Industry Pro: Actress Kirsten Vangsness

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Kirsten Vangsness is an example of someone who would’ve- and did- act for free if no one paid her to do it. And that has paid off well for her. In addition to her regular role on the hit primetime TV drama, “Criminal Minds,” she is highly sought-after for high profile projects on stage and on the big screen.

Current part:  I play Garcia on CBS’s “Criminal Minds.” I also just finished doing a play called “Kill Me, Deadly” at Theater of NOTE in LA. And I have a small part in an independent film about the Chicago 8 which is so-far called THE CHICAGO 8.

College & degree:  I went to Cypress Community College for two years and then graduated from Cal State Fullerton as a theater major.

Internships:  None.

Acting while in school (professional or amateur): I acted within the school’s program and also had done community theater in Orange County since I was 14, usually appearing in two or three plays a year. However, I was terrified to do theater in Los Angeles at this point. I was a couple of years out of college before I ventured into the LA theater world.

Day job while you were working towards being a working actor: Oh, there were so many… I worked at fabric store, a book store, a group home. I was a substitute teacher, a (terrible) waitress at a murder mystery dinner theater. I wrote grants. I was a bubble scientist, a hostess, an assistant to an actress…

First post-graduate acting job (un-paid): I did an Ionesco play at the Curtis Theater in Brea. As I mentioned, I did a lot of plays. It was not uncommon for me to be doing more than one at a time on different nights.

First paid acting job: A Diet Dr. Pepper commercial. That’s how I got my SAG card. (I was Taft-Hartlied). It was my third professional audition and I landed the part. So I was optimistic about future opportunities, but it was about five years before I got another paid job. Then I got a string of three or four commercials, often as a conservative business woman, which I found odd.

How did you get repped? Someone came and saw one of my plays at Hudson Theater and approached me. (I am awful at the marketing side of the business- this agent was not at the show to see me.)

What was your “big break” (or series of breaks that got you working)? I did a part on the show, “LAX,” and then went back to doing only plays for close to a year (getting plenty of call backs, but not getting the part). And because film and TV casting people never knew what to do with me (I didn’t look like an ingenue, but wasn’t old enough to be considered a character actress), I figured it’d be until I was fifty before I’d get paid, if at all. And I was at peace with it.

But then (right after testing for, but not getting, a part on a sitcom), a casting assistant friend of mine called and told me, “I want you to come in and read for this drama series. You won’t get the part. It’s written for a man. They’re changing it to be a woman, but the character’s named Garcia and, well, you won’t get it, but come in anyway.” Great.

So I went in and just had fun with it. And ended up going to Canada and shooting the pilot. It was a co-star, the smallest part on the show. And I totally didn’t understand the technical lingo. When I left, though the producer was reassuring, I was convinced I was awful and they’d recast the part. But, of course, they didn’t.

Do you continue to train (acting classes, coaches, workshops)?  I have private coaching, but more than anything, the theater is my training. Theater is like a class.

Has ageism been a factor in your experience as an actor?  No, but I’m a character actor so people aren’t going to make the same assumptions about me (guessing my age, etc.). I am also still in the young range.

Have you used your acting career- or are you planning to use it- as a way of branching into producing or directing? I am a writer, so I am pursuing that and I assume the producing will come out writing. I have a lot of projects that I’m working on with a writing partner.

Eureka moment: When I realized I could (that I should) show up exactly as I was instead of waiting to wake up and be this “perfect” actor going about their “perfect” day. It helped me not care when I went in the room whether I did it “perfectly” or not. Because I knew everyone acts like they want to see perfect, but no one wants to see perfect. And from then on, instead of judging my success on whether I got a job, I thought, “Does it bring me pleasure? Am I getting better?” And when I stopped caring about being perfect and just let myself be myself, people paid attention.

Most significant role: I loved doing “Fat Pig” at the Geffen. I’d always felt being as thin as possible would be the key to getting a good part, but for that role, they were telling me to gain weight. But it was also the most difficult part I’ve done. It was hard on my ego and on my body, having the extra weight and not being able to do anything to get rid of it, not knowing if I would be able to get rid of it when the run was done.

