CSI: What We Suspect About How Marg Helgenberger Perfected Herself For The Role


The CSI franchise was such a bona fide global media sensation that it’s still a little hard to believe it’s all over. Across four separate shows spanning 16 years and 797 episodes, CSI entertained millions with the exploits of crime scene investigation teams from Las Vegas to Miami, following the trail of everyone from serial shooters to Taylor Swift.

CSI changed television forever. It revamped police procedure, introducing a forensic science component that had been absent from crime dramas until then. Until that time, law enforcement programs focused more on the dirty, dirty aspect of fighting crime at the street level. The plots saw police officers and detectives taking to the streets, using their courage rather than technology to solve cases.

Then came CSI: Investigation Crime. The show may have gone off the air in 2015, but it forever changed the genre. In addition to featuring a host of spin-offs, the beloved series launched the careers of many of its stars. Marg Helgenberger played an exotic dancer turned forensic scientist named Catherine Willows. But unlike most real crime scene investigators, CSI agents were extremely multidisciplinary.

Catherine photographed and analyzed the blood spray, but she also questioned the criminals, centrifuged the evidence and performed autopsies. And it was while she was preparing for that last aspect of her role that Helgenberger may have taken the acting method a little too far.

Marg Helgenberger attended hundreds of autopsies to prepare for the role of Catherine Willows on CSI. The producers did not order Helgenberger to attend any autopsies, but Ella Helgenberger insisted that she wanted to get a deeper education on how the entire crime scene investigation process worked in real life.

“I asked for it and I’m glad I did because it’s something that will never leave you,” she explained to BBC Breakfast in 2011. “You will always have that very strong memory of the experience.”

Helgenberger followed along with the criminologists in Las Vegas. She took a ride along to a report of a corpse at the Hard Rock Hotel, then was able to attend the autopsy and follow the week-long process. She also shared one of the most disturbing and visceral details from her time as a witness performing an autopsy.

“I was able to track the whole case because I then exchanged email addresses with the medical examiner,” she said, “because obviously the toxicology report takes a few weeks.”

“The smell is probably the most intense”