Marg Helgenberger on the Legacy of 'CSI' and Finale Scene That Made Her Cry

"I never expected this to happen," the actress tells THR about the series bowing out with a two-hour TV movie, rather than airing a full final season.
Sonja Flemming/CBS
A scene from Sunday's 'CSI' finale

Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) is returning to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for one last hurrah. 

The long-running CBS procedural calls it quits after 15 seasons with a two-hour series finale on Sept. 27. The series capper sees Grissom (William Petersen) and Willows reconnecting with the CSI team in Las Vegas to help solve a pivotal case that is threatening the entire city.

Helgenberger spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about why she didn't miss her character after she left CSI, the surprising scene in the finale that kept causing her to well up with tears and whether the show should have ended its run after the core cast stepped away.

Read more 'CSI' Recruits 'Faking It' Star for Final Sendoff

Did you shed any tears while filming the finale?

It was mostly laughs — there were a few tears, but in odd, surprising ways. When I finished my last scene, I didn't have tears — it could have been because it was late at night, and I had to catch an early flight the next morning. (Laughs.) But it happened on a crime scene, believe it or not. All of the CSIs were there, collecting and gathering evidence, and Catherine breezes back in and [is] stating "I have jurisdiction," blah blah blah. Every time I got to those lines, I was welling up. Some of it had to do with what [my character] had just experienced prior to that scene. I didn't know if it was the combination of seeing the team together and doing what they do best — here I am all these years later, and they're still passionate about what they do. It was a bit of fiction taking over reality and vice versa. You've played that character for so long, it lives inside you, as do all the other characters. 

What are some highlights from the finale that fans can look forward to?

There's a big fan favorite that's returning — Melinda Clarke, who played a character that appeared several times on the show by the name of Lady Heather. She sort of becomes a suspect. Then, there's homages throughout the whole episode — lines that were memorable [earlier in the series], somebody repeats that line [in the finale], [but] not necessarily the same character. (Laughs.) My daughter returns, who's now grown. I think the fans are just going to appreciate seeing everyone together again and solving a crime as a unit. 

What was it like to inhabit this character again?

When I left the show midway through season 12, I did not miss Catherine Willows. The thing I missed about the show was obviously the people and the structure of the show that it provides. You get into a rhythm, and when that is removed, you're like, "Wait a second!" (Laughs.) I was really looking forward to a break, which I enjoyed for the first few months, and then it was like, "Hmmm." (Laughs.) When I actually got around to shooting [the finale], I realized I was really glad to be back in her suits and her boots and her swagger and her savvy and her sass. It was just really fun because I liked the character a great deal, and I was lucky to have played her for all those years. 

How did the finale's tone compare to that of a regular episode?

The pace has a real energy to it because it's a ticking clock for the most part in more ways than one. It's serious because we're trying to get to the bottom of a very serious situation and stop this person before they commit a crime again, but there are plenty of light moments and plenty of sassy moments. 

Did you have second thoughts after leaving the show? Was there something that you missed the most about it?

I never really doubted [leaving] — sometimes, you just instinctively know that you need a break, and I knew that I needed a break then and there. [But] just the camaraderie we had on the set was just so amazing — and not just the cast. It was the crew, it was the writers — the whole journey that we had taken together, this enormous magical mystery tour we were on for 15 years. 

Had you always anticipated that you would return to the show one last time, and did you know if you would be asked back?

[The show] started with a 22-episode order, and somewhere along the road, it was cut back to 18. So I know a lot of [people on the show] were speculating, "Oh, are we going to get another season? If we do get another season, is it going to be shortened?" There was a lot of that speculation I was aware of that they were talking amongst themselves about. All of us hoped that they would have another season. I never expected this to happen — I never expected to have a "wrap it all up in a two-hour [movie]." But if they had been given another full season or even a half a season, I'm sure they would have asked Billy [Petersen] and I to return for some or all of the season, and that's a question I would have had to answer when that was presented to me. But a two-hour wrap-up sounds kind of fun and cool. It's fast and furious — you're finished before you know it. (Laughs.)

What's your take on the show's lasting legacy?

[I'm proud of] the impact it had on young people to become criminalists, and how it really illuminated what criminalists and coroners do, people that were always behind the scenes when it came to crime solving. Now all of sudden, they got the attention, and it just became this phenomenon — that was a joy ride to be on. It also had an effect on the way trials happened. In a trial, if you have forensic evidence, it's irrefutable. I think the fact that people all of a sudden had something they could hang on to — "Oh, this is the truth" — and I think that's what people liked so much about it.

Is this the right time to end the show? Should it maybe have ended back when the core cast left?

For all of my friends that were still involved with the show, I would have wanted it to continue, as they would have, because they all really enjoyed their jobs. (Laughs.) I think [this] was probably about the right time to have the show go off the air. Fifteen years is a good long time, and I think the show was still really solid. Every year, it always becomes harder when a show becomes really popular — three spinoffs and numerous shows that were inspired by CSI, so the idea gets watered down, and it gets hard to keep it fresh — it's hard to keep new inventive ways of presenting the science. If anybody could pull it off, it was the core group of people that were involved in the creative decisions of CSI.

How did working on this particular series finale compare to previous finales you've done, like for China Beach or Under the Dome?

The only thing I can really compare it to would be to shooting a pilot episode of something, whether it be the pilot episode of CSI or the pilot episode of China Beach or the pilot episode of Intelligence, the show I did with Josh Holloway, because there's so much emphasis on every shot, every scene being just so. So we did a lot more coverage, we did a lot more takes than we would have done just doing a regular episode. So it was a lot more painstaking — the stakes were much higher. 

This show had such a magic — when you read a new pilot now, is it hard for anything to compare to CSI? Are there still shows out there that get you excited in the same way?

Because of the length of time that I did the show, it's hard not to compare anything you do from this point forward to CSI because that was a real chunk of my career was devoted to CSI. But you've got to look at everything with fresh eyes and an open mind and open heart to what that experience entails. The only way you're going to be inspired is to remain open. 

The CSI finale airs Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on CBS.

Twitter: @_RyanGajewski