Vangsness took acting while living in Porterville, Northern California. Previously, because she was so shy, she had stopped speaking altogether when she was in eighth grade and her mother insisted that she took drama to help get her to talk to people. Originally of Norwegian ancestry, she graduated first from Cerritos High School in Cerritos, California in June 1990, and later on from California State University with a BA in Theatre. Her day jobs included substitute teacher, child counselor, restaurant hostess, personal assistant, grant writer, and murder mystery dinner theater actress. Her first paid acting job was a Diet Dr. Pepper commercial.
Vangsness' theater work has won her several awards, including the 15 Minutes of Fem Best Actress Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for Best Emerging Comic Actress and the Golden Betty Award. She is also an acclaimed writer, and her short plays has been published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine and been performed in theatres throughout Los Angeles. She is a member of Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood, California.
Her theatre credits include numerous West Coast premieres of original plays including A Mulholland Christmas Carol (L.A. Weekly Award), Book of Liz, Fan Maroo, Perfuct and Steaming City. In the summer of 2007 she starred as Helen in the West Coast premiere of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig at the Geffen Playhouse. Vangsness too produced the play The Learned Ladies by Moliere. She also appears often in the Forties-style Thrilling Adventure and Supernatural Suspense Hourat the M Bar in Hollywood. After being involved by Paget Brewster, who was a regular, she started doing guest appearances and now has her own segment as Desdemona Hughes, former silent film star turned private detective.
Her TV credits include Phil of the Future. She has appeared in the feature film A-List, the independent film Shooting Blanks and the recently released In My Sleep.
Since 2005 she portrayed Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia; hers was a small guest role for the pilot episode, but things changed when she was called back for the second episode and attended a read-through with the cast, including Shemar Moore, who sat next to her. After the reading they had to attend a sexual harassment meeting and they sat next to each other again and sexually harassed each other the whole time through that meeting. The writers saw them and then all of a sudden the part that was tiny got bigger and bigger until by the middle of Season One Garcia was in every script playing a substantial part in the plot and from 2006 onward she got upgraded to series regular. Along the way, the playful flirting between Garcia and Morgan became a staple of the series, and Vangsness made Garcia her own, integrating her quirky personality and style of dress into the character.
- Criminal Minds - 299 episodes (2005-2017) TV episodes - Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia
- Stuck (2017) - Sunny
- Axis (2017) - Heather (voice)
- Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders - 2 episodes (2016-2017) TV episodes - Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia
- Dave Made a Maze (2017) - Jane
- Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse (2016) - Fawn
- Baby X (2016) - Xpert (voice)
- Kill Me, Deadly (2015) - Mona Livingston
- Agent Carter (2015) - Ruby (uncredited)
- Shelf Life - 6 episodes (2013) - Freaky Squeaky
- Remember to Breathe (2013) - Vocals for Young Alice (voice)
- Good Job, Thanks! - 2 episodes (2011-2013) - Therapist
- Acquainted (2012) - Ms. Hope
- Pretty the Series - 14 episodes (2010-2012) - Meredith Champagne
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - Alternate Reality: The New Criminal Minds (2011) - Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - House of Corpses (2011) - Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - Inside the Red Cell (2011) - Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - Loved Ones (2011) - Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - The Profiler (2011) - Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia
- Second City This Week (2011) - Celebrity Guest
- Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior - 13 episodes (2011) TV episodes - Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia
- The Chicago 8 (2011) - Sketch Artist
- Sarina's Song (2011) - Party Guest
- Vampire Mob (2010) - Laura Anderson (2010)
- In My Sleep (2010) - Madge
- Scream of the Bikini (2009) - Interior Decorator
- Tranny McGuyver (2008) - TV news reporter
- A-List (2006) - Blue
- LAX - 3 episodes (2004) - Stephanie
- Phil of the Future (2004) - Veronica
- Annie Unleashed (2004) - Teresa O'Malley
- Don't Make Me Laugh (2003) - Kate
- Sometimes Santa's Gotta Get Whacked (1998) - Tooth Fairy
- Criminal Minds - "And in the End..." (2020) TV episode (co-written with Erica Messer)
- Criminal Minds - "Full-Tilt Boogie" (2018) TV episode (co-written with Erica Messer)
- Criminal Minds - "Spencer" (2017) TV episode (co-written with Erica Messer)
- Criminal Minds - "A Beautiful Disaster" (2016) TV episode (co-written with Erica Messer)
- Criminal Minds - "Nelson's Sparrow" (2015) TV episode (co-written with Erica Messer)
- For an up-to-date Filmography: imdb.com/ Kirsten Vangsness
- Her fiancée is an assistant producer of the TV series 24.
- In a 2009 interview she revealed that I do get reports back – we have a guy from (FBI training facility) Quantico, our expert, and he often will tell me that there's a dark basement with people who are exactly me, and they love me. I think of them a lot when I do my part, and I have to do them proud.
- In the same interview, another question was Do you ever actually look at the photos of dismembered bodies and similar images? Her answer was Sometimes, yes. Actually, most of the time, yes, because a lot of times, they want to pan to the image within the shot, and I try to tell them, 'I went to school for this – I can act grossed out,' but they want to show me. Sometimes the pictures they show me are worse than what the audience can see.
- Vangsness is the only actor to appear in all three shows in the Criminal Minds series.