In the Sept. 27 premiere of CSI, the show’s 25.2 million fans were relieved to learn that not only had Jorja Fox’s alter ego, Sara Sidle, survived a brutal abduction by the infamous Miniature Killer, but Internet rumors of her departure from the seven-year-old drama were greatly exaggerated. Or so they thought.
No need to follow the clues anymore, because the mystery (finally!) stops here: Fox has quit the No. 1 show on TV. Oct. 15 was her final day on set, and episode 8 of season 8 — set to air in mid-November — will be her last. The decision comes three years after the 39-year-old actress and costar George Eads were fired (and later rehired) during an ugly contract dispute with CBS Paramount. This time, however, it was the daily grind of an intense weekly drama — not money — that drove the decision, claims Fox. In this exclusive interview, Fox explains why she’s leaving the program that netted her a six-figure-a-week salary, and discusses her last days on set, the final episode, and just what the heck she’s going to do next.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, Jorja, whose call was this for you to leave CSI — yours or CBS’?
JORJA FOX: It’s my call — and a very, very difficult one, something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my life. It has nothing to do with my contract, nothing to do with money…. It could be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Only time will tell.
Okay, but why?
There are so many things I want to do! Some are personal. Some are professional. And I really need to do some of them before I get too old…. It’s a really intense place to work. A lot of the stories [on the show] do end sadly and badly. That’s been one of the things I’ve struggled with — the violence. I’m not saying I’ll never do another violent [project], because I’m sure that I’ll be back in that world someday, but it’s really good for me to take a break from it.
Has doing a procedural drama become boring?
It has nothing to do with being bored. I wish it did! It would make it a lot easier to go.
Were you at the end of your contract?
Originally we all signed on for six years and there was a seventh season added. At the end of the seventh, there would be a window [to negotiate]. If I thought this show was on its last legs, I would have tried harder to stay the course. But I feel like it’s going to be around for a while, so if I don’t want some of those dreams to pass me by, I have to get off the ride.
When did you start to think about leaving?
CBS and I had been talking in January. Nothing was resolved until June. CBS was very flexible. We structured something a little odd.
Like episode to episode.
Yes. I wasn’t prepared to sign up for an extra two seasons, or even a full one, and they were willing to roll with that. The situation could have been different. They could have said this or nothing. They were very gracious.
The 2007 season finale left open the possibility that Sara could end up dead. Do you think the producers anticipated that you might leave so they were preparing for your absence?
I have no idea. Some stories we know a little bit about, some we don’t. I knew there would be something specific between the Miniature Killer and Sara, but all the specifics about the abduction I did not know until the week we started shooting the finale [in April]. And I did not know whether she would make it until I got the script in early July.
It seems that nasty rumors about contract negotiations have dogged you since 2004, when you and costar George Eads were temporarily fired from CSI. What happened there, exactly?
I know it’s really difficult for people to think an individual would be fired over a letter, but that’s the truth of my situation. It had nothing to do with money. It was two days before the season was to start, and CBS sent out a letter that they wanted everybody to sign and get back. [The letter provided a written promise to CBS that everyone would show up for the first day of production.] I returned the letter, but I guess I didn’t return it in the fashion that I was supposed to. By the time it arrived, they had fired me the day before work started. [Eads was fired for not showing up to set on time, though he claimed at the time that he’d overslept.] Within a couple of days, CBS kindly invited me back. I didn’t beg for my job back. They offered me a raise at that point, but I declined because it included an extra year and George was still fired. It didn’t feel right to take a raise. And secondly, I was pretty hurt and angry and confused. I still had three years to go on my contract. I was not even sure I wanted to be there.
Are you surprised at the lengths to which CBS went?
I was really confused by it. It came completely out of the blue to be fired, and there were no rumblings of it. I didn’t feel like I was on thin ice with anybody. All the actors had asked for a raise. It’s traditional if a show is doing well, and because our contracts are so very long. It’s not the worst thing in the world to ask for a raise. I think everybody else in Hollywood, including network execs, has the opportunity to ask for a raise or a change in scenery in a much shorter time frame than actors. But I do think the networks have to protect themselves. The reason the contracts are so long is because actors are very spontaneous; we may want to do Shakespeare one day and be Porky Pig the next!
Given the protracted salary renegotiation that CBS had just gone through on Everybody Loves Raymond, do you think CBS was looking to make an example of you?
I think CBS wanted to make a point at that time, and I think they made it really successfully. And I’d like to think of it as flattering. Maybe I was one of the people picked for that mission because they thought I had the fortitude to hang tough and weather it. I’ve got to say for the record: If you’ve got to get fired, it’s really fabulous to get fired with a friend. I’ll thank George forever. I can only say as a person who got fired on a Wednesday, the fact that I had company on a Thursday was comforting.
Fans will surely be disappointed. You’re leaving during a key development in the Gil-Sara relationship: He proposes marriage!
One of Sara’s biggest hopes was that her hiring seven years ago would lead to a very significant, stable relationship with Gil [William Petersen]. So it is rather ironic that Sara should finally get this proposal and we find later in the season that she would be disappearing from CSI.
So, what happens to Sara in that final episode?
The stakes will be very high. It required me to go deeper than I ever have. It was an emotional episode for everyone, certainly for me. I’ve been exhausted since before the premiere, in such an odd way. There has been an incredible outpouring of support from my fans — and confusion. Because I think a lot of the fans believe this is a contractual issue and has something to do with money.
Is Sara’s departure written in a way that she could return later?
Let’s just say if there is an opportunity to guest-star, I’d be thrilled. It would be impossible to say definitely one way or another because the writers are still making that stuff up. I would never rule anything out. But I’m not trying to lead anybody on, either.
Can you see yourself taking a series-regular role on another show?
Absolutely not. If I’m going to be on a TV show right now, it should be CSI. I think I’ll give it some time before I even entertain ideas of doing a different show.
What are you going to do now?
I might buy a ticket for around the world. It’s also summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so I might take a surf trip. I forgot to have kids! And there are several projects of my own that I’m excited about.
What were your final days like on the CSI set?
I definitely took a final look around. I kissed a lot of people and things, though we do so many gross things on the set, it’s not the first place you want to put your lips.