Marg Helgenberger Talks About a Decade of 'CSI'
by Gabrielle Dunn, posted May 6th 2010 1:20PM
After the departure of her long-time partner last season, Marg Helgenberger's 'CSI' character, Catherine Willows, was promoted to the position of supervisor. But to fans, she's stepped up into another role: the heart of the show.
It's a good place to be: 'CSI', which has become an international phenomenon and three-show franchise, will soon celebrate its 10-year anniversary.
As the May 20 finale approaches, Helgenberger talked to TV Squad about her favorite 'CSI' memories, Catherine's flirtation with Det. Vartann and her summer travel plans. She also revealed her possible departure from the show: her contract is up after this season and that she hasn't yet been asked back.
Ten years ago, when you signed on to 'CSI,' did you ever think it would become such a long-running phenomenon?
I initially thought that it was a hit after reading it because I thought it was an interesting take on crime-solving and the use of all the special effects and the 21st century technology and what came to be known as the "'CSI' shot" -- traveling through the body and all of that ... I knew there was an enormous chemistry between the cast. And because I'd been around before -- I'd done a series 20 years ago called 'China Beach' -- so I knew in my opinion ... what the audience might like, what the audience is hungry for.
I think a good mystery show will always be in vogue it's just a matter of how you execute it and this was 21st century Sherlock Holmes. But having said that, I would never have guessed it would have gone 10 years. I would never have guessed it would become a show that would inspire young people to become criminalists and a show that became the vernacular in jury trials, you know, "the 'CSI effect'" -- when it becomes larger than pop culture and becomes part of historical culture.
Catherine Willows is one of the few strong female characters in TV crime dramas. Do you take into account her position as a potential role model for young women?
Oh, of course, yeah. Especially when playing a long-running role, you want to be sure it's perhaps a character that is a role model and certainly a character that gives off the impression of somebody who's together -- confident and strong and smart and also sexual. It's important to show a lot of aspects when you're doing this on a weekly basis.
How much longer would you do 'CSI'?
My contract is up actually. That's a good question. I haven't been asked back so we'll see.
Would you like to see more of Catherine's relationship with her daughter, Lindsay?
I hope so. I mean, if I am coming back. Who knows? But I would love that ... Now [Lindsay's] going to be heading into college and my [real-life] son is in college, so I know that age group to a certain degree, obviously. [I'd like to show] that side of Catherine, more of her vulnerable side and her maternal side. I love the actress that plays her, Kay Panabaker.
Catherine has a bit of a flirtation/relationship with Detective Vartann. Is that something that will continue?
I think it's something that will continue ... It probably won't develop into something that you see every episode and it certainly wouldn't turn into any kind of soap opera situation. Any time we do that, I think it kind of takes away from the crux of the show because it's always about the mystery and the crime-solving. I'd much prefer it to be about her supervisorial situation and what kind of a leader she is ... as opposed to her personal life.
Was their relationship planned or was it based on chemistry between the characters?
Actually, it was planned by the writers. Carol Mendelsohn, the executive producer of the show, she had called me and said, "You know, we're thinking of having Catherine have a relationship with Detective Vartann. How do you feel about that?" I really like the actor that plays him, Alex Carter, so I said, "I think it's a great idea." Because I think we're both adults and I think we're obviously involved in a lot of crime scenes, yet we're both very professional about it. We're not young enough that it can lead to some kind of strange vibes. I think that's the most important thing -- that we're adult about it and we're both mature, sexual people.
Has Catherine changed since she took on the supervisor role?
Yeah, definitely. Subtly, but yes, I definitely feel that Catherine's more confident than she was certainly in the beginning. when Grissom left, I think there was a part of her that felt -- and I think all the other characters felt it as well -- a void because he was quite a genius at what he did ... but I also think that Catherine has come to realize that she was Grissom's right-hand man -- right hand woman -- just really had his back and he never had to doubt that.
I think what Catherine has done is really take the qualities that she really respected and admired of Grissom's and leave behind the ones that didn't work ... I think she's a much more inclusive leader than he is. He'd get on a role and have some kind of tunnel vision and sort of forget about the rest of us, and Catherine's always thinking about the team.
What can you tell us about the upcoming season 10 finale? Is there a cliffhanger or does it wrap everything up?
