Actor Thomas Gibson

The Criminal Minds star offers his take on what makes his show work and explains how diversity contributes to the show’s success.

Thomas Gibson’s versatility as an actor is evident in his wide range of dramatic and comedic roles in film, television and theater. Well-known for his years as star of the hit series Dharma & Greg, for which he received two Golden Globe noms, and his turn on Chicago Hope, the South Carolina native and Julliard grad started in children’s theater. He began his career working on and off Broadway and got his big break when he was asked to star in the feature Far and Away. Gibson currently stars in the critically acclaimed TV drama series, Criminal Minds.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Thomas Gibson to this program. The former “Dharma & Greg” star is part of one of TV’s most successful series, “Criminal Minds.” The show airs Wednesday nights at 9 on CBS, so here now a scene from “Criminal Minds.”


Tavis: This stuff can really freak you out if you’re not well-adjusted.

Thomas Gibson: It’s true. I mean, there are a lot of people who – you know, somebody I was just talking to the other day said, “You know, I’m a single person at home and I can’t watch it if I don’t either have somebody there or if I’m not at somebody else’s house.” It can be a little freaky.

But one of the things that is, I think, helpful that people don’t necessarily think about is that it does raise awareness, maybe not to the point of paranoia.

But there is an FBI profiler named Jim Clemente who is our technical consultant and he also has written a couple of episodes. We did one recently and I said, “Did you ever have this particular case?” He said, “I had this particular case six times,” a particular kid who was kept in captivity by a crazy person. He says this actually helps.

Tavis: Have you been personally freaked out by one of these episodes? I ask that because, as I was saying to you before we came on the air, I was on a plane the other night flying back to Los Angeles and the airline I was on had “Criminal Minds” in their TV On Demand listing.

I knew you and I were gonna talk, so I watched like eight episodes of you between Connecticut and Los Angeles, eight episodes of “Criminal Minds” just to catch up.

Gibson: That’s a lot of “Criminal Minds.”

Tavis: And one of them was the episode where the guy you were chasing had cut this person up and had served the body parts in the chili. You remember this episode?

Gibson: Jamie Kennedy, yes.

Tavis: Oh, my God [laugh]!

Gibson: It’s a great…

Tavis: …I mean, the persons who were out – the search party.

Gibson: Who were out searching.

Tavis: Exactly.

Gibson: Yeah. He was actually feeding the victim to those who were looking for the victim. Now that might be in our top five twisted episodes.

Tavis: I don’t know what the other – if it’s five, don’t tell me what the other four were [laugh]! I don’t want to know the top four if that’s number five.

Gibson: There were a couple of images that stick with you and one of them was based on a real case in Canada where the way we played it was the thing that tipped us off as to how many killings had gone on was we found an entire dumpster of shoes and these shoes belonged to all of the victims. Once they were laid out, there were dozens and dozens of these pairs of shoes.

Yeah, it definitely gets to you. When we sit down and read it once before we start shooting it from beginning to end with our guest cast and it’s for the writers to sort of hear how it flows and hear how the story is told from beginning to end, you know, out loud, that’s when it definitely has its biggest impact.

I have often said at the end of the read-through, it’d be really nice to do a comedy this week [laugh]. No, there’s another crime to solve, there’s another bad guy to catch. You know, when we break it up into pieces and shoot it back to front and inside out, then you don’t necessarily have the same impact.

But when I walk onto the set and it’s a particularly messy set, there’s literal blood on the floor, you do want to obviously invest the moment or couple of moments to make it all real for yourself before then you step away and have the professional demeanor that these characters would maintain while on that set.

I’ve got a friend who’s the police chief in San Antonio where we live. He was talking to me about what we do in our little fictional world as opposed to what they do in their real world. He said, “Have you ever been on a murder scene?”

I said, “No, only fictionally.” He said, “Well, you know, I think you do a good job of kind of doing what we would do when we walk onto a real murder scene, but if you want a little more, just let me know.”

Tavis: You couldn’t want more.

Gibson: I don’t really want more.

Tavis: Fiction is enough, yeah.

Gibson: If he said, you know, you guys do a good job, then I’m content with that.

Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago and I feel you that you wish on certain weeks you could do a comedy. This is a long way from “Dharma & Greg.”

Gibson: It is a long way. You know, it almost couldn’t be farther away, in a way.

Tavis: You like that, I take it?

Gibson: Yeah, it’s great, and I would love to do one again. I mean, I think that, if you ask any actor what would be the definition of success for them would be to work on as many different kinds of things as possible.

One of the things that I’d like to get back to that I did as a younger actor was to work on, you know, a rep season for a summer where you did two or three Shakespeares and you’d do a couple of either new plays or classic plays and you did a different one almost every night. I mean, it’s an amazing experience to have that kind of variety from night to night.

