CSI SHOCKER: MARG HELGENBERGER CONSIDERS LEAVING POPULAR TV DRAMA AT SEASON’S END
by Alex Strachan, Postmedia News
November 6, 2010
Marg Helgenberger may have cleaned up after her last body on CSI, the veteran TV actress told a handful of visiting journalists this weekend.
Helgenberger’s character, crime-scene investigator Catherine Willows, has been a mainstay of one of TV’s most-watched primetime dramas since its premiere on Oct. 6, 2000. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is now in its 11th season.
Helgenberger is contracted to appear until the end of this season. She was in a position to leave last year, but signed a one-year contract extension.
“It’s not that I feel disappointed or don’t like the show anymore, or am in any way unhappy,” said a reflective, soft-spoken Helgenberger. “It’s really just more about me, as an actor and as a person, realizing it’s time to kind of switch it off and see what else is out there.”
Helgenberger won a 1990 Emmy for China Beach, and had supporting roles in the feature films Bad Boys, Species and The Cowboy Way before signing on to do CSI. She also appeared in the Oscar-nominated film Erin Brockovich, opposite Julia Roberts.
After 11 seasons of CSI, the time has just flown by, Helgenberger said. “My son was nine when we started the show,” she said quietly. “He’s now 20. Eleven years goes by, just like that. I can’t believe it, honestly.”
Helgenberger is presently enjoying one of her most creatively satisfying seasons. Her character was elevated to team leader following William Petersen’s departure last season. Willows is also presently involved in a romantic liaison — this, in a series that prides itself on focusing on the mystery at hand, rarely going home with its characters. These are the kinds of things that keep an actor engaged in a long-running series. All that eventually has to come to an end, though.
“I’m ready for a new chapter,” Helgenberger said. “The hardest part, of course, will be saying goodbye to everyone I’ve worked with all these years, because we’re really a family.”
Ironically, the real-life Las Vegas crime-lab investigator Helgenberger worked with while researching the role recently retired from field work.
“A week ago, in fact,” Helgenberger said. “At the age of 47. It is a hard job. It takes its toll. Your adrenalin is at such a high level of intensity, it finally stops. You get burned out so easily, because you’re dealing with death and decay, and these terrible, heinous crimes. All the time.
“I think what kept her going as long as she did was that, like most people in that job, she was fascinated by the mystery, the puzzle. They never lose sight of the idea that this tiny lead, this tiny clue, can lead to the killer. It’s something I couldn’t do. I think there’s a part of them that can shut part of their brain off and just focus on the puzzle solving, and that’s not me.”
One of the things Helgenberger appreciates most about her years on CSI is that she has been able to play a woman-in-authority who is a role model for young women considering a career in forensic science. Young women working in the field have often told Helgenberger that Catherine Willows is the the reason they opted for a career in science and forensic pathology.
“I still think back to those first few seasons, which were dizzying and exciting. CSI was kind of a game-changer at the time, in terms of episodic television and crime shows. I never would have expected the kind of global phenomenon the show has become. I wouldn’t have expected that there’d be this term called ‘the CSI effect,’ or that they’re teaching it in junior high-school in the science programs to help kids become interested in science, by making this stuff fun.”
CSI is a global sensation. As of 2009, it was estimated to have a worldwide following of more than 70 million viewers. It has won the Monte Carlo International Television Festival’s Audience Award for outstanding drama three times and remains one of North America’s most-watched primetime programs. CSI airs on CTV in Canada, and CBS in the United States.
If Helgenberger exits the scene at the season’s end, that will leave Jorja Fox, George Eads and recurring players Paul Guilfoyle, Eric Szmanda, Robert David Hall, David Berman and Wallace Langham as the only holdovers from CSI’s first season. Fox left briefly last year, but returned this season.
The hardest season for Helgenberger was the first.
“The hours are long,” she explained.” There are a lot of moving parts. You’re trying to understand what the tone of the show is; the cinematographer has to figure out how to shoot the show and how to light it; the writers have to figure out how to write it; the chemistry of the cast is still being settled. The time just flies by.
“But it gets easier. It’s not nearly as difficult or challenging now as it has been. And, for me, it’s an ensemble show. An ensemble show is the only way to do episodic television because otherwise you’re just killing yourself. If you’re the single lead on a show, it’s just — wow. That’s no life, really. I don’t think anybody can handle that for any length of time. . . . If you’re always fatigued because you’re physically taxed and mentally taxed, I think it shows onscreen.”
Thankfully, CSI never got to that point, Helgenberger says.
“I hesitate to use the word ‘toll,'” Helgenber said, with a gentle laugh. “Because if I were an actor and I heard me complaining, I’d slap me. You know what I mean? Because so many actors would like to be in my shoes, to have had been on a hit TV show for 11 seasons.
“I’m just glad that the show has such an impact, and has had such an impact, that we’re still in the Top 10, and we still get along, and the show is still of great quality.”