UP CLOSE & PERSONAL WITH MARG HELGENBERGER
By Marsala Rypka
“People may think I’m tough, aloof and standoffish because of some of the parts I’ve played, but I’m quite the opposite. I’m actually a shy, down-home girl from Nebraska who has mixed feelings about being a celebrity. I don’t like to talk about myself or the things I’ve done in my life. I’ve gotten better at it, but it’s not something that comes natural.”
‘Who are you? Who, who, who, who.’ The electrifying beat of The Who’s highly-charged hit is the theme song that gets audiences’ blood pumping every Thursday night when they tune in to the ground-breaking, Emmy award-winning CBS drama ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ set right here in Las Vegas.
Based on that clue, who would be the most logical suspect for this month?s Up Close and Personal? It’s none other than Marg Helgenberger, the female lead on ‘CSI’ who plays the confident, sassy, self-assured, and cerebral blood spatter analyst and former exotic dancer Catherine Willows.
Marg’s performance on the show has earned her nominations for two Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes. In 2005, she and her cast members won the Screen Actors Guild Award for ‘Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series.’
Her many accolades include being named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 2002; #16 on VH1’s 40 Hottest Women over 40; and one of TV Guide’s sexiest stars in 2007. Her character Catherine Willows, along with the character of Gil Grissom, was #82 on Bravo?s 100 Greatest TV Characters.
Marg is one of those actresses who is comfortable on television and on the big screen. In 1990, Marg also earned an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series’ for her role as the heroin-addicted prostitute, K.C. Koloski, on the acclaimed ABC drama ‘China Beach which ran from 1988 to 1991.
In 1996 she had the enviable role as George Clooney’s love interest in five episodes of ‘ER’; she turned in an emotional performance as a woman with cancer opposite Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockovich’; she played Dennis Quaid’s wife and Scarlett Johansson’s mother in ‘In Good Company’; and Kevin Costner’s wife in ‘Mr. Brooks.’
But most important to Marg is her role as mother to her son, Hugh, which makes this the perfect issue for her. So here?s Marg. By the way, that?s Marg with a hard ‘g’ as in ‘ga,’ not as in Marge.
Marsala Rypka: What three words best describe you?
Marg Helgenberger: Open-minded – which is my mantra to my son. Curious – I like to find out what makes people and places tick. Adventurous – especially when it is job related. I once shot a film in Kentucky and my character was the daughter of a coal miner. I asked the director if I could possibly go down into a mine. It turns out I was the only one of the cast or crew who wanted to do that, probably because I had to lie flat on a board that was on a rail and go a couple of miles deep. I couldn’t even stand up down there. I had to crouch.
MR: Name something people would be surprised to learn about you?
MH: I am a huge football fan, especially the Carolina Panthers. I grew up in Nebraska where college football is kind of a religion, and I’m also a big pro fan. I love it so much that on the weekend while I’m doing something around the house I’ll have a game on, no matter who’s playing, just so I can hear it.
Also people may think I’m tough, aloof and standoffish because of some of the parts I’ve played, but I’m quite the opposite. I’m actually a shy, down-home girl from Nebraska who has mixed feelings about being a celebrity. I don’t like to talk about myself or the things I’ve done in my life. I’ve gotten better at it, but it’s not something that comes natural.
MR: What are you passionate about?
MH: (Laughter) These are simple questions, but they force us to analyze what makes us tick. It’s easy to ask my son questions like this, but now it’s getting thrown back in my face. I’m passionate about being in nature and being part of nature. Swimming, hiking, golf, you name it. I’m passionate about all kinds of art. I love going to art museums and galleries, seeing great architecture, learning when it was built, why it looks the way it does, who the architect was.
MR: The next time you’re in Las Vegas you should go to the Springs Preserve, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a $250 million project built on 180 acres, where the artesian springs were what allowed the pioneers to settle here.