This certainly is a challenge to, in the year seven now, find those things that are new and fresh and interesting. But that’s what makes living with a character for so long, you know, challenging and interesting for an actor because the characters grow, things happen to them in their lives.

This particular job has a big impact on their personal lives and on their psyches and that’s really interesting stuff to explore.

Tavis: To your point now that this is season seven for you all, what’s your sense of what you think makes this show work? Because it can be a little freaky, as we said earlier, and there’s so many of these crime procedurals now on television.

Just because it’s the thing to do doesn’t mean that your show is going to make it. They’ve launched some of these shows that didn’t work, obviously. What’s making this one work?

Gibson: You know, I think it’s the universality of the – you know, this is a big proposition maybe, because I’ve thought about it. It may be just the universality of the big question which our show addresses every week, which is what happened in this person’s life, this person who’s capable of this heinous crime?

What happened in this person’s life to take them down this road? Psychologically, where were they? What kind of genetic cards were they dealt and what kind of environmental cards were they dealt to come up with the perfect storm which made them capable of this horrible thing?

Tavis: I wonder – I’m gonna put you on the spot here for a second. I wonder whether or not you’ve ever had this conversation with yourself. I decided years ago through my own journey that I would stop using the phrase “I would never do that.”

I stopped saying that because every one of us in the right situation, right circumstance, in that perfect storm of negativity because we’re human and we’re not human and divine; we’re just human. We’re capable, I think, of doing anything. I can’t speak for other people. I just stopped saying I would never do that.

Gibson: I would never do that [laugh].

Tavis: [Laugh] All right, got me. I wonder, though, whether or not you have changed your thinking about the human condition and what human beings are capable of in a perfect storm of negativity.

Gibson: Well, you see it. We see it, we’re bombarded with it, you know. People think that human beings have gotten worse, that because of the pressures that modern society puts on us, we’ve gotten worse and we’ve gotten capable of doing more terrible things.

I don’t know if I necessarily think that that’s true. I think that we hear a lot more about it because we’ve got this, you know, media structure that is relentless. But I do think that we are all capable of anything and it’s been that way for a long time.

I mean, like I was just talking, all the sort of great Shakespeare plays deal with some of the same questions that we’re dealing with, and that’s just a very small sort of subset of a playwright who is writing about people at a particular time in a particular place. But there was a universality to the themes and that’s why those plays are still around.

Tavis: I read in my research before our conversation, Thomas, I read a story of one of your, I guess, acting teachers when you were just a kid getting started who had cast you and really wanted you to play the charming prince and you pouted for days.

Gibson: Yeah, I’m still pouting.

Tavis: You’re still pouting all these years later because you really wanted to be the villain.

Gibson: Yes, of course.

Tavis: So it speaks to the fact that you love the idea, the opportunity.

Gibson: Well, one of the things a later acting teacher always said to me, and this is something that stuck with me. I’ve had probably way too many acting classes and you try to sort of shed – I think over a period of time, you’ll shed what doesn’t stick with you and you’ll hang onto those things that do.

But somebody always talked about when you’re playing a villain, finding the virtuous parts of that character and vice versa. When you’re playing Prince Charming, find the less charming parts of Prince Charming.

I think that that’s a good first step toward making it a potentially multi-dimensional character and not just, you know, your cardboard cutout villain or your cardboard cutout prince.

Tavis: I don’t know that this fits, but I was in a conversation yesterday with some people and I was quoting Dr. King, as in Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said “There’s some evil in the best of us and some good in the worst of us.”

Gibson: Absolutely.

Tavis: There is that complexity of character.

Gibson: And, you know, we seem to have, especially in this country, we seem to have developed an intolerance for the human foibles of, say, our politicians and things like that. It’s a very strange thing to see take place.

We don’t seem to – I mean, Americans love giving people a second chance, but in a way, you look at the pressures that are on people who are in public life and public office these days.

They don’t want to put their families through this kind of scrutiny because they’re held to certainly a high standard, but in some respects, I think that they end up – you know, people forget that they are human and they do make mistakes.

Tavis: When you’re on a show like this for seven years, I wonder whether or not there’s any part of this – I don’t want to overstate it, but I don’t want to understate it either. I wonder if there’s a part of you in the cast that feels like you are in fact doing a public service? You’re not just entertaining us, but…

Gibson: You know, I think I wouldn’t give us that kind of importance, but I do think that the people who do this job for real – and we’ve been lucky enough to meet a whole bunch of them – are really unsung heroes.

You know, on our show, we get to fly in this fancy private jet to all of these places where we solve these cases. The real FBI profilers fly economy and they have to be air marshals when they do it, you know? So there are a few fictions that we take, a few departures from reality.

