Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Marg Helgenberger

“I'm here to say that anybody who has doubts—because everybody has them, doubts and despair and negative thoughts—it’s always important to realize they're just thoughts and you can easily just say, ‘Go away, you're not helping me.’ Failure is just succumbing to all of that and not believing in yourself and taking chances and taking risks.” — Marg Helgenberger

When during our telephone interview, we asked Marg Helgenberger—perhaps best known for playing Catherine Willows on the original CSI for more than a decade—to tell us her origin story as an artist, she started by reciting the list of jobs she had long before she was an actor, when she was a young woman growing up in the small farming community of North Bend, Nebraska. “Pretty much what I did as a kid to make money was going in the fields—bean fields first, then the corn fields. A stint as a lifeguard, then I actually worked in a meatpacking plant, which helped finance my college education at Northwestern University.” It was that work ethic that made her parents, well at least her father, less worried than he might have been when she abandoned her plans to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a nurse to instead see where acting might take her. Helgenberger admits that she wasn’t one of those kids who’d been dreaming of being an actor since she was a toddler. She described her entrée into theater as, “I kind of got coerced into being in the speech and drama program at my high school… Somewhere along the line, I got bitten by the bug, never thinking that this was ever going to become a profession… because I didn’t know anyone personally who was a professional actor.” With an impressive IMDB listing, along with Emmy and Screen Actors Guild wins and a slew of nominations to her credit, it’s fair to say Helgenberger made the right choice. Still she’s not one to rest on her laurels, which is why even as she was building her resume in TV and film, Helgenberger also stole time when she could to work in theater, including a longish stint with a children’s theater in New York. When we caught up with Helgenberger a couple of weeks ago, she was in previews, playing Regina Giddens in Arena Stage’s current production of Lillian Helman’s The Little Foxes. Here’s Helgenberger on what she loves about working in theater, how she defines failure, and what she wishes she was better at.

NEA: You’re known primarily as a television and film actress. Why did you want to do theater?

HELGENBERGER: It's such a different experience being on the stage than being in front of the camera; in many ways, it's a lot more difficult…. You have to be very very on top of your lines. But [you] have the luxury of creating a character over a five-week rehearsal period, or longer because I started working on [The Little Foxes] before I came to Arena. The rehearsal time goes by really really quickly, and you're working with people you've never met before. But I have to say this cast has been amazing. We just had immediate chemistry; we have a lot of fun together, which is what you want. That's the experience you really want in the theater—it should be fun! It shouldn't be drudgery. I think the audience feels that.

[There is also] the opportunity to work with words that have lasted the test of time. This play is so incredibly well written and the characters are so defined. The character I play, Regina Giddens, she's considered one of the greats, iconic. She's been described in a lot of ways, and sometimes at the top of the list is monstrous bitch, but obviously an actor can't gravitate to those words because that's one-dimensional and it's selling her short. The character's far more complex and interesting than just that. She's very bright, very witty, very charming, very fascinating. She doesn't miss a beat. It's been really fun to play this character, and at times difficult, of course. Like all actors, when you're struggling with either learning the lines or trying to figure out one particular scene or the arc of the character, there's moments of doubt and even despair because you think, "What am I doing? I can't do this." But I think every actor does that from time to time, which isn't a bad thing. It's part of the creative process.

NEA: In general, what gets you to say yes to a project?

HELGENBERGER: First off, I feel really blessed and fortunate that I've worked a great deal in television and film so I can pick and choose because I don't have to take a job simply because I have bills to pay. I'm so grateful for all the opportunities I've been given. Now it's just finding things that are going to be challenging, [looking at] if you enjoy the writing, enjoy the character. That's probably way up there as to why I would choose a project. 

NEA: Your job as an artist is to step into the life of another person. What does that teach you about yourself?

HELGENBERGER: That's the ultimate question. Most actors would agree that you get to vicariously delve into a world which didn't exist prior to building this character. This includes all the research that you have to do, which in this case, is reading Lillian Hellman.... This play is set in 1900. It's past the Civil War, but it's still the deep south. There are two characters you see on stage that are servants that had once perhaps been slaves. The war's over, slavery's over, but it's important to put yourself in that world and realize how horrible it was because these people in that play, my characters, my brothers, we're not stellar people. We do a lot of nasty things…. That's the fun part about acting, that you do get to put on another mask and be somebody else and figure out what's that about. Sometimes it's tough. It's dark and you can't wait to leave that character in the past once you're done. It can bring up things in you that you didn't see before, which is also scary.

NEA: Failure is something all artists struggle with. How do you define failure in terms of your artistic work?

HELGENBERGER: I think failure is mostly when somebody doesn't believe in themselves enough to attempt something, if they're too frightened or they're too intimidated or they listen to the naysayer. I think that's really is failure—when you fail yourself. I'm here to say that anybody who has doubts—because everybody has them, doubts and despair and negative thoughts—it’s always important to realize they're just thoughts and you can easily just say, “Go away, you're not helping me.” Failure is just succumbing to all of that and not believing in yourself and taking chances and taking risks.

NEA: What's your superpower as an artist?

HELGENBERGER: I would have to say that my superpower is that I'm game. I'm adventurous, and I'm curious. I love being part of an ensemble, and that's really important to me—to have a strong esprit de corps.

NEA: What do you wish you were better at?

HELGENBERGER: Many things I wish I was better at. (laughs) I've played instruments throughout my life. I played the French horn when I was in junior high and high school, not well, but I enjoyed being in the band. It's great to take a piece of music and play along with several other people and create this sound. I play piano, not well either, and I play guitar. That's one thing I wish I was better at, that I was a better musician. I wish I was better at just living in the moment. Well, everybody can use that as something to achieve—living in the moment, staying present. And I always feel like I could be a better friend, a better person.

NEA: Why are the arts so important to your life?

HELGENBERGER: [The arts] changed my life. All of a sudden I had this world open to me that I didn't think existed. And I've had enormous fun. I've made incredible relationships. I've probably gotten a lot further than I thought I would have…. The arts are so important because they tap into everyone's creativity and everyone's imagination, which is so powerful and so strong. I think that if you don't have that in your life, it can become closed off. It opens up a great world to you and gives you power. It gives you confidence; it gives you stability. I can't imagine a world without the arts! It would be a sad world. It would be devoid of beauty and honesty and creativity. It's essential for everyone to have the arts in their lives, a necessity.

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