Well, definitely the plot of the Dr. Jekyll killer ... comes in to the last two episodes. I just wrapped on Monday and it's actually an episode that I think the fans are going to be really happy with. It's one of our better season finales. It's very well-written, very well-crafted. Just got a lot of suspense and action. It's got complexity, it's got dark humor. There's some great dialogue. And you know, I'm proud of it. I know the producers are proud of it. It's a little of both but I won't reveal any more than that.
Would you ever consider writing or directing an episode of 'CSI'?
Wow. As with most actors that are on a television series, they feel if you have any interest in directing, it's best to do it on your show because you already have this built-in crew and they'll have your back. It would have to be the right kind of episode. There hasn't been an actor on our show that's ever done it. It's a hard show to direct.
It's not like a show ... like a 'Grey's Anatomy' that's a lot about the characters. Any show that's about the characters or is character-driven I think is much easier to direct for an actor because you really know how to play a scene, you know how to direct somebody in a scene, you know how to figure out where the highs and lows are in the dynamics of the scene whereas this show's got all these little intricate pieces between the science and the effects and the flashbacks. It's a mother of a show to direct. It's daunting and I think that's why there's never been an actor who's directed because we're all just like, "Oh, this is a little hard."
Do you have a favorite moment or episode from the past 10 years? There's got to be so many.
Oh, I know, there's been so many. Oh my gosh. Whew, wow. There's certainly episodes that I've done that were wacky and fun because sometimes those are a relief when you're doing some episodes -- especially the ones that are based on real cases. Those are very disturbing.
Do you ever look into the real-life cases before you film the episode?
It depends. There was a case -- I think it was one of our first episodes -- that I think really helped define 'CSI' and put 'CSI' on the map, it was this episode called 'Blood Drops' and a very young Dakota Fanning was on the show. I think she was five or six or something like that, and she played this just young girl who it turns out she had witnessed basically the slaughter of her family and that was based on a real case in Los Angeles. I just remember the blond hair and these big blue eyes and I remember thinking, "This is an amazing little actress."
But how we solved that particular crime was all about the trajectory of the blood drops, which is obviously heavy in forensics. It had less to do with interrogating suspects and really was very heavy in the science and forensics department and I think that really helped define 'CSI' and make it probably less of a cop show and really [demonstrate] this is a show that is kind of on the cutting edge of criminal science.
We have technical advisers and I've ridden with criminalists. My character is sort of loosely based upon Yolanda McCleary, and I've been to the morgue. I've witnessed autopsies. I mean, that's not for the weak of stomach, that's for sure. But I'm glad I did it because you spend so much time talking about this stuff and being in scenes with corpses -- obviously they're not real people or if they are, they're just asleep -- but I think it's important just to get a sense of reality.
Can you think of any specific examples?
In fact, we had this scene recently that we played where we found this kid in a drain in the sewer drain and ... there was all this rainfall and you have to bring in these huge cranes and water machines to make that happen. It's not the most comfortable scene to play because you get drenched within moments because these machines put out so much water. Between scenes there's heaters set up for us and there's hot cocoa and all that stuff.
We're hovering over these heaters to try warm ourselves and one of the guys who plays a cop is also our technical adviser Larry Mitchell; he was with the with L.A. Sheriff's Department for over 35 years both as a cop and a criminalist. And here we are complaining about the rain and being cold or something, and he says, "Oh I remember going out to the Angeles National Forest to get body dumps at 4 o'clock in the morning and it was cold, let me tell you, it was cold." And we're like, "Uh, OK [laughs]. We never had to do that."
What are your plans for the summer?
I don't have any jobs lined up. I'm doing a charity event I'd like to talk about. I'm co-hosting the Revlon Run Walk For a Cure on May 8 in Los Angeles at the Coliseum. My mother's a 30-year breast cancer survivor -- that's why I've done a lot of awareness and fundraisers for the last 20 years. It's a cause that's really important to me and I hope to be doing some traveling. I'm hoping that a friend of mine [and I are] going to be able to go to Paris and to St. Bart's, we're going to try and make that happen. Maybe go someplace with my son. I was invited to go to Rome for this television festival and that might be something that would be fun for him as well. He's been to Rome before and it's a fun, funky city.
The 'CSI' season 10 finale airs May 20 on CBS.