The first thing that I notice about Jorja Fox is how quick she is to laugh. It’s a little disarming, considering her character on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Sara Sidle, is not known for her jovial sense of humor. Disarming, yet infectious and even over the phone, its feels less like an interview and more like we’re kicking back a few beers in a local pub and sharing stories.
She talks to PopGurls about the community on CSI, the Grissom/Sara relationship, Eric Szmanda’s influence and being homeless in Europe at 17.
You’ve had strong female roles on three major television hits in the past decade – Maggie Doyle on ER, Agent Gina Toscano on The West Wing and now Sara Sidle on CSI.
I think I’m really fortunate – especially when you talk about the three different characters. It occurred to me that maybe I was getting typecast, but then I thought – if I am, how lucky am I? These women are all so smart, and specialists in a certain field. The character that had most training [was probably] Gina Toscano – she was one of 200 people on the planet that knew how to do what she did. So that was really cool to play her.
What have you learned from playing them?
I definitely learned that having a gun on your side comes in handy. Even Maggie Doyle, who was a vegetarian on ER, was a gun collector. Her big hobby was going shooting and collecting guns. All three characters have had something strapped to their legs (laughs).
Have you taken a class in gun safety?
No! Isn’t that funny? There’s no requirements at all to carry a gun on television. (laughs). I personally don’t own a gun. I have been to a shooting range a few times for different roles but I haven’t done that in a while. There’s a couple of gun ranges in L.A. and I thought it’d be fun on Saturday night to go shoot guns. But I haven’t done it yet.
Do they give you any lessons on how to properly hold a gun?
Yes. Certainly. I just did a scene yesterday where I had to draw my gun on CSI. What’s funny is that it’s probably been two years since I’ve drawn my gun on CSI and every time I draw it, I have to learn over again exactly the proper way to hold it so it looks professional.
I learn what I have to for the day and then I delete it all so I can get ready for the next day – it’s all in the short term memory. There’s things that I’ve been doing for seven years that the tech advisor comes over and reminds me how to do it.
When I have to tapelift, or fingerprint, I’ve got the hand motions down but there’s still the exact way to do it. W’re always trying to do it as realistically as possible. I’ve been fingerprinting for seven years and I still – Our tech advisor right now is Larry Mitchell and he’s a genius – he’ll come over and be like, “hold your wrist a little more like you’re painting,” [and gives me] these little tips to make it look right.
I don’t have any science skills at all. None. It’s really hilarious that I get to play this person every week.
I was drawn into CSI not only for the writing and concept, but because all the characters are flawed. And I think you do a fantastic job portraying Sara as a strong, smart, flawed woman. How have you approached Sara? Has that changed over the past seasons?
Oh, thank you. Well, I have a lot of experience at being flawed, so it came in handy for once in my life (laughs).
This has been a great year for Sara. It’s really rare that you get a Season Seven and it’s hugely rarer that you can go into Season Seven with this brand new idea of a storyline. Grissom and Sara have been doing this tango for a long time but after the finale in Season Six, it really left people with the sense that not only is something is going on, but how long has this been going on. So it’s really fun to have this new thing to play. Billy [Peterson, who plays Gil Grissom] and I thought that Sara and Grissom thing had been played out and that people were sick of it and wanted new storylines. I was really surprised to find out that there was space for it, that people would like to see what would happen between them.
After we dropped the proverbial bomb at the end of last season, we decided to just let it breathe a little bit – sort of like, “well now you know, and here’s what it looks like.” It was a great first half of the year for them – it was very pleasant and there wasn’t a lot of tension, we just wanted the dust to settle. From here on out, there’s going to be some interesting stuff that takes place between the two of them and I was really excited about it.
And I kind of decided at the beginning of the year that, even though I was under the umbrella of CSI — I, personally, was in a romantic comedy.
Yeah – the fumbles of that and the ups and downs of that. Even though we don’t talk about it much, it sort of colors every scene that we’re in together now. They’re always fun to play and I hope the fans like it certainly, but you never want to bore anybody with something like that. It’s one thing if we bored people with our storylines, but to bore people with our characters’ personal lives would be worse (laughs). I would have to take it more personally.
Our writers our phenomenal — every year it gets harder and more challenging for them to come up with stuff that’s still our show, but at the same time, fresh and different enough to keep people surprised. After so many years, they have the hard job. I have to show up and try to bring it to life. So I really commend them, I think they’re really doing a great job with that.
This episode I’m working on right now, it’s episode 18 [“Empty Eyes”] – I always think, “man, they can’t shock me any more” and they gave me this episode 10 days ago and I was floored. How do they do it? I’m excited – it’s a real strong show for Sara.
