Emmy Winner Marg Helgenberger at Barrington Stage
Dialogue with Director Christopher Innvar
By: Charles Giuliano - May 10, 2014
On May 21 Barrington Stage Company launches its season with the intense and thoughtful drama The Other Place.
In a January 10, 2013 review in the New York Times Charles Isherwood wrote “As you watch ‘The Other Place,’ a slick, potently acted drama by Sharr White that opened on Broadway on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, it may strike you now and then that your mind is playing tricks on you. Facts that seem firmly established in one scene melt into vapor a few scenes later, leaving you with a vague itch to press pause to sort things out, or maybe rewind. Or both.”
Meeting the press the director, Christopher Innvar, and lead actor, Marg Helgenberger, took great pains not to reveal any of the twists and turns of an intense and surprising plot.
It resulted in a constrained and difficult press conference. This also reflected the cool reserve of Helgenberger who for a twelve year run with CSI, the most successful show on television, was one of America’s best paid and most identifiable actors.
Although CSI continues at the top with its 15th season she left three years ago to pursue other options and spend more time at home in LA with her son. She is divorced after some 23 years of marriage. There was also the desire to return to roots in theatre. Her role in this play is the first such venture since leaving CSI although she turned down other opportunities. She stated that this character, the most challenging of her career, was an offer she could not refuse.
This year she started a new TV series Intelligence which has not been picked up for another season.
Christopher Innvar The play is about loss. It’s a family situation with a very powerful woman who’s great at her job in a world where mostly men are dominant in the profession. She’s at the top of her profession and suffers a loss. It’s about her family relationships and what she’s lost. At the end of the play she’s found. Through her family and revisiting ghosts in her life she’s able to be found and anchored again. There’s a lot of water imagery in the play. Talking with the set designer, Brian Prather, we kept saying untethered and lost at sea. There’s no anchor for her.
She ends up on Cape Cod surrounded by water on three sides. She ends up being found.
I really don’t want to say much more because it would spoil it for you when you come to see the play.
Marg Helgenberger That was so well said that I don’t know how to follow up on that. The role that I’m playing, Juliana Smithton, could fall under the category of tour de force. When you get the opportunity to play a role as complex as this woman is, as an actor, why not jump at the chance.
I was available. (Her voice rose emphatically implying irony.) I was familiar with the playwright’s writing. I was very interested in his Annapurna. Someone had suggested it to me. After my run on CSI I had wanted to do a play. It was already snatched up by someone who wanted to produce it in Los Angeles. That’s the production which is now in New York.
I never heard of Sharr White before. In fact I did know that The Other Place was on Broadway. I think at the same time when I became familiar with Annapurna. So when the play came to me in February or March I was eager to read it because he’s so talented. When I read it or give it to other people to read, the one word that always comes out of them is Wow. (soft laugh). For so many reasons. She’s such a highly, highly intelligent woman. To a fault. She’s smarter than most. She’s a woman in a man’s profession dominated by men. She has to be stronger and tougher to assert herself. Because of her intelligence she has an impatience with everyone. She has cut herself off a little bit from her emotional side. And because of something that happens but I’m not going to give it away. A family situation that was quite devastating and dramatic to her.
In order to continue with her life she has to bury those feelings very, very deep. That allows for all these different sides of her to come out in odd ways. Unpredictable ways. It’s probably the most challenging role I’ve played. (nervous laugh) It’s interesting to play such a complicated role at my age rather then when you’re younger. You don’t have the energy to bounce back. It’s mid week in the rehearsal process and already I’m like, oh shit, there’s three more days of this.
Question Are you the only actor?
CI No there’s three other actors (Katya Campbell, woman, Adam Donshik, man, and Brent Langdon, Ian.) I was doing a Sharr White play in Manhattan The Snow Geese. Julie (Ann Boyd artistic director) talked about this slot being open for me to direct a play. We all read the play and thought it was fantastic. We went into casting in New York. Our casting director Pat Mc Corkle said that Marg Helgenberger wants to do theatre. (Incedulously) OMG we thought she would be prefect. (Marg laughs) We all looked at each other, oh my goodness, she would be absolutely perfect. We did a skype session. Then I went to LA and we talked. Yeah, this character who is brilliant, sharp, funny, sexy has all of these strengths. At the top of her profession and we were all just such fans of hers.
MH Gee Chris. (laughing)
CI Absolutely. The way we talked about this play made me feel that we could help each other out and make this play come to life. Marg was excited about doing it.
MH Yeah. Very much so. You sent me an e mail with an interview that Sharr had done about the genesis of this play. His father being a scientist and his brother or brother in law also being a scientist. He just wanted to floor someone who seemed to always have an answer for everything. Somethings are (emphasis) unexplainable. Things of the heart.
CI What happens to someone who all their lives have all the answers. What happens when they start not having the answers? What does that do to someone? That metaphor of being lost at sea. For the first time not knowing where you are or what direction to go in. That’s a challenge.
MH Sure is.
