Interview: David Berman

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It’s hard to imagine how David Berman has the time to sleep, eat, or even give an interview. On CSI: Crime Scene Investigation he not only plays the role of David Phillips–the man who assists Doc Robbins with the slicing and dicing of victims brought into autopsy, looking for clues and determining cause of death on a daily basis–but behind the scenes Berman serves as head researcher, conducting his own investigations to ensure the show uses accurate information. Berman took some time out of his incredibly busy schedule to discuss his character’s evolution, a season of change, and his upcoming National Geographic Channel project with CSI Files’ Shane Saunders.

CSI Files: As the years progress more layers are peeled back on David Phillips; he’s gone from being in the background to developing a quirky sense of humor and working more prominently with the CSIs. How would you describe Super Dave’s evolution from Season One to where we’re at now?

David Berman: I think you did a pretty good job of describing it in the question. I think that over the first few seasons the character was written kind of as you said–as shy, kind of nerdy, but a very respectful guy who really just wanted to do his job. They established very early on that he came from a military background and has a deep respect for Doc Robbins [Robert David Hall], so I really was just kind of working by trade. I was in my early twenties when the show started and was dreaming up my background for the guy assuming it was my first job out of college. Even early on they did a nice job giving me fun stuff to do. I had a crush on Sara [Sidle, Jorja Fox] early on; my very first scene on camera I kind of awkwardly hit on Jorja Fox’s character which was really fun. I love playing those moments.

As time passed the writers have given me more responsibility. I like to think the team respects my opinions more and more, and I’ve gone from being Doctor Robbins’ assistant to actually being his colleague. A couple of seasons ago I got to perform my own autopsy which was a real highlight for me.

CSI Files: In “Built to Kill, Part One” we found out David was a married man, but we have yet to meet Mrs Phillips. Who would be your ideal actress to play the part?

Berman: That’s a tough one. I think she’d have to be a particularly strong woman. The writers have established that my wife kind of doesn’t take shit from anybody and doesn’t tolerate B.S. The couple conversations we’ve had are usually conversations where we’re fighting about something. It’s a very passionate marriage, which I think would seem to contradict the way David Phillips is presented most of the time; he’s respectful and somewhat quiet. I can’t think of an actress per se other than her being tall and strong and vocal.

CSI Files: How do you think Sara feels about David being married? You had feelings for her, but she didn’t quite reciprocate those feelings back to you.

Berman: I think she adores David Phillips, but in the way a big sister loves her little brother. I’ll always have a soft spot for Sara Sidle, but I think they have a very nice working relationship.

CSI Files: Doc Robbins and David had an ongoing bet in last season’s “Hitting for the Cycle.” Some say it was out of character for the two to participate in such a morbid activity. What do you think?

Berman: I disagree completely. Having met dozens and dozens of medical examiners and coroner’s assistants, and physician assistants, I’ve seen more than my fair share of autopsies and I’m very familiar with that world. If you don’t have a sense of humor you will not last very long. That doesn’t mean these aren’t compassionate people, but I think at the end of the day this is a gruesome job. Unless you are able to create some distance between you and the decedent I think you will go crazy. The case was actually based on a real life episode that happened to one of our technical consultants. It didn’t come from out of the blue, which I think lends credence to the idea that it wouldn’t be out of character for them to be making a bet.

CSI Files: The two of them clearly did not like Kevin.

Berman: Yeah, Kevin was a real jerk. But a great guy and a wonderful actor!

CSI Files: David is closest to Doc Robbins in the morgue, but David is also getting to spend a fair amount of time out in the field. Who else would you say is close with David?

Berman: David has a really nice relationship with Nick Stokes [George Eads]. Nick is the one that gave him his nickname “Super Dave” which I really love. It’s not very often I get a chance to play a quirk or something that doesn’t directly have to do with the decedent that I’m examining. So George or Nick really goes out of his way to kind of play up those moments which I love. It’s really–I’m not just saying this because you’re interviewing me for CSI Files–I really love the cast of CSI. I really look forward to working with everybody. It’s a really great group of actors to spend time with.

CSI Files: Do you get called Super David off camera?

Berman: Sometimes. I always get a kick out of it. I think it’s nice that fans really take to the show and embrace me at times.

CSI Files: You’re well into filming on Season Twelve. What do you think of the season so far?

Berman: It’s been a season of change. We’ve had Ted Danson [DB Russell] and Elisabeth Harnois [Morgan Brody] join us and soon to be Elisabeth Shue [Julie Finlay], though I haven’t met her yet and I’m really excited to. Of course Laurence Fishburne [Ray Langston] left and now Marg Helgenberger [Catherine Willows] is leaving, so it’s been a real transitional year. That being said, working with these new actors has been incredible. Ted Danson had some mighty big shoes to fill with William Petersen [Gil Grissom] and Laurence before him–two of the best actors in the world. I don’t know about you, but I think he’s done just a remarkable job; he’s charming and smart and just elevates the material in such an incredible way. When I’m through with work I’ll just stay and watch his scenes because I just love watching him work. Elisabeth is wonderful as well. She also has a really tough role to fill; traditionally a lot of women come and go on CSI and for whatever reason that’s always been a difficult role. It makes Jorja’s role on the show all the more impressive. I think Elisabeth has been doing a great job.

