Q&A: Marg Helgenberger, Northwestern alumna and ‘CSI’ star


Photo courtesy of Marg Helgenberger

Emmy Award-winning actress Marg Helgenberger will return to Evanston to receive the 2012 Alumnae Award.

Junnie Kwon, Reporter

Marg Helgenberger, otherwise known as exotic-dancer-turned-forensic-scientist Catherine Willows on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” has won numerous accolades including an Emmy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a People’s Choice Award. The Nebraska native grew up in a small town where she attended a state college before transferring to Northwestern her junior year and graduating from the School of Communication in 1982. NU welcomes her back this Sunday at the Hilton Garden Inn Evanston to receive the 2012 Alumnae Award. Before her return to campus, Marg spoke with The Current about leaving “CSI,” her hometown and being an NU student.

The Current: What have you been up to since leaving “CSI?”

Marg Helgenberger: Oh, gosh, a variety of things … I’m quite involved in breast cancer advocacy. This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and so I currently have a PSA that’s airing and the proceeds for a sale of a shopping bag at certain grocery stores goes towards Stand Up To Cancer. … I also have done a lot of traveling. I am getting ready to do the play “The Exonerated” in New York. … I actually sort of feel like I’m becoming a student again, because I currently am in meditation workshops and I’m starting a master class in acting with this great teacher from New York (in November). So I manage to keep myself pretty busy.

Current: Tell me about your decision to leave the show.

Helgenberger: I had a very difficult time leaving the show. Career-wise, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because I spent many years with that group of people. … It’s a real family that you establish once you get on a television show that’s up and running … And what attributes to some of its success is how tight the ensemble of people is, and I’m not just referring to the cast, I’m referring to everyone: the writers, directors and crew and all the production heads. You become a well-oiled machine and you become very proud of what you do. …  I love the work environment, I love the work atmosphere, I love the collaboration, but I felt compelled to step back and move on.

Current: Now that it’s been a couple of months since you left, do you have any new reflections about your experience on the show?

Helgenberger: (During) those first few seasons (of “CSI”) when we were working very long hours and lots of nights — the show is supposedly set at night, because we’re supposed to be the graveyard unit of the crime lab — we shot in insane locations in the middle of nowhere. In retrospect, I just wonder how I did it and how I got through it. My son was much, much younger then and I wasn’t able to sleep in past a certain time, even though I was coming home at five o’clock in the morning. And those were just crazy times, but it was also fueled by the excitement of the show because it became globally successful.

Current: You’ve played many love interests in your career. Which actor was the most fun to work with in romantic roles?

Helgenberger: I loved working with Kevin Costner. He was one of my favorites, actually, because he’s very, very inclusive. He was very interested in what I had to say about the scene and there was something different about Kevin. He has an incredible boyish charm and I think he’s got great taste. Even though it was a relatively small role I had opposite him in “Mr. Book,” we were husband and wife, you have to explore so much history in a short period of time. You end up having a much more intense, intimate experience when the cameras are rolling, and even in between takes, you have an intense, intimate experience.

Current: What is it like to have a street named after you in your hometown of North Bend, Neb.?

Helgenberger: It really is pretty special. When I went back for the unveiling of it, which was about five years ago, I was very touched by it. A lot of people turned out, and there was a program up at my high school where the students were doing scenes from shows that I had done.

Current: Tell me about your experience as a student at NU.

Helgenberger: I knew I had to step up my game when I got to Northwestern, academically as well as knowing that I was competing against kids that were from New York and LA. It was a bit (intimidating), because they had their resumes and eight-by-tens. Nonetheless, I started auditioning and getting cast, and I was busy between classes and work-study. It was a very intense two years that I spent in Evanston. They didn’t give transfer students the same treatment as freshmen, so I had to stay at a dormitory at Kendall College. But it was a perfectly fine home for me. I had a wonderful time there.

Current: Are there any particular plays that were your favorites?

Helgenberger: I’m thinking of two in particular, which were game-changers for me. I played Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and just playing that role, as an actor, it was expansive and extremely challenging. In playing that role, and understanding that character and trying to bring it alive, it made me realize that I perhaps could actually do this for a living. And then I played Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew” after my senior year during the summer. It was pivotal for me, because I was seen by a casting agent, which eventually led to a screen test and a job on a soap opera called “Ryan’s Hope.”

Current: What was your reaction when you found out you were the recipient of the 2012 Alumnae Award?

Helgenberger: First off, I’m very flattered and honored that they would think of me for that award and I’m very touched by it. I’ve come back to school a few times since I graduated and I always enjoy working with the students. I think the last time was when I worked with the graduate students who had just all written plays, and I got signed to be a part of these stage readings, and it was just this great fun. I love being around students, young minds and hearing what excites them. All in all I was just really thrilled.