Marg Helgenberger‘s Catherine Willows is back to the gruesome science of crime solving.
After 13 seasons and two Emmy nominations portraying the tough-talking criminologist on CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” Helgenberger stepped down from the full-time role in 2013. The series ended its run two years later.
Now, Helgenberger, 63, has brought Willows’ unique set of skills to “CSI: Vegas” for the crime drama successor’s second season.
Even by Sin City standards, the evil hits new extremes with a hideous murder on Thursday’s Willows-focused “Vegas” episode (10 EDT/PDT) a Helgenberger showcase by “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker,
In the episode, Helgenberger handled Willows leading the intense murder investigation and the return of Willows’ estranged daughter Lindsey (Katie Stevens). At nearly the same time, she was filming scenes as a judge on “All Rise,” a short-lived CBS drama that now airs on OWN.
“I almost lost my mind. That was hard; it tore at me apart,” says Helgenberger. “But ultimately, how lucky am I to have this opportunity?”
Helgenberger spoke to USA TODAY about Willows’ return, a scuttled one-night stand and her own unexpected love. (Edited and condensed for clarity.)
Question: What changes did you make for Catherine Willows after nine years?
Marg Helgenberger: Now that I am a little older, more mature, I wanted (Catherine’s) wardrobe to be more elegant. But that quickly changed – not to what she used to wear, which was a lot of tight jeans, tight pants and boots. But it’s gone more like that, which feels more like her.
In one “Vegas” episode you discuss a device I can’t even pronounce: Roman something or other. How do you say this kind of technical dialogue?
That’s Raman spectroscopy. Some terms are challenging, requiring school-like drilling. That one wasn’t. I actually used that device in another episode with this line, “Raman spectroscopy. It’s right up there with coffee ice cream. Damn near perfect. Gives you all the facts but leaves the evidence intact.” I love it when Catherine gets excited about certain types of equipment. It’s almost like a sexual experience. And it’s not even that spectacular looking.
How is it getting used to the much bigger “Vegas” set?
It’s gigantic, five times the size of what we had, I’m still discovering rooms. It’s also super chic with all glass. They keep it so polished that one crew member literally walked into the glass. I’ve done it, too. We’ve even had a safety meeting on the glass. The key is letting your eyes adjust to the light before walking.
Did you revisit the Clark County morgue like you did when you first started on “CSI”?
I haven’t gone back to observe an autopsy. But that’s an experience you never forget, literally like a chamber of horrors with bodies at different phases of decomposition. That was invaluable experience, just for the smell and the visuals. It never leaves you. You can’t unsee that.
Why was it so emotional meeting with Zuiker for the special episode?
I hadn’t seen Anthony in a while. Since then, both his mother and my mother passed away, And I knew his mother Diane, an extraordinary woman. I said, “I just want you to know, I’m so sorry about Diane. And I’ve lost my mother.” I felt this incredible bond. Even though that plot has nothing to do with the loss of our mothers, it was Inspired by the pain and love. That what’s I channeled in this episode: My mother loved “CSI” and would have loved my return.
Catherine WIllows hasn’t carried a gun since her return. Why?
In the beginning of the season, the character was not officially hired on, so she would not be armed. But I don’t think it’s something I will be using at all. And I would like to make a stand on that; I don’t think Catherine needs to be armed. I’m sure some of that is my personal views on gun control. But if it’s called for in the scene, I would.
There’s complicated love drama in the “Vegas” office. Will Catherine get a love interest?
That’s interesting. During one of the very first conversations, Anthony asked if I’d be interested in Catherine having a one-night stand with, of course, a much younger guy in this particular episode. I thought with so much going on, it might be a little bit forced. I’m not opposed to it. But I like the serious quality of Catherine; her personal life is just that. An intimate relationship might distract from what’s important.
And there’s renewed love in your life with your April wedding (Helgenberger’s second marriage) to Charlie Haugk.
I believe in love! It came at me at an unexpected time in my life, meeting Charlie and ultimately falling in love with him on his sailboat. It’s very romantic. I’ve had a year of highs and lows. There have been three deaths I’ve been dealing with, including my best friend and “China Beach” creator John Sacret Young, so pivotal in my life. When you’re in that kind of grief, you don’t know how you’re going to get out of it. It’s like, what’s my purpose? And then things open up. I feel so blessed for my life, and the people in my life. Of course I wish they were here. I miss them.