Paula Newsome as Maxine Roby and Matt Lauria as Joshua Folsom in CSI:Vegas
Paula Newsome's home was a crime scene.
Or rather, she asked criminalist and CSI consulting producer Elizabeth Devine to treat it like one as she shadowed her. "She taught me how to open the door, with her knuckle," the actress recalls. "She wouldn't walk straight over the threshold, so as not to disturb trace evidence." Another lesson: examine both the floor and the ceiling. "She said people always look down, but rarely up. Sometimes there's a little bit of blood up there."
That crime-scene crash course — intended to help the actress portray lab chief Maxine Roby on CSI:Vegas — was standard procedure for Newsome, who did similar research with a real-life robbery-homicide detective before playing one on HBO's Barry: "I just download everything."
Growing up in Chicago, Newsome and her sisters dreamed big. "We were like, 'I want to be a doctor. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be an actress.'" For her, acting stuck — thanks to a first-grade teacher who sent her home one day with a note telling her parents to enroll her in acting classes. Later, a high school teacher cast her as Rose in Gypsy, and then a Webster University professor drilled in much-needed discipline.
"I was a really bad student," Newsome admits. "I didn't prepare." That's obviously changed.
She'd planned to focus on Broadway, but at dinner one night, fellow Chicagoan Denis O'Hare mentioned he was shooting a series — and how much it paid. She was astounded: "I was like, 'I need to do me some damn television!'" O'Hare gave her some tips on auditions and Newsome buckled down. She hired a friend to run lines with her and set up her home office to look like an audition space. She even practiced walking into the room.
Four months later, Newsome began booking regular gigs on short-lived shows like the NBC sitcom Conrad Bloom and ABC's Women's Murder Club. Then she started making her mark with a string of memorable guest spots: a grieving mother on ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, a godlike apparition on Prime Video's Transparent.
When offered the part of Max on CSI: Vegas, Newsome felt comfortable enough to suggest new narrative approaches. As originally written, Max had a son in prison, struggling with opioid addiction. "I came up with an idea about a newly divorced mom trying to hold on to her boy who's becoming a man," she says. "I wanted to tell that story." To her delight, executive producer Jason Tracey agreed.
Newsome felt these changes made Max more fully dimensional, and she eased into the role. She gives the character an approachable sense of authority, calling on different qualities — "sometimes maternal, sometimes more playful" — to do so.
"Coming from the South Side of Chicago, I didn't think there was a way for me to end up here," Newsome muses. But maybe it was fate. Her parents had wanted to name her Max, after her father, "but for some reason, they switched to Paula." Now their daughter is known for a character with a name that feels like it should have been hers all along. "I feel like I've gotten my just desserts!"
CSI:Vegas will return to CBS for a second season on September 29, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #3, 2022, under the title, "Claiming Her Name."