David Berman

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at October 8, 2008 - 7:08 PM GMT

David Berman was very excited when he got the news that he'd be a series regular on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in its ninth season. Berman has played coroner's assistant David Phillips since the fifth episode of CSI's freshman season, as well as holding the position of head researcher on the show. Berman took some time out of his schedule to discuss his start on the show, what doing research for CSI entails, and what he'd like to see for his character in the future with CSI Files' Kristine Huntley

CSI Files: How's the ninth season going?

David Berman: Everything's going great! Billy [Petersen, Gil Grissom] is finishing up his full time duties on CSI, so it's been fun and sad.

CSI Files:Which episode are you working on right now?

Berman: We're filming episode ten right now.

CSI Files: Congratulations on the bump up to being a series regular on the show! How did you learn the news?

Berman: Jon Wellner and I were opening up the CSI Experience in Columbus, Ohio. They asked us to come out there specifically because it's about CSI, researching the show, and acting as well. It was about five minutes before we were supposed to go on and give our talk that [Executive Producer] Carol Mendelsohn called me and told me the good news. It was surprising and wonderful and certainly caught me off guard.

CSI Files: So you had no idea this was coming?

Berman: I heard rumors that it was in the works, but you never believe it until you actually get that phone call. The vagaries of show business are such that until I heard it from Carol or Naren [Shankar, executive producer], I didn't give it much credit.

CSI Files: Does this mean we'll get to learn more about David's personal life?

Berman: I'm sure eventually we'll see more of David Phillip's personal life, but the focus of season nine is really the transition from Grissom to the new character played by Laurence Fishburne, certainly at least in the first half. We're also introducing another character: Riley Adams is a new CSI played by Lauren Lee Smith, who's fantastic. While David Phillips is certainly in episode, in terms of meeting my wife or other personal stories, that's kind of on hold for now. Hopefully the show will be on for many years and we'll get a chance to revisit that stuff. It would be very fun to at some point to meet the missus. I have some thoughts as to who might play that role--maybe Natalie Portman or Angelina Jolie. Someone like that.

CSI Files: I was going guess that Angelina would be a good choice.

Berman: I'd have to read with her first!

CSI Files: How is the transition going? Is the show building to Grissom's departure and the arrival of Fishburne's character?

Berman: Yeah. Billy Petersen is just a consummate professional, and I think the writers have done a really great job of giving him a proper send off. And I should say it's not a send off: Billy will continue to be an executive producer of the show. He hasn't ruled out returning at some point for some episodes, but as for his full time duties as head of the team, that's going to change. And I think they've handled that perfectly, in a sensitive way that fans are going to really like. I have not had the privilege of working with Laurence Fishburne yet, but I've heard nothing but amazing things. He's such an incredible actor. If Billy has to leave, I really couldn't think of somebody who's more qualified than Laurence Fishburne. I think the CSI fans will be really pleased, both with Laurence and Lauren Lee Smith, who I have had the chance to work with and she's just wonderful.

CSI Files: What is Riley like? What does David make of her?

Berman: I think David fears change. Riley Adams a new character, so he's suspicious at first. I think it's hard not to love her; she's just great.

CSI Files: So he warms up to her?

Berman: Yeah. He warms up to her. He warms up to her pretty quickly.

CSI Files: How will becoming a regular on the show affect your duties as head researcher?

Berman: I still do both. I have an amazing co-researcher, Jon Wellner, who also plays toxicologist Henry Andrews. I've known Jon for years and I couldn't ask for a more talented, more effective co-worker. Jon is just great. Early on in season three, I was really just overwhelmed with the research. I actually met Jon in an acting class that Billy Petersen had recommended. I met Jon the first day and he mentioned he was looking for a job and I asked Carol if we could hire a part time researcher because I was just drowning in work, and Jon came on. I trained him and he caught on so quickly. I think having Jon on board allowed me to dedicate the time to the acting. When I'm on set, Jon is back in the home office working on the research, and similarly when Jon is on set, I cover Jon. A majority of the time we're both working on it together.

CSI Files: Do you think it will be more difficult now to balance both duties?

