JUST ABOUT PERFECT
By Josh Sens
Marg Helgenberger is possibly Hollywood’s most reluctant star.
Marg Helgenberger has it all: A starring role on the top-rated CSI and a non-traditional (Read: Happy) Hollywood family. So why is her glass half empty?
It was violent and bloody, not unlike some crime scenes – incidents so graphic that women were forbidden to bear witness. So Marg Helgenberger kept her distance and waited for the bodies to come to her. She was just a shade past 20, an actress-in-the-making on a break from college, salting away money from a summer job. In her tiny hometown of North Bend, Nebraska, most families earned a living from corn or cattle, and Helgenberger’s father was a big man in beef, the chief inspector at a meatpacking plant.
The plant’s killing floor was regarded as too gory for anyone of Helgenberger’s gender. But no rule said a woman couldn’t do a hard day’s work. “So I got a job on the production line and, well it wasn’t glamorous,” Helgenberger says. “You had to trim away the grease and the hair and the abscesses. I got through it by daydreaming. I’d imagine I was somewhere, anywhere but there.”
Cut, wrap and fast-forwarding to the present. A balmy day in Santa Monica, California. Helgenberger, perched at a quaint beachside cafe, is basking in the warmth of a different setting, relaxing to the rhythms of another life. At 49, she has an Emmy on her mantle and a starring role as Catherine Willows, the sexy criminalist on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a prime-time show with a faithful global following. Though a relative antique in a town that treasures all things fresh and minted, she retains the burnished beauty of an earthy cover girl and a figure worthy of a swimsuit spread. In her day job, Helgenberger still deals with dead bodies, though she does so now on Hollywood wages.
Unlike her character, a moody former stripper turned high-tech cop, Helgenberger laughs easily, a broad smile creasing her porcelain features. And why not? Fresh from yoga class and a morning massage, she appears the sun-kissed heiress of outrageously good fortune, the beneficiary of a wildest wish fulfilled. Yet reality rarely sticks to such pat plotlines, and Helgenberger isn’t drawn to simple scripts. To hear her tell it, the diligent daydreamer understands distinctions often blurred by television: Success on-camera isn’t quite the same as a fantasy life. “I have plenty of dark moments, and I have to watch out for them,” Helgenberger says. “My tendency isn’t to think of things I’ve accomplished. Especially as I get older, I’m more inclined to dwell on everything I haven’t done.”
If a Hollywood celebrity is someone who resides not just beyond our touch but outside the reach of our imagination, then Marg Helgenberger is a kind of anti-star: a woman underwhelmed by her own fame. Maybe, she says, it was her Catholic schoolgirl childhood, an upbringing that emphasized humility. Or maybe it is simply her admitted insecurity, an endearing case of impostor’s syndrome that prompts her to question what the rest of the world so readily accepts.
When she travels beyond jaded Los Angeles, Helgenberger is besieged by fans, and she stops patiently to dole out signatures. But one gets the sense that if a wrinkle in the universe allowed Helgenberger to bump into herself today, she wouldn’t bother asking for an autograph. “I’ve known some very ambitious people who thrive on that kind of attention, but they’ve rarely been especially happy,” Helgenberger says, “Then again, I don’t spend too much of my free time around actors. They can sort of suck all the air out of a room.”
It’s in keeping with Helgenberger’s complexity to say such things when she has long been wed to an actor, Alan Rosenberg, their nearly 20-year marriage a Hollywood anomaly. They met in the early 1980s in New York, on the set of the soap opera Ryan’s Hope, but didn’t start dating until two years later when they bumped into each other in an L.A. bank, “We swapped phone numbers, but I was too intimidated to call her,” Rosenberg says. “What was a woman this beautiful going to want with me? I’m just lucky she decided to pick up the phone.”
