'Criminal Minds: Evolution's Zach Gilford & Joe Mantegna on the Twisted Relationship Between Voit and Rossi

The second season of Criminal Minds: Evolution, Season 17 of the series overall, began with the elite FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) team of profilers investigating an even more lethal serial killer than last season’s Sicarius, aka Elias Voit (Zach Gilford), the deadly Gold Star.

As the story unfolded, the BAU was forced by FBI Director Ray Madison (Clark Gregg) to utilize the knowledge possessed by Voit to take down Gold Star. Voit had made himself a sweetheart deal to get out of prison after five years for providing his services in tracking down Gold Star, who is considered a threat to national security, and by convincing Madison that he isn’t actually Sicarius.

The team is very unhappy with the deal -- they know Voit is Sicarius -- and only agree because they have a plan to thwart him. But in the meantime, Voit was transferred to federal custody in the BAU’s own backyard.

In episode 6, the “Message in a Bottle,” streaming as of July 4, Alvez (Adam Rodriguez) and Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) profile who might be targeting Tyler’s (Ryan-James Hatanaka) ex- girlfriend. JJ (A.J. Cook) helps Prentiss (Paget Brewster) work through an existential hangover since Prentiss was forced into turning the team over to Rossi (Joe Mantegna), who doesn’t want the position. And when Rossi’s Voit delusions reach a breaking point, Rossi confronts Voit and unpacks what has been truly haunting him.

Before tuning in, check out this interview with Gilford and Mantegna which deals with the twisted relationship between Rossi and Voit and why each of them thinks they will hold the winning hand in the end.

There’s a unique relationship between Rossi and Voit this season. The characters are so intertwined with Rossi hallucinating about Voit. What’s that like for the two of you to play?

Zach: I think it’s fun to have two different dynamics between two different characters. As an actor you get to play one version of that character when you’re ghost Voit and another version when you’re real Voit. I think it really fleshes out and gives the audience something interesting to look at. Like how Rossi sees himself interacting with Voit in his head, and then when he’s in reality how it plays out.

Joe: I would agree that it is like having to play two different aspects of the same relationship. So, in other words, there are those moments when I know I’m having to deal with this unexplainable thing I’m going through, which Rossi’s ego is doing everything it can to almost ignore or combat or pretend it’s not there. Yet on the other hand, he also knows that that person is still flesh and bones and he has to deal with him face-to-face. It makes for interesting drama.

Related: Criminal Minds: Evolution Showrunner Answers Burning Questions from Season 2

Rossi is this expert. He’s written books, he’s talked to so many serial killers, what is it about Sicarius that has triggered these hallucinations? Is it the fact that he was buried alive or is there some other reason that he can’t get him out of his mind?

Joe: I think that has a lot to do with it. On the one hand, while he was buried alive, he was put in a situation where he was able to ultimately get out of it. As terrible and as horrible as it was, I think it even went through Rossi’s head that this guy so intelligent and so sadistic and we put him in a situation where he might most likely get out of this, but it will damage him so bad it’s almost worse than death.

Zach Gilford, Joe Mantegna<p>Photo Credit: Michael Yarish /Paramount+</p>
Zach Gilford, Joe Mantegna

Photo Credit: Michael Yarish /Paramount+

The dichotomy of what the character is, too, is here’s a guy that when I first met him, he had this family life. He’s got this wonderful life, these wonderful children. In life, I have two daughters, so it was interesting to me to play those scenes. I directed the first scene that introduced his wife and daughters. To see that here you’re combatting a character that you can’t help but think has this other side, what went wrong, why should a guy who’s got such a wonderful family life have that twisted side to him? That makes for complex things and certainly affects Rossi’s head. It makes Zach’s character a very formidable foe.

Wasn’t Rossi also in a vulnerable place? His wife had passed.

Joe: Absolutely. As you saw in that first episode of last season, I purposely let my beard grow, I let my hair grow… the guy was a mess. I was living in a hotel and eating food out of a microwave. So, I had to come back from that. So, yeah, he was definitely affected.

Zach, Voit had this backup plan that he was going to volunteer to help catch Gold Star to cut back on his prison time. Does he always think he’s the smartest person in the room? How did he know that that was even going to come up?

Zach: Well, first of all, he is always the smartest person in the room. I like to say that he’s playing chess while the BAU’s playing checkers. But, yeah, I think he’s always got a contingency plan. We’ll see how it plays out.

Gold Star came out as we find out through talking to people on his network during the pandemic. You’ll learn more about exactly who he spoke to, what he learned. But, yeah, it’s fun to play with. I think in classic Voit fashion, he makes everyone think maybe he knows more than he actually does. But he’s also really good about making it seem that way so then people accidentally give him information that they don’t realize he didn’t have. And then he can start putting all the puzzle pieces together to see the whole.

So, Joe, vis-à-vis that, Rossi has a plan to counter it. He’s says, “Yes, we’re going to work with Sicarius because we’re going to get him to incriminate himself like Ted Bundy did.” So, he thinks he’s not maybe the smartest guy in the room, but he thinks he can outsmart Voit. Talk a little bit about how he came up with that plan or why he thinks they’ll be able to make it work.

