THE SWEET SPOT
By Jamie Diamond
She’s got a huge hit, a wicked wit, and one of Hollywood’s more enduring marriages. No wonder Marg Helgenberger feels sexier than ever at 48.
Her Role on CSI
When Marg Helgenberger plays the forensic detective Catherine Willows on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, she rarely laughs. How can she, when she’s usually up to her elbows in a cadaver? But now, seated for lunch in a sedate Santa Monica restaurant, her light auburn hair making her eyes look an even deeper shade of blue, she is shaking with the kind of I-really-shouldn’t-but-I-can’t-help-it laughter that makes a person gasp for breath. Finally she regains her self-possession, and with her slim hands — you could almost slip a napkin ring around her wrist — she smoothes an invisible wrinkle in the tablecloth. “I guess I was being naive,” she says.
She was chatting one night with David Letterman on his show, you see, telling him about researching her CSI role with a real forensic investigator at a Las Vegas robbery scene. The robbery victim, who was a woman in her late 60s, mentioned that she threw “fun parties” and opened a door to reveal a cabinet full of sex toys, which Helgenberger proceeded to describe to Letterman.
“So I innocently said ‘cock rings,'” she recalls with a shrug. Letterman, looking completely shocked, recovered by pouring them each a shot from a bottle labeled Wild Turkey. “I had no idea if it was going to be bourbon or not; I just thought, I’m going to go for it. It was apple juice,” continues Helgenberger, who knew her words might get bleeped from the broadcast. (They were.) “Dave tossed his shot back and made a face and said, ‘So then what happened?’ “
Helgenberger, who grew up in a minuscule Nebraska farm town and attended Catholic church every Sunday, draws the moment out. Sitting in the restaurant, wearing jeans, a scoop-neck aqua blouse, and delicate opal earrings — a gift from her husband, actor Alan Rosenberg (Civil Wars, The Guardian) — she appears particularly dainty. Then she delivers the punch line: “I said, ‘Well, Dave, naturally we dusted the cock rings for fingerprints.'” She waits for this to sink in, and then breaks into peals of laughter.
And that’s Helgenberger: earthy and elegant, rebellious and innocent, all at the same time. “She’s drop-dead gorgeous, and she’s got something going on underneath. She’s got a bit of the devil inside her,” says Liev Schreiber, who was featured in four episodes of CSI last season. “She’s a rock-and-roll chick from the Midwest, with a ribald sense of humor. She cracked me up the whole time we were shooting.”
At age 48 — well into the Bermuda Triangle for many actresses — Helgenberger is flying high in her eighth season as a lead on CBS’s most popular drama, a show seen by about 20 million people a week. She has earned multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of sexy-steely Catherine Willows, and she has succeeded in bringing a bit of personality to what is basically a classic police procedural. “I had a lot more opportunities last season, and the people on the show have all been very open to suggestions,” she says. “But you have to stay within the formula. It’s very cerebral.”
Cerebral is something that Helgenberger, who has also had roles in Species, Erin Brockovich, and In Good Company, does especially well. “You can see her thinking and feeling things; it’s not necessarily in the lines, which are minimal on CSI,” says Martha Coolidge, who directed her in two episodes last season. “So much more is going on for her.” Indeed — her hyper-competent character is a single mother and former exotic dancer. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Helgenberger’s other signature role, the prostitute-madam K.C. Koloski on the acclaimed series China Beach, was also a potent mixture of sensuality and hardheadedness. It’s a duality that the actress embodies herself. “The first time you meet her, there’s a mystery there,” says her husband. “And once you uncover that, you find a willingness to play. She’s comfortable hanging around that kind of joking, unbridled male energy.” Adds Coolidge, “She has that Catholic thing about being proper and fun at the same time.”
On Balancing Work and Family
Her sense of fun and feistiness came relatively late, Helgenberger says. “As a girl, I played by the rules and behaved myself. I didn’t rock the boat.” The middle child of a school nurse and a meat inspector living in North Bend, Nebraska, she started working at age 11, weeding the fields of a soybean farm. “I wanted to buy things I knew my parents couldn’t afford,” she says, “like albums and costume jewelry.” Later, she moved up to being a lifeguard and a swimming teacher, and on breaks from college, she worked at a meatpacking plant. When asked where in rural Nebraska she got her image of femininity, Helgenberger (whose first name, pronounced with a hard g, is short for Mary Marg) looks puzzled. “I sort of knew what a bad girl was, which I didn’t aspire to,” she says. But as far as cool girls were concerned, “I didn’t have any role models.”
North Bend didn’t offer role models for actresses, either. Helgenberger stumbled into acting in grade school and discovered she was good at it; star turns in high school productions led her to the theater arts program at Kearney State College and then to Northwestern. “All of a sudden, I didn’t have to go to church every Sunday,” she says with a grin. “I went to clubs and heard live music and had a good time. I wasn’t a particularly good student. I was focusing on doing plays and musicals.” Her focus paid off: After being spotted by a talent scout, she landed in New York on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope, playing undercover cop Siobhan Ryan Novak.