With her bombshell looks and skyrocketing career, Helgenberger could have netted a Hollywood trophy husband. Instead, she chose the sweet, if schlumpy, boy next door. In Rosenberg, Helgenberger had come across her outward opposite, a dark-haired, Jewish East Coast native. But she found kinship in his easygoing humor and was drawn to his passion for activism in such causes as the antiapartheid movement and opposition to United States involvement in Nicaragua.
They eloped, and to this day their marriage defies convention. She’s the breadwinner. He holds a prestigious but unpaid job as president of the Screen Actors Guild. “One key to our marriage is that we respect each other’s needs,” Helgenberger says. “Alan understands what I’m about.” Central to that, Helgenberger says, is her “love-hate relationship with being myself,” an impulse toward isolation that she carries around like a double-edged sword. She relishes alone time but admits that when left to her own devices, her private thoughts grow clouded with visions of what might have been. “Oh, you know,” she says, half-jokingly, “like why don’t I have Nicole Kidman’s career.”
By almost any measure, Helgenberger has succeeded in a cutthroat industry without a cutthroat instinct to succeed. She’s always been that way. As a preteen in Nebraska, Helgenberger recalls competing in swim meets during the summer and constantly finishing second to her best friend, whom she says could have beaten if she really tried. Over the years, despite winning an Emmy for her work on China Beach, Helgenberger has shied away from selling herself, passing up auditions for prominent parts in major movies (Groundhog Day and Carlito’s Way, to name just two) for reasons she doesn’t fully understand. “Fear of success? Or maybe fear of failure?” Helgenberger asks. “I think they may be two sides of the same coin.”
In recent months, the writer’s strike, which has crippled production of network shows, has left Helgenberger with the burdened blessing of ample downtime. Wary of too many idle moments, she’s filled the time with meditation and yoga. She has taken up guitar, a long-time hobby, with more intense interest. She has devoted extra energy to her husband and her son, Hugh, a high school senior on his way to college, though, she says, “Let’s face it, how much time does a teenager want to spend with his mom?”
Not long ago, on a wet wintry day in Los Angeles, she even managed to squeeze in some acting, though the scene won’t likely ever appear on TV. Dressed in the hat and trench coat of a detective, Helgenberger showed up in support of the picketing writers outside the headquarters of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. After reciting a mock “indictment” of the studios, Helgenberger led a charge, wrapping the AMPTP building in yellow police tape. “I was really proud of her,” Rosenberg says. “Margi is very political, but she’s not usually what I would call an activist. Or put it this way: She’s much less likely than I am to put her foot in her mouth.”
Says Helgenberger: “It was a lot of fun and very spirited. A bunch of people together who believe in the cause.” As the strike drags on, wondering what might happen next takes on added meaning for Helgenberger, who, as she nears 50, finds herself on the brink of a Hollywood dilemma: the familiar quandary faced by an older woman seeking satisfying work in a landscape short on women’s roles. She says she doesn’t worry about physical appearance, perhaps because she looks better than many women half her age. But she can’t help wondering about the future. In an instance of life coming full circle – or an illustration of how little ever really changes – she’s inclined toward dreaming, just as she was back at the meatpacking plant.
One night not too long ago, the following scene played out in her sleep: She’d been invited to the wedding of a Hollywood star, on a guest list studded with paparazzi prizes – Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and the like. Atwitter with excitement, Helgenberger showed up at the reception only to realize, to her horror, that she’s donned an absurdly frumpy outfit. “It was so embarrassing,” she says. “I was thinking, Oh, my, God. How can I compete with this crowd when I’m dressed like this?” In her dream, Helgenberger dashed to her room to slip on something black and stylish. But before she could make it back to the bash, she woke up. “I guess I will never know what happened,” she says.
Fear of success? Fear of failure? A team of shrinks might come to conflicting conclusions. What the rest of us can see is that in moments like this, Marg Helgenberger the celebrity seems merely human: trying, just like everyone else, to figure out exactly where she fits in.
*Special thanks to Kelly Willows for transcribing this article. A scan of the article can be found here