You might say Marg Helgenberger has always been a shapeshifter.
During her youth in a small farming community in Nebraska, she spent time in dusty fields harvesting beans and corn. She did a stint as a lifeguard. She was a weather person at the local news station. She even worked at a meatpacking plant. When she made it to Hollywood, the menagerie of characters continued. Only, now, they were fictional — an amateur cop, a heroin-addicted prostitute, a novelist, a widow, a showgirl turned blood splatter analyst.
Most recently, Helgenberger inhabited the role of a woman named Hannah in the heartwarming comedy-drama A Dog’s Journey, out now on Digital and Blu-ray. And, starting Sept. 23, she’ll be making her return to TV in CBS’ new courthouse drama All Rise.
But for all the skins she’s slipped into and subsequently shed over nearly four decades as an actor (and the time before), Helgenberger is disarmingly singular in real life. Just Marg, calling to chat from her personal phone. No intermediaries. No facades. Just Marg.
She’s at the point in her career where she can be more selective with the projects she tackles, something she’s quick to express gratitude for. We get the sense she’s not a woman who takes her good fortune for granted and — when we get the chance to explore her recent and upcoming roles — it doesn’t take long for Helgenberger to confirm our suspicions.
Read on for our conversation with the CSI alum to find out what draws her to projects these days and why she’ll always be proud of her time as Catherine Willows.
SheKnows: You’ve got another episodic TV series on CBS rapidly approaching with All Rise. We can’t tell you how excited we are to see this series filled with strong, complex female characters. Can you tell us about yours?
Marg Helgenberger: The role of Judge Benner, which is who I play, is not necessarily a significant role in terms of dialogue, in terms of scenes. But she’s quite a presence. She’s a supervising producer, so she’s in charge of all of the judges within the LA county courthouse. But she’s also been a champion of the character Lola Carmichael, which is the central character played by Simone Missick. [Judge Brenner] championed her, as a prosecutor, to be the next judge within our court system. So, in my role, I occasionally do don the black robe and get to adjudicate. You know, bang the gavel.
SK: Well, now we have gavel envy. This all sounds very exciting.
MH: I’ve never played a judge before — in my 37-year career! I’ve actually only played, that I can recall, one attorney and that wasn’t even for the closing arguments and opening statements. It was kind of a bittersweet rom-com I did, like, 20-something years ago… a lifetime. I’ve done a lot of order, right? But there’s never been a lot of law. (laughs)
SK: Aside from the allure of the black robe and gavel, what drew you to this particular role?
MH: The writing of the script is what got my attention first. I just thought the dialogue was so smart. The characters all had their own voice. And it was engaging, from almost page one — which isn’t always the case with a pilot script. So, I’m thrilled about having this opportunity. To work with some wonderful actors and some great writers is just a whole lot of fun.
SK: You’ve been the female lead in a series before, but you describe this as more of a secondary role — and we love that you gravitate to the show because of how many other strong female characters there are. What is it like being on board in that capacity?
MH: I come in and do my thing. It’s kind of nice. I’m not carrying the show by any stretch of the imagination, but I come in and get to say something smart. Sometimes very pointed, but I have a sense of humor about it. I’m certainly steering the ship of the judicial pool, and I’m really enjoying it.
SK: You’ve said before you enjoy having a strong esprit de corps, which it sounds like you’ve found with All Rise. But you’re part of another incredible (albeit a different type of) female ensemble, right?
MH: I’m in a documentary called This Changes Everything [out now in limited theaters], which shines a light on gender inequality. Just the vast amount of talent interviewed for this documentary is astounding. There are so many women either sharing anecdotes about their experiences in the business or just saying how to really affect change in Hollywood and throughout all industries. Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes, Rosario Dawson, Sandra Oh — the list goes on and on, so I’m really proud to be a part of that.
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SK: This documentary was produced by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Can you sum up the backstory?
MH: Geena started this institute because, while watching cartoons when her daughter was a toddler, she noticed there were not nearly as many female characters as male characters. So, she started an institute to analyze the data from TV and film to see how many positive female characters there were, which turned out to be vastly inferior to the male characters. The institute then explores how those characters can influence girls and young women to go into that particular career field.
SK: You probably didn’t realize it at the time of the role, but your Catherine Willows from CSI was a trailblazer in terms of female TV figures. How does that make you feel, especially in light of your work on this documentary?
MH: My character’s career on CSI inspired legions of girls and young women to become criminalists, which is still one of the things I’m most proud of. I still have girls coming up to me — still! Rerun, syndicated, Netflix, whatever…. they watch the show and come up to me, especially preteens and early teens. They’re obsessed with that show, they’re obsessed with the science, and they’re obsessed with following the evidence. It’s fascinating.
A Dog’s Journey is now available on Digital and Blu-ray via Amazon and other retailers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.