Tonight’s episode of Criminal Minds is a big one that I’ve already teased. But in our inaugural conversation, Matthew Gray Gubler (Dr. Spencer Reid) pretty much sums it up better than I ever could. Proceed for insight from the star and second-time CM director as he talks about what it was like having A.J. Cook (J.J.) back on set, the farewell of Paget Brewster (Emily Prentiss), and… tiger blood?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was it giving directing a second shot?
MATTHEW GRAY GUBLER: It was as great as the first time, if not even better. It’s sort of one of my main loves in life, so it was tremendous to be in the directing frame of mind and in the chair.
Was it easier this time?
Slightly. The one thing that was easier was that the first time around, I was so overly prepared, I was not prepared to act in my own episode. I was like, “What the hell?” So this time I was braced more for double duty of directing and acting. So that made it a bit easier.
This was definitely a big episode to be asked to direct.
Such an exceptional honor. The best thing a director can hope for is a story rife with drama and so many interesting things to get to. I’m really rambling now. But it’s so rich with story! And this was absolutely one of our most important episodes ever. And just to be asked to do it meant the world to me.
Since it’s such a big episode, are you nervous for people to see this one?
It’s funny — in a weird way, I’m a little less nervous for people to see this one than the first. The first one was this stand-alone piece and I really tried my best to do something different from our show and create this alternate, weird, fairytale reality. That I was worried about people seeing because it was a divergence from our typical style of show. This one, I know it’s about one of our beloved characters and she did such a phenomenal performance. And everyone else did just touching performance. Maybe it’s brave of me to say, but anyone who is a fan of the show will love it.
Were there any new challenges you faced this episode around?
Any moment in a director’s day is a challenge, which is why I love it. The biggest one with this was that it had a lot of action in it, which I’m not really used to. The show — we don’t really do a lot. There’s freaking hand grenades and handguns — stuff that isn’t my forté, per say. I’m not an action guy in real life. I don’t watch action movies. That was a challenge that presented itself. I had to think about how to film a guy on a boat talking to his son. It was weird. Weird people doing weird things. But I learned that you point the camera and the action speaks for itself. So it was a challenge and a relief.
After experiencing it this time around, is this something you want to do again?
Absolutely. There’s so much movement in action. If you look at it more like a ballet, you can see the beauty of it. By action, I mean we don’t have machine guns on our show all the time. And there’s a fight scene and all this stuff that’s just thrilling to film and thrilling to watch.
How was it being behind the camera with A.J. Cook back?
It was an absolute pleasure. The family — the band was reunited. It was also that selfishly, I knew that the moment she steps on screen, every Criminal Minds fan is going to smile and cheer. I almost felt like it was hard to go wrong. [Laughs] It was great writing and great returns. It made my job as a director so much easier.
So this is Paget Brewster’s last episode. How can we look for the dynamic to change?
We all feel the loss. Paget has this infectious laugh. The table read after this one, she wasn’t there and I was like, “Ah!” It’s kind of sad. But shows change and life changes. I hope that in some weird way they’ll come back. This is an interesting year for us. We have a spin-off. Some characters have their contracts up. There are so many unknowns, and I hope we get to keep making a great show. It’s a great thing to be a part of for half a decade.
Woah. When you put it that way…
I know! I could have gone to med school and been a heart surgeon by now.
So for the non-spoiler folk (a.k.a.: not me), what can you say about this episode?
All we cared about for this episode was making it fan-friendly, hence the return of A.J. You can expect a very unique hour of our show that hasn’t really been done in six years. A lot of adventure and action and espionage — sort of a new world. A lot of craziness and drama. “Epic” is the world that comes to mind. I can’t believe I’m selling my own episode with “epic.”
No shame in that! Especially if it’s true.
Or I can be like Charlie Sheen: You can expect an episode rife with tiger blood! How about that? Tell them it’s as if the episode was directed by a warlock and infused with gushing amounts of tiger blood.
I love that. [Laughs] It’s perfect!
So on set, did you all do anything special to mark Paget’s big exit?
Luckily, Paget is one of my best friends, so it’s not like I’m never going to see her again. But we stuck around after, and a few of us had a toast of fine wine — Paget’s favorite. Paget and I were in denial it was happening. As they called cut on her character’s last scene on the show and her last scene, I was like, “Holy smokes, that’s picture wrap and series wrap on Paget Brewster.” It hit us all by surprise.
But how great that it was you who got to do it.
It was an absolute honor.