Eric Szmanda

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at December 15, 2004 - 8:45 PM GMT

When Eric Szmanda took the role of eager young lab technician Greg Sanders, he had no idea that four-and-a-half years later he would be a regular on the show, with his character about to take his final proficiency test to become a full-fledged crime scene investigator. Szmanda is eager to explore the challenges that Greg's new role will bring, and he sat down with CSI Files to discuss the changes for Greg and his take on the show's enormous popularity.

CSI Files: It's been a big year for Greg with him on the cusp of becoming a full CSI. When is he going to pass that final proficiency test?

Eric Szmanda: Well, we've already filmed that episode ("Who Shot Sherlock Holmes?") and I believe it will be airing in the next couple of weeks.

CSI Files: Does the episode make a big deal out of Greg passing the test or does it come about amid several storylines?

Szmanda: I would say they focus on it pretty heavily for one episode. We've been building for it for quite a while and it's a great case that I'm working on. It's actually kind of a clever case and it was a lot of fun to work on.

CSI Files: Can you tell me anything about it?

Szmanda: There's a group of people that spend their free time reenacting the characters from Sherlock Holmes novels and the one who led the group, who played Sherlock Holmes, was found dead in his study.

CSI Files: Are you happy with Greg becoming a full CSI or do you miss the lab?

Szmanda: I miss working one day a week--that was nice! When I was working exclusively in the lab we filmed all of my scenes in the same day so I never had to work too much. But now that I'm working in all of these different locations I'm working a lot more. And I welcome it. I'd like to say that it was my idea in the beginning that Greg was getting a little stir crazy in the lab and the producers were open to [the idea of a change for Greg]. I'm glad they supported this. I'm very happy with it--it's a nice development for the whole show and for me as well.

CSI Files: So it was your idea for Greg to move into the field?

Szmanda: Yeah, I just kind of gently suggested that my character was interested in getting into the more exciting part of forensics work.

CSI Files: What's your take on Grissom and Greg's relationship? Why do you think Grissom was reluctant to let Greg retake the field proficiency test?

Szmanda: I don't think he was reluctant--I think he really wanted Greg to pass and he wishes Greg would have gotten it right the first time, but he was just following procedure. He definitely gave me another opportunity when maybe someone else wouldn't have. But I know that Grissom is looking forward to having Greg at the crime scenes. This relationship between the two of them has kind of developed organically. I don't remember it ever being written like that but it just kind of played out and then all of the sudden the writers started adding to it. It's a lot of fun working with [William Petersen]. A lot of the relationship people perceive is unspoken. It's just a testament to William Petersen's great acting skills.

CSI Files: You two have a nice chemistry on screen.

Szmanda: I agree! Actually I always look forward to seeing our scenes together because its like a simple turn of the head or raising of the eyebrow is ust something that speaks so much from him.

CSI Files: What else is coming up for Greg now that he's passed his final field proficiency test?

Szmanda: Good question--I'm not really sure. This is uncharted territory for me. I know that with the new development with the team being split up, I'll be working a lot with Jorja Fox's character (Sara Sidle). I already have been and that's another relationship that I enjoy developing. And we have a good rapport with each other at the crime scenes. She's very helpful and encouraging and willing to teach, so we have a good time. I'm interested to see where it goes from here as well. I never expected to be a series regular on the show let alone to have risen from lab tech to a full-fledged investigator. It's all very exciting and I kind of like not knowing [what's ahead]. I do trust that the producers will give me some good stuff because they always do.

CSI Files: How did you become a series regular after starting off in a recurring role?

Szmanda: When I did the pilot, I knew that it was a guest spot with the possibility of recurring but I never imagined that it would have turned into a regular gig. Maybe like five or six episodes into it, I started getting a good feeling about it, but I was still auditioning for other series regular roles and other pilots. Fortunately I didn't get any of them! And after about the thirteenth episode, the producers offered series regular roles to Robert David Hall (Dr. Al Robbins) and me. My agents at the time were discouraging me from taking the role because I was auditioning for roles on sitcoms and more prominent roles on other shows. I knew from the vibe on the set and my conversations with the writers that they had bigger plans for me than [just] being in the background. I always believed the cliché that 'there is no such thing as a small role' is kind of true, and I used that to help build Greg and create a little bit more of a demand for him. I just hope that I can keep it up now being in a different environment where I can't necessarily pull the same tricks as I used to. But it's fun to be able to mature and grow with the audience watching.