Favorite part or project: I loved shooting “Criminal Minds” and doing “Kill Me, Deadly” at Theater of NOTE at the same time. During the day, I’d be Garcia and at night, I’d be a siren, singing torch songs. In general, “Criminal Minds” is my favorite. This is like school to me. I’d never been on a job for more than a day before this.

Describe a typical work day: In general, I like to keep things pretty unglamorous. I’m a plumber, a teacher, doing my job. When I’m not shooting, I spend a lot of time sitting around on-set. I write in my journal, listen to music, run lines.

I’ll describe what turned out to be my last day on “Criminal Minds” for the season. Despite a five o’clock call, I’d stayed up late learning lines for the whole episode in spite of only being scheduled to shoot one scene the next day. I drove to work, put on my costume (with lots of Spanx first), and then someone brought me breakfast (which is really cush, I gotta say). I was in hair and makeup for an hour and a half. We rehearsed, then I went over my lines more, then we shot the scene. Then, because of some schedule changes, they decided to shoot all of my scenes for the episode, but I was ready because I’d learned them the night before.

Best thing about being a working actor: It feels like the punchline to the longest joke you’ve ever heard. Money doesn’t make things better, though it simplifies things. But it’s just so satisfying. I’m surprised I can go wherever I want, that it’s my world. I still feel a little like I snuck in.

Worst thing about being a working actor: You have a lot of eyes on you. There’s something weird about it- you use a lot of emotional and spiritual energy acting and I find being on television, people make judgments about you and have ideas about you, either approving or disapproving. It’s easy to get caught up in becoming externally motivated, accepting this attention that’s unrealistic for real life. I have to remember, that’s not me, that’s a character. They’re not excited about me, they are excited about what watching you brings up about them. I’m happy to be a conduit for people’s imaginations, but I’m not responsible for their happiness.

Brush with greatness: After a performance of “Fat Pig” one night, I was concerned about a moment in the performance and was looking for the director when this woman said, “May I talk to you?” She had led me into the dressing room and the door was closed before I realized it was Helen Mirren and she was paying me a serious complement.

Sidelines: My mom is a 6th grade teacher, so I go in and teach improv and help them write plays. I also write. And cook soup.

Secret of your success/advice to the newbie: Be brave enough to figure out exactly what you want- as close as you can- and figure out what that would feel like and try to recreate that feeling in your life. But don’t worry about your dreams changing or evolving- that happens- just go with it.

Also, never never never never think that you are “less than.” Have respect for yourself, you are an artist, you are on the cutting edge. Art is where everything begins. There is such value in being an artist and people shouldn’t forget that.

Next move: I am going to finish writing this thing that I am writing for myself and I’m making a short film with my theater friends. (Staying in touch with my theater friends is where the gold is.) I’m also going to make sure that my character on “Criminal Minds” has the most amazingly satisfying story lines for the length of the show and then just keep making magical, empowering, wonderful things. Do the movie with Wes Anderson, the one with Christopher Guest. Do my performance artist piece that will go to Broadway and London. AND be an executive producer and the lead in the feature film version of the “Wrinkle In Time” series.

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About JennyYM

Jenny Yerrick Martin is a veteran entertainment hiring executive with 20+ years in film, television, and music. She created yourindustryinsider.com to give students, recent grads and others a true picture of the layout of the industry, and how to break in, transition to a new area, or achieve more success on their current path.

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  • Sarah Auerswald

    November 18, 2009 at 10:46 am

    This is so cool! Her character is my favorite part of Criminal Minds, so it’s great to see that she’s such a cool person in real life!
    .-= Sarah Auerswald´s last blog ..House Of The Week =-.

  • Jiffy Reed

    November 24, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Kirsten, you are an inspiration! I can’t wait to see you in “A Wrinkle In Time” – it’s a favorite of mine, and you will rock it! Thanks for sharing.

  • Shashone

    December 10, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    A very inspirational article. I love her on Criminal Minds. Much success to her!!

  • Julie

    March 10, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Kirsten, I made a special note of reading your Bio this morning. I watch you all the time on Criminal Minds. That show would not be as good as it is without you and your magnificent electronic mind. It is so refreshing to see a character that is truly not a cookie cutter image and stands out amongst the rest of a cast of characters. All the best to you in continuing on with your career.

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