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Aisha Tyler

From ‘The Talk’ to the ‘Girl On Guy’ podcast to co-starring on ‘Archer’ and ‘Criminal Minds’ — she does her own thing

Aisha Tyler is quite comfortable coloring outside the lines. Want to sidle up to her and see if she’s interested in doing a project that doesn’t seem quite in her wheelhouse? Try her. She just may be game.

“I go after things that are challenging because I want to be challenged,” she said. “I’m not interested in the things that I know I can do well.”

Tyler’s been this way for a while. It goes back to her college days when she was scoped out by a Dartmouth crew coach who knew her height and long arms would mean she’d have a greater stroke length. Tyler, newly of CBS’ Criminal Minds, is an even 6 feet tall and her body is a mechanical advantage when trying to row a boat as fast as humanly possible. Tyler ran cross-country in high school and swam in the offseason, but by her own description, Tyler wasn’t a top athlete. “I was an offbeat athlete,” she said.

And when you think about Tyler’s movements through the waters of Hollywood, it all seems to align. “Rowing was just so different from what my experience had been growing up — and that was what was so alluring about it. That would be every idea in my life: What seems like it’s going to be the hardest thing for me to master? The most challenging thing for me to accomplish? The most personally taxing? That’s typically the thing that I go after.” And right now, she’s going after Hollywood even harder than usual.

“If I want to see more great roles for women, then I’m going to have to make them.”

This fall, she has all the jobs. She still hosts one of the coolest podcasts on the market. She co-hosts Emmy-winning show The Talk. She voices badass Lana Kane on FX’s Archer (it’s back for an eighth season in January), she’s an author and she’s been upped to a series regular on CBS’ Criminal Minds. Tyler got her first professional acting credit in 1996, playing a TV reporter for one episode in CBS’ Nash Bridges. She had a nine-episode arc as Charlie, a black love interest for Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) and for Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) on NBC’s Friends in 2003 — a moment still relevant, 13 years later. On Criminal Minds set for its 12th season, Tyler is Dr. Tara Lewis, FBI forensic psychologist.

“I don’t want to look back and feel like I didn’t pursue everything that was compelling to me, or everything that I could have potentially done something impactful with,” she said. “I think my biggest nightmare is looking around and realizing I’ve gotten really comfortable.”

Tyler also wasn’t interested in sitting around waiting for her next big challenge. She made it happen. If her television commitments weren’t keeping her plenty busy — and they are — in her spare time she directed her first film, Axis, a thriller she crowdfunded and is currently editing.

“It would have taken me a really long time to get this movie set up,” she said, “because I’m a woman of color, haven’t directed a feature before, and it’s a thriller in a very nontraditional setting.” Axis is a single-location film, and has a male lead. “I’m sure people would have been saying, ‘How can a woman direct a man in the lead? This is a very masculine drama. Blah, blah, blah.’ I just didn’t want to answer those stupid, stinking questions.”

Instead of being discontented, she took action. “As a woman and as a woman of color, it’s important to me — and I’m not a flag-bearer by any means. No one has elected me leader of anything … but I do think … I can sit around complaining about why isn’t stuff changing, or I can take it upon myself to try to change even a little corner of it.” she said. “If I want to see more great roles for women, then I’m going to have to make them. I’m going to have to create them and not sitting around frustrated that it’s not happening.”

She calls herself weird, and stubborn and even a “blockhead.” And she laughs about it. “I’ve been tall since I was really young and my parents were these kind of meditating, vegetarian hippies. I’ve always been a little bit of an outlier. Nerdy kids make iconoclastic adults.” She was raised by a single dad. “And my dad just never, ever let me feel sorry for myself. I was like, ‘The world is unfair.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. S—’s f—– up. OK. So what are you going to do about it?’

Tyler pauses. She understands that her dad was trying to prepare her for the world, for what life might be like. He was challenging her to step up. “I realized — I’m never going to be a love interest in a Spider-Man movie, but there’s a lot of things that I can do and a lot of things that I want to do — and I’m not going to let anybody tell me that I can’t.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.