Criminal Minds’ Paget Brewster

For 12 seasons, Criminal Minds has been following a dedicated group of FBI profilers, part of the BAU, the Behavioral Analysis Unit. These agents track the most heinous criminals, trying to anticipate their next moves in an effort to stop them from killing again. Paget Brewster plays special agent Emily Prentiss, who rejoined the unit last season after having been away for four years. Brewster talks about the responsibility she and the rest of the cast feel toward real-life FBI agents, many of whom are consultants on the show, and the reasons for the series’ success in the U.S. and around the world.

WS: What is it about the show that resonates with viewers in so many countries?
BREWSTER: I think part of it is human nature. People want to know what’s going on in the mind of someone who could hurt them, and Criminal Minds provides that. We show: what is the damage of this person? How did they get this way? What do they want? And how do they take advantage of people? It’s human nature to want to learn that in any way possible. I think the key to the success of the show is that it’s satisfying to see these characters that you know—that have relationships with each other, care about each other, protect each other—stopping the bad guy. I think it’s appealing in every country because this is just human nature; we’re really all the same. So it translates internationally because that exists in all of us.

WS: Tell us about your return to the show last season. Your character, Emily, had been running Interpol in Europe but was called back because of the serial killers that had escaped prison at the end of the previous season.
BREWSTER: Correct. In real life, I left four years ago and did comedy, and Emily went to Europe and was running Interpol. When I rejoined last year Hotch [Aaron Hotchner, played by Thomas Gibson] was no longer the unit chief and Emily was asked if she would come in and accept that position. So Emily decides to come back because she’s missed these people she cares about, but not in the position she was in before. She wants to come back in an equal position to what she was doing in Europe. I think that’s important and empowering to women—that Emily is the unit chief. She runs the team a little bit differently than Hotch did, in the way that people are different, and men and women are different. I was really honored to be able to do that. I think Emily’s a really good boss. There is something feminine, maternal and caring, and [she talks] to people using their first names—it’s different from Hotch. It doesn’t mean that one is better than the other; they’re just different. I was just really pleased that she returned as unit chief. As for me, they didn’t ask me to come back full time and give up the things that I wanted to do. CBS is allowing me to do a show on Comedy Central because I fought for it. I said I would love to come back, but I want to [do it] in a way that I feel good and empowered and positive about. We were all able to make that work, and that was important to me.

WS: Emily shows so many different emotions. She’s a professional, she can be cold when necessary, but she has such a heart, too. As an actor, is it great to have that range?
BREWSTER: Oh yes, I hope I have that range! You get that material and just want to do a good job. Part of it is great writing, part of it is absolutely trusting the people that I’m with, who I’ve known for years now, so it definitely lightens the load. You could drive yourself crazy worrying, Am I going to pull this off? Am I going to be empathetic? Am I going to make sense of this material? Am I going to be as strong as I need to be, because I need to honor the men and women of the FBI who actually do this for a living, who see and feel and go through horrible, painful, scary things, that I, personally, couldn’t do? It is a balancing act of being caring [and tough], but these people do dangerous, scary things, and they have to be great at it—especially the women. We have to be equal to men because that’s who those real women in the FBI are. It is really important to maintain that. When you do a show for a long time, it’s easy to just walk through it and think, Oh, I’ve said this line pretty much the same way, but we all have to remind ourselves: this is actually important. It’s important to our fans; it’s important to us as actors. We have to care, pay attention, and not think of it as, Oh, it’s my job. We all feel that way, we support each other and help each other and keep each other on our toes, and that’s a rare environment. There are a lot of shows where people are just walking through it, because they can, and they cash their checks. Our show is not that, and I hope it shows. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why [it’s so successful around the world,] because our writers don’t slack off, the prop department doesn’t slack off, everyone is working to the best of their ability to make this series. It’s important to us that the fans like it. It’s important to us what they feel. I don’t want to sound corny or self-important. I know we’re all acting, but there’s a responsibility to it that I think we all feel.

WS: Does the show have consultants from the FBI?
BREWSTER: Oh yes, Jim Clemente was a former supervisory special agent. He was our consultant for years when he was still in the FBI. Then he retired, and he now lives in Los Angeles, and he is one of our writers.

WS: Have you been able to meet any women agents, too?
BREWSTER: Yes, my character was based on an agent named Emily, who was an FBI agent at the time and was a consultant on the show. I’m telling you, she looks more like an actress than I do! She is the hottest little blonde bombshell you’ve ever seen, and her specialty in the FBI was going undercover as an underage kid and meeting up with online predators. She was exceptional, a spitfire gun, and really everything I wanted to be! She was feminine, sexy, funny. She was great at her job, powerful, self-aware and strong, and had to face horrible stuff. I’ve also met a couple of female agents from the L.A. office. We’ve had a lot of [FBI] visitors to the set because they’re always welcome. They all seem to like the show. What they’ve said to us is, Okay, this we wouldn’t do. But we say, It’s TV we’ve gotta do this one! But they’ve all been very supportive. Another one of our consultants, Jim Fitzgerald, did a show called Manhunt: Unabomber—it’s the story of him finding the Unabomber. We’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of FBI agents who were supportive and understood that we couldn’t necessarily do some of the things that they came across because it was just too much.

WS: Does the material ever get to you?
BREWSTER: It did in the beginning for all of us. All of us got a little paranoid and kept thinking we were seeing certain behaviors in people. For example, I’d be in a Rite Aid [and see someone and think] Oh, that guy’s a killer, I know it! You have to let it go. We’ve all had to separate from that. I think that’s part of why we depend on each other and care about each other. We keep each other happy, even though we’re dealing with difficult material.

WS: Besides acting in Criminal Minds, you are also in the comedy Another Period. What’s it like going from drama to comedy. Do you love them both?
BREWSTER: I do! I love them both! They’re different. Honestly, because I’ve been playing Emily Prentiss for so long, there’s a comfort there. Comedy can be a little bit scarier. There’s something exciting about doing comedy because I could fail, and I want to face that fear, and I want to get better. If you’re on a show for a long time you can start to let your guard down, and you can’t; you have to be aware, you have to ask yourself, what’s the most important thing that’s happening here? Comedy’s scary, and it keeps that going.