Berman: I don't think so. I've been doing this now for nine years. I've been a researcher for twelve years and I think I have a really good sense for how much time it takes to do this job successfully. Jon and I really have it down to science, no pun intended. We get the research questions--they're usually e-mailed to us, but occasionally a writer will call if it needs explanation. Jon and I have a contact list of over 300 experts in pretty much in every area of law enforcement you can think of, and we find the appropriate individual to help us answer the question. On the off chance we're asked a really strange question in a field we've never been asked [about] before, we'll then go ahead and find a new contact. But what's nice is because we've made so many friends in the forensic community, let's say we need a specialist, like a forensic odontologist or something, there's a good chance somebody in DNA or toxicology who we do know has a friend who's an odontologist. The longer we do this show and the more friends we make in this community, the easier it is to find people to help us answer the question, and the less time it will take to answer the question. I think Jon and I work very efficiently as a team, so I don't see that interfering with my acting on the show.

CSI Files: What's the coolest thing you've learned in your capacity as a researcher?

Berman: It's interesting: in terms of just trivia, a few things, but it's really not what Jon and I do. I wish it was just as fun as finding cool trivia about blood or DNA, but really our job is to research the process and procedure and protocol. We were asked the question once, "Could you cremate a baby in a barbeque?" You laugh because it's kind of funny, but it's so gruesome. We called Weber and they asked with all seriousness, "Well, how big is the BBQ and how old is the baby?" That's a question. We were once asked at what temperature does an eyeball melt, and one of our medical contacts told me without hesitation, 157 degrees Fahrenheit. I have no idea how he'd know that or who tested that information to begin with, but that's one of the true kind of random cocktail party trivia points that sticks out.

CSI Files: Do you have a preference between research and acting?

Berman: Yes, definitely. I'm an actor by training. That's what I've wanted to do since I was little. I got into the research years ago because when you're an actor, work is often inconsistent, you need to do something that [will allow you] to go on auditions and is really flexible. I kind of fell into the research doing it part time for an NBC show called Profiler before CSI. I certainly don't have a background in science or law enforcement, but I'm pretty good on the phone and know my way around a computer, and those are the most important skills in being a researcher. That, and admitting you know nothing! What I've also learned when Jon and I are doing these research questions, we just don't have the background, so what we'll do to cover our own butts is just find the best people in that field and never make any assumptions about the question.

It's all about finding the information. Jon and I are just a liaison between the writing staff and the information. We're just a conduit; that's all we are. We'll get a question, and the answer will be three pages long, so we have to synthesize that information into a paragraph. The writers are extremely busy, and it's our job to make it as easily digestible as possible for them.

CSI Files: How did you get the job at CSI initially?

Berman: I worked on Profiler before CSI for two years. It was a great job. I loved my boss and in my second season working on Profiler they actually put me in an episode as an actor. I started acting--my boss had actually seen me in a commercial and said, "Oh, I didn't know that you act!" and put me in an episode and I had a really great part as a naughty computer tech and then were talking about bringing me back as a recurring character--and then the show got cancelled. The NFL put three prime time shows out of business [at the time] and Profiler was one of them. So I didn't have a job for two weeks, which isn't like me--I'm always the kind of guy who has six different jobs at once. At the time CSI had started up, and my brother Josh [Berman] was hired as an entry level staff writer, and at the very first meeting, Carol Mendelsohn said, "Hey, we need a researcher. Does anybody know anyone with experience doing research for procedural television shows?" I'd just been let go along with everybody else on Profiler and Josh mentioned me and arranged an interview.

I have to say I was very reluctant to take the job. It was going to be a tremendous amount of work and the money wasn't great, to be perfectly honest. I took it for two reasons: I didn't have anything else at the time and I told Carol I was an actor and asked if there was a role I was right for, would she consider letting me read for it? Which, by the way, I never would have had the nerve to ask had it been a job I desperately wanted! She agreed because she is the most amazing boss in Hollywood. She agreed to let me read for a role and I didn't think much of it. I assumed that at some point, I'd get a call from casting, and then right away, a month later, right after the pilot was done, I got a call from casting to come to read for a role of "nondescript lab tech" in [an early episode]. I had one line: "Dr. Grissom, the body is ready." I had an 8am call and they didn't send me to set until 8pm. I was very nervous. Everyone was really busy, so I was on the sound stage just minding my own business when Billy Petersen walked over to me and introduced himself to me, which I thought was amazing. He went out of his way to talk to someone who was essentially an extra--I had a line, but my character didn't have a name. We shot the scene and I was excited to see my one line--I'd been on TV before I was still very excited to see what it would look like on CSI. I watched the episode and the part was cut! The whole B-story was cut.

