The nerd who got heard


For those who haven’t got into it yet, Criminal Minds is being shown from the very start on Dubai One. Time Out spoke to one of the stars, Kirsten Vangsness, about playing the series’ resident computer expert, how it helped overcome her chronic shyness and why working as a teacher helped her understand the role. Words Matt  Pomroy

Is it true that you got into acting to overcome shyness?
Yeah, I didn’t talk. I was a very strange looking kid. I was overweight and I didn’t fit in. And we moved to a different place, and I just stopped talking. I just didn’t want to do that anymore. It wasn’t working out for me. I was just a little too odd, and I wasn’t doing well in school. My parents were both teachers, so my mum said, ‘You can take shop class or you can take acting.’ I only took acting because I hated the idea of shop even more. But I was good at it. I got an ‘A’, and I hadn’t gotten an ‘A’ in anything in such a long time. So it was like, ‘I’m going to keep doing that thing.’

Looking back are you surprised it worked out the way it did?
I was looking at it very myopically and I would say, ‘I don’t look like someone who’s on television, that’s not me.’ And so when I realised it was something I loved so much, I thought ‘Well, I’ll just do theatre because it’s different, it’s like a different culture.’ It’s like this Bohemian, you come because you love it, and you just do it. And I didn’t really think; I didn’t know. I thought I was going to live on cat food for the rest of my life. So I’m thrilled that it worked out the way it did.

Is it something that you still kind of struggle with to some extent?
That insecurity absolutely is still there. There’s essentially that part of me that’s a little bit like ‘I’m really here? I’m here right now?’ You have to check yourself sometimes. Being on TV is odd and awesome, but it still takes some getting used to.

Your character Penelope, along with the likes of Chloe in 24, has become one of the faces of female geek chic.How does that feel?
I love it so much, because I think there’s nothing sexier than a smart person. And I think its time has come. It’s the fact that I can be on television and I get to flirt with one of the hottest guys ever seen on a television or screen [Shemar Moore] or anywhere, and I’m the one that he’s crazy for. The fact that I can have all these brains and be a size 12 and do this is fantastic. That makes me feel so good. When I get on my own case, like, “I’ve been eating too much cake,’ I have to say to myself: ‘You know what? It’s good that I’m here,’ because there are women out there who get used to seeing just one idea of what beauty is, and then you see this totally different person who’s not like that and who’s not afraid to be smart and who can still wear cute shoes and be girly but still be so into math and science and the boy stuff. I think that that’s fantastic, and it’s one of the reasons that I respect her so much, because that does not come to me naturally.

Do you know much about technology in real life?
I’ve been an actor since I was a kid and I wanted to be and did it for free often. But I used to have a day job as a teacher. I was a substitute, so if a teacher was sick, I would teach computers, so I started to read the manuals. When I got the job, as homage to Penelope, I had to learn. So I am self-taught. And now I’m at the point where I will say something to my friends, I’ll think it’s just the most normal thing in the world, and they will be, ‘what are you on about?’ I got my iPhone and I’ve hacked it so that you can get certain applications. I got a Unix thing on there that I could do code on. When we did an episode a couple of weeks back, and the writers needed to know stuff that I thought about my character’s operating system and when I was talking to them, I thought it was the most normal thing.

Is your personal style really similar to your character’s style as well?
They’re like very close roommates. Penelope Garcia is like the clean roommate, wears the designer clothes. Kirsten is the messy roommate. She has stains on her clothes, and sometimes I fail miserably in fashion. Garcia doesn’t fail as much as me. She’s brave, but I don’t think she errs on ridiculous as much as I do, and that’s saying some-thing because I have worn earrings this season that have little babies on them. I have great admiration for how she does herself up, but they’ve [the wardrobe department] definitely seen stuff I’ve worn and riffed on it.

Was being a teacher good preparation for the role?
I was one of those teachers that the children would do anything I said because I seemed a little crazy. They were a little scared, not in a bad way, but in a Mary Poppins way. I dressed like them and I would come to school and I would have my Smiths T-shirt on and they couldn’t really figure me out – ‘we don’t think she’s an adult. She looks like one but we don’t think she is so we’re just going to be cool.’ Also the act of being that kind of a teacher, it’s almost being like being a standup comic because you’re immediately in an audience of people that you have to control, and I’m not a taskmaster, so I would control them by charm. So I think that positive attitude helped.

What did you learn from that?
Being a teacher, you learn about people. You learn that one of the best things about our show is that monsters are created by monsters. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to start doing these awful things. It’s because someone very early on treated them very poorly. All of us have had those experiences and you have a choice every time that happens to transcend that and to become a better person from it. All of us fall and all of us transcend at different times. This show is about those people that have been treated so poorly that they just hit bottom and are so out of whack. So to work with different kinds of people like children and see all that was incredibly helpful. I have great empathy, although this sounds nuts, for people who do awful things because you think, ‘what the hell happened to them that made them that way?’

Do you get disturbed by the cases that you work on your show?
I do get disturbed. I try to keep a distance from it. I think if we had better pre-schools, then this would not be such an issue. Those are the things that kind of make me worry more. Before I was a teacher, I actually worked at a group home for kids that were in juvenile hall [a young offender’s detention centre] and all kinds of things. You think about the things that create a person like that. And it’s such a small percentage of people that do this kind of thing. It’s so entertaining because you think it’s a person just like you or me and anybody’s capable of doing anything. As awful as these things are, there are people that help. There are people that do things to solve it and there are all kinds of good stuff too. And I have to say that, because if I didn’t, if I didn’t tell myself that, I would go nuts.

For Time Out, March 2008

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