Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
While it was shocking to see Shantel VanSanten’s character come to such an abrupt end on the USA Network’s “Shooter,” it wasn’t a surprise to see her career skyrocket once that series wrapped in 2018.
Already a veteran of 20-something drama “One Tree Hill” and DC Comics staple “The Flash” – not to mention a key player in the series premiere of modern cult classic “Timeless,” and the star of a Hallmark romance – VanSanten has a knack for playing different roles in different eras under widely different circumstances.
Of late, she has split time as Karen Baldwin on the Apple TV+ series “For All Mankind” – which envisions a world where America was not first to land on the moon; and as Becca Butcher, the love interest/pawn of rivals Billy Butcher and Homelander on Amazon Prime’s depraved superhero romp “The Boys.”
VanSanten added a third top TV role when joining “FBI” for this season’s final five episodes. Her special agent Nina Chase hops on board following a near-death experience for fellow bureau of investigation stalwart Maggie Bell (actress Missy Peregrym is on maternity leave).
Nina has a rocky history with Scola (John Boyd) that initially makes her leery of joining this unit. But after successfully cracking a long-frustrating case – taking down a notorious crime lord in the process – she reconsiders and finds her place on the team.
In just a few weeks, we’ve seen VanSanten forge a character who is empathetic yet tough, determined yet calculated, and more than capable of holding her own in the field.
What’s remarkable, as far as this writer is concerned, is how VanSanten has continued to find success by bucking the opportunities for sameness that are always there for the taking.
With everything that’s happened in the world this decade, viewers (and networks and streamers) have come to lean more heavily on familiarity. The actress could’ve played a dozen roles similar to her earlier parts, and found an easier and lucrative path in the process. Instead, VanSanten has continued to challenge herself, bet on her talent, and find more interesting roles – oh, and she’s built a much more diverse fanbase in the process.
VanSanten recently chatted with BTS about her time on “FBI,” one of Dick Wolf’s network powerhouses alongside the “Chicago” and “Law & Order” franchises.
Joking the series brought her in “to give everybody a bit of rest here and there,” VanSanten said it’s been “so fortunate to be very heavy Nina, and get a little bit of every single (story)” over the course of her run.
She added, “I've never felt more welcome instantly.
“I don't think that this is the last that we'll see of Nina, so I'm excited to be a part of the family.”
More of our Q&A follows.
Shantel VanSanten as Nina Chase on “FBI.” (Photo by David M. Russell/CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc.)
BTS: When somebody approaches you to be on a Dick Wolf show – I mean, the man literally has three entire nights of programming devoted to his brainchild. Is it an automatic “Yes”? Do you even have to think about it?
Shantel VanSanten: You know, it's interesting; I think when you hear the name Dick Wolf, and the empire and global domination that he has, you know that you're going to be entering into a family. And so, that aspect wasn't even a question. I knew that I was interested in it. My main thing was I did want to know about the character (laughs). I think that, as an artist, we constantly search for being able to kind of dive into not just a world for the sake of wanting to be in it, but to actually find a role that you know you can lend your stories and your voice to.
And for me, we just finished filming season three of “For All Mankind,” and I play in my 60s on the show (laughs), because we've jumped through time. So, it was heavy prosthetics; all these different things. And to be able to use my very capable 30s body in the ways that I get to do action, and play a really badass FBI agent, was really intriguing, because it felt like just something that was polar opposite of what I just played. And when I heard a little bit about who Nina was going to be, and how the audience would meet her, I was done. I read the script; I knew that it was Dick Wolf; and I was sold and ready to be there.
BTS: A lot of times people say, “Well, you're a writer, and so that must mean you read everything.” Being an actor, of course, means you watch everything.
Shantel VanSanten: Yeah, no! How do we have time to do that?
BTS: Well, that's the thing. Nobody I talk to ever has time to do that. So, I'm guessing you probably weren't a regular viewer of the show. But were you familiar at all with the story? I mean, obviously, it's about the FBI; but how familiar were you with the plotlines coming into it?
