The Evolution of ‘Criminal Minds” Joe Mantegna

Ahead of the release of “Criminal Minds: Evolution” on Thanksgiving Day, actor Joe Mategna spoke with NBCLA about his past, present and what's next.

Joe Mantegna attends the Festival of Arts Wonderful World Soirée at Laguna Beach Festival Of Arts.

Chicago-native Joe Mantegna has been in show business for over 50 years.

He made his acting debut in the 1969 Chicago production of the stage musical “Hair” and focused mainly on theater in his early years – even winning a Tony award for Best Featured Actor in Pulitzer-Prize winning play “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

According to Mantegna, a lot of opportunities opened for him following his win, which included film and television. Since expanding beyond the stage to the screen in 1985, he has appeared in myriad box office hits over the decades like “The Godfather Part III” (1990) and “Forget Paris” (1996).

“This door [to film] opened but that didn’t close the door on theater,” he said, emphasizing that he still does both and admires the different media equally. “I’ve just constantly been taking the path that has been opened to me and enjoying all of it.”

While his resume is extensive, Mantegna is widely recognized for playing Supervisory Special Agent David Rossi in the CBS television show “Criminal Minds.” The popular crime series follows a group of criminal profilers who work for the FBI as members of its Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), using profiling and studying behaviors to investigate crimes and find the “unsub” or unknown subject, the team’s term for perpetrators.

The series aired in 2005 – with Mantegna joining the cast in the third season – and ran for 15 years before coming to an end in 2020. But much to the surprise of fans and even the actors themselves, the show was revived for a 16th season earlier this year. Mantegna said he wasn’t expecting another season but was overjoyed to get back on set following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was no expectation for it to come back,” he said. “When we all walked off the set two and a half years ago, we thought ‘well it’s been great, we’ll stay in touch, see you later’ but we’re so glad we got another run around the track. It’s been great to be back together and play those characters again.”

He considers joining the cast early on in his career a wise decision. He recalled peer advice that encouraged him to “embrace a character that you feel very comfortable with in terms of who you are, especially if there’s a chance it might have longevity.” The actor said that a lot of David Rossi is reflective of who he is off the screen – most specifically the Italian roots. “Papa Pasta” and “Stallion the Italian” are just a couple of the character’s notable aliases.  

Mantegna was born to immigrant parents Mary Ann Novelli, a shipping clerk from Acquaviva delle Fonti, Apulia, Italy and Joseph Henry Mantegna, an insurance salesmanfrom Calascibetta, Sicily. After living in Chicago and New York throughout his life, he decided to move to Los Angeles because it was geographically closer to what Italy is like compared to the other cities, and he joked that he’s “genetically more comfortable” here.   

“It was intentional that I made Rossi an Italian American too, and gave him the kind of quirks, likes and dislikes that I do; the fact that he likes to cook, and all those other little things are maybe somewhat stereotypical of Italians but it’s because it’s true,” he laughed. “It’s just very comfortable and natural.”  

He added that he loved being Rossi for the thirteen years he did and that it was an “easy embracing of it once again” to jump back into the role. The new season “Criminal Minds: Evolution” will be released on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24. All episodes will be available to stream on Paramount+.

Unlike previous seasons which feature standalone episodes, the new season will have a continual narrative thread weaved through ten episodes. It will center around the greatest threat yet – an unsub who used the pandemic to build an entire network of serial killers. The network begins to operate as the world starts opening back up, and the team is faced with tracking down one murderer at a time.

Mantegna said that because the new season was developed specifically for digital streaming, they were able to avoid the restrictions that come with network television which he thinks ultimately allowed for more authenticity in the characters. By no longer having to temper some of the aspects of who the characters are and what they do and say, he believes they can portray the profession and cases as realistically as possible.

“It can be a horrific occupation and it gives me incredible respect for what these men and women do every day,” he said, noting that he has visited the Quantico, Virginia office numerous times and has several friends in the FBI both former and current. He said he feels like it would be disrespectful to claim his onscreen portrayal of an agent is “hard” because he’s merely doing the fake version of what so many other individuals do in real life. “There could be a guy laying there with an arrow through his head, but when the director says ‘cut’ then he stands up and goes to get a sandwich,” he said. “That’s just not real life.”

Ultimately, Mantegna’s lasting hope is that after someone views the show, they think to themselves that it was time well spent.

“If they finish an episode and want to watch another one, then we’ve succeeded in my opinion,” he stressed.  

As for whether there will be a 17th season to follow, the cast is hoping for the best.

“We’ve done the season in a way that has kept that door open; there are a lot more stories to tell and hopefully we’ll get the chance to do so,” Mantegna said. “We’re enjoying what we’re doing right now and hopefully the public will too.”

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