Matthew Gray Gubler knows every new season of “Criminal Minds” means more than an acting job for him.
The CBS show’s Dr. Spencer Reid also has gotten to direct at least one episode — and usually two — for the past several years. His latest turn for dual duty comes Wednesday (Nov. 6) with “Gatekeeper,” as the Behavioral Analysis Unit searches for a new Boston strangler who takes a memento from each victim.
“This is my sixth time,” the friendly Gubler tells Zap2it of directing the series. “It’s what brought me to Los Angeles originally, and what I went to school for, so it’s great to have the opportunity to do it on the show that I’m on.
“I think my first ones were well-received, so I’ve been very fortunate they’ve asked me to do two for the past couple of years. To keep on getting asked to do it is a real honor.”
Fellow “Criminal Minds” cast and crew members have gotten used to Gubler calling the shots. “We work like a well-oiled machine,” he maintains. “I’ve directed other things on a smaller scale outside of the show, but having a group of 100 people you’ve worked with every day for nine years makes it so much more fun. Also, we read each other’s minds, so it’s a very fun experience.”
But it doesn’t necessarily mean Gubler’s workload as an actor is any lighter in the episodes he directs. “The first one I did, I was kind of light. The only slightly hard thing about directing the show is that we work at such a fast pace, I don’t have time to watch playback.
“I’ve been written in so heavily in the recent ones I’ve directed, it’s taught me how to be able to act and direct at the same time, which I never really had an aspiration to do. It was either one or the other, but I really love doing them simultaneously now, thanks to the sort of rigorous training I’ve been through.”
In fact, Gubler explains, “The acting part of my brain and the directing part are two different compartments. At first, it seemed like an almost impossible task. I have a tremendous amount of confidence as a director, more so than as an actor in a way. I know how to do something exactly right in that world, whereas as an actor, I have to feel something emotionally.
“I have to trick my own brain into being in that moment,” adds Gubler. “I was worried that as a director who’s making the moment, how do you also become part of that moment as an actor? For whatever reason, they combine nicely at this point, and I actually prefer acting in the ones I direct. I think it makes me a little bit better at both.”
Despite the Boston setting of “Gatekeeper,” Gubler insists he wasn’t thinking of any of the city’s recent milestones … the tragic, as with the Boston Marathon bombings, nor the triumphant such as the path to the 2013 World Series win by the Red Sox.
“I’m completely out of touch with everything current,” he notes. “I kind of live in an alternate reality, and I try really hard to make all the episodes I direct feel timeless. That’s the one really picky thing I do as a director; I want every costume, every car and everything to feel like it could exist in the 1960s or the 2010s. I like ambiguously dated things.” (That also helps with the series’ frequent repeats on A&E and ION Television.)
Set to direct another episode before the current “Criminal Minds” season ends, Gubler believes he’s particularly adept at guiding “the strange ones” … not that any aren’t strange in their own way, a staple of the show. “They’re the ones where you can have a little more liberty in creating a fun world. I think the writers got an opportunity to pitch ideas that might have seemed preposterous, but that the network had faith I could pull off.
“One was the human-puppet episode (last season’s ‘The Lesson’). Maybe I’m too proud of myself, but I like to think I’ve helped make our show a little more strange and unique.”