MEET MARG, TV’S SEXY SCIENTIST
Orange Coast Magazine
By Greg Hernandez
Marg’s Moment: She’s been a well-respected actress for years, but now the redheaded star of CSI is red hot.
Marg Helgenberger isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
She’ll let a four-letter word pass from her lips from time to time, say that she thinks George Clooney is ‘hot!’ and doesn’t hesitate to give writers on her hit series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation input about her character, an ex-stripper turned forensic scientist named Catherine Willows.
“I’m not a shrinking violet,” says Helgenberger, who is now into her third season on CSI. “I have the experience and the belief in what I can contribute.”
CSI is now the top-rated series on television, thoroughly dominating its Thursday night time period and spawning a popular spin-off series, CSI: Miami. Helgenberger recently received a major pay boost that upped her salary to a reported $150,000 per episode, making her one of the all-time highest paid actresses in a drama series.
A decade after she first became a star on the drama China Beach, Helgenberger, 43, was ready to tackle another series when the opportunity to do CSI came her way.
“I heard about it from my agent,” she recalls. “He said, ‘If you want to do a series this year, this is the one to go after,’ I was immediately taken by it in many ways. I thought it was provocative and innovative and had a sense of humor about itself that isn’t seen on television. I thought it had enormous potential.”
CSI was not predicted to become a breakout hit when it made its debut in fall 2000 at 9 p.m. on Friday nights. The CBS network thought the show would work as a solid follow-up to its highly anticipated 8 p.m. show The Fugitive, for which television experts were predicting big things. But it was CSI that connected with audiences.
While The Fugitive was cancelled after one season, CSI was moved to Thursday nights to compete against NBC’s well-established and highly rated ‘Must See TV’ lineup. It not only managed to beat its direct competition, Will and Grace, but CSI also passed longtime ratings king ER to become televisions’ highest-rated drama and the most popular show on any network.
Helgenberger was nominated for a Golden Globe this year – and for an Emmy last year – for best actress in a drama series for her performance as Willows, a single mom who is juggling family and a demanding career.
“Initially, I was attracted to her spunk and to her passion, which I still am,” the actress says. “I think she has matured and gotten wiser and is now much more of a stable force at the CSI offices.”
The actress is so dedicated to delivering an authentic characterization that last summer – a time when most stars on a top-rated show are likely to squeeze in a feature film role or some other television project – Helgenberger headed to Las Vegas to observe some real-life criminalists at work.
“I felt the need to get inspired and get refreshed; I needed a dose of reality,” she says. “It was pretty fascinating. I was observing a woman named Yolanda, who my character is loosely based on, and asking her about her techniques. I went there as someone who was just wanting to learn. I just kept asking questions and was focused on the science of it all.”
Helgenberger, married to actor Alan Rosenberg since 1989, is juggling the series’ demanding shooting schedule with family life, which includes raising the couple’s 11-year-old son, Hugh.
“One-hour dramas are all difficult,” she says. “You want the quality to be really great. It’s the nights that really take it out of you. I can’t seem to get quite turned around. And it’s more difficult when you have children. You feel guilty about not being there to put them to bed. You feel like your child’ life is somewhat compromised.”
But life has been easier since last fall, when Rosenberg – best known for his regular roles on L.A. Law, Civil Wars, and Cybill – landed a part in the hit CBS drama The Guardian, playing a district attorney supervising series star Simon Baker’s character. This has meant that at least one parent is at home with their son most days. During most of the 1990s, the couple were often separated when off on location for one project or another.
“It’s a good thing to be a two-series family when they both shoot in Los Angeles,” Helgenberger says. “That’s rare when you are both actors and for that I’m very grateful. We both like our shows very much and we think they are good shows.”
The couple met back in 1984, when Rosenberg guest-starred on Ryan’s Hope, on which Helgenberger appeared for several years in the 1980s. They ran into each other a few years later at a bank in West Hollywood, began dating, and married in 1989. At that time, Helgenberger was at the start of her memorable three-year run as heroin-addicted prostitute K.C. Koloski on China Beach, which was always ratings challenge but had a staunchly loyal following.
In 1990, she won an Emmy award for best supporting actress for her role in the much-honored series. But at the Emmy ceremony that year, an eight-month pregnant Helgenberger had more on her mind than an acceptance speech as she anxiously sat in the audience waiting to see if her name would be called as the winner.
“Bebe Neuwirth had just won for Cheers and she just bounced up onto the stage to get her award and I was sitting there very pregnant. I remember hobbling up the stairs. But it was a thrill. There are so many good actors in television that it’s really an honor to be nominated and a greater honor if you win.”
