It’s always a particularly
daunting adventure to join the cast of a well-known and established
television series. By recently joining the hit CBS crime procedural
Criminal Minds, Rachel Nichols has now
Pretty impressive for a woman who
just about a decade ago was an Ivy League student expecting to work
in the Stock Exchange. However, fate intervened and Nichols decided
to pick up some extra money doing some modeling. This part-time job
idea led to a successful career, which in turn opened the door to
Rachel Nichols has never looked
As an actress, she has had a
diverse string of roles. In films Nichols has starred in projects
such as GI Joe, Star Trek, P2, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
2 and Dumb and Dumberer. She also joined the popular TV
series Alias towards the end of the run, essentially
replacing pregnant star Jennifer Garner for the final season.
After the experience with
Alias, she had somewhat avoided the idea of another hour-long
drama, until Criminal Minds gave her an offer she could not
Nichols was brought on board to
play Ashley Seaver, a young CIA trainee who had special insight to
the unit’s specialty of profiling serial killers – because her
father had been one.
The series, which had lost two of
its main female actresses within Nichol’s first few months on the
cast – AJ Cook left right before Nichols joined up and Paget
Brewster soon after – insisted that Nichols was not there to replace
anyone. However, Nichols’ role, which was originally planned for a
three-episode arc, has been changed to a series regular.
Beyond her work on Criminal
Minds, Nichols also has a starring role in one of the most
anticipated tent-pole films of the upcoming summer, the new remake
of Conan the Barbarian.
Recently Nichols gave us a call to
discuss her career, her new role on Criminal Minds, her
Twitter fixation and her strange fascination with serial
I was reading
that you originally went to college at Columbia University in New
York planning on being a Wall Street analyst. How did you change to
You know, I’m from Maine. I’ve always contended that Maine is one
of those places where we know that actors and models and musicians
and sports stars are actually real people, but they just seem almost
surreal. Very few people in Maine grow up thinking, “I’m going to
be an actor.” It’s sort of an untouchable idea. I grew up in Maine
and was a big dork at school and loved school and had great parents
who were really supportive. “You can go anywhere you get in. We’ll
find a way to make it work.” After visiting pretty much every
college in the continental US and checking out some in Europe,
Columbia was my first choice. I love New York. My parents have
always been big fans of New York. My father had taken me to New
York when I was thirteen for a daddy-daughter vacation. It was
always a place really sacred to me. The moment I walked onto the
Columbia campus, I thought I have to go to school here. New York is
one of those places where you can be at the right place at the right
time and a lot of doors just miraculously open. I started modeling
when I was in New York to subsidize my non-existent income. Money
from my summer job was dwindling. I was doing well. They offered
me the opportunity to go to Paris. My parents were thrilled,
because we’d never traveled abroad when I was growing up. They had
said to me, “We’ll find a way. We’ll figure out how to pay for
Columbia. But if you want to go to school longer than that, you’re
going to have to figure it out yourself.” (laughs) I
originally started modeling to save money for business school. Then
one thing led to another and I was doing some commercial stuff.
Then suddenly it segued into more of the acting stuff. By the time
I graduated I’d saved a good chunk of money and I thought, well let
me [give it a try]… My parents said, “If you want to try the actor
thing, now is the time to do it. You’re young. You don’t have any
huge responsibilities.” So I moved out here [to Los Angeles].
Your first real
acting job was a guest role on Sex & the City.
Were you looking to move into acting at the time? What was the
experience of being on such an iconic series like?
My print agents
in the commercial division I was with called me at one point and
said, “Are you interested in acting?” And I thought, sure!
Sure, why not? They said, “We have this audition for Sex and the
City that we’d like to send you on.” I thought, okay! They
sent me the sides. I cautiously tried to figure out what would be
the best way to go about an audition like this, since I’d never
really had one. I walked in. Martha Coolidge [director of the
films Valley Girl, Real Genius and Lost in Yonkers]
was lovely – she directed that episode. I didn’t know if I was
supposed to look at the person reading opposite me, or if I was
supposed to look directly into the camera – that’s how green I was.
I luckily chose to look at the person reading with me and ended up
booking the job. I will never forget showing up at 6:00 a.m. at
Silvercup Studios in New York… and I met Kim Cattrall. I thought,
oh dear, it’s six in the morning and I’m about to tell this woman
I’ve never had an acting job before. This may really ruin her day.
But she was lovely, as you would expect her to be. All of the women
on the show were really lovely. Even though I only worked with Kim,
I did meet Sarah Jessica and everybody else. It turned out to be a
really great experience that made me say: huh, this is something I
hadn’t thought of before.
