As George Costanza, the balding bumbler on “Seinfeld,” Jason Alexander was all about bringing the funny. But in tonight’s episode of “Criminal Minds,” the actor is all about bringing the pain.
The latest installment of the CBS procedural features Alexander in dramatic makeover mode, portraying a deranged professor who claims to have killed several women and who puts a terrified mother in peril as part of his personal vendetta against serial killer profiler David Rossi (Joe Mantegna).
Putting on a shoulder-length white wig and a lullaby voice for an extra degree of sinisterness, Alexander is almost unrecognizable in the role.
“This guy is truly messed up, but I didn’t approach it with that kind of judgment,” Alexander said in an interview last week. “It’s more interesting to look at the thing that has made this guy this angry -- I approach as if the character’s agenda is righteous and pure. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of just playing a villain.”
Alexander is the latest in a growing parade of unlikely performers -- primarily comic actors -- who are embracing their dark sides on “Criminal Minds.” The drama, which centers on the search for demented serial killers by the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI, is one of the network’s most reliable and popular hits, frequently landing among the 10 highest-rated series.
Jamie Kennedy, best known for his “punks” on “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment” and outrageous characters in films such as “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” last season played a serial killer who ate his victims. Frankie Muniz, the young brainiac title character in “Malcolm in the Middle,” portrayed a tortured graphic artist who took bloody comic-book-style revenge on his adversaries. And Cybill Shepherd (“Cybill,” “Moonlighting”) plays the mother of a serial killer in an upcoming episode.
Edward Allen Bernero, one of the drama’s executive producers, said casting established actors against type makes the show’s premise more effective. “It’s hard to imagine Jason Alexander killing 12 people, but that goes a little bit of distance of what we’re trying to show. A serial killer could be your next-door neighbor. It’s the last person in the world you would think of.”
Some guest stars have been surprised when approached by producers to play killers, said Bernero.
“The most common reaction is, ‘Really? Me?’ But then they really get into it because it’s exciting for them to do something they don’t usually get to do. And I’m never surprised at a comic actor who can reach that dark place.”
Kennedy’s change of pace impressed network executives so much that they cast him as a regular on “Ghost Whisperer.”
Of course, “Criminal Minds” is not the first series to feature comedians as vicious murderers. Martin Short in 2005 played a serial rapist-murderer in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Robin Williams was a killer on the same series and in films such as “Insomnia.”
Kennedy really took to his role -- a killer who liked to worship Satan in his underwear. “Doing that role was really not a challenge for me,” said Kennedy. “When I’m being funny, my behavior is more heightened, so I wanted to show another side. My mom told me my dad walked out while it was on.”
Even though Alexander is best known for “Seinfeld,” he already has an extensive, varied career that includes theater, several movies (“Pretty Woman”) and television series. He’s currently the artistic director of the Reprise Theatre Company, which presents vintage musicals.
One highlight for Alexander was working with Mantegna. The two had worked together previously -- Mantegna costarred in the first feature that Alexander directed, 1995’s “For Better or Worse.”
The actors both raved about their “Criminal Minds” interrogation scene, a cat-and-mouse session covering several pages of dialogue.
“Jason is so good,” said Mantegna. “The roots of comedy can be dark, full of danger and mishaps. There’s more of a fine line between comedy and drama than people think. And Jason just plays it beautifully.”
But Alexander has had a hard time getting away from Costanza.
“I’m pigeonholed now more than when I was doing ‘Seinfeld,’ ” he said. “When I was on the show, I was offered an interesting range of roles. But since it ended, it’s hard for people to break the George image. In some markets, that show is on two, three, four times a day.”
He’s curious about how audiences will respond to his change of pace -- and face: “The hope is to shake up what they think about your limitations.”