I thought that was it, I got my one day on CSI, I made my union minimum for the day, a little extra money which is always nice. To my great surprise and delight, I got a call a couple of weeks after that episode aired from casting, saying they wanted to bring me back, they wanted to give my character a name, I was going to be the coroner's assistant and I had this wonderful scene with Jorja Fox (Sara Sidle) where I kind of awkwardly make a pass at her character. I got very good feedback from that. That scene was sort of my audition, and I kind of passed and from there it's history as they say.

CSI Files: They kept bringing you back!

Berman: I always assumed every episode would be my last. Not to sound like a grizzled old veteran, but as an actor, I hope for the best and I expect the worst. That way I'm pleasantly surprised when these things happen. I never expect it.

CSI Files: Can you rest a little easier now that you're a series regular?

Berman: Yeah, I think after doing the show for as long as I've done it, I don't think that the next episode will be my last. But that being said, I still don't take it for granted. Every time I go to set, every time I put on that lab coat or have a scene with one of these amazing actors on CSI, I totally realize how blessed and lucky I am. I'm completely aware of it. The moment that I'm not aware of it, I hope that someone will be there to give me a good hard slap.

CSI Files: The past two seasons we've had an episode that turns the spotlight on the lab techs--Lab Rats and "You Kill Me". Do you think we'll see another this season?

Berman: Gosh, I hope so. I really like them. Those are some of my favorite episodes, to be in and to watch. I love them. I've heard rumors that they will do [another one]. Nothing's been confirmed, but Carol and Naren [Shankar], our showrunners, enjoy those episodes. I would love it if there was one every season.

CSI Files: We got to see the more fun side of David in those episodes. Do you enjoy the humor, or do you like the serious material more. Do you have a preference between the two?

Berman: I certainly love both. Any role that has a little meat to it, anything that has some substance, whether it be a dramatic role or a comedic one [is great], but I tend to drift more towards the comedy. I always enjoyed playing comedic roles on the stage and on the screen. I love to make people laugh. Especially on a show like CSI that is so serious, whenever there's an opportunity to show the lighter side of this very grim profession, I think that's nice and I like to be a part of that.

CSI Files: Those episodes are very fun.

Berman: Yeah. I don't think you could do it every week--that's not what the show's about--but it's really nice to have a little levity. I talk to real CSIs on almost a daily basis and it is such a difficult job and it's so serious and there's so much sadness and there's so much death, that they're very funny people. A lot of them have developed really dark senses of humor. I think sometimes people would say, it's disrespectful or it's not realistic, and nothing could be further from the truth. You have to laugh no matter what you do, but especially in the profession like being a crime scene investigator. If you can't smile at least a few times a day, I think you won't last very long as a crime scene investigator. Some of the funniest people with the most wicked senses of humor I've met have been coroners, medical examiners, crime scene investigators.

CSI Files: Anything in particular that you'd like to see for David this season?

Berman: Sure, definitely. In terms of the development of the character, there've been mentions of his wife and family. They mentioned several seasons ago that his father was in the military, and I think it would be fun to explore that. I always enjoy exploring the relationship between David Phillips and Dr. Robbins (Robert David Hall). They're colleagues, [Dr. Robbins] is his boss, someone he looks up to as a father figure, and also someone he feels competitive with--that relationship is very rich.

I love working with all the actors in the show. Not only are they extremely talented, but also the nicest people you'll ever work with. I have a particularly good rapport with George Eads (Nick Stokes). We've always gotten along real well, and he's actually the one who came up with the nickname "Super Dave." I've always enjoyed working with him and I hope that continues.

CSI Files: Would he be the CSI you'd like to see David interact with more?

