The actress, who joined FBI last season as Special Agent Nina Chase, was in the throes of filming the finale when the idea was floated to shift her character to the spin-off. But in order to make that happen, Nina's finale storyline had to be tweaked to make her transition from FBI to FBI: Most Wanted feel more seamless and less dire. Originally, the plan was for Nina – who was pregnant with Scola's baby – to lose the child after enduring pregnancy complications. "I remember John [Boyd], who plays Scola, and I feeling like we got punched in the gut," VanSanten tells TV Guide.
That didn't end up happening, thankfully. In the FBI finale, doctors were able to save both Nina and the baby, with the couple now parents to a newborn son named Douglas, a tribute to his late brother who died during 9/11. When Nina makes her debut this week with FBI: Most Wanted's Fugitive Task Force, the elite squad led by Dylan McDermott's Remy Scott, she'll be balancing being a working parent while navigating a team that has struggled to fill the void left by Alexa Davalos' Kristin Gaines, who departed the series after Season 4. "I feel like it's a rare but very blessed thing that's happened," VanSanten acknowledges.
Ahead of the season premiere, the actress talks to TV Guide about switching gears to FBI: Most Wanted, operating differently with the Fugitive Task Force, and fleshing out Nina and Scola's relationship even more (hint: expect several mini-crossovers!).
TV Guide: How did the opportunity to move from FBI to FBI: Most Wanted come about?
Shantel VanSanten: I found out during the Season 5 finale episode [of FBI]. It was my 15th episode of being on FBI with the crossovers. I found out that I was going to have complications with the baby. My first question was, "Is the baby going to live?" We already went through the crossover episode where Nina got shot: "Was I going to live? Now there are more complications? What's happening? Why?" Rick [Eid], the showrunner on FBI,said, "Well, we think Dougie isn't going to make it." I remember John [Boyd], who plays Scola, and I feeling like we got punched in the gut.
The next thing you know, they were like, "Hold that. It might change." Then it changed and we found out why. "We want to offer you to go to Most Wanted," which is in the same building [as FBI]. FBI: Most Wanted showrunner David Hudgins said, "We don't want her to start a new job here and losing a child like that would be a hard place to start from." So we got to keep the baby and I got to have a brand new, amazing, exhilarating, intense job.
Nina hits the ground running in the first episode of FBI: Most Wanted. There's no transitional period; she's thrown into the mix immediately.
VanSanten: I go to set down my box of things and the next thing you know, we're grabbing our jackets and we're out the door.
While Most Wanted exists in the same FBI universe, it's a very different show. How was the experience transitioning your FBI character and dropping her into a new team dynamic?
VanSanten: I watched a few episodes [of Most Wanted] and saw there was a lot more blood, and the people or person committing the crimes were far more intense. There was more blood, more cuss words. It's not as structured. It's a little more ragtag. We get it done however it needs to get done, even if it means we didn't put on our tactical vest because we didn't have time. We're elite, we're trained. We know what we're doing. We're definitely prepared. That was a surprise for me. I wasn't quite prepared for how some of the cases would be and how involved they are. The show really gets to show you the perspective of the people committing the crimes as well, which, yeah, it's a different show [from FBI]. But I still use some of the skills that Nina had, I just had to add new ones.
Who is Nina on Most Wanted versus Nina on FBI? What are the differences?
VanSanten: I don't think we've seen a lot of vulnerability from Nina on Most Wanted. I think we had moments because she was with the FBI crew for a while, so we got to see cracks through her hardened shell and walls. I remember doing a scene with Zeeko [Zaki], who plays O.A., and connecting with him about PTSD. It was just one line, but it was something that showed, "I know where you're coming from. I've been there." I don't think she's quite ready to do that yet with the Most Wanted crew. She's really still feeling like she needs to prove herself to these people, that they can trust her. That yes, she's a mom but she can also have a career and she can do it all. She can be trusted and she has the skill set. That's been her focus more than her vulnerability so far. I look forward as an actor to scenes where you get to have more of that, but fans of the shows will know what's underneath everything and who Nina has been with another crew of people once she gets in with the [Most Wanted] team.
Remy and Nina start off with a layer of tension due to her concerns over Kristin's departure. What can you say about how their work dynamic evolves over time?
VanSanten: I love tension! I love a complicated relationship where you have to communicate and earn trust. If you think about putting five or six people in a room — maybe they all do the same job, but they all have different lives. They're not always going to get along, they're not always going to agree. But that's where trust is built, relationships grow, and understanding one another on a deeper level is really important. I lean into the moments where there's complicated misunderstandings or tension that two people have to work through because it allows you to see beyond your own understanding. I liked that we started off where not everything was hunky dory. That's who Nina is. She speaks her truth. She's respectful, but she's always honest and that may mean that sometimes you butt heads.
Most Wanted acknowledges that Nina is a new mom and that she and Scola are balancing the working parent thing. Is that going to be an ongoing thread throughout the season? Will Nina face major obstacles regarding this part of her life down the line?
VanSanten: Yeah, of course. We're definitely going to see more of Scola and Nina. I know the writers were excited about having these mini-crossovers and being able to flesh out that relationship more. The focus for Nina in the first part of her job with this Fugitive Task Force is to really show them that she's capable. She's coming back to work early, but she doesn't really want to talk about why. She wants to show up and do the job and be there. She's always been a very driven woman. I don't think that that changes just because she's a mom. Maybe it will, I don't know. I haven't read all the scripts. But as of right now, something that's still important to her is her purpose and her drive around work.
So we'll see you popping back on FBI and John on Most Wanted?
VanSanten: Maybe there'll be some mini-crossovers in the future, but you have to watch both shows!
What are you excited for fans of FBI to know about your shift to Most Wanted?
VanSanten: Some of the work that I got to do on FBI that I'm really proud of were the scenes with John, who plays Scola, because they were real and they were grounded. I was really proud of the story of a woman taking a step back when it came to an unplanned pregnancy and thinking about that choice and that decision. I love being able to tell honest, complicated, real stories and I look forward to the little moments into her personal life where we see behind the curtain. She's not always this tough, outspoken, alpha, badass woman and we get to see the moments when she's not at her strongest. We get to see what's real, [her] unfiltered life and those are the moments that I'm going to look forward to this season.
Is there a favorite episode you've filmed so far?
VanSanten: I can't say that! I do know that there are some episodes coming up that I'm looking forward to. And there are ones we filmed that I thought I was going to be excited about and by the time we were done we were all extremely exhausted because they were crazy. We got to shoot in some really epic locations already. We're on Episode 5 or 6 right now and it's already been a whirlwind of excitement and intensity.
FBI: Most Wanted premieres Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 10pm ET/PT on CBS.