Charles Giuliano Doing research for this interview I was astonished by the depth of your resume including film and television. Also I was intrigued that early on you deboned meat in your father’s butchery. That would seem to presage CSI. I am interested in how artists evolve.
MH Yeah. I did that.
CG I’m also interested in Chris’s evolution from leading man and actor now to director. So the question is about how you evolve as artists. Why for example are you stepping out of the national spotlight of television and film to come to a small, regional theatre and perform in a play? How are you guys staying alive as artists by doing these kinds of things?
MH I have been wanting to do a play for a very, very long time. For various reasons it just didn’t quite work out. For CSI I was tied up for twelve years and the hiatus is two months. That doesn’t leave you a whole lot of time to do a play. Also I was raising my son in LA. So I just really didn’t want to be away. But, having said that, since I left the show in December of 2011, I went around and met with producers in New York. Of course Los Angeles too and Chicago. I expressed my interest in it. (Theatre) They were all eager to meet with me. They would say let’s find something, let’s find something. (exasperated gasp and self amusement) A few things came along but nothing I really wanted to do. So, I don’t know, it really kindah has to do with the part. It was one of these roles that I really couldn’t not do. It was so amazing. It is amazing. I felt if not now when? I felt once I’ve done with this I’ll be so proud of myself. (soft laugh of relief then outburst of laughter)
CI You will.
MH I don’t know if I answered your question properly. But I’m on another series and am still waiting to see.
CG Is it signed for next year?
MH Not yet. It’s on the bubble as they say.
(On Intelligence she’s Lillian Strand, head of the top-secret US government agency charged with cyber security. Her mission: To supervise super spy Gabriel Vaughn (played by “Lost” star Josh Holloway), who has a nanocomputer chip implanted in his brain. As the physical embodiment of everything right and wrong with cutting edge technology, Vaughn is capable of mentally infiltrating enemy strongholds. But he is also in constant danger of being hacked or infected with computer viruses. Strand has to somehow protect him, and keep him in check.)
The networks announce next week so I’ll find out soon enough.
CG Chris do you have a response to your part of the question?
CI Sure. I’ve been acting for roughly 30 years. I found myself a couple of years ago getting tired of it. I wanted a new challenge. Whether it was teaching, directing or something like that. So about five years ago I started directing some things up here. I did two one acts that Mark St. Germain wrote Call Your Brother at Home and Period Piece. That was the first thing. I really enjoyed the added responsibility. You meet with the designers. You’re in charge of all of it. Never mind the performances and interpretations. I loved that new challenge. Then I did a couple of 10 x 10s and The Whipping Man. That was two years ago that I did a full length play. Clarke Peters in a Matthew Lopez play. It was a great cast.
I just did a play in New York and came up to do another 10 x 10. I did a little movie in Montana and then to come back here to do this. It’s nice to be able to jump back and forth. I would like to do more directing. I’ve been acting for so long. We’ll see.
CG Last week I met with Julianne Boyd to discuss the upcoming season. During that dialogue she revealed that she doesn’t watch television. So she didn’t know who you were. I guess there was a skype interaction and tapes sent by your agent. Based on that she said “Yeah, she’s the right person.” When we met she had just attended the first rehearsal. A table reading. She said that she had never been so astonished by a first rehearsal and what you were putting into the role. So she was very excited about this production.
MH It was so kind of her to relay that. (burst of laughter with the media and Barrington staff joining in)
CI Yeah. She said that to me. OMG. I’m doing my Julie impression. OMG (laughter) She was so excited from the table read that we did.
CG How well did the second rehearsal go? (Marg laughs)
MH It’s just like everything some scenes are easier than others.
CI It was a great first read and it’s just getting richer and richer.
MH This is a role that I have an affinity with. When it touches your heart like that it’s like Wow. It really is a special thing.
Larry Murray In preparing for CSI I understand that you attended autopsies. Which goes along with deboning meat working for your father. I can imagine you in a high school biology lab hacking away at a frog while football players faint. I wonder if this role has some of that analytical, scientific, forensic approach?
MH I have always enjoyed science. As a teenager in high school I took a lot of science classes because I wanted to become a nurse. I didn’t go into that field. I changed by mind and got bitten by the bug. Acting and doing school plays.
I visited the coroner’s office in Vegas where CSI was set. It’s not for the squeamish. I toughed it out and saw a couple of autopsies. The coroner gave me an A +. (laughter) In a situation like that it’s intense on a lot of levels. The thing is to continue to ask questions and that’s what I did. He said “There have been some burly cops and detectives in here and (sound of body fainting) they just can’t handle it.”
Yeah, like acting. You continue to ask questions about who the character is and I can ask questions about this character until I’m finished with the run of the play. It’s so richly written. I’m sure that questions will come to me after the play and I’ll thing, God, why didn’t I think of that before? That’s the actor’s dilemma. That’s good writing. Often writing is not multi dimensional. You’re kind of glad that’s in the can. But that’s not the case at all with this.
