SCI-FI ONLINE: INTERVIEW WITH MARG HELGENBERGER
June 10, 2006
Mary Marg Helgenberger was born on 16 November 1958 in Fremont, Nebraska. She caught the acting bug when she landed the role of Blanche Dubois in a university production of A Streetcar Named Desire. A scout for Ryan’s Hope discovered Marg when she performed in an NU campus production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. On the big screen she is probably best known to sci-fi fans as Dr. Laura Baker in Species and Species II. Helgenberger’s television roles have included Tales from the Crypt, Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers, E.R. and Frasier. In 2002 she was cast as Catherine Willows on Crime Scene Investigation. We caught up with her as Crime Scene Investigation: Season 5 – Part 1 was due for release on DVD…
Sci-Fi-Online: CSI has gone from strength to strength with two additional spin-off series, but the original CSI is still the one that is bringing in the most ratings. Are you proud of that?
Marg Helgenberger: I always love it when people say [assumes self-important mock voice] “It’s the only one we watch, none of them can compare to you guys, blah blah blah”.
SFO: The show is constantly evolving. Do you think that it’s important that CSI stays up to date with the latest developments in the field, as well evolving the characters?
MH: Oh yeah. Well I think that’s how they not run out of things to do. Not that they’ve run out of crimes to solve because god knows there’s plenty of them around, or run out of ways to solve it. They seem to always come up with more techniques and instruments that are being made available.
Of course, this show being state of the art in terms of what we receive and what’s out there in terms of forensic labs, because it’s so costly that many of them don’t have the resources to have these – which is too bad. It’s really sad because crimes could get solved faster if they had the money. We’ve really educated the public. I do think that law enforcement probably resents us to a certain degree because the public is demanding “Well, they solve it on CSI, why can’t you find such and such?”
As far as the character development goes, there’s a deep pool there, every character, mine probably more than anybody’s, we go home with my character more. I think there’s a well of opportunity there for the characters.
SFO: Do you enjoy the character driven stories – when the forensic evidence is not the centre of the plot?
MH: I do get a little spring in my step when it’s some character stuff because it involves usually a lot of history with that particular character, especially with a family member or a romantic interest. My father’s been on a few times and that stuff’s, it’s such a complicated relationship and in as little as six lines there’s a lot that goes on between the two of us: threats, weird stuff that happens and I always look forward to that and to working with Scott Wilson who plays my dad.
SFO: Your character was demoted in this season [Season Five]. How did you feel about that?
MH: [Laughs] I never got officially demoted. I never knew what they officially called it!
SFO: How did you find the change in your character affected you as an actress?
MH: I don’t know, it wasn’t really that fun. I didn’t like having to play scenes where I was always kvetching about paperwork or that crap y’know, it’s just tedious. I’d much rather be in the field and y’know, it gives you the opportunity to work with other actors. We were kind of isolated y’know.
SFO: Do you think that it was important to do this to keep the show fresh?
MH: Yeah I think that’s what it was about, just to create conflict within the lab itself, I think it was an experiment that the fans didn’t like, and nor did we. It’s a bit like George’s moustache [Laughs]. Yeah, apparently that got a lot of hits on the Internet! Women e-mailing me saying “His face is so beautiful, tell him to get rid of it!” Poor George.
SFO: How do you feel about being a part of the lives of people you’ve never met? Do you get much feedback from fans?
MH: Somewhat, yes. Y’know it’s funny because in LA you don’t really feel the impact of the show because there’s so many celebrities here and you can pretty much just go about your business. But when you go out into the country, or into the world, it’s a completely different ball game.
It’s inspired so many people and when they see you up close and personal they want a piece of you. Essentially they want a picture or an autograph, or they’ll ask you: “What do you think” about whatever high-profile case happens to be on Court TV that week and I don’t think about it… I think about fingerprints a lot actually, I think about what kind of fingerprints there are around and what I’m leaving behind. .
SFO: You’re character and Grissom are based on two real CSIs aren’t they?