Did the writers tell you how long Grissom and Sara have been together, or have you come up with your own history?
Way back when I got the first episode of CSI, [Sara] was defined as a love interest for Grissom. So it was natural from the very beginning for Billy and I to play this little bit because this was supposed to be the history of these two characters. And then everybody changed their minds for a while – some people thought it worked, some people didn’t think it worked.
We started to realize how lucky we were that we might be on the air for a little while and the writers decided that they wanted to hold off on that storyline for a little while because if you put those characters together and they get together – where do you go from there? So [they decided], let’s slow it down a little bit so we always have somewhere to go.
At the end of Season Six – the final episode was written, we were already shooting it, it had an ending – then Carol Mendelsohn, the Executive Producer of CSI called me at home and said, “What do you think about this? I was talking with Billy and we just kind of decided that maybe we’d like to do this – are you still interested?” And I said, “of course!” It’s kind of what I felt like I was hired to do way back in the day.
I think we’ve got the whole year arced out now, but for a lot of it over the six or seven years, nobody knew where it was going or how long they’ve known each other. Luckily for us, since one of the big themes of our show is to follow the clues and unravel the mystery, it kind of works. (laughs) There’s still holes – like, how long have Sara and Grissom known each other? Where did they meet? Have they been together in the past? Were they together before and then they broke up and now they’re back together?
Will those questions be answered in upcoming episodes?
I think there will be some answers, yeah. To me, again, that’s part of the fun. If we gave the audience this new mystery – since it’s a suspense show, where people try to figure out the mystery, then it would be kind of cool to drop clues about that – that would become part of the mystery of the show. I think we will here and there.
But all hell’s about to break loose – that I can say for sure.
You’ve said that the CSI writers and producers are really kind. That if there’s someplace you don’t really want to go with the character, you can talk to them, and generally they’ll change the course or direction. When was a time that you brought up a path w/the producers that you didn’t feel comfortable with for Sara?
There have been a couple of times over the years. The first one that comes to mind — very early in the show, the writers had wanted to create a real solid tension between Catherine Willows and Sara Sidle. They started off right away that we would lock horns and that this would be a theme that would go throughout the show. Marg [Helgenberger, who plays Catherine] and I talked about it and we both felt that, since we were the only women on the show at that time, to have [us] fighting each other and jockeying for position was an area that we were hoping that [we didn’t have] to go. We wanted actually to work well together – we could still disagree on things from time to time. Certainly Sara and Catherine are very different people and they go about things differently but we didn’t want to set a tone that would last throughout the show. We went to the writers and they were kind enough to pull back on that which was great.
I felt more passionately about potential for camaraderie coming from these two women being so different instead of the opposite. They’ve done the opposite too – several times, actors have gone in with story ideas that they were excited about and writers have gone and written that script. So they do that for us, too. I think it’s quite rare on TV and it’s a really wonderful thing. Sometimes we’ll be on set and the writer will want one thing, the director will want one thing and the two actors in the scene will want different things and if we can go away and talk for a few minutes — all four people come out with a great resolution which might be very different from what each person wanted individually so it’s very exciting.
That seems very rare in television.
I think so. Maybe because I’ve only been on one show for so long I don’t really know how it’s working in other places. But at least traditionally, from where I come from before getting CSI, I had never worked collaboratively like that. That had a lot do with William Peterson and Carol Mendelsohn. Billy just said very plainly to CBS that the only way he knew how to work was collaboratively, from theater, and if he was going to take the job, those kind of guidelines would have to be put in place.
They’ve been amazing. There’s a few shows that I’ve pitched that they haven’t gone for yet, but I pitch them twice a year and hopefully some day (laughs). I’m relentless, I don’t give up. I’m probably one of the most annoying actors on the show for that department. (laughs)
The good side to that is that after seven years, we’re still into it. We still think about it. We still get excited about it – and that’s hopefully the goal. You’d rather have somebody knocking at your door at eight o’clock at night than actors never coming in and not caring.
And from a fan perspective – you want to see the actors be as passionate about the show that you’re passionate about.
Yeah, thank you. You’re absolutely right. I agree — if we’re bored, then everybody’s bored for sure.
Will there be a Season Eight of CSI?
Yeah, as far as I know, everybody will be back.
It’s a big cast, do you spend time with people outside of work?
It’s a big a cast – there’s 10 of us now, regulars. There’s a few cast members that I see outside of work all the time. Even the folks that I don’t – maybe we don’t live as close to each other – they’re my family. I adore them, I’d walk on glass for them. Every once in a while we’ll have a fight, but it’s like a family. The bulk of our crew has been around since Season Three, some since Season One. That’s also extremely rare.
