THE SCOTSMAN – INTERVIEW WITH MARG
February 7, 2011
By LISA MARKS
You don’t have to dissect actress Marg Helgenberger to know that her years on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the world’s most successful TV franchise, have been good to her.
She’s looking stunning at 52, with glowing skin and a yoga-toned body that any woman half her age would be proud of. But after 11 emotional years playing crime scene investigator Catherine Willows, it seems that she’s ready to move on.
Wearing a tailored black suit and heels, she leans back in her chair at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, a look of sadness flickering across her face.
Yes, it’s the end of an era but, as the wistful look dissolves into a broad smile, she reveals that she’s actually relieved that her time on this much-loved crime show is coming to an end.
In a move that will crush her devoted legions of fans, TV’s highest paid woman (she makes a whopping £236,000 per episode) is saying goodbye to Las Vegas, the cast and crew of CSI, and more pertinently, a filming schedule that would make an Olympian shudder.
“We start shooting in mid July and go until the end of April the following year,” she explains.
“The days on set run to a minimum of 12 hours. Thank goodness it’s an ensemble which means we don’t work every day, but the pace is relentless. And these are the easy years.”
“In the beginning we were working 16 hours a day and that’s no life at all, but I was ten years younger and could cope. Also, we were running on adrenaline because there was a lot of attention on the show, everyone was excited and we were the new hot thing.”
Even though the detailed forensic storylines and unique style of shooting were an untested formula, Helgenberger never had any doubt about the show’s success. “Procedurals”, as they are called in the TV business, are now commonplace but back in 2000, CSI was considered ground-breaking drama.
Helgenberger was cast fresh from her supporting role alongside Julia Roberts, as sick housewife Donna Jensen in Erin Brockovich.
Although she wasn’t a box office name, she was well known in the film and TV world for her roles on China Beach and ER. Instinctively, the Nebraska native knew that CSI was something special.
“We shot the pilot in March and April of 2000, and it went on the air in the fall,” she recalls. “I had very high hopes for the show because I really believed in it from the get go. And I’m so glad that I wasn’t wrong in my belief but you know, it has surpassed even what I thought it was going to do. Not only has it become a global sensation but it’s inspired a generation of young people to become criminologists.”
Naturally, during the course of the past decade, Helgenberger’s life has changed dramatically. Her son Hughie, 20, is now at college, and a year ago, she separated from the actor Alan Rosenberg, her husband of 19 years.
She admits that these two events are factors in her decision to move on, adding: “The thought that I was spending more time as Catherine than myself scared me sometimes. Yes, it’s physically taxing, but my decision has less to do with my dissatisfaction with the show, and more to do with me getting the real itch to do other things and to explore other aspects of my life.”
Walking away from a bumper pay cheque though, can’t be easy. She smiles at the mention of money and understands why people might think she’s crazy to leave such a well-paid job.
“I don’t really think about the money side of things but my husband and I split, and any time there’s a divorce, there’s also a separation of assets as Californian law dictates,” she explains.
“Some of the guys who handle my portfolio were in town recently. They sat down with me and said, ‘This is how much money you’ve earned after the divorce and this what you still owe on the house, so if you continue to earn this, this is how it will multiply’.
“They were giving me the facts and I was going, ‘Oh right, okaaaay,’ because it is a lot of money that I make. I worked my way up to it, of course, and the show is a huge hit.
“But I know they don’t pay the money like they used to in TV any more, certainly in the beginning they don’t. So if I did another television series again, they wouldn’t match my salary now. But I haven’t been completely foolish with it. I’ll be OK.”
So what exactly might that much-anticipated next move be? An action movie or another TV show? Surprisingly, Helgenberger has her sights set on the London stage.
“I’m open to anything but I don’t want to work just to work. One of the luxuries of doing a show as long as I’ve been doing it is that I’ve saved money, so I can wait to find a role that interests me,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“But I was in London last year on my break and I saw an American play that my friend from North Western University had written. I see a lot of theatre in New York but hadn’t been to London theatre in six years and found it incredibly exciting.”
“I leaned across and whispered to my boyfriend, ‘I’ve just got to do a play in London. As soon as I get home I’m going to call my agent’. And I did. My manager was there recently and she took a few meetings. She said I should go to London and express my interest in what types of part I would want, and find out what their seasons are like. So I’m getting the ball moving in that direction. But you know, it’s got to be something wonderful. It would be a huge commitment of time away from my life in California and my son, but I love the idea of the challenge.”