Shantel VanSanten: You know, a lot of my family watches the show very regularly. So, this has been like the highlight of my career for them, that they get to sit back down weekly – on a show that they've been following and watching – and get to see me.
So now they're like, "When are you going over to ‘Chicago P.D.?" I’m like, “Guys, I'm not jumping around on every show.”
So, I've been very familiar. I mean, the greatest thing about these types of shows is you don't have to watch from season one, episode one. You can jump in on any singular episode and kind of get a taste for what every single character is.
Now, obviously, there are certain episodes that are geared more towards characters’ backgrounds, or their backstory, and kind of highlight their connection a little bit more deeply to a case. But it doesn't take away from the fact that there isn't some big throughline that you're going to totally miss if you skipped a few episodes. And it wraps it all up in a pretty "FBI" bow at the end (laughs). Which I say, but I'm also very well aware that usually the content is not something you would want to wrap up in a bow. But we at least don't have a whole lot of cliffhangers that happen on a regular basis.
I've watched quite a few, and I jumped in the minute that I knew I got it. I mean, I was on a plane a day later, actually, and on set three days after. I found out I got it on Presidents’ Day, which was a Monday. I was on a plane on Tuesday night, and I think I was on set Thursday or Friday. So, I had a lot of cramming of the last few episodes, at least, to kind of see where the characters’ relationships were that I was walking into.
“Face Off” – When a morning show host is murdered inside her home, the team tracks the killer, who they realize is targeting powerful women. Also, things become awkward for Scola when special agent Nina Chase becomes part of the team during Maggie’s recovery, on the CBS Original series “FBI.” Pictured: Shantel VanSanten as Nina Chase. (Photo by David M. Russell/CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc.)
BTS: I think that there is something that is very positive that you bring to your roles, that I want to ask you about in a minute. And so, in that regard, I think your work stands out.
But a way that you wouldn't want it to stand out, of course, would be for you to be amongst all of these actors who have been playing these FBI agents for so many episodes, and to have people be like, “She's not in the FBI.”
So, what is the challenge for you, coming in fresh, to look like you fit in amongst all of these other FBI agents – and to be able to tell the same stories and be inserted in the same world that they've been in for so many more episodes than you've been?
Shantel VanSanten: I will say that – Zeeko (Zaki) and I were talking about this on the last day of filming – and I said I think I bellyflopped into my first episode, and now I found a way to dive a little bit more gracefully after filming these five. But it was really overwhelming at first, because it's such a well-oiled machine. We shoot so quickly. We have an incredible executive producer, Alex Chapple, who was directing, luckily, my first episode. So, I was shepherded into the family. And it was written by Rick (Eid), who's also the showrunner, so it was kind of this perfect storm. But also, the pressure was on.
I'm very fortunate that, in my career, because of “Shooter,” I've been trained around guns, and I've been trained with a lot of different tactical people. I've taken many courses. Gone to Utah. There's a guy named Buck Doyle, who has been key in my life, as far as like gun training, from handguns to assault rifles to long-range guns. So, for me, that part I knew I had down. The part I was terrified of was more, “If I show up to a crime scene, what am I doing here? Like, what is the protocol?”
And on “FBI,” we have an amazing tech adviser named Dan. And Dan spent an entire day with me before I started filming, just showing me – because, to be honest, from like different bureaus in different states, they have different ways of doing things. So, while I've been trained with certain people, a lot of them were special forces. They weren't FBI. Dan really took me under his wing and answered all my questions, so that I felt, I guess physically, and like the technical part of it, I felt prepared to, “When do I pull my gun out? When do I put it away?” Like, what are the things that, if there was a real FBI agent watching this, they would flag. And that's important. And some of it I learned on the go.
