COP BY DAY AND PUNK BY NIGHT…ARRESTING MARG HELGENBERGER’S GOT THE BEAT!
Afternoon TV-By Carol Tormey 1983
It’s almost 1:00 a.m. at Danceteria, one of New York City’s hottest New Wave nightclubs. If you look around at all the undulating bodies on the dance floor, you might just spot an attractive redhead—hair all slicked down with gel, wearing a flamingo red polyurethane mini-shift, fishnet stockings and white go-go boots. Our punk girl is having a great time dancing to the beat of the dissonant, raw rhythms of wailing guitars and machine gun percussion of bands like Pylon, Gang of Four, Tears for Fears and one of her favorites—Fachfarben. In a little while, she and her friends will probably check out the scene at another popular hangout, the Peppermint Lounge on lower Fifth Avenue, and dance until dawn.
7:00 a.m. Monday morning. A shift in scene. We’re on the set up Ryan’s Hope, and a jumpsuit-clad redhead, minus that glitter and makeup is quietly sitting in her dressing room, engrossed in the day’s script. Jimmy Sloyan, who plays Detective Mitch Bronski, pops his head in the dressing room doorway to joke and bum a cigarette. Our mystery girl wisecracks back, while proffering the smoke. She admits she’s bad, bad….about her own nicotine fits.
Avant gardist, Marg Helgenberger, preparing for her day on the set, easily makes the shift from careening around with slam-dancing New Wavers to serious soap opera actress. After all, Helgenberger is probably used to changes. How far out can a girl who grew up as one of three children in a German/Irish Catholic family go? The answer is, far from her very first job working in the corn and bean fields of North Bend, Nebraska when she was a teenager.
Over coffee, cigarettes and frequent calls via the PA system in her dressing room for camera blocking on the set, your Afternoon TV reporter found out more about how it all happened for Marg Helgenberger.
First becoming interested in theatre while attending Kearny State College, Helgenberger decided to test her potential as an actress by enrolling in the drama department of Chicago’s Northwestern University. But it was after being turned on by the role of Blanche Dubois in a university production of A Streetcar Named Desire, that Helgenberger really got the acting bug. Comments Marg: “Before that I was just playing around.” Up until then, she’d had her share of insecurities and self-doubts, but now she realized she could handle the work. Helgenberger says that she lost a lot of the self-consciousness she’d always felt before while onstage.
Although she’d done other things before Streetcar, such as The Taming of the Shrew, now, Helgenberger felt much more driven. Her experience had so far been primarily musical comedy. “Musical comedy is not too deep by any means,” concurs the actress. At the same time, she did feel she was being challenged in a major way. “I was surrounded by kids who knew what they were doing. I saw this and it really kept me on my toes. I learned a lot from them and from going to school at Northwestern.” But Helgenberger admits regrettably that she didn’t learn all that much while attending Kearny. She realized that she had been playing it safe sticking to doing musicals because she felt fairly confident in that medium. Helgenberger was starting to feel it was time to take on something more challenging.
Had she ever flopped while in college? Admits Helgenberger, “It was a big fear of mine that I wasn’t going to live up to other people’s expectations, or for that matter, there were times when I was onstage when I really didn’t know what I was doing. In one play in particular, The Three-penny Opera, I didn’t understand what the director was doing. It seemed to be totally intellectual. I was reading all this literature, background on Brecht and Kurt Weil. We would all sit around in conferences and just intellectualize. It’s really hard to connect with that kind of experience.”
As for a real flop, Marg says she never experienced that feeling. But there is a lot of anxiety. “Everyone is protecting their egos so much in a theatre department. It’s really tight and really cliquey. If you have success, everyone is—I shouldn’t say everyone; that’s a rash generalization—but a lot of people are looking for you to fall, because it opens up avenues for themselves. You pretty much have to look out for yourself, and as much as everyone wants to talk about ensemble work, it’s tough…
The summer before she graduated from Northwestern, Helgenberger had decided that what she wanted to do was join a repertory company. But around that time, while she was performing in her role of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and ABC casting director was in the audience. Marg was interviewed afterwards and the director said she’d get back to her. Upon completing her senior year, Marg was contacted to audition for the role of Siobhan Ryan on the soap. She got the part and signed a contract even before receiving her degree in theatre from Northwestern.