Helgenberger moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and won an Emmy for China Beach four years later. “She’s very serious about her craft but not pretentious about how she approaches it,” says John Wells, a producer of China Beach and later the executive producer of ER, on which Helgenberger romanced George Clooney’s Doug Ross. “I think she learned the same thing that George Clooney learned early on, which is if you have looks like that, you’d better make fun of yourself or nobody’s going to be your friend.”
Her lack of pretension is something her husband appreciated right away. The two met on the set of Ryan’s Hope but didn’t start dating until they ran across each other in an L.A. bank several years later. They have now been married for 18 years, which, Rosenberg says, is “like 133 years in Hollywood time.” It was a case of opposites attracting: She is fair-haired, Catholic, and Midwestern; he is dark-haired, Jewish, and from New Jersey. “I kind of like people wondering how I ended up with her,” he says. “I’m grateful for the fact that she didn’t think she had to find some hunky stud. She understood my sense of humor. That’s how we fell in love.”
“He still makes me laugh,” Helgenberger says, “and he’s a genuinely good, kind, caring person.” The couple eloped in 1989, in part because “it was never a fantasy of mine to have a big ceremony with the gown and the whole bit.”
A year later, they had a son, Hugh, named after Helgenberger’s father. When Hugh was 13, Helgenberger wanted him to have a bar mitzvah. Although she was no longer a practicing Catholic, she valued the sense of morality and spirituality that catechism class had given her, and she wanted Hugh to be similarly grounded. “It’s a nice rite of passage,” she says. “Your family members and friends all share in this experience … and I can’t believe I’m crying about it!” She wipes away a tear and laughs.
Hugh, now a 17-year-old high school senior, is involved in the tense process of getting into college. “I’m trying not to get all worked up over it,” says Helgenberger, adding with characteristic dryness, “he’ll go someplace.” As for how her life will change when he leaves home, she protests with a laugh, “Oh, I’m not going there yet!”
The only female in a household of males (including a large dog, a Vizsla-Ridgeback mix that the family rescued), Helgenberger had not intended for Hugh to be an only child. “By the time Alan and I said, ‘Let’s try for another,’ I couldn’t get pregnant.” Starting at age 39, she went through fertility treatments but stopped short of in vitro, deciding to let nature take its course. “I figured if it happens, it happens,” she says. “It didn’t happen.” Later, after her career moved into high gear, she considered adopting. “And then I thought, I feel guilty that I don’t spend enough time with my one child. Can I do this to another one?” Which led to a further realization: “Do I really want to be in my 60s and have a teenager?” She shakes her head.
It is she, not her husband, who is the disciplinarian. “I’m the one saying, ‘Wait until your mother gets home,'” Rosenberg says. “Hugh would be a mess if it weren’t for her.”
Helgenberger is also the main breadwinner in the family; Rosenberg has spent much of the past two years serving as national president of the Screen Actors Guild, a job that, although powerful and stressful (guild members are facing the possibility of a strike against the studios next year), is unpaid. He is running for reelection in September. “He’s a very smart guy in ways that he doesn’t always get to use as an actor,” Helgenberger says.
Asked whether the earnings discrepancy bothers her, she shrugs. “I think it bothers him from time to time. It doesn’t bother me in the least.”
Despite her best efforts, Helgenberger, who sometimes works 14-hour days (and many nights) on the CSI set, worries that she’s not doing enough for the family. “Once I come home,” she says, “I need to compensate, or overcompensate, for the time I’ve spent away. But then again, I’m Catholic.” She laughs. “I draw guilt out of the air.”
Even so, she loves the buzz that comes with being a star on a top-five show. “I’m enjoying the attention and the power,” she says. “It can do a lot for your ego. And I feel sexier now than I did when I was 28. I’m more competent, more relaxed, and less frazzled.”
With lunch finished, Helgenberger, who exercises about an hour and a half every day, has a bike ride planned. To pick up some extra layers of clothing, she stops by her pied-a-terre at the beach, a single room with a big white bed and a small white couch facing a floor-to-ceiling view of the ocean. (The family’s home is elsewhere in Santa Monica.)
She grabs a hoodie and a windbreaker, and she’s ready to roll. The conversation along the bike path turns toward jewelry — not the three piercings she has in her left ear but the toe ring she had custom made for her role on ER, which she still wears. “I was playing George Clooney’s love interest — I mean, come on! I had the ring made because I knew we were going to have love scenes.”
A little further down the path, it becomes apparent that her tires need air. So Helgenberger pulls into a bike shop and tries to pump them up. Whatever she’s doing, though, is letting more air out. Finally she gets the lowdown on nozzle technology from another bike rider. “Hey,” the man says, seemingly as an afterthought. “I think you look like somebody I see in the movies.”
She flashes him a smile, then says softly, “I just might be,” and rides off, playful, alluring, and mysterious, all at the same time.
A scan of this article can be found here