Paula Newsome Takes the Lead in Reboot of Iconic Crime Series ‘CSI’

Image: courtesy of CSI: Vegas

Early on in this season’s rebooted CSI series, actress Paula Newsome’s character—Maxine Roby—tells Sara Sidle, a returning persona from the earlier show, “You’re in my kitchen now.” Spoken to underscore the technological innovations to the Vegas crime lab Roby runs, it also reflects the shift of dynamics on the show and, possibly, across the television landscape this season.

Paging through the annals of American television, one would be hard-pressed to find a crime show led by a Black woman, and Newsome is fully relishing the opportunity. In years past, she says, landing this role didn’t fall within the realm of possibility. “Before, it wasn’t even a thought,” she reflects. “It was just, ‘yeah, she’s going to be an ‘it’ versus a ‘who’—she’s going to be a judge; she’s going to be a receptionist, etc.”

Hopefully, as the season unfolds, Newsome’s character will become fully dimensional and a well-rounded “who.” What we know about Roby so far is that she’s a smart Midwestern girl who projects the quiet confidence of someone with a wealth of life and professional experience to her credit. Which isn’t so different from the actress herself, who hails from Chicago, which is where she was first bitten by the performing bug.

Newsome says it all began when she was in grammar school on the city’s South Side. “My first-grade teacher sent me home with a note pinned on my shirt, telling my parents to put me in creative dramatics class,” she laughs. Her parents complied, and, just like that, her acting career was on.

That career would take her from the heartland and those early childhood improv workshops at Chicago’s Avalon Park to a post-collegiate move to New York City, where she would tread the boards in stage productions, to setting a course due West—toward Hollywood and her entry into film and television.

“I had decided in high school that I was going to get my equity card before I graduated; it didn’t happen quite that fast, but it did soon after,” she recalls. Once she made the jump to New York, she says, “I was cast on Broadway four months later.” Her first television role was not far behind. “That brought me to Los Angeles, and I’ve been here ever since,” she adds.

In those years, Newsome has been cast as everything from, yes, a receptionist in 1992’s Straight Talk to a coach on ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars in 2011. She has had numerous supporting roles on both the large and small screens—including the movies Reign Over Me (2007), Black Or White (2014) and Spiderman: No Way Home (2021), and, such TV shows as Ally McBeal, Law & Order and Criminal Minds.

More recently, you may remember Newsome from HBO’s Barry, or her story arc on NBC’s popular Chicago Med, where she made her 12-episode guest role count. As Caroline, the former wife of the show’s Dr. Daniel Charles (Oliver Platt), she poignantly captured the battle of a fiercely independent woman fighting cancer with both dignity and courage.

According to the actress, what she likes about working in film and television are the possibilities that go along with it being a visual medium. She says, “You find the magic when you feel the energy of the camera move in to catch an amazing moment—that’s very, very special.”

Some of those moments may play out as we learn more about Roby and her life away from the lab. Newsome says she loves that executive producer Jason Tracey pitched a story to her that was different from what they had in mind originally for Roby. She explains, “It is a story that is written from the inside and that is very current. It’s about a mom who’s trying to hold onto her baby boy as he becomes a man, and his struggle to push her away.

“She’s recently divorced, and we get to see an African-American woman who’s running a major business and how that affects her personal life.” However, Newsome stresses, “The crime and the science will be front and center. But I think of the other stuff as being the mortar between the bricks.”

Those bricks built CSI into a global hit and powerhouse franchise that made science sexy and spawned three spinoffs. Now, in this revival of the original series (2000 to 2015), which has been rebranded CSI: Vegas, some familiar characters are riding shotgun in Roby’s lab. Jorja Fox is back as Sidle, while William Petersen, who starred as the no-nonsense Gil Grissom, returns to offer support when the lab he ran is put under the microscope for alleged evidence tampering.

It’s worth noting that unlike one-dimensional, figure-head Black TV bosses past, who were relegated to blustering and shouting epithets that largely went ignored, Roby definitely appears to be the shot caller. When Grissom offers to take the blame if there’s any blowback after Roby provides him with some crucial files, she quickly interjects, “Come on, if they need a fall guy, it’s going to be me.” Hmm… spoken like a boss.

Rather than feeling intimidated by working with actors who have so much history with the franchise, Newsome gives them their props and sounds as though she enjoys every moment. She says she and Fox jokingly muse about the possibility of a musical episode. And, of working with Petersen, who also hails from the Chicago area, she says, “What’s nice about it is he has the vibe of Chicago, you know, he kind of feels like a working class, blue collar guy.”

Petersen’s Grissom brought a fascination and expertise on bugs to the CSI lab as the resident entomologist. Building on perhaps the hottest field in science today, Roby’s superpower is DNA. Executive producer Tracey told critics recently that the original CSI “taught the world a lot about what DNA is, but now what scientists are able to do with DNA is really something special. And that’s one of the reasons why [Maxine Roby] is from a genetics background.”

Roby’s background can also play a role in spurring interest in STEM among people of color. Newsome credits CBS and producer Bruckheimer Television for “realizing the value of inclusivity and diversity” in the cast and among the writing staff.

She notes, “We observed something as a world, something very tragic a couple of years ago. And, as a result, everything has changed. My life has changed, the work that’s available to me has changed.

“I’m grateful for myself, but I’m really grateful for young people and people who get to see themselves represented in Maxine.”

CSI: Vegas” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.

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