The “CSI” actress stars in “The Little Foxes” at Arena Stage.
According to Emmy Award-winning actress Marg Helgenberger, playwright Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” — the classic tale of a scheming family in the Deep South in the year 1900 — isn’t too far removed from how many “one-percenter” families behave today. Helgenberger, who begins her run at Arena Stage this week in the lead role of Regina Giddens, tells us that having strong female characters represented on stage and on screen is as important now as it ever was.
Washington Life: What drew you to the role of Regina Giddens?
Marg Helgenberger: The role is sort of iconic. A lot of legendary actors played her in the past, like Elizabeth Taylor in the 70s. It clearly attracts strong women because the character is very complex. She’s been described as a monstrous bitch. When you’re playing a role like this, you can’t really judge the character. I think a woman in that era — especially a strong, bright, witty woman — has her hands tied and is always under the thumb of men. All of the sexism she sees, she’s aware of that. She wants her daughter to have all the things she didn’t have. And the sexism still exists. One sexist annoying thing I hear men say is, “Just smile, You’ll get more if you smile.” Sometimes people question the value of putting up the show now, but a lot of stuff doesn’t change. Things have changed in the women’s movement but, given this moment in history — with the first female candidate — there’s still so much [that hasn’t changed].
Were you a fan of Lillian Hellman’s work and this play before Arena Stage approached you about it?
I never read it or saw the film but I was very aware of her politics because my sister-in-law was Lillian Hellman’s goddaughter. I had read “The Children’s Hour” years ago, and I’ve read her memoir and the prequel to “The Little Foxes.” She’s an amazing writer. She writes incredible dialogue. And it’s realistic. This is what happens in families in business with a crooked patriarch.
Most people know you for your super successful television career. Are there any big challenges you face acting for the stage as opposed to television?
Theater is more full-bodied. Your voice has to be in top-notch shape. American actors on TV don’t have to work on their voices that much. That’s why we revere English actors so much — that’s something they don’t take for granted. And the dialogue! You have to know it backwards and forwards but that makes it more exciting. The gun goes off and the race is on.
Are you excited to be in DC? Have you spent much time here?
I’m looking forward to building my relationship with my pretend family. I was here when I did research for a TV show called “Intelligence.” I was supposed to go to NSA headquarters but a week before, Edward Snowden did his big thing so I couldn’t. The Spy Museum is super cool. One night I had dinner with General Hayden, a lovely guy. You can’t help but feel proud to be an American when you’re in DC. We don’t have the history in LA that’s here.
You’re pretty outspoken against Donald Trump on Twitter. Do you plan to get involved politically while you’re in town?
I did some campaigning for Hillary. We did the phone bank thing and my 81-year-old mother tagged along with me. Perhaps I can do some phone banking here. The whole refugee crisis is troubling and sad and it’s such a mess. And Americans’ involvement in this mess, that’s hard to take. I’d rather get involved with that.
What’s next for you after this play wraps?
Good question [laughs]. I did a couple little movies last year that I’m hoping will get distributed, “Thumper” and “Holding Patterns.” I hope something comes along. The theater is where a lot of great characters are, especially for women. TV has been my bread and butter; it’s very creative and so collaborative. I’d love to do a film but there aren’t as many films and not as many roles for women after a certain age. And just living my life. My son is in Japan teaching English and I wouldn’t mind going back.
Any great TV shows or movies you’ve seen recently?
The best thing on TV right now is “The Night Of.” It is so well done on every single level. John Turturro is so good. I loved the movie “Don’t Think Twice” about a group of friends in an improv troupe. I’ve been taking improv classes. And I still like “Ray Donovan.” The acting is very good. Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight together are fantastic. We’re in an amazing time with television. “Bloodline” is great. The DNC was good with so many powerful, moving speeches like Michelle Obama, the Khan family and Mothers of the Movement women. They were so honest, I was so moved by that. Hillary did a great job.
“The Little Foxes” runs from Sept. 23- Oct. 30 at Arena Stage. Tickets range from $40-90 and can be purchased online, by phone at 202.488.3300 or at the sales office. A benefit performance on Oct. 28 will support Stand Up To Cancer.