Thomas Gibson can remember the very first day he walked onto the Criminal Minds set. It was 2005, and he was in Vancouver, making the pilot for a show which starred Mandy Patinkin – who would go on to worldwide fame as Saul in Homeland – but infamously walked off the set, never to return.
“The script was very good, but Mandy was a little hard to work with,” Gibson recalls. “Very good when functional – which was not often. The whole experience was unusual to say the least – the writer was fired and I remember watching an early cut of an episode thinking ‘that was fun to do, but I’m going to have to find another job’.”
And yet, on Sunday, millions will be on tenterhooks as the exploits of the profilers at the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit come to a cliffhanging finale in the show’s 11th season, screened on OSN First HD. Gibson’s character – unit chief Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner – has become one of the most recognisably dedicated and aloof characters in American crime drama. Where did it all go so right?
“Well, firstly of course, the writers solved some of the problems,” says Gibson, as matter of fact and no-nonsense as his character. “But, yes, it is crazy that here we are, 11 years on, with a show that found its legs and an audience.
“We found a way to tell compelling stories, basically. Criminal Minds looks at what happened in a bad person’s life to make them capable of doing unspeakable things to other people. I think the question of why they are compelled to do them – when it doesn’t occur to most other people – is really interesting.”
Profiling the criminal rather than the crime is Criminal Minds’ USP, and combined with the drama inherent in the lives of the special agents, it’s no surprise that audience figures in America have remained remarkably steady over the 255 episodes thus far.
Ask Gibson to remember a favourite episode, though, and it’s not the solving of a particularly tricky case, but how he dealt with the heightened emotions of his character.
“As a greedy actor wanting to do interesting things, the story where Hotch loses his ex-wife in season five was pretty intense and really well-written. I enjoyed the big feast of an acting challenge that it presented. And as a result of that, Hotch has moved in interesting ways: there’s a craziness to him now, he feels like if he has more will to do the job in a more focused way that it will fix him and result in greater success for the team. It’s created a nice dynamic.”
And talking of dynamics, Gibson has seen plenty of cast changes over the years – including the departure of fellow stalwart Shemar Moore (special agent Derek Morgan) in the current season. He admits it’s both difficult to say goodbye to colleagues, but also gives the show a chance to refresh itself: the finale on Sunday ends on a cliffhanger that Gibson promises will give season 12 a new energy and immediacy.
He begins shooting that season almost immediately – and now regularly directs episodes, too. Gibson even runs impromptu talent shows among the cast and crew – “We can be just as silly as the circumstances of the show are dark” – to foster a sense of unpredictability that he says keeps Criminal Minds fresh.
So, 11 years in, how much longer does Gibson think the show can keep evolving?
“Well, we still haven’t exhausted all of the crazy ways in which people are horrible to each other,” he says with a smile.
“And the reasons they do are still interesting to the writers, the actors and, most of all, the audience.”
• Criminal Minds season 11 finale airs at 10pm on Saturday on OSN First HD