CSI's Marg Helgenberger loves New York for the accents, the street-vendor hot dogs, the hotel bars, the three B's, and … how much time do you have?
Marg Helgenberger grew up in a tiny Nebraska town - North Bend, population 1,200 - but left as soon as she could. "I got my Social Security card at the age of 11 because I knew I needed to make some money," says Helgenberger, 48, a veteran actress best known for playing forensic scientist Catherine Willows for seven seasons on the top-rated CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. While growing up in Nebraska, she paid her dues working in the soybean fields, in the cornfields, and even in a meatpacking plant. At 23, she found herself in New York to join the cast of Ryan's Hope. She now lives in Santa Monica with her husband and her son, but she still thrives on the energy of the East Coast's cultural center. No fewer than five times during our interview, she ended some anecdote with, "I don't know, I just love New York." And it wasn't for lack of something to say - quite the opposite. She was so jazzed about New York that she scheduled a second interview just to talk about it a bit more. "I love how everywhere you turn, there's something new," she says. "There's a surprise right in front of you on every corner."
You lived in New York when you were younger, right?
In the '80s. I lived on the Upper West Side. I was right out of college, which is a good time to live in the city. Anytime is good, but that is a particularly good time. And I happened to move there with a job. I was going to school at Northwestern University, and a casting scout saw me in The Taming of the Shrew. Who would have thought that would happen? And before I knew it, there I was, in a soap opera.
That was Ryan's Hope. Where did it film?
It's no longer on the air, but it shot at two different locations: at a tiny little studio on 51st between Ninth and Tenth avenues, and at a new studio near the Hudson River, which is now where The View shoots. I've been on The View many times. Every time I go back there, I see the same crew guys; it's a time warp. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, visiting my roots, but I have gotten so nostalgic again for New York.
What do you miss about New York when you're not there?
Walking around the city. It just makes you feel stimulated. I miss the people, their energy and directness. They're up-front in the way they deal with you. I love all New York accents, and I think New Yorkers have a pretty sophisticated wit. In California, you're either at your home or at your job or alone in your car. In New York, you're always around people. You have to see people.
Do you get recognized in New York? I'm especially curious about whether you get recognized by crime-scene investigators or by police?
I guess I do. I wouldn't necessarily say there's an overabundance of that. About a month after 9/11, I was coming to New York to do some publicity, and I wanted to go down to ground zero. They weren't letting people down there yet. But I knew a guy in Los Angeles who had been with the NYPD, and I asked him if there was anyone he could call. The guy he put me in contact with was in charge of the Port Authority recovery mission, and his name was Lt. John Ryan. It was the most memorable experience of my life - to be down there, at that time, when things were still smoldering and falling apart. I get teary just talking about it. That day, I ended up having lunch at the firehouse with all these firefighters, and honestly, I'll never forget it. John Ryan still sends me a Christmas card every year, and I send him the latest CSI DVD. That's been since the second season, so he has a lot of DVDs.
So let's get down to the nitty-gritty. When you visit New York, where do you stay?
I always stay at the Loews Regency Hotel. It's old-school, really great service, a New York tradition. And it's just one block from Barneys, so that can't be bad. There's a salon right around the corner called Minardi. The guy who does my hair on CSI used to work there, so I have him hook me up with a nice blowout. What woman doesn't want a nice blowout? Especially if you want to go out to some special place for dinner.
What restaurants do you especially like?
I recently went back to Babbo, which is good. I like Italian, period, and I love Italian accents. Another great little Italian place is a restaurant in Midtown called Osteria Serafina. And I still like grabbing hot dogs off the street. They hit the spot.
How does Marg Helgenberger take her street-vendor hot dog?
Mustard only. Sometimes with relish. Back when I lived there, I used to get it with sauerkraut. I can't handle that now. Though I still think I can handle things, which is why I was drinking Patrón last night. I went to see Talk Radio on Broadway last night, which was so great, and it's set in the '80s, during the time when I lived there, so it brought on lots of nostalgia. I went out with the playwright, Eric Bogosian, and Liev Schreiber, who was so great in it - you know, I worked with him on CSI - and we were out late. Ugh. Why do I still think I'm 23?
How many shots of Patrón did you have?
Shots? I didn't have shots! No, no, I was drinking Patrón with soda and lime. I haven't had shots in I don't know how long. Well, no, wait, yes I do. It was with Quentin Tarantino and the Wu-Tang Clan.
No, you did not.
[Laughs] Quentin directed our Season Five finale, and he's friends with the RZA. After the shoot, we went to the Palms hotel and then on to this really swinging place. It was really special. But you don't want to hear about that; that's Las Vegas, not New York.