'Criminal Minds: Evolution': Zach Gilford Breaks Down That Surprise Premiere Twist (Exclusive)

Series star Joe Mantegna also discusses Rossi's devastating loss.

Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched the first two episodes of Criminal Minds: Evolution.

Criminal Minds: Evolution is finally here! The Paramount+ update saw members of the BAU reuniting for an intense new case involving an unconventional killer, Elliot Voit (Zach Gilford), utilizing a social network -- ironically, secured by Garcia -- to groom his victims. With the investigation into their latest foe just getting started, Rossi, Prentiss and the rest of team have their hands full as they try to catch him before others get hurt.

But Elliot, it turns out, isn't any typical unsub. In the closing minutes of the second episode, which dropped Thanksgiving Day, it's revealed that he's not just a ruthless, cold-hearted killer with vengeance on his mind. He's actually married to a beautiful wife and father to two young children, living in an expensive, cushy house. Elliot's wife, Bridget, is played by none other than Gilford's real-life wife of 10 years, Kiele Sanchez. That surprising twist, if you want to call it that, will complicate the BAU's mission to catch Elliot once and for all.

As Gilford explains, he was privy to some of Elliot's backstory when he signed on to play the villain on Criminal Minds: Evolution, sharing that he was given a broader preview of what will soon be revealed about his character as the season unfolds.

"They gave me the arc, they told me the concept and they gave me an idea of what my origin story was. They gave me what they were thinking was going to happen with my house side life. And then I got the third script pretty soon and there we get a lot more into his personal life," the actor tells ET. "I think within those three scripts, it was very helpful. With a TV show, it takes two or three episodes to really click into who the character is. Then whatever scene they throw at you, it's like, 'Cool. I know how this guy would do this,' and luckily they're so collaborative on the show."

Gilford acknowledges his claim to fame in Hollywood has been playing the lovable, unassuming good guy. But he credits one of his more recent roles, Midnight Mass, for possibly expanding people's perceptions of what he can do in front of the camera.

"I think that's part of why they wanted me to do it. Recently with Midnight Mass, which wasn't a good guy; he had a checkered path and he was a dark character. And I know that the writers, most of them saw that and loved it," Gilford says. "And I think they felt like, 'Oh OK, I can see him playing this twisted character. But we also want someone who can trick the world, the audience, but also the world he lives in, to liking him. And so we need someone who in his real life, which is actually technically his fake life, is likable and sympathetic.'"

"The crew has said to me at times, 'Oh my god, I feel so bad for you. Then I remember you just murdered someone.' And I was like, 'Yes, that's exactly what I'm hoping happens,'" he recalls. "He's a bad guy, but it's something I always say, everybody was a little boy or a little girl once. None of us were born evil. Things happened to us that got us there. And I think it would just raise that point that he didn't start evil, but in the wrong situation can become very much so."


Gilford noted that the reveal at the end of episode 2, that Elliot is living a double life, is "perfectly placed." Though it's particularly illuminating that he refers to that as his "fake life."

"Especially since it's the first two episodes, we're here together and I think it's a 'WTF' moment that will really get people, not only because they want to see what the story and the case, but to be like, 'What is that? Wait, what?'" he explains. "And the next episode is very much going into that aspect of my life. I think that's where you're going to start to get very confused because you see the character is a really loving dad who's just trying his best as a husband. He's got a job and is living a whole fantasy. Like, what is going on? And that's where you're going to be like, 'Oh my god, my next neighbor could be a serial killer.' And you would never know.

How Sanchez came into the fray was "a happy surprise," Gilford said. 

"I was on my way to work one day and literally kissing her goodbye and she picked up her phone, was like, 'I just got an offer to play your wife on Criminal Minds.' And I was like, 'What? That's awesome.' And then I went to work. I was like, 'I heard you guys offered her [a role]. Is she going to do it? I hope so,'" he shares. "It's just been so fun. But there's days at work where you're having dark, heavy scenes with your make-believe wife, but when it's your real-life wife, it's heavy."

"We both will go home at the end of the day and we'll both be like, 'That was really gross,' have a drink and just shake it off. We're not people who bring our work home with us. It's one thing when you do these scenes with an actress and you're imagining, 'Well, this doesn't mean my life with my wife.' But then when you're actually having these interactions with your wife, but you're in this make-believe experience, it almost feels like bad therapy role-playing," Gilford admits. "We've worked together before but we've never had this relationship between characters, so it's been fun to be at work together and do stuff with each other. I think she's such a good actress and to get to have her as my scene partner [is wonderful]. But it is just like, it feels icky sometimes."

The 40-year-old actor hinted that the reveal at the end of the two-episode premiere raises a lot of questions as the season progresses.

"This double life, the problem is, it's going to get messy," Gilford hinted. "I literally, last night, just got the final script and I haven't gotten a chance to read it yet. I'm going to do it today. And I'm so excited to see how it ends. But I don't want to. I've heard a lot of possibilities of what goes down and I'm nervous to read it."


That moment wasn't the only development to be revealed in the premiere. Throughout the two episodes, BAU's mighty leader, David Rossi (Joe Mantegna), was not acting like himself and clearly went through something monumental during the years amid the pandemic. Well, in the episodes, it's revealed that his wife, Krystall, whom he married in the Criminal Minds series finale, was sick from undisclosed illness and died.

"It did surprise me because I didn't expect it," Mantegna says of Rossi's heartbreaking loss. "I didn't know where they were going to go once we knew we were going to be bringing the show back. And I got that first script, and I went like, 'Oh.' Thinking maybe it was going to go totally opposite direction, which is something we haven't done much in the 15 years, seeing the lighter, happy domestic side of David Rossi. I mean, any fan of the show knows it's been no secret that I've not been the best candidate for a love life, so I think it's just everything following true to form. Like, 'Yeah. Nah, Dave. This ain't going to work out either.'"

"But it's OK," he continues. "It's like the caveman, 'Why not?' Things happen and we can't control them, and we can only control what we can in life. And if this is the cards I'm being dealt, so be it. Then I'll play them. But we'll see. We'll see where it takes us. But I would just give fair warning to any characters out there who want to date Rossi in the future! I can't make any promises here."

New episodes of Criminal Minds: Evolution drop Thursdays on Paramount+.