"Criminal Minds" is in many ways a typical stiff upper lip procedural (season 7 debuts Sept. 21 at 9 p.m. on CBS), but that label doesn't apply to colorful team tech guru Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness). As the CBS TCA party wound down, I grabbed a few minutes with Vangsness to talk about the new season, why her character will never get it on with Shemar Moore's sexy investigator and why she's really blonde (kind of) again.
Can you give us any hints about what we'll see next season? We’d be dead people if we did. There will be pandas…there won’t be pandas. Maybe there might be pandas.
So, definitely maybe pandas. Actually, we've got some really awesome guest stars coming up, like Mark Moses (Paul Young on "Desperate Housewives"). We’ve got some new, really fancy, big sets. And the girls are back, which is huge.
Both A.J. Cook and Paget Brewster are returning to the show, but for a while didn't we think Brewster's character Emily Prentiss was dead? Yeah, and then you find out she really wasn’t. Because…you see her hands at the end of the episode [in which she supposedly dies]. And super fans knew it was her, because she bites her nails really badly. So, you see those bit up nails and you know it’s her and that she's alive. So yeah, the girls are back. We’re on episode 3 right now, and they’re doing a really good job of folding in the personal storylines of the characters, which they weren’t doing for awhile.
Are we going to learn more about Penelope Garcia's private life? I don’t know. I kind of want them to show more of her backstory sometimes, but I also love the idea of people having such an affinity for Penelope that they make up their own backstories about her. Whatever they want her to be, she can be. I know that they’re going to do more with her this season, though. I think in episode 8 the case involves Garcia directly. I know very little about it except that she presents a case to the team, which I don’t think she’s ever done before. And I think the case has something to do with her…in her free time she does support group volunteer work and it may stem from that.
Are we going to see Nicolas Brendon back? I hope so. I love Nicky. There’s been no sign that they were broken up, so I think so.
You're back to blonde after being a redhead. Are you sticking with that color? We’re staying blonde, yeah. And I’m in "Pretty," so I think somehow they’re making sense of why my hair is suddenly blonde this season, because we start filming that this weekend. I think I’m just going to say something in one of those improv things that it just happened. She had her first orgasm in 20 years and. And maybe that’s how my hair went from red to blonde. You don’t know.
Well, in which case congratulations. Thank you. It was that good. I’m that good.
But tell me about "Pretty." I’m a series regular in a web series called "Pretty," which is in its third season. I’m also one of the producers of it now. I play Meredith Champagne, who is the aunt of this toddler pageant competitor Annette Champagne. She's played by Stacy McQueen, who's a genius. It's about their escapades on the beauty pageant circuit for little girls, essentially the "Toddlers & Tiaras" circuit. And I play a very charismatic woman who's a little crazy and I love her. She scares me when I do her character, because she weeps uncontrollably. And I almost never show her hands. Because I was shooting "Criminal Minds" at the same time and I couldn't paint my nails, I had to keep covering up my hands so the cameras wouldn't see this crazy nail polish. So it became a character affectation. Genie Francis is on it now, so it's very cool. I'm also doing a play at Theatre of Note and I'm producing a movie called "Kill Me Deadly." It’s going to be the next "Young Frankenstein." It’s a film noir spoof. I don’t think anybody’s seen anything like it since probably the…I don’t know…it’s very Mel Brooks….Christopher Guest-y. It's hard to explain, but I’m very excited about it. We’re in the middle of shooting it right now.
You’re doing a lot for somebody’s who’s a series regular on a network show. But I love doing this! I feel if I just do the one character, it doesn’t feel right. So I like doing other things. I need a little sleep, but not a whole lot. I like coffee, so it’s okay.
Is there anything you want for Garcia at this point? I like being surprised and I like finding out what she does when she does. Do you know what I mean? I don’t have any goals for her, but I’m pretty protective about keeping her who she is. I don’t believe it when people say oh, she should grow up and dress differently. I’m not really a big fan of that. Other than that, I like being surprised.
You were part of the spin-off "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," which did not get renewed despite stars like Forest Whitaker and Janeane Garafalo. That must have been disappointing. It was what it was. You know, things go and fly and become what they become and that’s just what it was. It was really fun to work with all those people. I got to learn a lot. It’s really fascinating to do two shows at the same time.
Pauley Perrette's character on "NCIS" started the trend of offbeat characters in procedurals, but do you feel she set the bar or do you want to distance yourself from her character? She’s like the O.G. And my character is like Mitchell from "Alias," Miss Moneypenny, the list goes on. I am part of a lineage of people that are that fringy person who doesn’t fit in and somehow broke through the glass ceiling of a corporate world and now they’re part of it. I love those kind of characters and I love being part of it. But I didn’t make it up, you know what I mean? I am not the original. Pauley is who you look up to and I’m the knock-off. She’s the fancy dress and I’m like the knock-off down the street.
Garcia may be a knock-off, but she does have some aspects that are original to her. I’m proud of that. I want her to be exactly who she is and I try to make her different. I’d actually never seen "NCIS" before I got this job because I didn’t have a television. Well, I did, but it didn't get stations. I used it to watch movies and stuff. So I didn’t know anything about "NCIS" until after I was in the show, and then I was afraid to watch it because I [thought], well, what if I’m exactly like her? And then I watched it and I [thought], oh, she’s so wonderful and different than me. It’s cool!
Garcia also bucks a few other stereotypes: she's an I.T. nerd and she's sexy. I’m really proud of being part of that whole geek/chic, girl nerds, glasses are sexy and all of that because I think it’s true. In America, I don’t know about in other places, but there is this mythology about the way a woman is supposed to be and look and act and that’s what makes them sexy. And I love being the alternative to that. I play this little sexpot on a TV show and she wears between a size 12 and a size 14. I feel like everybody’s body is their body. I play a character that’s not based on any of that. They’re never once talked about my size on that show, not once. You know? There’s never been any kind of mention about it. And I’m the only character on the whole show that you’ve ever seen have sex. Plus, I flirt with one of the sexiest boys in television constantly.
That being the flirty relationship you have with Shemar Moore. I think people relate to it because not only do they want him to feel that way, but I think they can sense that, you know what? That could totally happen. We get sold a bill of goods that that boy wouldn’t like that girl, and guess what? He likes that girl and that’s fine.
It could totally happen, but will it ever? I think people want it, but if we really went there, they wouldn’t want it. You really would not want it. You want to ride that line as long as you can, like you would with any crush…if you have a crush on somebody, you want to ride that line. Because the second you make out with them, you’re [faced] with all of the other problems. And you know how to keep that spark going and I think that’s the wonderfulness about Garcia and Morgan is that they ride that line. And they totally know they’re riding it and they just respect each other so much they're not going to cross it.