The internet is buzzing with rumours about how Helgenberger might leave the show. Many fans are worried that Catherine might meet a grisly end but Helgenberger is emphatic that Catherine’s final scenes won’t involve her laying stone-cold on a slab.
“I don’t want to see that either,” she smiles, with obvious affection for her character. “Of course I’ve thought about her leaving scenario, and even though I haven’t discussed it with Carol (Mendelsohn, executive producer of the CSI franchise and, from how the cast talk about her, their trusted mother hen], we have a broad idea of how she would leave the show.”
Could she gives us a teeny-weeny clue? She laughs. “Well, it would involve her going back to her roots. She’s a Vegas girl born and bred, and her father was a casino mogul, so I think that she might be looking for a career change.”
Not that the producers are letting her go without a fight. Mendelsohn freely admits that she will do anything to get Helgenberger to stay. She’s even brought in a love interest, Detective Vartann, played by Alex Carter, to give Catherine’s character more depth.
“I really don’t want her to leave. And we will try everything to make her stay,” exclaims Mendelsohn, who oversees the entire CSI franchise, including the Miami and New York shows. “And yes, I freely admit that we gave her a love interest to keep her in the show!”
Helgenberger’s departure means that she’s now following in the footsteps of audience favourites William Petersen and Gary Dourdan, leaving a big gap in the show’s line-up. Bringing in Laurence Fishburne, who plays Dr Raymond Langston, three seasons ago was a masterstroke from the producers but does Mendelsohn feel she still has the ability to hold on to her big stars?
“We write for our actors. We want to excite them so that they have a great experience every episode, and so they want to come to work and feel challenged,” she says. “I don’t want any of our characters to leave the fold. Jorja (Fox) did, and she ended up coming back. Hopefully that will be the case in the future – no-one will ever leave for good.”
Which begs the question – how does a show, as long-running and successful as CSI, convince its audience to keep watching? Does Mendelsohn wake up in a cold sweat at night thinking about ratings?
“CSI has always flown under the radar, it’s been the little engine that could,” she says.
“We get knocked all the time, and you know we’re not going to have the same demographic as, say, Grey’s Anatomy, but being under the radar can serve you well. It’s such a strong show with such a big international premise, that I don’t think we’ve ever felt compelled to reinvent it. We try to evolve the show. Fortunately, the DNA of CSI is still very solid.
We’re aware that people have been watching the show for ten years, and I suppose boredom could set in, and they could watch something else but we try to write the best stories. I think if you can do that, and have a great cast, you can succeed.”
It sounds easier than it is. Clearly the people who work on CSI have very little time for anything else in their lives. Mendelsohn agrees.
“Even families of people who work in TV don’t get how hard it is, the long, long days, going episode after episode. I spend most of my Saturdays with Don (McGill, the show’s executive producer) going over scripts.
“To really have a hit show you have to open your veins and bleed. It takes a certain kind of individual – maybe a sick individual – to be wanting to do that 50 weeks out of the year. And on CSI, everyone from crew to cast, to Jerry Bruckheimer and the executives at the studios, are willing to do anything for the show to make it better. I’ve been on a lot of good TV shows but I’ve never seen a group of people as dedicated as this.”
Which makes it even more poignant that their most beloved cast member is leaving. Helgenberger’s co-star and original cast member, George Eads, who plays Nick Stokes, agrees.
“Marg and I did a scene the other day where we’re pulling up to this park, getting out of the car, and finding this pedophile. But in between takes, we’re just sitting in the car together and it’s just us two. Those are the times really when you have these little moments with your co-stars, so Marg goes, ‘How many times have we done this, George?’ And I started laughing.
“I said, ‘You know, I’m really going to miss you.’ And we both started to get emotional there for a minute. And I said, ‘I get separation anxiety every time you guys talk about leaving,’ whether it be Jorja or Billy or Gary. It’s rough. It will be tough.”
So when the director yells cut for the last time, how exactly is Helgenberger going to feel? She looks wistful before saying: “I think any actor on, no matter what it is, even if it’s like a play that you’ve been doing, like a small run on something, everybody always feels that letdown,” she says.
“Even if you are glad that it’s over, you’re glad because you were tired or whatever, you still have that letdown. And this show is 11 years of my life. This is substantial. When it comes to an end, it will definitely be a big, big deal.”