a pirate from space, and they said, 'No one dresses like this.'"

So they dressed her in a man's argyle sweater. "It was terrifying," she quips.

"I said, 'No. I barely watch TV.'"

Vangsness says that her part was actually originally designed for a man, but then CBS decided the show was too "guy heavy," so they made her part female and Latinx.

"I want to say this out loud — if this was happening now, there are amazing Latinx actors who could play that part, as opposed to the Italian-Norwegian girl that they cast. That is a thing that happened back then and is an example of me benefiting from the white privilege that exists in our society," she says.

Before shooting the pilot, Vangsness was asked if she knew actor Shemar Moore, who would go on to play Derek Morgan from the show's inception in 2006 to 2017 and now stars in "S.W.A.T."

"I said, 'No. I barely watch TV,'" she says, as she mainly acted in theatre. So they had her talk with him on the phone.


While Vangsness was only supposed to play Garcia — the computer genius of the group — for one episode, they tested the pilot and decided to put her in the second episode.

After the table read, someone announced that the main cast should stay for the sexual harassment meeting. Vangsness didn't know what to do.

"I thought, 'Do I stay or not?' I'm only in the second episode. I stayed, hoping I wouldn't get in trouble for staying. Shemar was sitting next to me. We proceeded to jokingly sexually harass each other throughout the entire video because we had been joking around. One of the writers noticed this, and I didn't know what to do. I thought I was going to get in trouble because Shemar was being goofy, and I was goofing around with him," she says.

'This Kind of Works'

But they noticed the connection the two actors had, and that night, Vangsness got new pages from the writers — she was now in a scene with Moore.

"We didn't say we have chemistry, but there was something in the way in which we interacted that was a real gift. Then we realized — this kind of works," Vangsness says.

Because she hails from the theatre, Vangsness could shoot her scenes in one take. So, she had started to rewrite some of her lines. In the first shot, she would do them the way they were written. Then, they would ask her to do them her way.

A still from Criminal Minds: Evolution. Next Avenue, Kirsten Vangsness
Joe Mantegna as David Rossi and Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia in 'Criminal Minds: Evolution'  |  Credit: Bill Inoshita/Paramount + © 2022 ABC Studios Inc. and CBS Studios Inc.

"They started to like my ways more and more," she says.

She and Moore began to call each other before scenes and talk about what they were going to do because they were rarely in the same scene together. Their characters were often talking on the phone to each other.

"We really crafted those [scenes] because we realized this was kind of special and fun," says Vangsness.

At the time, she was still a recurring character. While the costume designer was still figuring out her character's "look," she would borrow Vangsness' clothes. The designer had borrowed one of Vangsness' skirts, and she ended up asking for it back because she needed it for a play.

"They thought that I needed it for a TV audition," says Vangsness while laughing. "So as of episode six of the first season (2006) they made me a series regular."

Theater for Life

While growing up in the Central Valley in California, Vangsness became involved in community theatre because her father was. If he was in "Bye, Bye Birdie," often her older sister would play a teen in the play, and Vangsness would play one of the elderly people mad at the young children. "I was weird looking and shy," she says.

Growing up, she had a lisp, and as a result, often stopped talking because of being bullied. When she was taken out of class to do speech therapy, the teachers would just let her talk.

"They liked to listen to me spin tales. So I kind of knew that I'm entertaining," she says.

When she had the choice of taking shop or drama class, she selected the latter. She got an A. "It was difficult for me to get an A in anything," Vangsness recalls. Then she got cast in a play and thought, "I'm good at this." But she didn't think she could act as a career, so she decided she would get another job when she grew up and act on the side.

"They liked to listen to me spin tales. So I kind of knew that I'm entertaining."

She kept up acting in high school and community college and says she had wonderful drama teachers in both.

Since she was about 14 years old, Vangsness says she's been in about two plays a year. Today, she's part of a theatre company in Los Angeles called Theatre of NOTE, where she's been a member for more than two decades. In addition to acting, she's written plays, a one-woman show, and more.

"It's a nonprofit that is completely volunteer. It's a 48-seat theater with one bathroom. I get dressed in the alley," she says. "I'm proud of it."

When Vangsness began working on "Criminal Minds," she would ask if she would be getting out in time because she was also performing in plays.

"It became a thing — everyone knew that I do plays, so they would try to wrap up on Fridays or Saturdays so that I could get there," she explains.

Vangsness even put a million dollars of her own money into making a movie from a play they did titled "Kill Me, Deadly." (The film is available to stream on the Roku Channel, Prime Video and Apple TV.)

Now, close to a decade old, the film not only stars Vangsness, but also fellow "Criminal Minds" actors Joe Mantegna and Shemar Moore — even Paget Brewster plays a background character.

"They were all so turned on by what I was doing," says Vangsness. She loves doing pet projects, many of which you can find on her website.

Truly Terrible Typist

Many viewers think that Vangsness and her character, Penelope Garcia, are one and the same. Well, not exactly.

"It's always stayed important to me that Penelope Garcia believes that there's no such thing as evil people — there's abhorrent behavior."

"I'm a terrible typist," Vangsness admits. "My job is to pay homage to the real people who can do these things — these people who work in the computer science world who are just stellar. My job is to highlight that, not to do that. So, no, I cannot fix your computer!"

There are, though, some parallels between the two. "I'm excited about certain things that she's excited about. I think that the wellspring of enthusiasm and earnestness it comes from me. So, yes, I am that enthusiastic. I also love David Bowie. I definitely dress like a weirdo. I do, in fact, have a raging astigmatism. I am just as progressive. I am indeed a vegetarian," she says.

Vangsness also likes how, though, her character has struggled in the last season. "It's always stayed important to me that Penelope Garcia believes that there's no such thing as evil people — there's abhorrent behavior. What I love is that in the last season, they've acknowledged the reality — which is you can't have a character who is earnest and sweet, who's been sort of taking on all this trauma, and not finding appropriate ways to offload it, and not have some problems," she explains.

Besides her character's progression, there's another reason why Vangsness loves being on the show.

"You feel so lucky to be on a series. It is like above and beyond. To be on a series that runs for any length of time, it's a golden ticket," she says. "The other thing about it that's incredibly special is that, I mean, these people — they're like my family. We have text chains. We just love each other so much. It's so beautiful that we've gotten to be on this cool show and then we have these wonderful relationships with each other. That's just really neat."

Editor’s note: Season 2 of "Criminal Minds: Evolution" is back starting June 6 on Paramount Plus.

Contributor Michele Wojciechowski
Michele Wojciechowski Michele "Wojo" Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer who lives in Baltimore, Md. She's the author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They'll Carry Me Out in a Box. Reach her at Read More
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