It sounds like you have a great community there.
Yeah but it’s scary though, when somebody comes to visit because we all know each other so well we’re like “Who’s the new person? Somebody new to talk to!” And they get mobbed by everybody. “what’s your name, where are you from?” we love company (laughs). And we behave better when we have company!
I saw that you and Fox and Eric Szmanda are members of the World Adult Kickball Association, playing for the Royal Blue Balls team. How did you get involved in that?
He dragged me into that! He put together a kick ball team with a couple of friends and it’s a co-ed team and they desperately need women. Last season was our first season, and the kick-off for this season is [coming up]. We’ve been practicing and getting ready – it’s so much fun.
Eric would be one of the people that I see the most. Because of common interests like kickball. (laughs).
Do you have a nickname on the back of your jersey?
Yeah, like “batting last.” I’m terrible. I’m negotiating for cheerleader this year. It would be a completely new thing for me – I have no background in cheerleading. The team needs cheerleaders and it could be fun to do that at my age for the first time, but so far they won’t let me but we’ll see.
That would be great idea! You could come up with original cheers.
And a cheerleading outfit! I was not that kid in high school. I missed all that – it just wasn’t the crowd that I hung with. Neither was kickball, to be perfectly honest. I went to junior high and high school in a little town in Florida and there was the Football kids and the cheerleaders and there were the surfers and the skaters and I fell into the surfer category.
From a few interviews, I’ve noticed that you’re a fan of beer. What do you normally drink?
Once summer comes, I can drink anything I want. I love the microbrews. But when I’m working so much – Heineken Light is the way to go. We all come back to work in July and we’re still fit and by this time of year, some of us are barely hanging on to the same size jeans that we were in the beginning of the season. I go up a whole size – well, my waist goes up a size and my shoulders go down a size because I surf. By winter, I’m a size smaller in a jacket, it’s sad.
Is that pretty much what you do all summer long, go surfing?
Yeah, I surf and I hike and I run. I’ve never been a gym person so the weather has a lot to do with my workout. If the sun is out until eight or nine o’clock, I can surf after work sometimes. But once it’s dark at five, it makes it harder. I’m always trying to stay in shape but for me – I’m one of those people that, if I’m really busy, it’s one of the first things to fall off my list of things to do. But there’s other people on the show that are a lot more disciplined than I am. Marg – it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or sleeting or what – she gets her workout in. I’m very impressed by that.
What is your favorite thing to do after you’ve finished shooting for the season?
For the last two years, Eric has dragged me – again, dragged me – to Coachella. It’s a big music festival in California. I’d been a bunch of times and I hadn’t been for a few years. I’ve had a really good time, but we were so tired by the time we stop. I’ve told him there’s no way I’m going this year. I just want to turn the phone off and not do anything but sleep for four days. So that’ll be what I’ll try to do this year but he keeps sending me the line-up and every turn around, there’s somebody else playing that I really want to see. I’ll keep you posted!
Going back to The West Wing — what was it like for you to be on the show?
It was amazing. The year was 2000 — there was a presidential election. We had the Democratic National Convention in LA that year, and there was a warm, sort of friendly relationship between the Clinton administration and The West Wing. So we were invited to go every night, we were invited to the White House Correspondents dinner in Clinton’s last year. I got to go places and meet people that I would have never been able to meet and I felt so honored to be part of all that.
I’ve always had a naïve sense of romance about politics. I think it’s interesting and what politicians do is really cool – the idea of it, going to Washington to serve your area or state, your country. That’s a very noble pursuit. It was really wonderful for me to be a part of all that, to hear Gore speak on the floor that year. At the time of the Democratic National Convention – he was ahead by so much that everybody thought that we were seeing the future. It was a big shock to a lot of people when his numbers started to fall and there was that big debacle.
When I left The West Wing, I really thought I’d be back there because I thought that CSI would fall flat on its face. A show about death on a Friday night would never fly — people wouldn’t be interested in it. Aaron Sorkin never wrote off any of his characters. With the amount of characters on the show, and the amount of people coming and going – he felt that’s all he’d ever do was try to explain somebody’s arrival and somebody’s departure so for the most part characters would disappear into thin air.
I Tivo’d the whole last season. I’m still making my way through [the episodes] — I think they are phenomenal The way they brought back characters like [Sam Seaborn played by] Rob Lowe and how they tied [their returns] in. I think that [Sorkin] is one of the greatest writers that I’ve had the pleasure reading, let alone working with.