I think that the one good service that we do is kind of maybe show people how dedicated – I mean, the fidelity, bravery, integrity that these people embody every day to balance dozens of cases and not just the one case that we get to sort of concentrate on every week. You know, the best thing that we can do is to show people how dedicated they are.

If, for instance, somebody becomes a little more aware of something that happens that sticks with them that they think, “Well, that doesn’t make sense. Maybe I should make a call about this person,” I think that’s great, but I wouldn’t necessarily go around congratulating us for it.

Tavis: One of the things I like about this show – and this is my own personal pet peeve, as my crew knows. I like about this show that there is a diversity amongst the team. Television can be that way if people were conscious of the fact that it’s not that way. But on that show, there’s a diversity on that team that I think is pretty cool.

Gibson: Early on, it just occurred to me that it was basically like we were Sherlock Holmes split into six or seven characters and that each of us had our own expertise. In fact, the pilot of the show, we were all introduced having our own expertise that we would bring to a case. I mean, our own point of view. There’s something about this particular group.

You know, you can throw great scripts at a great group of actors and it just doesn’t work, but there is something about this particular show at that moment with this group of actors that somehow worked. You know, we’ve had a couple of characters come and go, but there is the sense of teamwork that these guys have.

They bring all of their own individual points of view. You know, Paget’s character, Kirsten’s character, A.J.’s character, Shemar’s, Matthew’s, Joe’s. We all bring our particular point of view to a case, but we also function very well not only as an acting team, but I think this group functions well as a team, and that’s what I think all the audiences enjoy seeing.

You know, there was a friend of mine who’s a clothing manufacturer and he was talking the other day when he came to visit our set for the first time. He said, “You know, it can be a team of any kind of task.” It can be people making automobiles; it can be people making other things.

But he said, “It’s really the team experience that’s great.” I think that’s what also people appreciate about this particular story.

Tavis: You mentioned earlier in this conversation that you live in San Antonio.

Gibson: I do.

Tavis: You didn’t always live in San Antonio.

Gibson: No. It’s my wife’s hometown.

Tavis: It’s your wife’s hometown. Well, that answered that question [laugh]. I was trying to go deep, why you had to get out of Hollywood and…

Gibson: …I’m a big sports fan and I just had to be closer to Coach Pop, you know.

Tavis: To the Spurs.

Gibson: Yeah, exactly.

Tavis: I thought that there may have been a reason why you and the family wanted to get out of this craziness that is Hollywood.

Gibson: You know, I lived in New York for a long time. I went to school in New York. I bought an apartment in New York and came to Hollywood to pay the mortgage on the New York apartment, of course [laugh]. I was planning on going back and still haven’t made it back.

I remember that the Co-op Board in New York was interviewing me and I’d actually been in the building for a few years subletting and things like that from a friend in another apartment. They said, “We understand you’re an actor. We know all about the lure of Los Angeles.” I said, “I’m never going to L.A.” So there you go, you know, 15 years later, 16 years later.

But we just have no family in California and, when our kids were really little, when “Dharma & Greg” was over in like 2002, for the next two years, every job took me out of L.A. Our kids were really small and we had thought about this since we have no family in California. If we did, I think it would be different.

But we had talked about making this jump to Texas and we did and, of course, nothing will get you a job back in Los Angeles faster than leaving, which is exactly what happened.

So even before we moved into the house in San Antonio, I was already commuting, doing my part for the airline industry which I feel like I’ve done. There’s a certain airline that was in Chapter 11 that’s now doing just fine [laugh].

Tavis: Thanks to you [laugh].

Gibson: Yeah, I’m taking all the credit.

Tavis: Has this career to date turned out the way that you thought it would? I ask that because my sense is that you may see something differently, but after “Dharma & Greg,” it seemed to me to slow down just a little bit.

Gibson: Yeah.

Tavis: Maybe it didn’t. I thought there was a little…

Gibson: …well, I was trying to sort of – you know, part of it as well was literally leaving town. It was sort of a crossroads at that point as to whether I wanted to do another television series or did I want to get back into the world of features or did I want to go do a play.

But having children changes your priorities and I think that, having a steady, good gig where you feel challenged as an actor and also that you have some sort of regularity in your life which is difficult for any actor to muster, this particular show when it did come along, and there were some other ones that either didn’t seem like the right fit, I did a couple of features and I did a couple television movies, I did a miniseries in the interim between those shows.

You know, my career to me is a work in progress. I mean, certain things you think what would have been different if that had happened instead of this, but I’m just really interested in looking forward and continuing to work. There are a few things that I’d still like to do.