Considering Marg’s well laid plans to join a rep company and her interest in “serious theatre,” what was her reaction? Did she feel thrilled, or did she feel she was compromising her career? “I was more thrilled about it than feeling as if I’d compromised. You can’t help but think these things—especially when I’d made plans to do repertory theatre. The thought crosses your mind that maybe I shouldn’t do this. Maybe I should pay my dues and I really do enjoy theatre.” But thinking about it, the odds were just overwhelmingly for going ahead with the soap,” Helgenberger says. “The experience, the exposure—I am learning a hell of a lot and it’s not just the camera work. In fact, I have a new script every single day and if I can just figure out what my objectives are…and experimenting….is exciting. A lot of people on the show have helped me out, too.”
How did she handle all the things she had to deal with when she first started on the show? Factors such as minimal direction, because there is no time. Did it throw her for a while? Helgenberger screams with laughter. “I was a nervous wreck!! I didn’t think I knew what I was doing then, and I really didn’t. I’m still adapting.” How long does it take before a new actor feels “comfortable?” Sighs Helgenberger, “Everyday I feel a little more comfortable. I was a wreck at the beginning, but they kind of eased up on me. I didn’t have to do that many scenes and the ones I did were not that difficult.”
The recent “hit” scene with Joe was not exactly easy material and called for a lot of turmoil and a wide range of emotions from the actress. Concurred Helgenberger, “they are writing really well for me.” Her character is very complex—good Catholic daughter, Organization man’s wife. Policewoman. Lots of good stuff there. Helgenberger shows me her toy gun nestling in the pocket of her police uniform. She also has a real .38 calibre pistol, but no bullets, of course.
Helgenberger has been intending to visit a precinct for some background on her role as a policewoman, but her schedule has been too hectic. At this point in the storyline, Siobhan is not yet a graduate of the academy and is still on probation. Helgenberger says she is so busy that at times, she feels totally out of synch, and can’t even pick up a newspaper. So for now, James Sloyan, who has played a number of police series, is giving her some pointers to give her character more credibility.
Given the amount of material, as she is heavily into the storyline, does Helgenberger have any problems learning her lines? The actress says she works on her scripts at home every evening. She explains that prior to her work on the soap, she was used to a lengthy rehearsal process. But she admits, “There have been times where my major objective was just getting the lines out, so you lose any sense of what your character’s real objective is…sometimes your mind just shuts off and it refuses to learn any more. But, I’m getting better at it.
Another thing that threw me a lot when I first started was the red light that’s on the camera. I’d see that and it would just throw me. I’d be focusing on the light and lose my concentration completely.” Helgenberger says she’s pretty much overcome the problem now.
Speaking of being thrown…what was it like for Marg to come straight off a college campus and to be cast as the love interest of one of soapdom’s hottest male actors? We’re speaking, of course, of Roscoe Born, who plays the part of Organization man, Joe Novak. All those housewives, teenagers and other viewers who fantasize about Roscoe Born…A smile from Helgenberger: “Oh, I’m definitely aware. You can’t help it. He’s very good-looking; he’s very sexy. Yeah—I was kind of nervous those first few love scenes, but after a while you get used to it…I enjoy working with Roscoe and we probably will be working on scenes again. I don’t know if Joe and Siobhan will be getting back together…I enjoy what I’m doing now because they are really giving me some meaty scenes—whereas before I was just wifey pifey.” Helgenberger feels that Joe and Siobhan will always be written for as star-crossed lovers who, despite their love for each other, can never live as a normal married couple.
“I’m still the new kid on the block…it’s a learning process,” admits Helgenberger. All things considered, we’d say Marg Helgenberger is one actress who is getting a lot of challenges thrown her way—and isn’t letting them throw her. Well, maybe just a little bit….
contributor ~ Sabrina Hernandez
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