MH: Yes, my character is based on Yolanda McCleary and Grissom is based on Daniel Holstein. I always have to qualify by saying McCleary is not a former exotic dancer. I think she said she’d been some kind of a secretary in law enforcement, went ahead and got her… not a degree, I don’t know what they call it. It’s like a two year program to become a CSI. But anyway she’s terrific and she’s now sort of become a star in her own right because she’s been featured in a lot of these shows like Dateline and she’s considered to be one of the best in Vegas because she’s so thorough and kind of fun and kind of sassy and all that.
SFO: Do you enjoy doing the audio commentaries for the DVDs? And do you lose track of where your character is at when you revisit an episode?
MH: Kind of yeah, because we’ve done so episodes now, what, 130? In fact I stumbled over my words one time on David Letterman, because sometimes he brings up topics that you don’t think he’s going to bring up, wasn’t in the pre-interview or whatever, and he mentioned an episode that was going to be airing that night or something. We’d shot it like a month before and I started to go with it, but then I completely lost my train of thought and I couldn’t find it.
We shoot these and we forget them! But yeah, it was kind of fun to go back and now of course we’re on television pretty much 24/7 you can pick an episode of CSI. And I’ll happen upon it once in a while and it takes you back to that season and that hairstyle [laughs] and to think about what was going on then.
SFO: What sort of shows were you a fan of when you were younger?
MH: I was fan of Mission: Impossible, and I always think of this show as being a modern day version of Mission: Impossible – just because of all the gizmos and the scientific stuff and the team and crime solving, obviously. That show was always cutting-edge, it had a cool theme song. It was very intriguing and this show kind of has the same feel.
SFO: How do you cope with all the technical jargon?
MH: There are certain terms that we’ve said so many times now that we know the correct pronunciation and we sort of know what it means, but there’s always something new that pops up and you just sort of pray that you get through it and that you never have to say it again [laughs].
I have to say the most complicated part of the job, in terms of learning lines, is not so much the actual terminology, it’s the way you have to kind of sell the plot or sell the story. This whole thing that we’re doing now, Georgia Fox’s dialogue is just baffling and it’s basically just one big long monologue with me interjecting. It’s called Up In Smoke. Not like the Cheech and Chong version.
SFO: What was it like working with Quentin Tarantino on the two-part episode Grave Danger?
MH: It was a few things, first off I’m a huge fan of his before we even met and he is just a really good guy. He’s incredibly creative and inspired and imaginative and a nice person. He’s nice to everybody and that was great to work with somebody you’re a fan of.
But it was arduous, it was a lot of long hours and a lot of late nights, shooting in a nursery where there was just piles of fertilizer that reeked of manure, throughout the night you know, that kind of stuff. But nevertheless I think people really gave it up for him because we were so excited to have him with us.
SFO: What did you think about the CGI segments when you first heard about them?
MH: I felt it was innovative and it was. It was described in the script as all the, “CSI shots”, in fact I think one of the descriptions was ‘à la Three Kings, with the bullet going through them, which was very innovative for that film. We’ve certainly taken that idea and ran with it.
SFO: Why do you think the show has been so popular?
MH: I also thought that it was just a great mystery and I think that a great mystery is always going to be in vogue. People have always enjoyed them throughout the ages, in every culture. I just thought all the science and the facts and the gizmos was going to be really fun for an audience – Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century.
I knew it was going to be a big hit. I felt that, especially when I saw it cut together, but I would have never guessed that we would have had two spin-offs in four years and would have really created a whole new genre of television.
It seems like every network now wants to – PBS has a monopoly of forensic shows. If you watched the Superbowl there was an advertisement for this new one that’s coming out on EBC. People say to me that imitation’s the best form of flattery and at this point it’s like: “No it’s not. Now you’re just ripping us off! Come up with your own ideas here!” I say that having just said we took something from Three Kings, but that was just one part.
I think criminalists are in great debt to us because they’ve all of a sudden brought these people who have always been in the background into the forefront. I think that detectives sometimes feel a little resentful. Science is fun and that is also something I probably wouldn’t have imagined – that it would have inspired all these kids to want to become criminologists. It’s become the hottest thing to teach certain techniques and make it fun.
SFO: Thank you for your time.