I mean, there’s some plays that I want to do before I shut it all down or anything like that. But right now, this is a great gig. I am enjoying it. I certainly would love to do a couple of other things. I’ve got a short that I want to direct. I want to get back to directing a little bit and see where that takes me to.

Tavis: I’m curious about those plays. I’ll ask you about that in just a second. One reason why I started that question is because it seems to me in this town where – I was listening to you. I want to do this, this and this. Every actor in this town wants to do this, this and this.

Gibson: Of course.

Tavis: But it seems to me a very special blessing to be able to be connected to two shows that are both hits over a number of years. There are people who live their lives in this town trying to get one series and you have two long-running series, one comedy, one drama.

Gibson: Yeah, and I was a doctor. That’s what brought me out here was to do David Kelley’s show, “Chicago Hope,” which after a couple of years, I just thought, you know what? That was a moment where my wife and I just bought a house here, but we were both considering going back to New York because it was a good show, but it wasn’t exactly what I felt I wanted to be doing right then.

Before I knew it, I got another job which then went away because of scheduling, and two days later, I went in and met with Chuck Lorre, Dottie and Jenna, and that train left the station that day and we were on for that ride for five years.

Tavis: This is a long way from the soap operas [laugh].

Gibson: It’s a long way from the soap operas. You know, now the soap opera is gone.

Tavis: It died, yeah.

Gibson: In New York at the time, there were two or three or four, “As The World Turns,” “Guiding Light.”

Tavis: “All My Children,” yeah.

Gibson: Exactly. They were great for an actor who needed to pay off his credit cards [laugh] and make a curtain at 8:00. One of the ones that I did, and I did it for three months one summer, but I was also doing a play and they were able to sort of help guarantee that I would go and make my curtain.

It was a very nice life for New York actors to sort of balance that. The theater jobs don’t always pay very well.

Tavis: We’ve only talked 25 minutes, though, and speaking of theater, I just get this feeling that the theater is pulling you back, that you’re missing being on the stage.

Gibson: Yeah, that’s true. I really do. I did a lot of it. I mean, it’s what I did growing up and it’s what I did in school and for at least four or five years out of school in New York.

You know, once you kind of get a taste of – ’cause it’s the direct contact between audience and the actors that it’s stuff you want more of. It’s like a little drug, you know. I crave that.

You know, it’s nice on a sitcom to have an audience there, but there’s still a wall of cameras between you and them. But when you have that sort of unfiltered contact with an audience, there’s nothing like it.

Tavis: So this is Mikey on camera three here.

Gibson: Okay.

Tavis: Just look dead in camera three and I just want you to smile. Just look in camera three and smile.

Gibson: Why?

Tavis: Just give me some. Is it tough for you make a smile [laugh]? I ask that because – you know why.

Gibson: I know. I know why.

Tavis: You never get a chance to smile. On “Criminal Minds,” you’re like –

Gibson: I know, I know.

Tavis: I just wanted to give you an opportunity to smile.

Gibson: You know, I may be the most unfunny character on television.

Tavis: Is that part of the character? Do they tell you don’t smile?

Gibson: No. In fact, I remember one of the producers on the show – because when a pilot is written, the characters are all sort of sketches at best, you know. They said, “You know, he’s the family man.” I thought, well, that’s a good place to start and I’m curious to see what kind of effect this job has on an agent with a young family.

I was warned by one of the producers during the pilot, “We’ve already got a dark character. We don’t need another one.” I said, “Well, I’m not necessarily trying to play a dark character. I’m trying to sort of play the reality of what this is.”

Tavis: And this stuff ain’t funny anyway.

Gibson: And it ain’t a lot of yuk, you know? I mean, there are moments of levity. These guys should be able to blow off some steam, but then his marriage fell apart and then his wife was killed and, you know, I think he took a lot of it. He was the guy who was not able to leave it at the office.

I think that was a very different conceptual idea from the way it was originally conceived, but I think he’s interesting. I mean, I think he’s a little bit shutdown, no doubt about it, but we’re trying to reach him.

Tavis: I just wanted to see if you still had it in you [laugh].

Gibson: It’s definitely there. No, it’s definitely there. In fact, I think that off-stage or off-screen, we have one of the kind of loosest sets I’ve ever been on. We laugh a lot, which is funny, I think, probably in direct proportion to the grimness of the material, you know.

Tavis: That makes sense. His name, of course, Thomas Gibson. You well know that “Dharma & Greg” star for years and now the star of “Criminal Minds” on CBS. Delighted to have you on the program.

Gibson: Thank you, Tavis. I enjoyed this. It was great to be here.

Tavis: Glad to have you here.

Gibson: Really great to be here.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

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Last modified: March 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm