CSI: Miami star Emily Procter has made a career out of playing characters that are much like her -- strong, sexy, and undeniably Southern.
Emily Procter throws open the front door of her Los Angeles home and apologizes for the strands of white hair covering her silky blue pants and matching blouse. “My cat, Kevin, was all over me this morning while I was doing a photo shoot,” she says cheerfully as she leads me into her kitchen, where she offers me a plate of fried chicken and another plate of chocolate cookies. “Or, if you want, I can make you a sandwich. Hey, and how about some iced tea -- sweet tea, all full of sugar -- exactly like the tea I grew up drinking?”
Procter’s manager, Scott Fedro, standing nearby, notices me raising my eyebrows, and he laughs out loud. “Believe me, this is no joke,” Fedro says. “Emily acts this way with everybody -- and I mean everybody.”
But as anyone who watches network television already knows, what is most distinctive about Procter is the way she talks. Her thick-as-syrup accent is straight out of her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, and she makes no apologies for it. “It’s who I am, and it’s who I always will be,” she says with another shrug as she sets out a third plate of food: croissants from a nearby bakery. “I realized long ago that if I tried to hide my accent, I was just trying to hide myself. And that is something I’m not willing to do.”
In Hollywood circles, 39-year-old Procter is known as the Southern actress. While almost all actresses who come from the South spend years working with dialect coaches, desperately trying to rid themselves of their drawls, Procter has made a name for herself by playing, well, herself -- “a genuinely modern Southern woman,” as TV legend Aaron Sorkin once put it. In 2000, for his hit NBC show The West Wing, Sorkin adapted a role especially for Procter. He turned her into Ainsley Hayes, a spunky, highly opinionated, and spectacularly beautiful attorney from North Carolina who had come to Washington, D.C., to be an assistant White House counsel. And for the last six years, she has been one of the stars on CSI: Miami, playing, yes, another Southern woman: the brainy but fashion-forward ballistics expert Calleigh Duquesne, who handles bullets and guns (not to mention difficult men) with ease.
CSI: Miami, which is entering its seventh season, is now one of the top-rated shows on television, drawing as many as 16 million viewers a week. According to viewer-opinion polls, Procter has become one of television’s most popular actresses. She has fan clubs in the United States and Europe, and she is especially admired by men. In one of its “Women We Love” issues, Esquire magazine couldn’t stop gushing over her spectacular beauty and equally spectacular speaking style. “She is a different beast altogether: passionate, convinced, ready to rumble,” Esquire concluded. “She makes you wish that the women who slice you up at work did it with that same glint in their eye, the hint that arguments can be fun, even sexy.”
“People love her,” says Rex Linn, who plays detective Frank Tripp on CSI: Miami. “They love her accent and they love the smile -- a warm Southern smile that makes you melt. When she hits you with that smile and then that accent, it’s all over. She can say to me, ‘Rex, will you go stand in front of that truck and get run over?’ and I’ll say, ‘Sure.’ ”
“It’s still hard to believe what’s happened,” Procter says, walking into her living room and curling up on a couch. “At one point, I really did believe I was going to go nowhere. And now, I sometimes just want to say, ‘Holy cow. Holy, holy cow.’ ”
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Ironically, the professor’s outright rejection inspired Procter to pursue acting. In 1991, she moved to Los Angeles, and though talent scouts and agents loved her looks, finding work proved challenging. “They only sent me out to audition for sitcom roles as the ditzy Southern secretary who tosses her ponytail around,” she says. “And then, when I did those auditions, one of the casting people would often say, ‘Is that really your accent, or are you faking it?’ They were so used to non-Southerners doing Southern accents that they didn’t know what the real thing sounded like.”
Procter eventually broke down and took a few speech lessons, hoping to erase at least some of her accent. “The coach would have me read something, and then he’d say, ‘Do you hear how you sound Southern?’ I’d say, ‘No,’ and he’d throw up his hands in exasperation and say if I didn’t learn to talk like everyone else, I was going nowhere.” Still, she continued to get some small roles: blink-and-you-missed-her parts in Leaving Las Vegas and Jerry Maguire, as well as guest appearances on Just Shoot Me and Friends. In the 1997 HBO movie Breast Men, about a group of plastic surgeons in Houston, she was cast as a young Texas woman whose health was tragically ruined by implants. “It was my first chance to play a Southern character with real depth, and I loved it,” she says. “The problem, of course, was that there just weren’t many roles calling for a Southern actress who showed depth.”
By 2000, Procter was, for all practical purposes, out of acting and spending her time volunteering with charities (she especially enjoyed working with the homeless-ministry meal team at All Saints’ Parish Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills). “I told people in the industry I was taking an extended break,” she says with a chuckle. Then, her agent called saying that Sorkin was holding auditions for a new female character for The West Wing.
Originally, Sorkin had wanted his character to be a lawyer from Montana. “But when I read the script, I saw the character as being completely Southern, complicated in the way all Southern women I know are complicated,” Procter recalls. “Everybody I knew said I was crazy to go in there and audition with my normal accent, but at that point, I was thinking, If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. A few days after the audition, I got a call. Aaron said he had decided to have Ainsley come from North Carolina, and he wanted me for the part. Needless to say, I was in shock.”
Although Procter appeared only periodically on The West Wing, she quickly developed a huge following. Executives at CBS were so taken with her that they created a role for her on CSI: Miami. Invariably dressed in tight pants, a tight blouse, and very high heels, Procter’s character not only studies crime scenes but often chases down criminals herself. (“There are two ways this goes down, and either way, you’re dropping the gun,” Calleigh Duquesne snaps at a killer in one episode, her eyes narrowing.) “Calleigh is sort of intense,” Procter says. “But viewers don’t seem to be complaining.” No, they don’t. According to a survey published recently in TV Guide, American males would prefer to have a romance with Procter’s character than with any of the female characters who appear on any of CBS’s other CSI shows (besides CSI: Miami, there’s also the original, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, set in Las Vegas, and CSI: NY).
According to Linn, Procter’s longtime costar and friend, part of her appeal might stem from her being the perfect combination of tomcat and tomboy.
“She’s a guy’s guy,” Linn says. “She likes doing guy things -- wearing a baseball cap, drinking a beer, eating hot dogs. And she can kick your butt at the poker table. We’ll have these games and she’ll win a big hand, and as she gathers all the chips, she’ll say to us in this really sweet voice, ‘Hey, guys, it’s just a card game.’ ”
Procter insists that she will never again take speech lessons to hide her lilting accent. Nor, she says, will you ever find her trying to hide from her heritage. Although the exterior of her home looks like a typical contemporary two-story California bungalow, she has made sure to fill the inside with numerous family heirlooms. In her kitchen is a collection of rose-medallion plates she inherited from her grandmother, and a chaise longue that belonged to her other grandmother sits in one bedroom. A nineteenth-century portrait of her great-grandmother dominates the den. There are also brass candlesticks shaped like cobras, which she purchased at a Salvation Army thrift store in North Carolina, and a Morris chair that she bought at another thrift store for $50. On the wall in one hallway are framed beetles -- that’s right, beetles -- and three stuffed birds and a stuffed squirrel are perched on a shelf. “When I was a little girl, my mother and I collected dead bugs and birds,” Procter says. “And I don’t know why I should stop now.”
A few minutes later, as if right on cue, Procter’s mother, Barbara, calls from North Carolina, and the two women start the kind of conversation only Southern women seem to have. They gossip about Barbara’s neighbors, they talk about the weather, and they catch up on the health of Barbara’s turtle, who lives in an aquarium in the kitchen. Barbara then says that her dog carried a dead crayfish into the house that morning, and Procter squeals. “Are you going to keep it?” she asks. “Maybe,” her mother says, perfectly serious.
After they hang up, Procter notices that I’m still not eating. “Oh dear, how about a sandwich?” she says, looking genuinely concerned. “When I was growing up, a sandwich consisted of two pieces of white bread, a bunch of mayonnaise, and just one vegetable in the middle, like a sliced tomato. You want me to make one of those?”
I say no as I try to keep a polite smile on my face. But I do ask if I can see her bedroom closet, which reportedly is full of high-heeled shoes. (“It’s my one true addiction, shoe shopping,” she has said on more than one occasion.) I assume she’ll say no to my request -- surely her closet is off-limits to a stranger -- but suddenly she’s leading me upstairs, straight into the closet, with Kevin the cat following close behind. The inside of the closet looks like an upscale shoe store; it’s jammed with shelf after shelf of Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks, including some that sport heels that must be at least five inches high. “And here’s my new favorite pair,” Procter exults, holding up a pair of zebra-print Yves Saint Laurent stilettos. “Except for my running shoes, the only thing I wear is high heels. I wear high heels everywhere. I wear heels around the house when I’m by myself. I just don’t like my feet flat.”
“That’s a little peculiar,” I suggest.
“So what?” she says, smiling sweetly. “I like peculiar.”
What may be most peculiar about Procter, at least by Hollywood standards, is that she is not particularly obsessed with her career or constantly worried about what she will be doing next. Nor does she seem the slightest bit bothered by the fact that roles tend to dry up for actresses around the age of 40. She is under contract with CSI: Miami through 2009, “and if the show is canceled and everything goes away after that, then that’s okay with me. It’s been a great run and a completely unexpected one. Believe me, if I never act [again], I’ll be fine, perfectly fine. There’s still plenty for a gal like me to do.”
Although Procter just ended what she describes as “a very serious relationship,” she does say that she’s “always hopeful” about finding the right man and perhaps someday having a family. She says she might start a new career as a home decorator. She has already formed her own rock band, named White Lightning. “I started it completely as a joke -- I mean, a total joke -- so I could stand up at parties and sing really bad ’80s power ballads and in between songs say really stupid self-help things about life and love,” she says. “But now, there are people wanting us to perform like we’re serious musicians. We’ve actually been asked to be the opening act at real concerts with real bands that make real albums.” She shrugs her shoulders. “Now, talk about peculiar!”
Procter checks her watch -- she has yet another interview to do this afternoon -- and walks me to the front door. “Oh, wait just a minute,” she says and then scurries into the kitchen. She returns with a decorated paper bag filled with cookies and fried chicken. “It just isn’t right that I would send you away on an empty stomach,” she says. “I just know you’re going to get hungry later on.”
I protest, but Procter refuses to take the bag back. “Please, this is who I am,” she says determinedly. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”