Your first major
film role was in Dumb or Dumberer,
which was a
pretty big title with a decent amount of buzz when it came out. At
that time, you’d only been acting for a short time – how gratifying
was it to be getting such important roles so early in your career?
I will never
forget the experience. I had been in LA visiting my boyfriend at
the time. He lived out here and I lived in New York. I got this
audition. I had been doing a photo shoot that day for… I don’t
remember who it was… but it was out at the beach. I was sandy and
kind of dirty and I thought, oh God, I don’t know if I can do this.
I went in and did the audition with John Papsidera, now my favorite
casting director. He was casting that and he’s lovely. I ended up
just going in and doing it and the feedback was great. “We love
her.” I couldn’t believe it. I thought, what are you talking
about? This is crazy! It was really intimidating going into a room
in the beginning of my career and I would recognize a lot of the
female faces in those rooms. That’s the most intimidating thing, to
walk into a room full of people who have constantly been working.
You think: I have no shot. But, the feedback was really good. Then
it came down to three people and it came down to two people and then
they called me and told me I got the job. I made them all deaf by
screaming in their ears.
couple of roles were both comic, but you’ve since done mostly
dramatic and action parts. Would you like to do more comedy? Do
you feel you have more of an affinity for either comedy or drama?
Is one easier or harder for you?
I would like to
do comedy. They’re both difficult in their own way. I have such a
huge respect for comedians. You may be someone who is funny on your
own, but making somebody else’s jokes funny is really difficult. I
would like to do more comedy. I have tried to promise people that
I’d stop choosing roles where I die or am maimed or mangled… there
is a lot of blood involved – at least for a little while. I love
the action stuff, between Alias and GI Joe,
obviously. I love training for stuff. But I would. I would like
to do more comedy.
must have been an
interesting film to do because for great periods of time, it was
essentially just a two-person film. Was it interesting as an
actress to have everything riding on just the two of you in such
Yeah. That was a
really daunting experience, for several reasons. Yes, it’s
basically two people, so you’re working every day, all day long.
There are very few scenes where I am by myself or Wes [Bentley – of
American Beauty] is by himself. We also shot two months of
nights. We were in Toronto shooting nights. That’s 6:00 p.m. to
6:00 a.m, roughly. So, on top of shooting this crazy, gory
thriller, your body is really confused because of the time
difference. You basically flipped your entire shooting schedule or
your entire sleeping schedule. It ended up being a really great
experience, because I remember thinking at the end of it: if I can
do this, I can do anything. Wes was lovely. I made some great
friends on the film. I really enjoyed Toronto. But there were a
lot of challenges involved in playing Angela. I learned some very
important lessons on that film. One: Beware of when your costume
gets bloody in the first ten pages. You have to wear the same
bloody costume for the rest of the movie. Two: Working with dogs…
because I’m a bit scared of dogs… can be really, really scary. Most
of that fear you saw was real, when it came to me and the dogs. And
third: handcuffs. Watch out if you are going to be wearing
handcuffs, because they were real a lot of the time. I had real
permanent bruising and scraping around my wrists for quite a while
after that. But, in the end, you get over it and it ended up
lending itself very well to playing the character.
You were a part
of the recent Star Trek
movie. What was
it like to be part of such an iconic series?
Yeah. I love, as
most people do, JJ Abrams. I thought the way he went about creating
this version of Star Trek was very bright and very
interesting. He has admitted that he was unfamiliar with it.
Obviously, then he started doing a lot of research when he knew he
was going to make the movie. I would have been an extra in the
background just to be in Star Trek. Because, yes, the fans
are incredible. I’m extremely fortunate having played Gaila,
because I had red hair and green skin and the chances of me being
recognized on the street for playing Gaila are very slim.
(laughs) It was extraordinarily fun. It was obviously fun to
be part of something so iconic, but also a part of something so
modern, that was done so well. Chris Pine is lovely and Zöe Saldana
is lovely. It was another one of those really nice sets where
everyone gets along and you have a great time. The body makeup is
not the easiest. (laughs again) It takes quite a while to
get that stuff on. Weeks later you’re still scratching it out of
your head and from behind your ears. It definitely lingers.
Were you a fan of
the opportunity to be a part of the series?
Yeah, I was.
Ironically enough, I don’t actually have a TV. (laughs)
Primarily not because I’m trying to be cool or edgy, but I moved
into a new place and didn’t have room for my old TV, so I gave it
away. I was, I’ll just get a new one at some point, and I’ve been
here about a year and a half and I haven’t really gotten around to
it. I was a huge fan of Alias before I was on the show.
