'Criminal Minds' Star Matthew Gray Gubler on Directing
How behind-the-camera skills prepared Matthew Gray Gubler for prime time.
For six seasons, Matthew Gray Gubler has played socially awkward genius Dr. Spencer Reid on the CBS procedural drama Criminal Minds. In the fifth season, Gubler—or "MGG" or "The Gube," as he is known to his fans—took on another role at the show: director. He helmed the "Mosley Lane" episode and follows it up this season with the segment called "Lauren," airing March 16.
Gubler is no stranger to directing. He attended NYU's Tisch School of the Arts intent on being a filmmaker. Lack of actors for his friends' school projects put him frequently in front of the camera. "Tisch has a great film program and a great acting program, but they are segregated; you don't really intertwine," says Gubler. "My peers knew I liked acting, so they'd be like, 'Go get that guy Gubler. He'll be in your student film.' I was in the same building. I became their go-to guy. So I left NYU having been in probably one thousand short films. That was the most acting training I had."
While at film school, Gubler was required to take part in an internship. He landed one with his favorite filmmaker, Wes Anderson. While Anderson was directing The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the director cast Gubler in the part of "Intern." "And that's how I luckily and miraculously became a working actor," says Gubler.
He also directed a "behind the scenes" short documentary called Life Aquatic: Intern Journal, which Anderson included on the DVD. That short, as well as others and music videos he directed, garnered Gubler attention, so he moved to Los Angeles and got a directing agent. When the agent found out his new client had also acted in Anderson's film, he was impressed and tried to persuade Gubler to go on some auditions.
"I was like, 'No, Wes is known for using outside nonactors and the real people in his life,'" says Gubler. "I had never considered [pursuing acting], but my agent said, 'There's this interesting character you should read for. I think it would be something you might have fun with. Go in and try out. If nothing else, it will be a good experience on learning what it's like to cast actors.' Because, you know, I had never made anything with a budget, really. So I went in. Literally, my first audition after 'The Life Aquatic' was for the Criminal Minds pilot."
Gubler decided to audition for Criminal Minds, playing the character Dr. Spencer Reid as sincerely and honestly as possible. They told him he was great, but totally wrong for the part. "I think I was too gregarious," says Gubler. "Originally, they wanted the character to be more stoic, like Data from Star Trek. Maybe they were worried I would bring too much weirdness." Even so, the next day he got a callback. He went in, did the same thing and again they said, "You're so wonderful, but so wrong." After the fourth or fifth audition, they decided to cast him.
Though Gubler was thrilled to get the part, he was also terrified. "One day I woke up and I was on CBS in front of millions of people and I'm like 'Oh man, I don't know anything,' " he says. "The only thing I'd ever technically studied was filmmaking. [I did learn] a lot of technique like camera understanding and lens appreciation. Plus, I knew what I liked when I was directing actors and I knew what I liked to watch, but, as my friend and co-worker Joe Mantegna said, I was 'in the middle of the public eye and learning everything on a giant basis."
Gubler doesn't want to undersell how grateful he is for the opportunity to act. "I've had this unbelievable amount of good fortune and I'm just so thankful for it," he says. "But at the same time I feel exceptionally guilty. I have so many friends who are talented graduates of Juilliard and are exceptional actors and I'm the lucky one that somehow got such a fortunate break."
After getting the part of Dr. Reid, Gubler started going out on more auditions and getting cast in films like "(500) Days of Summer," in which he played Joseph Gordon-Levitt's best friend, Paul. Because of his filmmaker background, Gubler says he understands the casting process and has learned to love auditioning. "I know when an actor goes in to audition, if they don't get the part it's not because they're a bad actor at all; it's because it's not quite the right fit. I've been in a lot of casting rooms as a director where I see these 17 superb actors, but I need the one that looks a certain way or brings a tiny tinge of an element—equally as good as the others but just different."