MH: That kind of thing interests me. There’s a misconception that Las Vegas is all about the Strip. I’m curious about the old cultural aspect, the beginnings and history of the town and how it has progressed. That’s what fascinates me. I was in Vegas recently with a friend and we went to see Cher. We walked around Encore and a few other places and I was amazed at the level of taste that exists in the hotels. It’s impressive. But it always flips me out that in the middle of the desert all the water comes from Hoover Dam. I can’t imagine what the underground plumbing system looks like for all these hotels that have 10,000 toilets and 10,000 showers. I keep pitching an idea to the writers of ‘CSI’ to do a modern-day take on the film noir ‘Chinatown,’ with Jack Nicholson, which had to do with water rights. They like the idea; they just need to work in all the science.
MR: What makes you angry?
MH: Ignorant, arrogant people who have an attitude of superiority and righteousness that they impose upon others. There are plenty of them in this town. It’s infuriating. And many of them are people I have enormous respect for in regards to their talent or even their politics. I’ve had an opportunity to see some peoples’ colors that others haven’t. It’s been eye-opening and painful, especially when these people are widely-respected or widely-heralded, awarded and rewarded. If you buy into that image and then find out they’re quite the opposite in real life, it’s disheartening. There’s that cliche, ‘pray you don’t meet your idol because you’ll always be disappointed.’
MR: What three people have had the greatest influence on your life?
MH: My parents who were extremely hard-working people. Even though I grew up in a small town, they were both open-minded. I think in smaller communities, it’s easy to stay insular and not think outside the box, but they always did and they encouraged that in their three children and were supportive of our endeavors. They both had an insatiable, pioneer spirit and an enthusiasm for life. My father who was a big nature lover and fisherman died of multiple sclerosis in 1985 at 50 and my mother is a 27-year breast cancer survivor.
Second, I’d have to say music has been an enormous influence. In high school, playing the French horn, a little piano and a tiny bit of guitar were my favorite extracurricular activities. I loved music, whether I was in a marching band doing all those formations and winning the state championships or in a jazz band. We’d travel to different band clinics where people like Dave Brubeck would perform and give us their notes. I loved the concept of being a tiny part of a big ensemble creating music together. It sucked when you were just learning the material, but it was fun when we all performed well together. In high school and later at Northwestern University, I was in musical comedies. I was enamored with punk bands and alternative types of music. It was all about the beat as opposed to the lyrics when I got older. I still like great rock n’ roll, although my tastes have mellowed. I love Lucinda Williams and Steve Earl and Bruce Springsteen – the more poet kind of singer-songwriters.
There have been a whole slew of people who have influenced my life, like yoga masters, and philosophers; but I have to give credit where credit is due, so I’d say the acting teachers I’ve had over the years. I first got the acting bug from my high school English teacher, Marianne Von Rein, who started the drama program. I saw her in 2006 when I went back to North Bend, Nebraska for its 150th anniversary. The town wanted to do something special for me so they changed the name of the street I grew up on from Locust Street to Helgenberger Avenue, which was so nice of them. I also had great teachers at Northwestern like David Downs. And once in awhile I’ll still consult with a great acting teacher named Sharon Chatten, who I met in New York, who now lives in L.A. I take my job seriously and you can always improve your craft.
MR: What is your greatest strength and greatest weakness?
MH: My strength is that I’m disciplined and hard-working. My weakness is that I obsess about things.
MR: What is your most treasured material possession?
MH: At this point, it’s my 1925 Spanish-Moroccan house which I’ve been renovating for two f@%#$ years (laughter). Oh my God, it’s been painful. I love old houses. I grew up in one and the house my husband and I lived in was old. People say it’s easier to start from scratch than redo an old home and I thought, how can that possibly be? Well over the past two years, I learned how. This house looked like it had been a glamorous house at one time, but it had gotten this ‘old lady vibe,’ which was really sad and I brought it back to its original glamour. I also redid the yard and the hardscape. The progress has been so excruciatingly slow, but the sod is being laid as we speak. They’re finishing up the guest house so I hope in another week it will all be done. It was much more than I bargained for. I’m going to love this house because it’s put me through so much.
MR: What is your greatest extravagance?
MH: Tile – marble, travertine, you name it. And fabric; I got a lot of new pieces of furniture and the house has tons of windows.
MR: Who would you trade places with for 24 hours?