The way I met Ted was a pretty funny story. I filmed a documentary in Israel this summer for the National Geographic Channel and I was there for almost two months. It was a rather exhausting shoot with very long days and lots of driving and shooting in the hot desert–it was rewarding and fun, but difficult. I came home on July 14th from Israel and when I landed there was an e-mail waiting for me from one of our executive producers asking me if I would escort Ted Danson to Las Vegas on Tuesday–I got in on Sunday morning–and kind of show him around the morgue. That was all they really had planned, just a tour of the morgue, and evidently they had tried and couldn’t get him a tour of CSI or the morgue or a ride-along. Because I am a researcher on the show and I do know quite a few actual CSIs, I made a bunch of calls and I scheduled this fairly intense fourteen-hour marathon of covering basically all the sides of Clark County law enforcement. After I did it I kind of thought, “Oh no, what if he doesn’t want to do this?”

I had terrible jetlag and was absolutely exhausted–pretty much couldn’t sleep at all–and I picked him up from CSI at Universal Studios and went to the airport. Our flight was delayed like two hours, we didn’t get there until pretty late at night, and the next morning we got picked up at seven, driven to the morgue, and we’re inside where there’s several bodies splayed open. As we walk in–it was as if the director had yelled “action!”–the medical examiner picks up the bonesaw, slices off a guy’s cranium, pulls off the skull cap, and goes “Hey Ted, hold this.” I went from filming a documentary in Israel to performing an autopsy with Ted Danson in three days. That’s certainly a story I never thought would happen.

CSI Files: Based on what you’ve heard, what is your take on Julie Finlay? How different is she from Catherine?

Berman: I won’t give too much away. She’s certainly a strong-willed character and she’s definitely her own woman. She has lots of experience in law enforcement and kind of a tumultous background with DB. That will definitely play out the first couple episodes.

CSI Files: How emotional were you on Marg’s last day?

Berman: Marg’s last day was very difficult. She’s been my colleague and friend for over a dozen years and saying goodbye to her was very hard. It was bittersweet, but bittersweet because we’re still going to be friends and still going to see each other, we’ve exchanged phone calls and texts even since she left. She’s doing what she wants to do, she left on her own terms. But it was sad to say goodbye to someone who’s so talented and someone I’ve really enjoyed working with. She was very emotional and you can see just how much the show and the cast meant to her.

CSI Files: You mentioned doing research for the show, and you’ve been doing so for quite some time with Jon Wellner (Henry Andrews). Are you at all numb during the research excursions?

Berman: The actual horror of the stuff we’re researching? Yeah. It’s just a job; our job is to solve mysteries and put puzzles together and to help the writers out.

CSI Files: Your brother Josh Berman likes working behind the camera, and you seem to enjoy working behind the camera doing research duties, and also performing as an actor in front of it. Would you ever want to write or direct an episode?

Berman: Not really. My ambitions are to be an actor, that’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was eight-years-old. I got into research to pay the bills when I was very young and acting work was hard to come by. On CSI we have eight full-time writers who are spectacular. Maybe in the future I would like to writing something but on CSI I think I should leave that to our primary staff.

CSI Files: You talked a little bit about working on a documentary last summer. What else can you share about the film?

Berman: I was the on air host. I hosted a four-part miniseries for the National Geographic Channel called Faces of the Bible. It’s four one-hour segments where each episode I look at a skull or complete skeleton that was found in an archaeological dig somewhere in modern day Israel. Using forensic art, the Bible, good old fashioned deductive reasoning, we try to recreate these skulls to see what people may have looked like. Each episode loosely corresponds to an event from the Bible. In one episode, we’re looking at a three-thousand year old Philistine skull to figure out what the biblical character Delilah may have looked like. It was a pretty cool idea and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

CSI Files: Do you have an estimate on when it’s going to air?

Berman: I don’t. We haven’t even done the narration for it. But I’ll definitely let you know as soon as I find out.

CSI Files: Do you have any interesting fan encounters?

Berman: None I can think of. Lots of nice letters. One story which I hesitate to tell because I can’t really confirm it. But I was at The Grove walking down the street and I saw James Gandolfini, one of my all-time favorite actors. I was kind of trying not to stare, kind of glancing at him, and he was with I assume his wife and child. His wife and child were looking at me and I got very excited, but I thought they couldn’t possibly be looking at me. I kind of kept walking and I took about twenty steps, turned around, and all three were looking at me and James Gandolfini pointed at me and smiled. That was a pretty cool fan encounter.

CSI Files: Tony Soprano watches CSI!

Berman: [Laughs.] I guess he does.

CSI Files: What else is in store this season for David Phillips?

Berman: I really don’t know. Certainly in the next couple episodes David Phillips isn’t doing much other than investigating crimes. There’s some pretty gruesome murders coming up that David Phillips will be examining, but I don’t know much beyond that. I don’t think he’s getting divorced or having a kid in the next couple episodes. [Laughs.]

CSI Files: Maybe there’s a girlfriend on the side.

Berman: I like the way you think.

 

Shane Saunders is a freelance writer and reviewer. His work can be seen on EDGE Network and ShaneSSaunders.com. Twitter: @ShaneSSaunders.

Shane Saunders
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