CSI Files: The writers have made Greg more serious lately (as in the most recent episode, "No Humans Involved" when he found the dead child). Do you have a preference between the lighter comic relief side of him or the more serious side?

Szmanda: I can do it all. But I'm just reacting as realistically and honestly as I possibly can. If anybody found a five-year-old boy stuffed in a tupperware box, they'd be taken aback. And it is kind of sobering in a way, so I'm happy to do both. I don't want to just be a big clown. I like to try to show many different sides of Greg.

CSI Files: What's the biggest change you've seen in Greg over the past four and a half years?

Szmanda: I think the writers purposely send me through the window when the lab blew up (in the episode "Play With Fire") to fuel this change in Greg where things have become a little bit more serious, a little bit more aware of the danger in what we do. That was a big turning point for me. Definitely the writers were intending that. Making the change from the lab into the field is by far the biggest development so far and I'm excited to see where it goes.

CSI Files: What did you think when you got the script for "Play With Fire"? Did you know that would be so significant for Greg?

Szmanda: I was trying to build the courage to turn to the next page because nobody told me about it beforehand so I wasn't prepared for the hospital and I didn't know what was going to happen with it! But I immediately called the producers and they assured me that I would survive.

CSI Files: You were worried that you were going to get killed off?

Szmanda: You never know! And then the rumors started flying that I was going to be killed off and I had to assure my family and friends that I wouldn't be.

CSI Files: What's your reaction to the success of CSI? Why do you think it is so successful?

Szmanda: I don't know...people ask that all the time and I would ask a fan. But I definitely think it has to do with the overall look of the show and the concept, and the angle on criminal justice--instead of being in the courtroom or having cops we actually have a little bit more of an interesting concept, something that hasn't really been explored before to this extent. I think [the show has] a great cast and great directing and great writing and we just kind of created our own formula that obviously has been replicated numerous time and is continuing to be copies and that's another cliché--imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think all of those CSI shots and the fast-paced editing and the stuff like that is what keeps people watching.

CSI Files: What's your take on the CSI spin-offs?

Szmanda: I watched the first ten minutes of CSI: Miami and I couldn't help but notice the similarities between the two shows and it was kind of frustrating. It was almost like I felt like there was a parody of our lives being made, like they were making a TV show about something that was real. It was too surreal for me to watch it, so I haven't watched either one--either New York or Miami. But there's plenty of room for all of us and I really have no say in what goes on, so I try not to get too upset about it. I guess everyone was afraid in the beginning that it would dilute the success of our show, but I have no doubt in my mind that the fans know who the original one is and the original is always the most popular--even in potato chips!

CSI Files: What's your take on how the network treats the show after firing/rehiring controversy this summer (story)?

Szmanda: It's all about the money. I don't take any of it personally, let's put it that way.

CSI Files: Do you think CBS underestimated the fans' investment in these characters and the actors?

Szmanda: Absolutely, no doubt about it. Actors are constantly being underestimated.

CSI Files: What's the most interesting aspect of CSI for you?

Szmanda: To learn something new everyday. I never thought I would be learning about science after college or after high school for that matter. It's kind of a double life for me, that part of the job. I could be doing a sitcom and I'd just be there making dumb jokes, but now I'm making dumb jokes and learning something.

CSI Files: Were there any things that really surprised you in any of the cases?

Szmanda: Yeah, so many! I never knew we could extract DNA from chewing gum, and I actually did that on the show. Or that we could find out what kind of drugs were in a dead body's system by analyzing the maggots feeding on it--I've done that, too. That's pretty amazing. I didn't know you could determine the time of death of a body by the kinds of bugs that are feeding on it. All different kinds of things!

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Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.