She was only on set half a day for the Criminal Minds season finale, but it was still a very sweet homecoming for A.J. Cook. "Everyone was so happy," she tells TVGuide.com. "They were like, 'Finally! OK, good, let's get back to what we do here. We missed you. We're glad you're back.' I love everyone over there. It was so great to see the camera operators and everyone you know and love."Joe Mantegna ) to rejoin the BAU — was only a guest spot, but the actress will return to the procedural as a regular this fall. CBS dropped her a year ago only to rehire her last month. Fans who launched a tireless campaign aimed at bringing back both Cook and Paget Brewster, who has an option to come back, are excited for Cook's return, but she says it wasn't an easy decision to sign a new two-year deal. See what else Cook, who will appear with Mantegna on Sunday's National Memorial Day Concert special (8/7c on PBS), has to say about her "rollercoaster" year, what's next for JJ and what she wants to make for the fans.
Can you describe what the past 11 months have been like?
A.J. Cook: It's been a rollercoaster ride, just from the shock of not getting picked up to trying to figure out why to never really knowing why. They kept asking me to come back for things, so trying to have closure was difficult. But it's been good. I've been able to focus on things that are really important, like my family, and just get back to acting. It's so easy to get used to playing a role. Then all of the sudden when you're tossed out of it, it's almost like you have to remember how to act again! This whole thing made me remember why I love acting. I've been able to work with some really great people. I'm shooting a really great movie right now [Least Among Saints] and I'm so excited because people have never seen me this way before. That was something that was very important to me, especially since I'm heading back to Criminal Minds. It's been fun and a challenge, and I love challenges.When did you hear they wanted you back full-time?
Cook: Well, there was dialogue happening for quite some time: "What if...? Would you...?" From Day 1, they've let me know that I've been missed and they want to try to get me back. I knew that they were always trying, but I had to move forward. ... I always knew that it might be a possibility, but obviously until it was real, I didn't want them to keep coming to me. ... They made the offer [last month]. Pretty much when the news hit is when I heard it! I'm amazed by the Internet and how quickly things move. Everything's pretty much dead-on. It's crazy.
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Did you say "yes" right away or did you think about it?
Cook: No. [Laughs] I did a lot of thinking and a lot of stressing. At the end of the day, it just happened to be the right decision for my family right now. I guess one thing to make clear to everyone is that I wasn't sitting around waiting for them to come back. I had other offers. There were other things that could've been great, but I wasn't willing to pick up my family and move them out of the country or out of state to pursue something that I didn't completely love. It just made sense for my family and my second family — Criminal Minds! ... I did a lot of talking to several of the cast and producers and writers. ... I am excited to get back there, from an acting standpoint too. I think this is a different JJ than we've seen in the past, so I'm excited to see where she goes.
She seems much more confident. I almost didn't recognize you in Paget's last episode — in a good way.
Cook: I know! Yeah, she's a different woman — a confident, "I've been working in the State Department" woman. But that's what I like. If I was going to come back, I didn't want to go back to what I was because apparently it wasn't deemed important enough to have me there in the first place! [Laughs] I wanted to make sure the character was going somewhere else and was going to be utilized. ... We've been talking a lot, me and Erica [Messer], who's now the new showrunner. ... What I love about them is it's open dialogue. It's always been that way with writers and actors. I guess fans are kind of freaked out that I'm going to turn into this huge ball-buster!
Some think you may be the new Unit Chief.
Cook: I know, right? I have no idea. The new Strauss? I don't know!
Cook: Yeah, I mean, it's one of those cliff-hangers where you're like, "What? Why isn't she talking to Hotch?" I'll tell you why! Joe has a contract and Thomas [Gibson] does not! [Laughs] It's them just covering themselves. I am hoping that everyone comes back and we can make the show that the fans love to see every week. That's what all of our fingers are crossed for.Will we see more of JJ's family life? Is your son still going to play Henry?
Cook: Well, I pitched it! I'm like, "You know, Mekhai's still available!" [Laughs] He did such a great job the first time and now he's older and wiser! I'm sure we'll make that happen. But we're going to see that come into play this season. We're going to touch on that quite a bit more. We haven't seen JJ holding press conferences and handling the media in the later seasons like we did in the earlier ones. Are we going back to the old days?
Cook: I'm not sure if she'll be stepping back into that. I'm being so vague! All I know is based on the conversations I've had and I don't want to look like an idiot if I go back to doing exactly what I was doing! "Oh, we just told you that to get you back!" [Laughs] But I think it's safe to say she'll still be the spokesperson of the BAU, but she's going to evolve. ... She was working at such a ridiculous level at the State Department that I think she's coming back ... able to handle a little more. But she's still going to be the nurturer, she's still going to be that JJ that everyone loved.She and Hotch are in on Prentiss' "death." I feel like that has to be revealed to the team even if Paget doesn't come back. What do you think the repercussions are going to be?
Cook: It has to, right? They've got a lot of balls in the air right now! Poor writers! Bless their hearts. ... But that could turn into trust issues with JJ. I think they would understand. It's so Prentiss can live. There are so many different ways we can take it and go with it. It was excruciating for JJ to have to do that to everyone. ... That tore her up, but I think that shows how much she has grown and is doing her job. It was a kick-ass [exit] for Paget. She did a great job and she deserved that. I had two episodes to say, "Peace out, homies!" I'm so happy that they wrote her this really strong arc. She went out guns a-blazing. Rachel Nichols) "replacing" JJ.
Cook: It has nothing to do with her. They were just upset because of the whole situation. The whole thing was crappy and I think they tried to fix a situation too quickly, and I think that rubbed people the wrong way — especially because she sort of looks like me! [Laughs] I honestly haven't been watching, so I don't even know what she did. From what I understand, she's a cadet. I feel for her too because it's a tough situation to walk into. The whole situation is so bizarre for everyone involved and sort of unprecedented. What do you have to say to the fans?
Cook: I'm so touched that they spoke their minds and reached out to me personally. It made me feel like it's all going to be OK and that these people are going to support me wherever I go. Yeah, they're angry about the Criminal Minds thing, but they truly appreciate me as an actor and a lot of them were like, "We're excited for what you're going to do next." That made me feel really good. I mean, thank you! What else can I say? It was crazy! There was no explanation. ... They decided to make a creative decision and they're allowed to. It's their show. But our fans are so loyal. They love it. I'm so glad they do. Don't mess with the Criminal Minds fans! I'm going to get T-shirts made for them!