FANTASIES CAN STILL COME TRUE FOR A KID FROM NEBRASKA…WHEN A STRANGER SAYS I’M GOING TO MAKE YOU A STAR
by Joanna Coons
Every stage-struck co-ed around the country has had this dream many times over: she’s the star of her high school or college play; out in the dark sea of the audience on opening night is that one special person who can change the course of her life. When the performance is over, the bows and the curtain calls at an end, she waits hopefully in her dressing room, usually the gym locker of the home ec. lab, for some sign. Then suddenly it comes. A flamboyant looking stranger sporting a six-foot-long white silk scarf and a seven-inch gold cigarette holder, appears at the door. Cocking his head to one side, he measures her every feature. Then, slowly, his lips break into a perfect white-toothed smile, “Kid,” he intones, “I’m gonna make you a star!”
But that only happens in the movies, you say. Right? Wrong, because with only a slightly less dramatic variation in plot, it did happen for Marg Helgenberger, the vivacious young actress who replaced Ann Gillespie as “Siobhan Novak” on the popular Ryan’s Hope. Born in North Bend, Nebraska, Marg attended Nebraska State College for two years before making what turned out to be a major and fortuitous decision in her life—to pick up her roots and make the dramatic move from a small town to a big metropolis, Chicago, Ill. and Northwestern University.
“Nobody leaves my hometown,” the actress says. “Generation upon generation stays there. You marry your high school sweetheart. The biggest step for me was just getting out.” At first, however, Marg was somewhat intimidated by the high-powered academic atmosphere of the prestigious university. “There was no horsing around there like at the state college,” she laughs. A theatre major, Marg was playing the irascible “Katherine” in the university theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in the summer of 1981 when the magic moment came.
Just like in the fairy tale, attending the performance on that particular evening was casting agent, Susan Scutter, who was so impressed with Marg’s portrayal that she set up an interview with the actress the next day. “She mentioned Ryan’s Hope and said to contact her when I was in New York,” Marg relates. Strangely enough, the actress did not take Scutter seriously. “I basically blew it off because I had another quarter to graduate and I thought I’d want to do some regional theatre for awhile.”
But surprise of surprises, Susan Scutter did contact Marg, luckily one week after graduation. “I was flown to New York to do a screen test and I got the role,” she says with a kind of modesty that suggests anyone could go and do likewise. Talk about a dream coming true! Was she surprised, shocked, exhilarated? “Oh yeah,” Marg admits, a trace of awe commingled with incredulousness still apparent in her voice. “I never expected it to happen so soon.”
Since Ryan’s Hope was her first professional acting job, Marg was understandably nervous about it initially. What made the giant leap from student thespian to working performer even more difficult was the fact that she was replacing the popular Ms. Gillespie in the role of “Siobhan.” “Mostly I was afraid of the hate mail and stuff like that,” the actress confides. “The other problem was that I wasn’t given that much history about the character. I had to keep gathering more and more as I went along. Eventually, I started to slide into it. But it did take a while and I was very scared. I didn’t want to watch the old tapes because I didn’t want to take anything the other actress had, so I just pushed through.”
In the role of “Siobhan Ryan Novak” since March 1, 1982, Marg feels much more at ease with the character and the medium now. “I do feel more comfortable, but there are still things which are hard for me. For example, one thing that bothers me about ‘Siobhan’ is the way she flips back and forth and always has to consult her family, which is okay, but if she’s going to be this independent soul, why can’t she make decisions on her own?”
Nonetheless, Marg enjoys her character completely. “The best thing about ‘Siobhan’ is that she’s a very warm and generous person.” Now involved in a heavy storyline with castmate, Roscoe Born, “Joe Novak,” the actress recalls her first scenes with him were somewhat embarrassing, and for a good reason! “It was, I think, our first scene together since I’d come on the show, and it ended up in bed…I didn’t even know him,” she laughs.
Now, after nearly a year on the soap, Marg finds herself enjoying her work more and more. “I like it very much. It’s such a valuable learning experience for an actor.” But with a hectic taping schedule, and a new script to learn practically every day, she admits that it’s difficult work. “I can’t see myself doing it for a lifetime,” she states. What about other theatrical goals? Would Marg like to do films and be a big star one day? The young actress is pensive for a moment. “Yes, I’d love to do films,” she says finally, “but I have no ambition whatever to be a star. In fact, I’d prefer not to!”
A full-fledged New Yorker at this writing, the actress, Marg Helgenberger, finds city life fascinating. “It’s so energized. I just love walking through the streets, the park—it’s thriving with excitement.” One thing that does upset her though, is the reality of drugs on the city streets. “It really bothers me to see junkies hanging out on the streets and down to their last dime. It’s such a waste,” she adds.
Her new-found celebrity and popularity on the soap has not cramped the rest of her lifestyle, however, as the actress confesses she’s almost never recognized on the street.
“I wear glasses outside and my hair is a little different.” She then points to the faded cut-offs she’s wearing and remarks, “I really dress grubby. And the public, I don’t know why, but they associate being on TV with having a million dollar wardrobe. Of course, some actors do, but not everybody.” Moreover, Marg confessed she is rather frugal with money.
“I have a thing about spending money,” she states, getting philosophical. “It seems like the more things you get, the more unhappy you are. That’s how it is with me. You get all these diversions and it does no good. I’m most content with the least amount of things. People think money will make them happy and create some kind of solace in their lives, but it doesn’t; it creates more problems.”
At the moment, the most important thing to Marg is her craft. Acting, she believes, is a sharing experience between the performer and the audience. “I’d like them to see some message in what I was doing. I think you can communicate very strongly through acting. I don’t want to be just another actress doing her craft. I want to touch people.” But the single most sought after goal in her life, the actress states, is to gain a real sense of wisdom in order to be a little more aware and at ease with life.
“Eventually, I’d like to get married, have children. But basically, what I really want is just to be able to understand—to be a wise and caring person.” She pauses for a moment’s reflection, looking very much the scholar. “I guess I’ve got a long way to go yet,” she smiles.