Ken Olin, Thomas Gibson
Thomas Gibson was prepared for the worst. The Criminal Minds star makes his series directorial debut with Wednesday's episode and had a way easier first day than he expected.
"I was hoping for some of [the actors] to give me a hard time, but no one did!" he tells TVGuide.com. "But [joking aside], everyone was great and extremely supportive of me, which certainly made the whole experience even better."
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It's an experience that's been years in the making. Gibson, who's the show's second cast member to direct after Matthew Gray Gubler ("he's very good," Gibson says), had always wanted to helm an episode, but could never work out the scheduling. The actor lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his family and commutes to Los Angeles for the week to shoot Minds. "[Directing] is basically a month," he says. "The prep is a week-and-a-half, then a week-and-a-half of shooting, then a week of editing, so it was hard to be away from home for that long. It turned out that this particular slot this year prepped before Christmas and shot after Christmas, so it worked out really well for me. ... It was great because I managed to do all our prep beforehand, then second-guess myself for the two-and-a-half weeks of our vacation!"
But even before then, Gibson, who plays Hotch, was already in the planning stages. Executive producer and showrunner Erica Messer, who wrote the episode, first told him about the plot in October and gave him a script around Thanksgiving. In the episode, writer Bruce Morrison (guest star Ken Olin) is suspect Numero Uno when his two daughters, Sera (guest star Sophi Bairley) and Katie (guest star Delilah Napier, daughter of one of the show's former writers Ed Napier), vanish on the one-year anniversary of their mother's disappearance, and Bruce doesn't call it in until two days later. "[Olin] and Erica had worked together on Alias, and so when we were talking about [casting] him, it just seemed like a slam-dunk," Gibson says. "He is absolutely incredible in it. There's a whole lot more to the story." Gibson also called on pals Paul Dooley and Keith Szarabajka, also a friend of co-star Joe Mantegna, to appear as the Morrisons' nosy neighbor and detective of the week, respectively.
"That was really cool getting all of them. We got all of our pieces that told the story well," Gibson says. "This episode is such a piece unto itself. ... There are certainly images that you get when you're reading it. They tend to jell even more once you find your locations. What fell into place very nicely for us was the house that we found. It had everything that we kind of wanted and was very evocative for that particular family and that particular story. Once I saw our sets and found the actors, I was getting pictures in my head for everything."
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Though it was his maiden directing effort on the show, Gibson says he wasn't nervous. That's partially because he's directed before (plays, two episodes of Dharma & Greg) and because, well, there's no time to be. "Single-camera is more relentless because it's eight 14-hour days no matter how you slice it," he says. "It's something that our crew does week in and week out in an incredibly efficient and professional way. The little show ponies, meaning the actors, are the ones who get days off and scenes off. When you direct, you're there all the time and you really appreciate just how much everybody busts their ass to make this work, and they're amazing. I always respected our crew and all the hard work they do, but this deepened it.
"In a way, as an actor, you do all the preparation and then you want to forget it and just play the scene," he continues. "As a director, you can't forget it because somebody will remind you that you forgot something. But you can know your plan well enough that you still have a certain amount of freedom. If actor says, 'Why don't we move it over here?' we can do that. Glenn Kershaw, who's a producer on the show and has directed and done cinematography, was my training wheels. I was a little panicked when he wasn't on set for a few days. I did somehow manage to get through those."
Unlike some, Gibson also wasn't worried about directing himself either. Hotch is in the episode a "normal amount," and Gibson even took himself out of a scene at the advice of his first A.D. Stacey Beneville. "The whole rain scene, I was in that and ... Stacey said, 'It's your one action sequence [to direct]. I think you'd be a lot happier if you're not wet and if you don't have to run back and forth. You can concentrate on just watching it and this is an experience that you want to have as a director.' And I said, 'OK.' And she was right. I didn't have to act until Day 3 of shooting."
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There is one person who does get more screen time: JJ (A.J. Cook). The episode was originally conceived in the summer as part of an undercover arc for JJ, but was scrapped to focus on the season-long Replicator story line. Instead, JJ plays an integral part during an interrogation of Bruce and is in the aforementioned rain scene. "It was a lot more poignant for A.J. to be in it than me," Gibson says. "A.J. did a fantastic job. I gave her a cut that I had last week. She's great in it."
Now that his "baby's gone off to college," Gibson is already thinking about stepping behind the camera again next season — if the calendar breaks his way. "I'm hoping I can grab that slot again next year," he says. "I know that they don't like to break up [the prep and filming], but I'd love to do it again. ... I waited a long time for this! It's just really exciting to learn visual storytelling. It was so much fun and I'm so proud of it. I managed to stay out of the way — in a good way!"
Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on CBS. Check out a sneak peek below.