Tonight’s episode of Criminal Minds is helmed by series star Thomas Gibson, who’s made a second career for himself as a director. He sat down with us last week to take us inside his process in directing “Lockdown,” which takes the BAU inside prison in search of their latest killer, and tell us if he’s ever thought about where he wants to leave his character Aaron Hotchner whenever the long-running procedural ends.
“Lockdown” is the fourth Criminal Minds that Gibson has overseen, and we asked him how he feels he has evolved as a director since he made his debut in 2013. “Certainly I think that my skills have sharpened a little bit, insofar as just getting on top of the workload,” he told us.
“I think the one thing that I tried to do consistently through them all is just get out of the way of the story and tell it the best,” he continued. “You find obviously the best actors you can, and make sure that [your] telling the story doesn’t get in the way of the writers telling the story. It’s a good team and we’ve all been together for such a long time that everybody works like a well-oiled machine.”
“Each of the ones that I’ve done have been very different from each other. There’s a particular challenge that each of these stories brings with it,” Thomas explained. “And this is probably the biggest one that I’ve done as far as scope, and there are a whole bunch of deaths and a whole bunch of fights. I knew it was going to be big.”
What can fans expect from tonight’s episode? “It was [writer] Virgil [Williams]’s idea and my idea to make you feel like we were going to prison for a few days, and I think we pulled that off,” he told us. “Our guys get locked in there with those guys and nobody’s coming out until we figure out who’s done this.
“I think the performances – our regulars are always great. Our guest cast is really extraordinary,” he added. “I was blown away with the depth of the talent of all the people that came in for this.”
It’s not uncommon for actors to turn to directing, but Criminal Minds is unique in that three of the main cast members have stepped behind the camera: Gibson and Matthew Gray Gubler are regular members of the directorial rotation, while Joe Mantegna helmed his first episode earlier this season. Do they ever discuss directing?
“Occasionally, yes, we have,” Thomas said. “Just insofar as the challenges and the time constraints and that sort of thing…We definitely trade notes on the intricacies of each script.”
When he’s in that big chair, does it help him to be directing actors who have also directed? “I would say that the bigger benefit to me is having a director who is also an actor,” he commented. “Because sort of being raised doing a lot of theater and doing mostly theater for the beginning of my career, production of a play requires communication between a director and an actor.
“One of the great things about our assistant directors is that they really do understand [that]…They try to sort of run interference on some of the things that a director might have his hands full with otherwise, so it frees me up to really work and communicate with the actors…I think every director should act at some point.”
Thomas also gave us some insight into what we can expect for Hotch in the remainder of this season. “We’ve got an absolutely wonderful episode coming up,” he revealed. “Ed Asner is going to guest star as my father-in-law. It’s just a really nice way to kind of revisit the history of this character in his personal life, vis a vis the story with his father-in-law and his sister-in-law.”
At ten seasons, Criminal Minds is one of the longest-running shows on television, and will soon air a backdoor pilot for a second potential spin-off series. Together with fellow procedural NCIS, it’s the foundation of its network. Yet that’s also a very long time to portray the same character. Has Thomas ever considered how long the show may have left, and where he might like to leave it?
“I haven’t really gotten to thinking about that in so many words,” he reflected. “I don’t think we should wrap things up. I think real lives don’t get wrapped up. There is no closure in life, pretty much. I think it’d be interesting to leave people with something provocative, something to leave them thinking about, but I don’t know what that is.”
It doesn’t look like he’ll need to concern himself with that any time soon; Hotch and his fellow members of the BAU are still going strong, with a whopping 225 episodes behind them. And one would wager that Wednesday also won’t be the last time we see this multi-talented performer in the director’s chair.
Thomas Gibson’s directed episode of Criminal Minds, “Lockdown,” airs tonight at 9 PM ET/PT on CBS.
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