Last year, you were going to bring a play you were producing, Dear Bernard, to London.
Unfortunately, the play didn’t go off. It happens – that’s showbiz, right? (laughs) I’ve produced eight plays and this would have been the ninth and this was the only one that we got deeply into pre-production and had to bail at the last minute. So it was a grand failure – but we’re still hoping to take the play somewhere. It has to be in the summer because of my job schedule. We’re already trying to figure out where to put it up this year. I had a great time and London was very kind. It was definitely a learning experience and at the end of the day it was very sad.
My producer friends tell me that it happens all the time! If you want to be a producer when you grow up, you have to get used to it.
How do you enjoy producing?
I love producing. Then again, I started off really small-scale and it’s been exclusively theater until this year. I have an Associate Producer credit on a short film that’s just submitting to festivals right now. The thing that I love is trying to help people get their story told. Somebody has an idea and just to physically try to make it happen. It’s great. I really love it.
You’ve said that “Dreams come true all the time” – what’s a recent dream of yours that’s come true?
There’s been a couple. We break for two weeks in December and I spent the whole two weeks in Puerto Rico surfing. Growing up in Florida, there’s a pretty big surf culture there, and there was this mythical place – the west side of Puerto Rico – where people talked about these mythical waves, and big waves. So it had always been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, to go there and surf, so that was great.
You started off in the entertainment world as a model. What’s the craziest experience you had while modeling?
There were so many. (laughs)
Probably one of the craziest things was that I had a modeling agent in New York City – god bless him – he sent me to Italy with another model and told us that we would start working right away. Our books were ready, he got us ready to go. I had brought 600 bucks with me at that time because I was supposed to start working right away. I think the girl that went with me brought, like, 250 dollars. And we got to Italy and they took one look at our books and said, “these are awful, you have to start all over, these are never going to work here.”
They told us what to do — we had to meet with different photographers that were really hip and happening in Milan and then make a book from there and they said that they could get us work. In the meantime, I think we spent eight or nine days in a pensione before the lady literally tossed us out on the street. So I was homeless in Milan, Italy at 17. Luckily, it was a situation where I met a guy from San Diego who was going to college in Milan for architecture. He was young too, he was 19. He had an apartment instead of a dorm. I met him on the street at an ice cream parlor and I lived with him for four weeks. It all worked out fine. But probably being homeless in Italy at 17 was pretty crazy.
My jaw is on the floor. I can’t imagine what that was like.
At 17, it was fun and crazy. I probably could have called my parents — I didn’t come from means but certainly they would have bailed me out. But I had this pride that I wasn’t going to call them and tell them that I was failing in Italy. And also, I didn’t want them to worry that I had become that destitute (laughs). So that was a highlight!
It had a very happy ending – we both started working and we made money and we came home. There were two years when I got back from Europe that I was living in New York City going to acting classes and I didn’t have to have a side job.
When did you realize that you had some sort of fame?
Oh, wow. I’m still realizing that. I blend pretty well – definitely better than other cast members on the show. But I’m under the impression that I can go in and out of places and people won’t notice me.
I think it was ER for sure. When I got the job on ER, it was Season Three, they were the number one show in the world. When I got the job, I almost got in my car and drove to Mexico. I was supposed to start the next morning. And even though I didn’t really watch ER, I realized that when my first show aired that everyone would know what an imposter I was. It was a make it or break it moment. The world was going to see what I was doing. It’s one thing to creep along, to get a pilot here and a pilot there – it’s another to all of a sudden be on the number one show in the world. I was terrified.
I’ve been lucky because it’s been a slow, steady crawl for me. I have friends that one day, they’re completely anonymous and literally, a week later, everyone knows who they are. I think that would be psychologically confusing. Much more so than the way I’ve been able to do it.
The biggest thing for me now is that people know my name. For years, people would say “Oh, you’re the girl from CSI! I love Sara, Sara’s great!” But now, I’ll be walking down the street and people will go, “Jorja!” I have to stand there for a minute – do I actually know this person? Because they know who I am. Your first assumption is that, well if somebody is calling you by your first name, you must know them. But more and more, it’s people that I’ve never met – they just know who I am.
Wow, I’ve never thought about that before. How surreal it must be to have someone call out to you, by name, that you don’t know.
And it’s embarrassing every once in a while — when it happens with somebody who really knows me, and I think I don’t know them. Like, we went to yoga class together four years ago.
For me, it’s been a good thing – it’s a friendly world. People are nice to me wherever I go. It’s really been a positive thing for me.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation airs Thursdays at 9pm ET on CBS.
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