That was obviously much more serialized. But I’ve always been a fan
of the procedural dramas as well. The Law and Orders. The
CSIs. The Criminal Minds. I think Criminal Minds
does a really good job of being the scariest show on TV. I can
watch it at night and be scared, and I think that is quite cool.
It’s something that my mom had always liked. We would always watch
it together. So she was thrilled when I was going to be on it.
It’s been nothing but great so far.
joined Criminal Minds when it was an established series.
Plus, you were essentially replacing a very well liked actress in AJ
Cook. Did you feel you fit in right away, or did it take you a bit
to get comfortable and feel like one of the group?
Well, it’s always
a daunting task to join a show five or six seasons in, where the
cast and the crew have been melding for however long and everybody
knows everybody. On Alias, it was great. It was fantastic.
Jennifer [Garner] was pregnant the last season and I came on as the
new recruit. It was a fantastic experience all the way around. I
had been reticent since to go back into TV – the one-hour drama side
of things – because it’s a really arduous schedule. You’ve got to
be in the trenches with people that you really like. I was nervous
when they said “Will you come in?”, because originally I was only
going to do three episodes of Criminal Minds. They made it
very clear that although AJ Cook had departed, they weren’t
replacing her character. They were adding someone for three
episodes that they had wanted to add for a while. Obviously, there
needs to be a careful introduction to a new character in that kind
of situation. I was ready for maybe the cast to be scary and
intimidating. I met them a week before I started shooting my first
episode, after a fitting. Ed Bernero had come to me as one of the
executive producers and he said, “Come meet everybody. They’re on
the jet.” So I walked into the jet and I met everybody and in about
five seconds I went, okay, I really like these people. I could tell
immediately. It’s a testament to them.
In the past I’ve
interviewed two of your co-stars: Joe Mantegna and Thomas Gibson.
What are they – and the rest of the cast, for that matter – like to
interesting, because obviously if people are fans of the show they
know Hotch [Gibson’s character] as the guy who never smiles. And
they know Joe as this super-experienced, been-in-the-business,
famous, glitzy guy. They know Shemar [Moore] as the tough guy and
Matthew [Gray Gubler] is the eidetic memory, nerdy guy and Paget
[Brewster] is the gritty cool guy’s girl. There are pieces of them
in their own characters, but, you know. First of all, Thomas is a
loving husband and father of three beautiful kids. He smiles. He
loves to entertain. He’s got great taste in music and in food. He
loves life. He’s one of those guys. Joe is very similar. Joe has
got this great family. He tells the best stories, because he’s been
around a while. You get Joe talking and you can laugh all day
I noticed in the
episode that aired last week that it was about an autistic boy. I
remember him telling me about his own autistic child, so I thought
it was cool that they wrote that into the story for him.
What was it that
intrigued you about the role?
When I first
talked to Ed [Bernero] and other people in the show, they said,
“Look, we have a character we want to introduce for an arc and then
see what’s what.” That kind of thing. They said: “Here’s her
relatively interesting back story.” She’s a trainee. The reason
that she’s special and special for the team and needed for the team
[is that] I’m at the Academy, but Rossi [Mantegna] and Hotch have
been aware of me for years, because they arrested my father, who up
until I was in my teens was a serial killer. I had no idea. He had
killed, I think, 25 women or something, to the point he was
arrested. They said, “There are elements of Ashley that are very
Clarice Starling [the main character in The Silence of the Lambs]
in that she is driven and motivated and at the top of her class.
She’s a fighter. She’s a go-getter.” She wants to work in the
Behavioral Analysis Unit. In my premiere episode, they needed her
expertise because they needed a man in the gated community who had
the wife, the kids, the station wagon – everything that I had when I
was growing up. They thought, “We should bring in Ashley and see if
maybe she sees something we don’t, because of her personal
experience.” That, the tip of the iceberg of what will hopefully
evolve as Ashley and her character, intrigued me right from the
beginning. I have a weird affinity for serial killers. I’m sort of
fascinated by them. The idea to play a character with a father who
was such a monster but at the same time a father and other things as
well was really interesting.
So many of the
stories of Criminal Minds
are so dark – do
you ever take them home with you a bit?
