New York state of mind
Actress Melina Kanakaredes loves solving mysteries and making science look sexy in the process, writes Kavita Daswani
When Melina Kanakaredes accepted the role of Detective Stella Bonasera on CSI: NY she knew she would be compared to Marg Helgenberger, who plays the lead female character on the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. But Kanakaredes, 40, wasn't deterred from taking the part, as the show's enduring popularity has had a positive influence on women choosing to work in forensic science.
Since CSI has been on the air, the number of women training for jobs in the field has dramatically increased. 'That's phenomenal,' says the actress who was born in Akron, Ohio, to a Greek-American family. 'What's fantastic about the franchise, as with anything that works in TV and film, is that the greatest gift is how you can influence an audience.'
Kanakaredes did, however, wonder if people might be a bit fed up with CSI, even though the Las Vegas and Miami versions had high ratings when the New York version was being developed.
'That's why it was so important to see who the group of people was. And, early on, in trying to make it different, we almost shot ourselves in the foot. It was so dark at the beginning. It had to be different, it had to be New York's version, and it became a completely different thing. When it ain't broken, don't fix it. By season two, it really swung into something that was special.'
Kanakaredes is speaking shortly before the start of the continuing writer's strike in Hollywood, seated at a table in the interrogation room on the set of CSI: NY. 'I'm usually on that side of the table,' she says. 'I'm never the guy who's in trouble.'
Her role on the highly rated show, which draws about 14 million viewers a week, has given her prime-time prestige. Although she appeared on the acclaimed NYPD Blue and The Practice, and had a lead role in the show Providence, Kanakaredes was keen to join CSI as she was a fan of series creator Anthony Zuiker, and had seen the impact that the original show had on popular culture.
'Anthony Zuiker and the women who wrote that first pilot tapped into something that I think made science sexy and fun to watch. Solving a crime and a mystery had been done before, but doing it at such hi-tech levels and making it look so beautiful ... cinematic, really.'
For that, Kanakaredes also credits the show's executive producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, who brings his legendary movie-making skills (the Pirates of the Caribbean phenomenon being a case in point) to the small screen.
'I think [the show] is captivating and exciting and accessible to everyone. You solve the crime within a 40-minute period, which is unrealistic, but in the form of entertainment it's fabulous because you get to know exactly what happens,' she says.
The location is another attraction. 'I love that it's set in New York. I think the reason we tend to do really well all across the board is that New York is really the quintessential city where the United States works.'
Her character is a multilingual detective who is second-in-command to Gary Sinise's Mac Taylor. Together, they run the New York Police Department's crime lab, where she is known for her tenacity in identifying perpetrators and empathy towards victims.
Her back story is a compelling one: her character is half-Greek, half-Italian, and an orphan, having been raised in a local orphanage until she was 18. In the second season of the series, we met her boyfriend - it's a relationship that turns sour and then sinister (she ends up having to kill him in self-defence). For Kanakaredes, that run of episodes was memorable, helping to cast a spotlight on violence towards women in society.
'It was really important to me to play Stella in a way that had dignity, that she was able to maintain her sense of self ... even when she pulled that trigger.'
Her on-screen connection with Sinise's character is reflected in their off-screen friendship. Kanakaredes says that when she was offered the role, she waited to commit until she was sure who the lead male was going to be. When Sinise was announced as her co-star, she wanted to get to know him first.
'I've always liked Gary as an actor, and somebody can be a phenomenal actor but you don't know who they are as a person. We went to lunch, and he's a good man. He's a family man. He has three children that he is a good father to, and, separate from acting, he's just a pleasure to have as a friend in my life. I really adore him.'
Despite the serious sensibility of the show, the set is relaxed. 'If Gary and I were snobby and thought we were saving people from cancer or something, this would be an awful, ego-orientated place. That's not the case, and none of the actors are that way. They're all extremely talented and down to earth, and Gary sets the tone for that, which is wonderful.'
Although all three series are known for their procedural format, with the emphasis on solving crimes rather than the characters' personal lives, Kanakaredes says that she's hoping to see more back stories.
'As actors, we're always continuously fighting to get as much personal stuff as we can put in. It's a series that has mystery as its effect, but if we can get 20 per cent of a character in there every once in a while, it's fantastic for us.'
Although she's enjoying the stability of being a TV series regular, Kanakaredes is an accomplished stage actor: she played Sally Bowles in a Broadway production of Cabaret and has been in a number of films. 'I prefer working,' she says, when asked which medium she's drawn to the most.
'As an actor who started in theatre, to have that immediate response from an audience is an addiction. I like to shake it up. I like to be on stage, turn around, and do a new play reading because when you're in a series, you only have a certain amount of time.'
If she could structure her work life any way she pleased, the mother of two young girls would like to make a small film when on hiatus from CSI: NY.
'I'd do a labour of love, maybe a small independent with an interesting character. And then have a television series that I'd get to go to every day, and be available for my children. I just want to keep acting for a long time,' she says.
'And when I get bored, I start directing. So I have my DGA [Director's Guild of America] card, and I write as well. I sold a pilot last year, a half-hour comedy that I wrote. I enjoy every facet of this business. It's just a pleasure to be on the roller coaster.'