Criminal Minds Exclusive: Joe Mantegna on Vietnam Flashbacks, Playing with Bears and More!

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He's the heart and soul of Criminal Minds, and he's also the subject of the following exclusive interview.

Read on for our sit-down with Joe Mantegna, as the veteran actor speaks on David Rossi, Fat Tony, playing baseball, playing with bears and a lot more...


What attracted you to the role of David Rossi?
I was going into a series in which I'd have the opportunity to explore a character in depth. It wouldn't be just like a one-shot deal where you just play this guy and then on you go. I had some input in terms of  just what the back story was going to be about this guy. To be employed by the FBI, to be a member of the BAU; that fact that he was one of the guys who first created the unit, who later went on to become an author and a lecturer and because of that he's independently wealthy and doesn't even need to do this as a job. 

The fact that he's been married three times - what is that about?  In this episode we have coming up this week, the fact that I have a military background. How did that influence me, and what ramifications does that have? Specifically in this episode, what's discovered? All of these things lend themselves toward adding depth to a character, adding flesh to the bones. I enjoy doing that, I enjoy being able to explore a character for a long time. I mean, I've been playing Fat Tony on The Simpsons for 22 years, so given the opportunity it's kind of fun to do that.

I like that character on The Simpsons, Fat Tony.  Are we going to see him come back at some point soon?
Oh yeah. I have an episode in the can which should be out fairly soon. I've been doing that character for quite a while so I see no logical reason for Fat Tony to disappear for a while.

Rossi on the Phone

On the topic of humor, The BAU often faces some pretty somber and disturbing crime stories, yet these are always juxtaposed against the upbeat chemistry between the team members themselves. What's the most outlandish thing anyone has done to lighten the mood while on set?
It could be the time when they actually had a live bear on the set, much to the surprise and dismay of Shemar Moore. [Laughs] I mean, we will literally go to those kinds of extremes. We were shooting an episode up in the woods and literally the crew and cast and everybody got together and thought it might be a good idea to have a trained live bear there, knowing that Shemar had kind of an aversion to large predatory animals.

People will often say "Wow. Your shows can be so grim. How do you do that every day?" Well, you know, for every minute of grimness that you watch on screen we've got 58-59 minutes of, not necessarily uncontrolled levity, but at least we have a pretty good time. We take seriously what we do, but we have a good time doing it.

In the "The Apprenticeship," we got to see Moore and Matthew Gray Gubler playing some baseball. I know you're a big fan of the sport. Did you and the cast get to play a game during that shoot?
I remember that one day we were shooting it was probably 105 degrees in the valley, so nobody was anxious to be running around much. But it was nice to see that aspect of the show, and to incorporate that story line in there and I thought it was great. It also gave Shemar a chance - who also was a collegiate baseball player - to get up there and show his stuff. He could really play, he was a pitcher. And Matthew is actually much more athletic than they kind of portray the character of Reid to be. So it was a good chance for Matthew to get there and have a little fun.

Toward the end of last season, the show focused on a ritual that Rossi must face on his birthday. [Every year, a serial killer provides him with yet another name and location of his 40 buried victims, which Rossi then processes to the affected families, in order to bring them closure].  Are we going to see more this storyline? 
You never know.  I mean, just like the episode that's coming up this week which deals with my character's history in the military. It involves flashbacks to Vietnam and things like that will really surprise people and make them realize that "Oh my gosh.We're actually going to see David Rossi at 19 years old" played by another actor. The minds of our writers are very fertile and so the more episode we do, the more opportunities we have to explore all kinds of things. 

You know I've been married three times and we've explored one of my former wives and did a two-part episode. I've got two other wives we may be able to visit in some sort of capacity. As well as all of the other characters and what goes on in their lives. That's what fun about a successful show like ours - given the chance to run long enough and do enough episodes that we can go in all kinds of different directions.

I was intrigued to read about a new film that you're starring in, "Kill Me Deadly," which stars a few of your fellow cast members from Criminal Minds, [Shemar Moore and Kirsten Vangsness, who also starred in the stage production].  I know you're playing Bugsy Siegal, which has got to be the name of a gangster, right? 
It's somewhat of a spoof the film noir genre. This was based on a play [featuring] Kirsten Vangsness - who you know plays Garcia on our show. She's with this wonderful theatre company here in Los Angeles called "Theater of NOTE" and they do these wonderful original  productions. And this was based on a production that they did which they turned into a film. They asked me to play this one character which I was more than happy to do. I had a great time filming it.

I know you've done a lot of work, not just as an actor, but director, writer and even a singer at one point. You've also done a stage production of "Lakeboat," which you later turned into a film of the same name. Do you miss the stage at all, or are you considering work on other productions?
For the first 15 years of my career that's almost all of what I did. So my career took a turn in the mid-80's and I started doing a lot of films and segued into television. And so I'm a firm believer in "you play the cards you're dealt." I know I've got that theater background and I've some plays in the meantime since then and I don't doubt that I'll go back to it at another time and in another place. Right now my plate is pretty full with what I'm doing, and theater takes a big time commitment usually. I look at Henry Fonda's career: here' s a guy who started in the theater and went into films and television and ultimately went back into the theatre near the end of his career. You know maybe that's a path that I'll end up following. I don't know. I take each day as it comes and I'll quietly do what I'm doing now.

There's always a trade-off, right? You've got the stage, you've got the live audience versus camera work...
Absolutely. It's all very different. I've been fortunate enough to dabble in all of it so it's been a pretty well rounded career so far.

Douglas Wolfe was a staff writer for TV Fanatic. He retired in 2016. Follow him on Twitter


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Criminal Minds Quotes

Hotch: A sniper can wait up to 72 hours without sleeping.
Mays: Seriously?
Rossi: That's part of their training. They can stay awake for 72 hours and remain completely focused on their target.
Mays: How?
Hotch: By using a mental exercise called "fantasy integration". A sniper creates a scenarios involving a target that keeps that person at the forefront of their mind.
Morgan: Often they'll imagine a place where they're with the target, doing something together that takes time. For example, building a car.
JJ: For some, the fantasy begins the minute they're assigned a target. Then nothing will distract them.

They mess you up, your mom and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you - Philip Larkin.