I’ve been asked
that a couple of times lately and I can’t say yes or no
definitively, because I don’t feel as though I’ve been on the show
long enough. I haven’t really had any super-gruesome scenes to deal
with yet, compared to what everybody else in the cast has had. I
did a show years ago called The Inside [which aired on FOX in
2005]. We only shot thirteen [episodes] and I think they only aired
six. That was also a very dark show, created by Tim Minear. Peter
Coyote played my boss. There were certain elements that still
linger on me if I think back to that show. That still linger in my
mind. There is one very vivid one, of a serial killer cutting
babies out of pregnant women’s stomachs, which I will never
be able to forget. Does it haunt me when I sleep? No. Do I get
kind of creeped out when I’m home alone watching Criminal Minds
at night? Yes. But I think everybody does. So, check
back with me after next season. (laughs) Maybe I’ll be
seeking some psychiatric help.
Do you have any
sort of dream scenarios that you’d love to see Ashley deal with on
Yeah. The first
one that comes to mind is – given who her father is and given the
fact that we know he’s still alive – at some point solving a case or
needing help, she would have to confront him face to face. That I
would love to see. We’d get someone super-rad to play my dad –
although I can’t think of who it would be right now – and I think
that would just be extraordinary. It would be a really difficult
piece of work for me personally, and for Ashley, to do. It would be
really interesting to work on those scenes where I would have to
confront my father.
been promoted from a recurring character on Criminal
Minds to a series regular. How did you find out about that and how cool is
it to be a full-time member of the team?
Well, after I did
my first three episodes and I left set on my last day and everybody
was so lovely and sweet, I just thought, gosh, even if they only ask
me to come back for a couple more, I’ll do it. I really want to
come back. We’d heard rumblings here and there that they were going
to make an offer. I hadn’t told my parents anything. I said, yeah,
I’m just going to do three. We’ll see, but, don’t have your hopes
up. Because the worst thing that happens is when you tell your
parents you have a job and then something happens and the job goes
away. Then you’re disappointed, but they are super-disappointed for
you. It was actually over Christmas break. I had last done
episodes ten, eleven and twelve on Criminal Minds, then I
took two episodes off. I’d had some previous engagements where I
had to go to do some reshoots, so they knew that I was going to be
gone. When I came back from the reshoots, I went back immediately
to the east coast – because that’s where I’m from and that’s where I
was going to spend the holidays. It was while I was back in the
east coast that I got a call that said, “We’re negotiating and this
is great. They came through with an offer and we just wanted to
check in and make sure that you still have the same affinity for the
show as you did when you stopped working.” I said, yes! Yes,
absolutely! So they negotiated and I came back to work in the new
year. I went back to set and picked up on episode fifteen, where
Ashley was still at the Academy and studying, but working her way
through finishing her internship at the BAU. As episodes progress,
she does graduate. I now get to carry a gun. That’s all I’m
You’ve got the
movie on its way. There is a lot of buzz bout the
movie. Who do you play and what can we expect from the film?
I’m playing the
role of Tamara, who’s a princess disguised as a monk. She is
refined, yet strong-willed. She’s led this very protected life. As
you can imagine, she is subtle and she is calm and she’s well
educated, and then there’s Conan, who’s gruff and… well, he’s a
barbarian. And I don’t think he went to school. So those two, the
differences in our personalities play out as we follow through most
of the film. Jason Momoa plays Conan. He’s lovely. Very, very
tall. I think he’s like 6’5”. Booming voice. Kind of perfect for
Conan. Got in great shape for the movie. It starts off as a
classic tale of revenge and it becomes the much more epic battle of
good versus evil, which is always fun. It’s going to be a big, fun,
summer movie. I get to learn how to ride horses and fight with
swords. They put a lot of energy into it and people seem to be
really excited about it. I’m going to go next week on my one day
off and do six hours of ADR [dubbing dialogue], so that’s going to
be fun. (laughs hard) But at that time I’ll at least
get to see bits of the film, which will be exciting.
You have another
movie called The Loop
What is that about?
is the rather poetic story of a girl who learns to listen from her
dog and a man who learns to talk from his parrot. It sounds very
strange, but I have to tell people that, because it’s a hard movie
to put into a synopsis. It’s a love story. It’s quirky. It’s a
very different character for me. I actually do go back to comedy in
this film. I had a fantastic time with it and a fantastic co-star
in Jackson Hurst [Drop Dead Diva], who is lovely. He’s a
just great, very sweet Texas boy. Actually, he’s not a boy, he’s a
man. He’ll kill me if I call him a boy. (laughs) I play
this fly by the seat of my pants, pick up and move at the drop of a
hat, always traveling, never stopping librarian at a local community
college. I’m Fiona, and Jackson plays the character of Lyman, the
sort of strong, silent type who takes classes at the college,
although he is not a student. He works the Highway Patrol at night
and he’s lived in that town all his life. It’s the story of how we
meet and I basically annoy him until he falls madly in love with me.
