In his four-decade career, Gary Sinise has racked up an impressive list of credits in film, TV and theater. The co-founder of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company has starred in over a dozen productions there while also appearing in movies like Forrest Gump and The Green Mile, plus TV projects like The Stand, Truman and CSI: NY.

Starting tomorrow night, Sinise returns to CBS in Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders (10/9c), an international spinoff of the psycho serial killer-chasing series. Sinise plays Jack Garrett, the leader of the FBI’s International Response Unit, which aids American crime victims overseas.

The actor, who turns 61 on Thursday, told us about the role, the show and what he’s doing to help military veterans

“There are a lot of needs in the military community after 13 years of war. I don’t think the government can do it all. It’s up to us as private citizens to take responsibility for supporting our defenders.”

What attracted you to this role?
He’s the guy in charge, the one that everybody looks to when things are going wrong and I like that. I get to represent a lot of great leaders that I know—military leaders, first responders that I know and have in my family as well, and kind of fold them into this character. He’s a very professional guy. He does his job well. I think you want that kind of guy running the team.

What drives him?
He’s motivated by doing justice. Having seen so many bad things and dealt with so many psychological issues with the villains that he’s chasing all the time, he’s motivated very seriously to try to prevent bad things from happening to good people. He’s a family man so he always puts himself in the position of the families that are in jeopardy—what would that be like as a father to deal with the kidnapping of a daughter or son or wife or the murder of somebody overseas? He wants to do everything he can to get the bad guys and prevent them from doing any more harm.

Is there a similarity to Mac Taylor from CSI: NY?
Yes. That was a great character to play, a detective, a very professional guy. But he lost his wife on September 11th. He was grieving for nine seasons and then found love again at the end of the series. On law enforcement television shows you always see these characters that are constantly broken. They’re dealing with a lot, because they deal with such a dark world. There are always multiple divorces and they’re going through a lot of pain in their own personal lives.

[But] there are law enforcement individuals in this country that have found a way to have a successful family, to raise kids, to keep their marriages together, all of that. We decided to do that with this character, to show somebody who was able to balance home and work, even though he’s dealing with a pretty dark world. As time goes on, we’re going to explore that aspect of this character and all the personal lives of the other characters.

Did you hesitate to step back into another potentially long-running series?
When I went into CSI: NY I wasn’t sure I’d like playing the same character for a long period of time, but I got very used to it and it’s certainly a good job to have. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go right back into another series but this just happened to come along and these are high-quality producers, very talented people. Once I sat down with them I knew they were the kind of people I’d like to work with over a long period of time. I thought there was potential for interesting stories week to week because it’s a different environment. It’s certainly a creative challenge for our set designers and writers.

What are your challenges?
I had to get used to profiling language. There’s a whole procedural quality to what they have to do with behavioral analysis, and every episode has to incorporate that.

Your Gary Sinise Foundation works with veterans. Why did you establish it and why is it so important to you?
I have a lot of military in my family so my dedication to working with veterans starts there. It manifested itself in the early ’80s in supporting local Vietnam veterans’ associations when I played a Vietnam veteran in Forrest Gump. That led me to working with the wounded over a long period of time. After 9/11 I started visiting our troops in the war zones with the USO and supporting a lot of different military charities. I decided to bring my efforts and resources together into my own military charity and now we’re funding lots of different programs that help a lot of people.

There are a lot of needs in the military community after 13 years of war and multiple deployments over a long period of time, unlike any war we’ve ever faced. We have very serious mental health challenges. Thousands of wounded. It’s a very serious crisis and unfortunately it looks like the 21st century will continue to be very dangerous. So we want to be there to help them. I don’t think the government can do it all. It’s up to us as private citizens to take responsibility for supporting our defenders.

Photo by Kharen Hill/CBS