Berman: Yeah. Really in addition to him, I love working with the other lab rats. There was an episode called "Werewolves" where I was in a scene with Archie [Kao, Archie Johnson], Wallace Langham (David Hodges) and Jon Wellner. It was maybe the most fun I've had on set in nine years. We just all got got along so well--the chemistry is amazing. I like the guys personally, I respect them as actors. It would be very nice to interact with them more. I also think the world of Liz Vassey, who plays Wendy Simms. She's so funny on the show and the character is wonderful. The only scene I've ever had with her was in the last Lab Rats episode when I wheel away her dead corpse! That's about it. So it would be nice to have a scene with her alive, that would be nice. Of course working with Marg [Helgenberger, Catherine Willows] is always a treat, but I get to work with her quite a bit which is nice. I've had a couple of nice scenes with Eric Szmanda (Greg Sanders) this season which I've enjoyed.

CSI Files: Greg's a lab tech that made a transition to being a CSI; would David ever be interested in making that transition himself, or is he perfectly happy in the morgue?

Berman: I think that would be a tough transition, to go from the medical examiner's office to being a crime scene investigator. I'm pretty happy in the morgue. I have this wonderful opportunity to work both in the field and the lab--very few characters get that chance in the show. It's just the nature of the job: I assist in autopsies, I get to go to whatever crime scene we're investigating that week and pick up one of my dead friends there.

CSI Files: Is it a coincidence that you and David share the same first name?

Berman: I really have no idea. I know both Archie and myself have the same names in real life and on the show. So I don't know. I know that Andrew Lipsitz created my character, so I think you'd have to ask him! They knew my first name is David, so there's some awareness there. But it's kind of funny, both Archie and David.

CSI Files: Do you have a favorite episode?

Berman: Several favorites. I really am a fan of the show; I think if I wasn't on it, I'd watch it. That's one of the reasons I like your site so much! There's a bunch. I love "Grave Danger"; I enjoyed working with [Director Quentin] Tarantino tremendously. I've been a fan of his for a long time, so to have the opportunity to work with him was pretty incredible, plus I thought that was just a great episode. I thought George was amazing in it.

I also like the episodes where we investigate worlds I know nothing about. "Got Murder" was a wonderful episode. It was this kind of Glengarry Glen Ross expose of salesmen. Sarah Goldfinger wrote that episode and it was just terrific.

"Getting Off" was a lot of fun both as an actor and a researcher. It was an episode that involved a death of a clown. There were a lot of clowning questions, so I called the World Clown Association, a big clown group, and I had a bunch of research questions and the woman who I spoke to [was hesitant]. Usually when I call and explain I work for CSI, people are friendly and very much want to help and are excited that you actually care about presenting their world accurately. So this woman was very reticent to talk to me and I [said to] her, "I'm sorry, but I have the feeling you're not particularly interested in speaking to me." And she said, "I don't feel comfortable sharing this information with a non-clown." So I said, "I understand. What does one have to do to become a member of your organization?" She said, "Well you have to fill out a couple of forms." I asked if that was it and she said there was a ten-dollar fee for membership. And I said, "Can we do that right now?" And she kind of paused and said, "Yeah, I guess" like it was the craziest thing in the world. So I fill out a form over the phone and paid the ten dollars and I got a clown name. My clown name is Dave E. Crockett. And she answered all my questions! Her attitude totally changed. It was complete fun working on the episode.

I also love "Jackpot". Grissom leaves Las Vegas and goes to this small town in Nevada to investigate a crime. I thought Billy was particularly wonderful in that episode.

CSI Files: Is there an episode you really like for your character?

Berman: In the episode "Iced", I have this scene that I just love with Ecklie (Marc Vann) where he kind of yells at me for supposedly losing a body, which of course I didn't do. David Phillips would never lose a corpse! I enjoyed working with Marc so much and we were able to improv a little bit off the page. Richard Lewis was the director and he loves when we have fun with it. As I mentioned earlier, "Werewolves" was really fun; you got to see me working alone with this body and my process and how I'm very protective of this corpse. I really liked that a lot. And then first season, the first episode I appeared in, "Friends and Lovers". I get to kind of flirt with Sara Sidle. I really kind of found the character in that scene. He's not the most confident guy in the world, but he has a wonderful heart. I liked that episode quite a bit and really enjoyed working with Jorja.

You asked me earlier about what's in store for David Phillips in season nine, and one change that I've made is that I'm approaching David Phillips with more confidence. I think after nine years, I'm not quite so intimidated by my colleagues and I feel like I really do belong. I've always taken my job seriously, but now it's a combination of I always take my job very seriously and I'm very confident in what I'm doing. I think that's kind of slowly evolved through the years.

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Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.