Emmy winner Marg Helgenberger, who spent 12 years on “CSI,” is returning to the stage to star as Regina Hubbard Giddens in The Little Foxes, part of the Lillian Hellman Festival at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Sept. 23-Oct. 30.
When you left “CSI” in 2012, you mentioned that you wanted to do more theatre. Are you excited to be back onstage?
I went to Northwestern and I got to play some of the great parts, including Blanche DuBois, Kate from Taming of the Shrew, and Low-Dive Jenny from Threepenny Opera. Then years go by, because life happens. But now my son’s grown, I’m not currently on a television show, so it gives me a bit of freedom to do these things, for which I feel really blessed.
Were you familiar with The Little Foxes?
I can’t believe I never had read it, nor had I seen the movie with Bette Davis. But Lillian Hellman was on my radar. My sister-in-law Paula Weinstein was the goddaughter of Lillian Hellman; Lillian Hellman was very good friends with Paula’s mother, Hannah Weinstein. So I always remember hearing these amazing tales about Lillian Hellman. One I like the best is she said to Paula, who was 16 at the time, “I’ll pay you, your job will be to spy on [romantic partner and fellow author] Dashiell Hammett,” because he was a bit of a philanderer.
Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, and Tallulah Bankhead have played Regina. What does it mean to you to join their ranks in this role?
Obviously, it’s flattering! I guess I have the good sense to choose a part that the greats have chosen. It is such a great part. She’s so dynamic, so compelling, so bright, so witty, and living in a time when a woman who had all these extraordinary qualities—her hands were tied. In this day and age this woman would be a CEO of some major company.
Your last play was Sharr White’s The Other Place at Barrington Stage Company. What was that like?
That part was tough, all the emotional transitions and the vast amounts of dialogue. It’s a sad play. I just remember crying all the time, which the play required, but also, I was so touched by that character and her great loss. It’s a completely different experience working on Regina, a woman who’s so strong and clearheaded.
What is your first theatrical memory?
Like all cute school kids, you’re sort of thrown into school plays at some point. I grew up in a very small town in Nebraska, only 1,200 people. The first play I was in was called Danny, the Dark Green Dinosaur, and I played Susan the swan. But I can’t say that I was bitten by the bug then. I read about a lot of actors who say, “The moment I stepped on the stage, I knew this was for me,” but I can’t say that was the case with me. Cut to when I was 16 or so, the English teacher at my high school was starting a speech and drama program and she coerced me into it, because I wasn’t really that interested. And eventually I realized I do like this and I’m actually not bad at it, and then one thing led to another.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
I think working in the National Park Service, just because you’re in nature and beautiful parks; that seems like it would be fun. Being a travel writer—I love to travel. I’ve done a lot of different fundraisers for breast cancer, in particular—my mother is a breast cancer survivor—and I get to meet a lot of oncologists, doctors, patients, and scientists. And I also do work with a foundation in L.A. called Race to Erase MS since my dad had MS. So meeting all these people and seeing how they’re working together and really making a difference in people’s lives—that’s gotta make you feel pretty good too.
What are three things you would take with you on a desert island?
I would have to say a guitar. I play a little bit, not particularly well, but I’d have a lot of time to learn and practice if I were stuck there. My favorite radio station ever is an L.A. station called KCRW, which is an NPR station. They have incredible music and amazing programming. I always miss that when I’m not home. And, I don’t know…the NFL package now that football’s coming up!
Are you a big football fan?
I am. I grew up in Nebraska, and traditionally the University of Nebraska-Lincoln team there, the Cornhuskers, has been really great, especially when I was younger. I am a Carolina Panthers fan and have been since they became a franchise team. And last year they went to the Super Bowl. I actually went to the Super Bowl, and of course everyone assumed we were going to win. But any given Sunday, anything can happen and unfortunately that wasn’t the Panthers’ turn. I’m going to miss a few games here ’cause I don’t have [the NFL package] at the apartment I’m staying at. But I’ll still get the games—oh no, I won’t, because I have two shows on Sundays! But on my desert island I could have it.
A version of this story appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.