Joe: Well, I think at the end of the day, again, he’s got a pretty strong ego about himself. He helped create this unit initially with Mandy Patinkin’s character early on. We established that in the first version of Criminal Minds. So, here’s a guy who came back. He didn’t have to come back. He’s got money, he hangs out with Ringo Starr, he’s got this whole backstory. So, what drives him? I think it is an ego kind of thing.

Just like what Zach said. Zach thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. I think Rossi thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. Whether or not one guy thinks he’s playing chess, another guy thinks he’s playing checkers, I think Rossi probably feels exactly the same way and exactly the opposite. I’m thinking, “I’m playing chess and he’s playing checkers.” So, it’s just a matter of who’s going to come out ahead in all this.

Then we have to rely on the brilliance of the writers. I think we feel very strongly that we have such a strong writing staff and that’s why we’ve been around as long as we have, as long as we keep that intrigue going.

Related: Felicity Huffman Returns to TV in Her First Major Series Since College Scandal

We met some new characters. Clark Gregg came in to play the FBI director who made a deal with Voit. And then, also, Felicity Huffman’s coming in as character who might possibly know who Gold Star is.

Joe: For me, it’s been great to have both of them. I go way back with both of them. Many people know I’m from the David Mamet world in the sense I’ve worked with him very often in the past in theater and film. I know both of them from that world. I worked with them in different kinds of movies and theater. Again, it’s just another addition of bringing talented people to fill a slot and it’s nice that there’s already a familiarity, at least for me, to working with these people. They both bring a lot to the game. They both bring their A-game and they both have tremendous talent. I feel we’re lucky to have them.

Zach, why did Voigt think that he was going to be able to get Madison to agree to the deal?

Zach: Well, I can’t tell you everything that Voit knows, but he knows how big a problem this would be for Madison, how it would blow up. Madison would probably lose his job, the BAU would go under, the FBI would be in trouble. He’s playing with house money. It’s kind of like, “I can help you out, but you’re screwed if I don’t help you out and I don’t have to help you out, so you’ve got to give me something.”

I think Voit has a really good poker face and maybe bluffs a little. I mentioned earlier he’s really good at making people think he knows more than he actually does. But, at the same time, in doing so, he can learn things and kind of eventually know even more than he began with.

Joe Mantegna, Zach Gilford<p>Photo Credit: Michael Yarish /Paramount+</p>
Joe Mantegna, Zach Gilford

Photo Credit: Michael Yarish /Paramount+

For a lot of your scenes, you’re stuck in this tiny little cell. I don’t know if you’re claustrophobic, but what is that like as an actor to play in such a confined space? I might think that would add to what the character’s going through.

Zach: I’m not claustrophobic thankfully. But it actually was a fun challenge. A lot of those scenes I’m talking, talking, talking, talking. I’m in this small space and I can only interact with my scene partner so much. So, it was kind of trying to figure out, “All right, well let’s not move for the sake of moving,” but when I would move, where would I be, what position in the cell would give me a position of power over the person I’m talking to or a sense of casualness to try and lure them in?

And, also, what can I do that I’ve never done in the cell before? In the seventh episode, which Aisha Tyler directed, I did something where I just basically was like, “Can I play this scene here? Because it’s the only place I’ve never shot in this cell before.” It made sense and she was like, “Yeah, that works great.” So, it was just trying to not rest on any laurels and try and find new things to do not for the sake of newness, but because it would flesh out another aspect of the character and the scene.

Related: Kirsten Vangsness and Adam Rodriguez on What's Really Happening With Garcia and Alvez on Criminal Minds: Evolution

Joe, we talked about what Rossi’s going through this season. Prentiss is going through a lot, as well. How do the two of them balance each other, because the goal of the season is tied to a time clock, the BAU has to beat Voit to find Gold Star so they can keep him in prison?

Joe: Well, I think, again, that’s one of the strengths of our show in that the personal aspects of the show are very strong. Fans have been watching the show for 17-plus years. They’re not just watching it because, “Hey, we’re going to watch them catch these criminals.” They also enjoy the stories behind the characters and the personalities behind the characters. And so, there’s been even a history, especially with Prentiss’ character and my character, that pretty much more certainly in my case pushing towards the senior side in terms of experience and age, they communicate on a little bit of a different level.

There’s already been past instances where I’ve relied on her to comfort me over things. I think we went through it last season with the death of my wife. I enjoy those moments when we see the vulnerability that these people have. It’s that classic case of people who are at the top of their game, who are in very important positions, very high up positions, but yet there are moments where they have to become very real and very human and have those same human frailties and setbacks and emotions that everybody has.

Zach, when you were first brought on as Sicarius, it was a one season thing and he was going to be in prison and the next season was going to be something else. At what point did showrunner Erica Messer come to you and say, “Hey, we have this idea to bring you back for Season 2, and do you love this character enough to come back?”

Zach: It was towards the end of last season. She had said, “We’re not exactly sure how the season ends, we just know we’re not going to kill you because we’d like to bring you back.” Then soon after wrapping the season, they made me an actual offer. Given the way last season went and the experience I had just on a personal level working with all these people, I jumped at the opportunity. I love what they gave me this season. I think none of it's been forced or contrived. I love playing this other side of Voit. I was just happy to be back, and I think it’s a good next chapter to Voit and it’s not forced.

New episodes of Criminal Minds: Evolution stream each Thursday on Paramount+.

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