In addition to her Emmy win and two more subsequent nominations for the part, Helgenberger was also the darling of the Viewers for Quality Television, winning their best supporting actress award all three years she appeared on China Beach.
“I loved the character and I loved the show and the family of actors and writers,” she says. “It was a really special time. A lot of the writers and crew members went on to do ER so I attribute a lot of ER‘s success to China Beach!”
As critically acclaimed as the show was, it was never atop the ratings and didn’t make much money for ABC. By the times the series was in its third years, it had been moved around the prime time schedule so much that even the most loyal fans had trouble finding it.
The years between China Beach and CSI were productive ones for Helgenberger, who starred in dozens of television movies and feature films. Among her many jobs was a recurring role as George Clooney’s love interest during the second season of ER.
“It was a trip,” Helgenberger says of her ER stint. “George was just taking off as a movie star and he was shooting One Fine Day with Michelle Pfeiffer was prepping to do Batman and Robin. He was just a whirlwind. He’s an amazing guy and he’s so hot!”
Helgenberger also portrayed Patsy Ramsey in the television film Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, which was based on Lawrence Schiller’s best-seller about the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation.
“She was very controversial and at the time didn’t have the public sympathy at all,” says the actress. “She was infamous and most people thought she was guilty. I think the public might be softening a bit. I still don’t know what to believe or think. Going in, I was convinced of her guilt then I started thinking it could have been an intruder.”
Other memorable projects included Where are my Children?, a film based on the true story of a woman falsely arrested by the FBI and separated from her children for 25 years. She also played the first wife of a murderous John Ritter in another true-life murder story, Lethal Vows, and starred opposite Ann-Margret in Happy Face Murders.
She has had roles in several feature films including Species and its sequel Species II, Bad Boys, The Last Time I Committed Suicide, The Cowboy Way, and Always. One of her most memorable film roles, which came right before she began work on CSI, was that of Donna Jensen in Erin Brockovich. In the 2000 box office hit, she had several emotional scenes opposite Julia Roberts as a woman made ill by contaminated water.
“What I really liked about the character was that she really tried to triumph over all kinds of tragedy,” Helgenberger says. “She was in denial about the goings on and was a good-hearted, trusting person and was trying to keep her family going. Her whole world was shattered.”
Judging from her impressive resume, one gets the idea that Helgenberger is someone who has burned with ambition from the beginning. But the truth is, growing up as the middle of children in North Bend, Nebraska, Helgenberger spent her high school years playing volleyball, singing in choir, and working at a meat-packing plant during summers and Christmas vacations. She filled in for various workers trimming the fat off of certain cuts of beef.
“I was a boner, that was my official job title,” she recalls. “It was actually a hard job to get and much sought after. But I had an in because my dad was a meat inspector.”
After high school, she attended prestigious Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she majored in speech and drama. She got serious about her acting after landing the role of Blanche Dubois in the school’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. During her senior year at Northwestern, Helgenberger figured she would get a job as a waitress or something and try to land some theater jobs in Chicago. But fate stepped in when a talent scout from ABC saw her perform in the college production of The Taming of the Shrew.
“I had one quarter left to graduate and she interviewed me and I said I wanted to graduate first,” she recalls. “I was just a college kid having a good time.”
The talent scout kept in touch, and after graduating from Northwestern, Helgenberger was asked to fly to New York to screen test for a role in the ABC daytime drama Ryan’s Hope, which centered on the trials and tribulations of an Irish family in New York.
“What did I know? I was just this kid from Nebraska without representation,” Helgenberger says. “None of this made sense to me. I got the job, like, that day. I thought it would be an exciting adventure.”
She went on to play the role of policewoman Siobhan Ryan for more than three years. Helgenberger was happy for the steady work but the part did not make her rich because she jokingly says she was paid “practically below scale.”
“I still keep in touch with some of the crew members when I’m in New York,” she says. “But it was a real grind, with a new script to learn every day, and after awhile, you found yourself doing the same things over and over again. But it was considered to be one of the more quality shows of the time. It was more natural and gritty than the other daytime shows.”
Helgenberger has now been a successful actress for two decades but her role on CSI has made her a household name and a hot commodity in the entertainment world like never before. She was named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People earlier this year and last year, Entertainment Weekly named her to its ‘It List of 2001.’
The stunning redhead can do Hollywood glamour as well as anyone, as evidenced by her fashionable appearances at awards shows and movie premiers, but she keeps her feet firmly on the ground as the flash bulbs go off around her.
“I’ve been around awhile and it’s been a steady career,” she says. “There have been some highlights, these bursts that jump off the radar. Because I’m not right out of college, I have the maturity to just roll with it.”