Peter Bergman You have a transformative smile. Having read the play and seen the play on Broadway I’m wondering if you will find places to expose that side of you? What are you finding the most difficult and problematic part of the role?
MH You’re playing a role but it’s interpreted through who you are. The character does go through quite a transformation. We were rehearsing the final scene today in fact, well I don’t want to give too much away, yes, you’ll see all different sides of her. That smile will be revealed at some point.
CI Today I said that to you, it’s so nice to see you smile. In so much of the play there’s another thing going on.
MH She’s so exact and on top of it.
PB The most difficult parts?
MH The transitions she has to make. The dialogue is another thing too. (laughs) But I think it’s the transitions that are the hardest part. But that’s also the fun part. Once I have the lines down, and I’m getting there. When you feel competent you can just play with it.
Playing off the other actors who are all so wonderful. I tried to get at least the monologues learned before I arrived. I wasn’t so concerned about the scenes with the other actors because I knew I could feed off of them.
PB How long is the monologue?
MH I don’t know.
CI Are you talking about the presentation to the doctors?
MH Oh, because it continues.
CI It goes on for, well, we’re in and out of it for 30 pages. But there are whole chunks of five page scenes in the middle of it. But she has to keep that reality going as well as these other scenes that interrupt it. At the end of the play you go, oh, oh, now I want to know. I want to see those prior scenes again. Because you get the reveal at the end.
PB That’s good for getting the audience back for a second time.
LM Have you discussed the play with the playwright?
CI There have been some e mails back and forth.
LM Are you staying with the original intent or is there some variation? What is your intent?
CI To do it as well as I can. (Marg laughs) It’s confusing. I read the play several times and I had a lot of questions for Sharr. There are jumps in time and there are scenes which you are not sure when or where they’re taking place. That’s why I say that there are people who will want to see it a second time. My approach to any play, we talk about design and all that stuff, my approach being an actor, the relationships are the thing that I start with. What are the intricacies of these relationships and the pitfalls that people have in their relationships? What do they want? What’s lacking in their life? Often in any good play it’s about love and validation. Characters are usually striving to better themselves. I start with looking at who these people are. With this play it’s another whole kind of challenge. We staged it pretty quickly because I felt like it would help the actors to know roughly where they are to ground these scenes. Because there is so much jumping back and forth in time. So you can be grounded.
MH I’m glad we did.
LM With the changes in time is there different lighting?
CI Probably. We’ve talked about that.
CG You talk about being in CSI for 12 years with two month breaks. That creates continuity and financial security. It’s a big chunk of your life as well as that of the audience. We come to think that we know who you are. In the current series Intelligence our reaction to the character is based on our long standing perception of who you are. What aspect of what we know about you is evident in this new character? For an actor that seems to be a blessing and a curse. On the on hand to have that long term employment and security but, as an actor, to be locked into that role and persona in the mind of the audience. How do you get out from under that?
MH Yeah, I was aware of that. It happens to any actor in a long running successful series. That show still is successful. It’s the number one show in the world. It’s entering its 15th season soon. I know that people can only see you as a certain thing. You become too identifiable. I’m aware of all that. When I left it wasn’t because I was unhappy. As you said it was quite a lucrative job.
CI You’re buying me dinner.
MH (laughs) Every night. When I left I knew the show had a lot of life still left in it. I knew that if I didn’t cut the ties now, when I had the energy and enthusiasm, the desire to switch it up, it was the time to do it. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. The hardest part was just saying goodbye to everybody.
CG Why then did you jump into a new TV series?
MH That’s a good question. I like the role. I like the guy who created the show. I like to work. It was shooting in LA and has a lot of benefits to it.
Theatre is the one true actors’s medium. Film can tend more to be a director’s medium and television is a writer’s medium. Once the curtain goes up it’s an actor’s playing field and we’re totally in control of what happens on that stage. The desire to get back on the stage the impulses were for all those things. To be in front of a live audience. A thorough rehearsal process. A fresh performance every night. It’s a full bodied performance compared to film and TV. Much as you try to embody the role.
CG Coming here to the B erkshires, which has four strong theatre companies, is an endorsement of the importance of regional theatre in America. I’m sure you see a lot of theatre in LA.
MH I do.
CG It’s interesting that the Tony Award for regional theatre this year went to a New York company.
MH It did? That’s not fair.
CG Can you comment on the importance and vitality of theatre in America and in particular theatre in California where you live. Is there is an alternative to New York?
MH Every time I’ve gone to theatre in LA, be it the Taper or Geffen, there are also a lot of shows that come from New York. There’s the Kirk Douglas theatre. There’s so many theatres in LA.
CI There’s the Cort Theatre, the Skylight Theatre. (Old Globe in San Diego)
MH There’s so many and I go quite a bit. Obviously because there’s so many actors in LA. The reason so many of these plays can be produced there is because actors feel the need to work with great material.
CG Are you interested in doing LA theatre?
MH Oh sure. Of course. It would be nice to move this play there.