William Petersen | Interview
Novid Parsi of Time Out Chicago talks with actor William Petersen about why he's anxious about performing in the stage play Blackbird and what he misses about CSI.
In January, William Petersen ended his almost-nine-year run as Gil Grissom on the hit series CSI. Since last year’s announcement of his departure, the Evanston native has returned to his first professional home: the Chicago stage. In December, he became a Steppenwolf ensemble member. Now, in David Harrower’s play Blackbird at Victory Gardens, Petersen stars as a 55-year-old man who meets a 27-year-old woman—15 years after their sexual encounter.
Time Out Chicago: The play doesn’t judge these people: Your character didn’t simply molest the young girl. Was that part of its appeal?
William Petersen: Yes. What’s great about the play is it’s impossible to go away with any answers. I don’t know if there are any answers to this dilemma in our culture, but the questions need to be raised.
TOC: What do you mean—“dilemma in our culture”?
William Petersen: I think there’s a spike in pedophilia. Part of it’s because of the Internet. Part of it may be because girls at 12 and 13 are not like I remember them at 12 and 13. And the play doesn’t just take the one side that is easiest to address: It should never happen; take them out and shoot them.
TOC: It also shows their relationship not just as pedophilic but as love.
William Petersen: Yeah, I think that’s what it is…. The human part of me feels terrible for pedophiles. I just wish they wouldn’t be ’cause it’s gotta be horrible to live like that, to know it’s wrong and be compelled to it anyway.
TOC: Pretty heavy topic—heavier than your CSI days.
William Petersen: Yeah, and much more anxiety-ridden. In CSI, you come in, you find a dead body, you don’t have to get to know the person. In this, it’s a live body, and it’s right in the room.
TOC: You feel anxiety about this role?
William Petersen: I have anxiety every day we work on it.
TOC: Do you miss anything about CSI?
William Petersen: I miss all the people. To have a cast together for that long—and for everybody to get along? Sometimes it’s hard to make it through a two-month run of a play with the same people.
TOC: Not the salary?
William Petersen: No, I don’t miss the salary.
TOC: ’Cause the reported figures…
William Petersen: Yeah, they were paying me a lot of money. You can’t take care of my dogs with what you make in the theater. But I never got into theater or movies for money. It was nice they paid you and then it was very nice they paid you a lot. But that brings a whole other set of headaches to a person’s life—money.
TOC: How’s that?
William Petersen: People look at you differently. The responsibilities are great: foundations, charity, how do we take care of our family, is this too much, not enough. You don’t change necessarily, but all those around you change towards you.
TOC: That’s what they always say about fame and money.
William Petersen: Well, it’s true.
TOC: I keep hearing about your tempestuous high-school years. What exactly did you do?
William Petersen: Nothing. I just got kicked out of a bunch of private schools. I was at Loyola Academy up in Wilmette, and I kinda got kicked out of there for some behavioral things and then—
TOC: You won’t specify?
William Petersen: Well, I got in a fight. Put it this way: I pissed the fathers off. The Jesuits.
TOC: Not girls’ fathers, then.
William Petersen: No, there were no girls; it was all boys, 1,800 guys. Then I went to Evanston High School, and they didn’t make you go to school. So I didn’t. This was ’67 through ’72; the world was changing as fast as you could imagine. I wanted to be on the road, I wanted to be a gypsy, I was ready to go at 14.
TOC: So how’d you find theater?
William Petersen: I was going to play football at Idaho State, and my GPA was so bad they put me in the theater department to get my GPA up. And I fell in love with it.
TOC: Must’ve been a shift for a jock.
William Petersen: Yeah, but I’d always loved the theater. My mother had taken me to see Sound of Music when I was ten down at the Shubert with Florence Henderson. I was, like, God, these kids are my age, and they’re singing onstage! They’re downtown! I’m stuck up in Evanston.
TOC: I get the impression that, early on, you were a player. Amy Morton called you “the young stud.”
William Petersen: That’s what theater is when you’re in your twenties. Amy Morton, in fact, said, “Your brain may know you’re acting, but your heart doesn’t.” And that has a tendency to lead to a lot of possible relationships. I certainly was enamored of a lot of actors. I still am.
Blackbird begins previews Friday 3.