Forest Whitaker Forest Whitaker

Forest Whitaker fervently circles a grand dining-room table in a stately Pasadena home, swooping around to view the room's layout from different angles. While he's absorbing every detail, everybody else is focused on the fact that at the head of the table is an actress playing a corpse in a state of extreme decomposition.

Whitaker, who won an Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, stars as FBI special agent Sam Cooper in Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, the new spin-off of the wildly popular CBS series. While other actors simply want to hit their marks, he's seeking out thematic nuances and offering sharp, emotional performance variations during rehearsals — for a scene featuring a decomposing female corpse.

Later, Whitaker explains his prowling: "I'm trying to get deeper and deeper into the character, and to get on the same energized plane with the actors," he says, then stops himself, realizing how lofty he just sounded. "Sometimes I worry about the terms I use," he says, laughing.

His fellow Feds are sold on his methods. "I would play seventh lead to Forest, just to watch him," says Michael Kelly (Fair Game).  Janeane Garofalo adds simply, "Jesus, what a treasure."

 The show, which follows a different Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) that uses unorthodox methods to capture the country's most dangerous criminals, experienced a difficult birth. Exec producer Chris Mundy departed in October when CBS wasn't happy with the direction of the show. Costar Beau Garrett admits, "There was heartbreak that day." Original Minds show runner Edward Allen Bernero stepped in to steady the ship.

Whitaker was given free rein to create his character. Cooper served a traumatic stint in Afghanistan; his experiences allow him to operate under circumstances that would test most people's spirits. "Cooper doesn't think of [the killers] as separate from himself," Whitaker explains. "It's a very spiritual approach. He's trying to understand the pain they've experienced, so he can figure out how to stop them."

"Spiritual" isn't often used to describe the Criminal Minds franchise, which has been criticized for gruesome, borderline-misogynistic story lines. "That's an issue I grapple with," says Garofalo. "I have a problem with my nieces and nephews watching it, and here I am doing it."

A future episode concerns a canister filled with dismembered women, a plot Kelly and Garrett admit they found disturbing. "After a while, you're like, 'I think I want to do a Disney movie now,'" jokes costar Matt Ryan. But he notes that his grandmother is a huge fan of the original series. "It's quite creepy," he concludes, "but in a good way." The Suspect Behavior crew hopes Granny — and the rest of America — feel the same way about the spin-off.

Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior airs Wednesday at 10/9c on CBS.

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