MH: It wouldn’t be Obama with what he’s going through. Boy is that guy one cool customer. It’s astonishing that he carries himself with so much grace and ease with what has been thrown in his lap. God bless him. It felt like eight years of darkness with the amount of secrecy, manipulation and out-and-out blatant lies of the previous administration in the guise of freedom and protecting the homeland. So thank God we’re out of that nightmare. But it would be interesting to be Obama. Why not? It would just be 24 hours, right?
MR: Describe a perfect day?
MH: A perfect day would be waking up in Kawai. The tropical breezes and the sound of the ocean would have lulled me to sleep and I would wake up refreshed after eight uninterrupted hours, which is rare at home. I would start the day with a yoga workout facing the sea. A group of my friends and I, who have rented a house, would make this wonderful breakfast with French toast and fresh papaya, pineapple, apples and bananas that we got from the farmer’s market. Then we’d go for a hike and end up at the beach. I don’t sit in the sun anymore like when I was young and stupid, but I love jumping off the rocks at the beach and snorkeling and body surfing in the warm, tropical waters. After showering, we would put on some music, make a great dinner together, and ahve some great laughs.
MR: What five people would you invite to a dinner party?
MH: Marlon Brando. He was an outstanding, gifted actor, whose thinking was alternative and progressive. He’s also from Nebraska. I’m sure he could be very charming, but he also had a crazy streak. Jack Nicholson would be fun. He’s such a cool guy – charming with a devilish spirit to him which I find intriguing. I hear he’s a collector of art. I’d love to see his collection sometime (laughter). I’d have to invite Jesus and the Dalai Lama. I’m obsessed with spirituality because it’s so elusive. I’m always searching for it. You can’t grab on to it; it’s a path that one is on. I was raised Catholic and I still go to mass occasionally, but I’m not a practicing Catholic. I’ve been to many beautiful cathedrals around the world and I always light a votive candle and say a prayer for somebody, but there are so many things the church does, like the idea of practicing abstinence as birth control in this day and age, that is ridiculous.
I’d invite Abraham Lincoln and Joan of Arc. No let’s take Joan of Arc off the list; I don’t think she would necessarily be a good conversationalist. I don’t have a woman yet. I think it should be a queen. I once read a biography of Marie Antoinette because we were going to Paris, and her mother, Maria Theresa of Austria, was really interesting. She had lots of children and she would give birth and an hour later she’d be back at her desk governing. She sounded like an extraordinary human being.
MR: So would you invite Marie Antoinette’s mother?
MH: This is an overwhelming question because there are so many people I would like to have at this dinner party. Who wouldn’t want Michaelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci or Dostoyevsky? A woman entertainer would be fun. Tallulah Bankhead has an incredible wit and was a wild party girl who would keep things lively. Years ago, when I was on the soap opera, Ryan’s Hope, the actress who played my mother, Helen Gallagher, portrayed Tallulah in a play so I learned a lot about her. She was in a movie called Lifeboat directed by Alfred Hitchcock and apparently a couple of the actors complained that she wasn’t wearing any underwear and she was flashing them. Hitchcock’s response was, ‘Should we refer this to the costume department or to the hair department?’ (laughter). You know who would be trippy, Miles Davis. How about Nina Simone and Amelia Earhart? Now I feel like I’m throwing a party.
MR: It is hard to choose just a few.
MH: When I have parties, they are usually large, because I don’t know how to throw a small party. Obviously if I’m going to have 50 people I’d have it catered. But what I’ve discovered lately is potluck, which comes in handy in this economy (laughter). When people are invited to a party they say ‘What can I bring?’ I used to say, ‘If you want to bring a bottle of wine, that’s fine.’ Now I’m not shy about saying, ‘I love your mashed potatoes, how about bringing them?’
MR: What book are you reading right now?
MH: I belong to a book club, but I’ve had a lot on my plate so I’ve been a bit of an absentee member. I just started The Believers by Zoe Heller. I recently read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It won the Pulitzer last year. It’s set in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey. His style of writing is unique; it’s hip and hip-hoppy without being offensive. I was embarrassed about how little I knew about the Dominican Republic. I also enjoyed Manhunt. It’s about the 12-day chase for Lincoln’s killer. It’s nonfiction, but told in a detective style. It’s so compelling.
MR: You must like Lincoln, you invited him to dinner.