You’ve done quite
a few sci-fi or horror roles over your career. As a viewer, is that
the kind of thing you tend to watch, or what types of films do you
You know what? I
pretty much watch everything. I had this joke of me on Twitter
recently – I do like to tweet a bit – if you leave me alone at night
with Amazon.com, things will arrive at my house that I will say what
was I thinking when I ordered this? A couple of weeks ago, about
thirty movies came, because my girlfriend Meg and I were trying to
improve my movie collection. Everything arrived – from The
Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Toy Story to
Basquiat to The Holiday to… I’m watching Pure Luck
right now, which was Martin Short and Danny Glover. I will watch
anything. I don’t get squeamish. I can’t handle watching needles.
(chuckles) That’s my one area that I’m not great at. And I
am petrified of snakes. Very much like Indiana Jones. (laughs)
You’ve got a lot
of things in common with him, I’m sure.
I’ll take that as
a compliment. I think so. But I watch pretty much everything.
Which of your
roles do you feel is most like you and which one was the hardest for
you to sort of get a handle on?
Whoa, that’s a
really good question. I think the hardest to get a handle on was
definitely Fiona in The Loop, which has yet to come out.
She’s very different. She’s quirky. I have my own quirkiness and I
think a part of me grew out of trying to play Fiona and learning
what it would be like to be someone completely different. She’s a
bit quirky and she’s kind of annoying at some parts… not that I’m
never annoying (chuckles), but you know what I mean. But you
fall in love with her. Margaret Whitton directed it. She’s been
around for a long time and was an actress. Very well known – lots
of theater in New York and acted on screen and TV as well. She was
really great, because we had about a week of rehearsals and we
really rehearsed and talked about it. There was a lot of
dialogue and input and “what do you think?” It was really creating
a character, which was fantastic. The character most like me? I
don’t know what it would be like to play a green alien, so Gaila is
out, as far as that is concerned. There are characters that I
played on TV, whether it’s The Inside or Alias or
Criminal Minds, even though, obviously, I’m not FBI, CIA or LAPD
– never have been – [but] there are certain parts of those hit home
for me. Whether it was motivated go-getter, or well-educated, loves
school, loves to learn, a little shy in some areas and a little
dorky in some areas, I have a little dark side in some areas, but
she’s got this blonde hair and blue eyes. I can find more of myself
in those characters.
What would people
be surprised to know about you?
I am tone deaf.
I can’t sing. So, I will never sing. I will never be in a band.
It will never happen. And if it does for some reason, punish me. I
should be tarred and feathered. And I actually have a scar in the
middle of my forehead that I [got when I] crashed my ten-speed. I
was wearing a helmet. I need it to be said: I was wearing a
helmet. But the snow had melted in Maine and it was the first rush
down the neighborhood hill in my new ten-speed. All this sand they
put on the streets melted and I went to turn into my driveway and I
went into a ditch. I smashed my forehead, right between my
eyebrows, on the handlebars of my bike – right underneath my
helmet. I had, I believe, ten stitches. The doctor at the time,
whose name was Peter De Wolfe, believe it or not, said to my dad,
“Well, I could do it in five, but I’m going to do it in ten in case
she ever wants to be a model.” My dad was like, “Hah hah, yeah
buddy, okay, whatever. Stitch her up. We’ll go home.” Then, cut
to years later, where my father took one of my modeling pictures and
sent it to Peter De Wolfe and said, “Hi. You were right.”
If you were able
to go into the future towards the end of your work, how would you
like for people to look back and see your career as an actress?
I would like for
people to look back on it and be able to say, “No matter what mood
I’m in, I can find something that she did that I’d like to watch.”
There are few people like that, I feel, that people can look back
and say, “Yeah, she ran the gamut. There was some stuff that I
hated, that I will never see again. There was some stuff that I
loved, but no matter what mood I’m in, I can find something she was
in that I would like to watch.” I think that says a lot.
Are there any
misconceptions out there you’d like to clear up?
Oh, good lord,
where to begin? (laughs) No, I’m kidding. No, you know
what? I don’t think so. (laughs again) Not to my
knowledge, at this point. Other people may be looking at me like,
“Oh, I’ve got a few for you.” But, no, I am who I am. I’m 31 and
I’ve got a no-lying policy and I stick to it. I’m pretty good about
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