WE’RE LIKE A FAMILY
US Weekly Magazine
By Monica Rizzo
For William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger and the rest of the ‘CSI’ cast, a day’s work means laughs galore, pickup football games and plenty of mint breath spray
A real-life inquest is taking place behind the scenes of the CBS hit drama ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.’ It is a rainy morning in Santa Clarita, California, and actors George Eads, William Petersen and Gary Dourdan are gathered inside busy Stage 7 at Santa Clarita Studios. Eads, who plays ambitious Nick Stokes, and Dourdan, who portrays introspective investigator Warrick Brown, shoot questions at Petersen, a usually gregarious man who is, at this moment, silent and straight-faced.
“What time did you leave?” asks Dourdan.
“Two? Three?” Eads chimes.
When Petersen remains quiet – with just the beginnings of a smirk developing on his face – Eads asks incredulously, “Four?”
The mystery? How late Petersen stayed at Hugh Hefner’s Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion two nights ago. Petersen, a real-life man about L.A. who plays workaholic crime solver Gil Grissom, finally offers a naughty smile and glances down at his script, implying that he left even later than his interrogators have imagined.
“No way, man!” says Dourdan.
Off to the side, Marg Helgenberger, the show’s only leading actor who is married, looks amused at the men being boys. “Billy couldn’t stop talking about it all day yesterday,” says Helgenberger, who plays investigator Catherine Willows, a divorced mother and former exotic dancer. “It was the quantity and the quality of the women.”
Good-natured jousting is a daily part of life on the set of ‘CSI,’ a surprise hit when it debuted last year, which now draws 22.6 million fans each week, making it the third-highest rated show, behind only ‘Friends’ and ‘ER.’ “When we shot the pilot, I could tell there was something special with this group,” says Helgenberger, 43, a North Bend, Nebraska, native who won a 1990 Emmy for the Vietnam drama ‘China Beach’ and is married to actor Alan Rosenberg of CBS’s ‘The Guardian.’ “The guys on the crew were tossing a football around, and there was a real relaxed feeling.”
Dourdan, 34, who is the divorced father of a 3-year-old daughter, says the cast is “like a family” and that the positive tone is set and maintained by Petersen, who, at 48, is the unofficial leader of the gang, “If I’m ever feeling out of sorts or under the weather, I just think of what Billy does every day,” says Dourdan, a Philadelphia native who has been acting since high school. “I call him the quarterback. He’s always on, he never forgets a line, he comes on time. I definitely try to have his professionalism rub off on me.”
Eads, 34, who grew up in Belton, Texas, the son of the local district attorney, and who now shares his Los Angeles home with his yellow Labrador retriever, Maverick, recalls a pep talk he received from Petersen one night last season, when shooting on an episode dragged after midnight. “I was getting a little cranky waiting for my scene to be shot, and Billy came over and said, ‘I have an idea. Why don’t you get in your nice new car, drive to your nice new house…’ That put it all in perspective for me. I really needed a mentor in my career,” says Eads, who floundered through a number of failed series (‘Savannah,’ ‘Grapevine’) before landing on ‘CSI.’ “Sometimes, after I’ve wrapped, I’ll stay and watch Billy work.”
Petersen – who got his start in Chicago theater and has appeared in a number of films, including ‘Manhunter’ and ‘To Live and Die in L.A’. – deflects this praise. “Our show is a collaborative process,” he says. “We have a great group of people who don’t bring a lot of baggage. We spend a lot of time together, and there’s a real kinship.”
If Petersen (who is divorced and not dating anyone seriously) is “the dad” of the cast, according to Helgenberger, then the rest of the family hierarchy is as follows: “I’m the mom,” she says. “Jorja [Fox, who plays Grissoms protégée Sara Sidle] and George are the little sister and the little brother.” And Dourdan? “Gary is the really hot guy that makes our flesh tingle when he walks by,” she says, laughing.
Even though the cast members spend up to 50 hours working together during the week, they often hang out with one another during off-hours – barbecuing at Petersen’s Los Angeles house, going out to dinner or catching a movie.