I'll tell you a really funny story that I'm probably gonna hate that I ever told. Our first big scene – like big action scene – was in the introduction of Nina's character. And it was when “El Perro” shows up, and I kind of go behind everybody's back to meet him anyway, and we have a big shootout. So, we rehearsed the scene. And every time, while we were rehearsing where we were all going to go and stand, we would call out “Bang, bang.” So, like, "OK, I'm gonna stand here. I'm gonna shoot two shots. Bang, bang. OK, then I'm gonna take him. I'm gonna run behind the container, stand up, three: bang, bang, bang.” We were calling out, that way people knew how many shots. Obviously, we don't actually shoot, but how many times we would pull the trigger.
OK. We go to shoot the first one. And I stand up, and I literally hold the gun out, and I say on camera, “Bang, bang.” And I called “cut” on my own and was like, “I think we should probably redo this. I feel incredibly embarrassed.” And here I am calling out “bang, bang,” like, you know, we're kids in the backyard with Nerf guns.
So, I had my little flub, and then, after that, we all had a good laugh; and I haven't messed up, you know, too terribly when it comes to all the actions since then (laughs).
BTS: The last time that you and I spoke, we were talking about “Shooter,” but we also talked a little bit about “Love Blossoms.” We talked about “Timeless.” We talked about a lot of different things that you had been a part of. And the thing that I was alluding to a minute ago is, when I see you in these different roles – and they are all different roles – I find that you're very interesting. I know that, if you're in a project, it's going to be something that I can invest my time and energy into, because it's going to be interesting. It's going to be something that I'm going to enjoy.
This is probably an impossible question for you to answer, but what is it about you, and your approach to acting, that would make you be “interesting” and make you be sort of magnetic to audiences the way you have been in all of these different roles?
Shantel VanSanten: Oh, goodness. I mean, that would require me to believe that (laughs).
You know, I still think that I live with this very bizarre feeling of kind of an impostor syndrome, where I don't understand. … Every time I finish a job, I tell my manager, “Well, that was probably the last job I'm ever gonna get. Nobody's gonna hire me. My career is over. I've gotten lucky. You know, pack our bags and move to the mountains.”
I think I've just stayed curious. And I stay curious, as far as wanting to tell different stories. I've stayed curious in the discovery of myself. I don't ever want to stop learning and experiencing when I have my own downtime, because it only allows me to bring more into a character – into a situation – whether it be good or bad.
When you say “magnetic,” it's a positive word, but I think sometimes, we also have to remember that the characters aren't perfect; and what I want to tell is real human stories, and they aren't always positive and beautiful and agreed upon. And I've had those roles and those moments. But I think it's important – and that's the thing I've learned for myself and in life – is empathy, and trying to understand where somebody comes from, rather than judging it.
So, when I'm playing these roles, I'm not thinking, “Oh, I hope that the audience likes me,” or “I hope that they really think Nina is awesome.” I think, “You know what? Not everybody's going to like her.” No matter what; no matter what character I play. But if I'm real, and I'm bringing a different voice, and I'm bringing new experiences and new ideas, and I'm staying curious and honest, then that's been – I guess, if you will – my formula for the stories I want to tell, the characters I want to play, and the material that I seek out.
Oftentimes we’re asked, “So, like, if you could dream up a role, what would it be?” Or like, “What do you want to do next? A period piece?” And I'm like, “I want to do something that scares the crap out of me. That I don't know how to do. That I have to learn. That I'm really going to be challenged to learn something about myself, or a different type of person.”
I don't want to play anything that's so close to my life. That's boring. I live in this body and in this head every day; so why not be able to use my experiences to try to understand and bring out, I guess, a different side of a character that's not on a page?
“FBI” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS, and is streaming on Paramount+.
“Ghost from the Past” – The murder of a TSA agent leads the team to hunt down a killer who is using drug mules to exploit airport security checkpoints. Also, “OA” struggles to cope with the aftermath of the sarin gas exposure, and the 10th anniversary of his army friend’s death in Afghanistan, on the CBS Original series “FBI.” Pictured: Shantel VanSanten as special agent Nina Chase, Zeeko Zaki as special agent Omar Adom “OA” Zidan, and Jeremy Sisto as assistant special agent in charge Jubal Valentine. (Photo by David M. Russell/CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc.)