MH: He’s a big hero of my husband, Alan. In fact Alan has several first edition books about Lincoln, including Carl Sandberg’s, which is like a four-volume set. There’s been a lot of talk about Lincoln in our home for years. He’s certainly influenced Obama.
MR: You and your husband, Alan Rosenberg, are getting divorced, yet you talk about him with a sense of inclusion, as if he’s still part of your life, which is very refreshing to hear.
MH: We’ve been separated for the past couple of years, but we are and always will be friends. There has been a lot of emotion on both of our parts and I’m just trying to get out of this fog I’ve been in. We’ll always care a great deal for each other and not just for our son’s sake. We were married 19 years, together 22 years. He’s a great friend of mine. I can’t imagine not having a relationship with him.
MR: I read that you gravitate toward edgier material like your first major role as a heroin-addicted prostitute on China Beach.
MH: I’m proud of that show and what we did to illuminate the women stationed in Vietnam. I learned a lot. It was much harder than CSI. We averaged 17 hours a day. Every Friday night we’d finish at 6 a.m. the next morning. It was brutal. It was supposed to be a tropical jungle so we wore shorts and halter tops even in winter. And my son was born during that show, and I went back to work much sooner than I was ready to.
MR: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is in its ninth season. Did you think it would be so successful?
MH: I knew if it got on the air, audiences would connect because it’s a great mystery show told with state-of-the-art technology; Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century. But I never would have guessed we’d have two spin-offs in four years and it would create a whole new genre of television.
MR: How often do you shoot in Las Vegas?
MH: Not as often as we used to, but there’s talk about shooting the season finale there. First they have to write the script and justify going to Vegas because so much can be shot here. It’s been frustrating for the producers when a murder is written to take place at a casino and the hotel doesn’t want to be affiliated with anything having to do with a murder even though a fictitious name is being used, or else they don’t want the gambling impeded. It’s been a bit of a carrot dangling in front of our noses and then they snatch it away.
MR: You saw a real autopsy at the Clark County Coroner’s Office. What was that like?
MH: Every episode has autopsy scenes with actors who wear prosthetic make-up or latex cadavers, but I wanted to get a sense of the real experience. It was overpowering. It was a chamber of horrors with corpses everywhere. There was the decomp room where bodies are in various states of decomposition. In the operating theater there were six or eight bodies out on tables. Gary Telgenhoff, one of the medical examiners, gave me an A+. The day before, I was riding with Yolanda McCleary, the senior crime scene analyst who my character is based on, when a call came in about a dead body at the Hard Rock so we went to the hotel room. I was part of the whole process and I was able to follow it through to the end because I was there for his autopsy the next day. It takes about two weeks to get the toxicology reports back, unlike our show where we get results in 20 minutes, which probably makes law enforcement resent us to a certain degree because the public says, ‘They solve it that fast on CSI, why can’t you?’ The show has made science class the hottest thing; another thing I never would have imagined.
MR: How was it losing William Petersen who has been on the show with you from beginning and to now be working with Laurence Fishburne who is such a consummate actor?
MH: It was hard to see Billy go. We shared so many scenes and downtime together. We’re very fond of each other, but I knew he didn’t want to be there anymore. Laurence Fishburne was at the top of my list and the producers’ to replace Billy. I’ve been a fan of his for years. He’s an amazingly cool, confident guy.
MR: What would you like to do after CSI?
MH: Go back to the theatre. It’s been so long since I’ve done a full-blown production. There’s nothing like the rehearsal process, discovering the character and the excitement of performing live.
MR: Mother’s Day is this month. You portrayed Patsy Ramsey, the mother of JonBenet Ramsey, in the CBS miniseries Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. Did you meet her?
MH: I was excited that the Ramsey family was interested in meeting us; but it never happened, which I regret. Before I played the part I had to clear my head because I was judgmental and thought her decision to have JonBenet in those pageants was bad parenting and that was a bad place to start acting from.
MR: Do you have a favorite quote?
MH: There’s a quote in the book The Believers that I like. “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusion and without becoming disillusioned.”
MR: In 2003 you were asked to pose for Playboy magazine. Why did you turn it down?
MH: It’s just not me. It would have mortified my son.
MR: Spoken like a true mother. Happy Mother’s Day, Marg.