“I know it sounds funny, but sometimes, at the end of the week, when I go home, I think about these guys – I miss them,” says Fox, 33, who moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1996 after being cast on ‘ER.’ In 1999, she left that show for a recurring role on The West Wing, which she gave up when she landed her part on ‘CSI.’ When Fox, who is single and writes folk music in her spare time, joined ‘CSI’ for last season’s third episode, Petersen felt it was a good omen. “She’s the talisman of [hit] shows,” he says.
Petersen, who also produces the show, says that ‘CSI’ is successful because, unlike other crime dramas, it illustrates the science of homicide investigation. “There’s never been a network series about bug collectors or fingerprint dusters before,” he says.
Each week, the Las Vegas-set ‘CSI’ spins tales of horrific crimes, such as the murder of an entire family by a daughter and her boyfriend, a point-blank mob hit on the strip, and the killing of a wealthy elderly woman by a scheming young couple. The homicide scenes are depicted in gruesome detail, sometimes with maggots and pools of blood. But cutting-edge lab technology, not violence, is the show’s primary focus. “As long as the gore and blood and guts is science-orientated,” says executive producer, Anthony Zuiker, “the audience will stand behind us.”
Because of the program’s attention to minutiae, the actors must study more than just their lines. “None of us could pass a science test,” Petersen says. “We’ve all had to learn it as we went along – the labs, the technology.” According to executive producer Ann Donahue, the actors – whose work is checked for authenticity by the show’s technical adviser, Elizabeth Devine, a former Los Angeles crime-scene investigator – have quickly become proficient. “They used to go to a crime scene and walk right over the evidence,” she says. “Now, they know how to approach it, put gloves and booties on. They act like real CSI’s.”
The unsung heroes of the show are the makeup and visual-effects artists who create the bloody, bruised and bullet-riddled victims. The show’s signature visuals, knows as “CSI shots,” take viewers inside the fatal wound. Today, a latex lung and forehead bake in a small convection oven while a plaster-and-latex cast of the back of the actor who plays this week’s corpse dries on a metal table. This episode’s ‘CSI’ shot will illustrate a bullet’s path, from it’s explosion off the gun barrel to it’s lodging in the victim’s lung.
“We’ll make an oversize wooden bullet, put it on the end of a drill bit and drill right through the latex back and into the lung,” explains associate producer Brad Tanenbaum. Extremely close camerawork will create the illusion that the viewer is in the bullet as it travels through the victim’s body, organ by organ.
The cast has a healthy respect for the actors who must play dead. “You gotta hand it to the corpses,” says Helgenberger. “These guys really put up with a lot. Some have hours of prosthetic makeup and then lie on a cold metal table. They’re troupers.” (The show does not use mannequins for the bodies because the victims frequently appear alive during flashback sequences.)
As a tribute to the fictional crime victims, the cast came up with a corpse rating system. “We rate them in terms of their toughness,” Helgenberger explains. The actors who must endure the most grueling transformations at the hands of the makeup department score the highest. The all-time winner, Helgenberger and Pestersen agree, was Jody Lynn Wilson, a stunt actor from last season who was covered with live bugs and didn’t move for at least two hours. It’s a notion that still makes Fox a little squeamish. “I’m the wimp of the cast,” she admits. “But I’m getting better. Last year, I couldn’t read the script before I went to bed. I couldn’t eat anything and watch the show at the same time. Now, when I see something [gross] is coming up, I’m like, “Yeah, cool.”
It’s now late afternoon, outside the soundstage, Eads, Petersen and Dourdan assemble under golf umbrellas for a brief cigarette break. Fox, who might normally join the guys stays inside because “my hair will frizz out in this weather.”
Helgenberger, who will be going home in a few hours for dinner with her husband and their 11-year-old son, Hughie, heads for the craft-services truck, where hot vegetable and beef soups are simmering, the aroma wafting back inside. Dourdan and Petersen each spritz their mouth with mint breath spray, a habit of Petersen’s that the other male cast members have picked up. “You don’t want to have funky breath in somebody’s face,” says Dourdan. After all, says Helgenberger, “some weeks you spend more time with these people than you do your own family.”
*special thanks to Kelly Willows for transcribing this article*