CSI: Cyber is looking to revolutionize procedurals in the same way that the original CSI did nearly 15 years ago: introducing the world to the relatively unknown field of cyberforensics. Led by Patricia Arquette (Medium, Boyhood), the cast also features Peter MacNicol (Numbers), James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek), Shad “Bow Wow” Moss (106 and Park), Hayley Kiyoko (Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins), and Charley Koontz (Community).
The CSI spinoff — which began as a backdoor pilot last April — centers around Arquette as Avery Ryan, who is based on real-life cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken. Ryan is the head of the FBI’s Cyber Crime Division— an increasingly important agency when 600,000 Facebook accounts are compromised daily and over $100 billion is lost annually in the U.S. alone. We spoke with the actors on set as they were filming the last of their first 13 episodes and asked them what they’d learned about how we can protect ourselves online.
Patricia Arquette: “Never go on public Wi-Fi.”
With a lead like Arquette, even television veterans can sound a little like fanboys. “She’s been one of my favorite actresses for such a long time,” said Van Der Beek. “She’s got such a high emotional IQ. She really just brings something different to every scene.” He cited her mastery of the procedural aspects of the show in particular: “I’ve learned a lot just working with her.”
When we visited the set, Arquette had won a Golden Globe for her work on Boyhood but not yet an Oscar. And while her co-stars were excited for her (“They go, ‘This person worked with an Oscar winner,’ right?” joked Koontz. “I hope so. I hope that it becomes part of my bio.”), Arquette remained focused on the work at hand.
“I came into it kind of ignorant but a little paranoid,” said Arquette of the dangers of cybercrime, “but this has put me over the top.” She’s learned about a lot of cutting-edge technologies for catching criminals, “but also how criminals are twisting these technologies in our lives for evil gains.”
The Oscar-winning actress was drawn to the show by the newness of the subject matter. “I just saw the world marching in this direction, and I thought there was so much about it I didn’t know as a public person — not as a figure, but just as a citizen. I was interested, so I thought maybe other people would be.”
Though Mary Aiken is only the inspiration for Avery Ryan — “The writers were really clear: You’re not actually playing this woman,” said Arquette — she is a strong presence behind the scenes as an executive producer. “She reads all the scripts; she makes notes; she gives the writers ideas.” But, of course, it can’t be too accurate. “It’s important to the writers not to show people how to re-create any of these crimes.”
James Van Der Beek: “Everything that connects is vulnerable.”
“I’ve actually been prepping for this for quite a while,” said Van Der Beek of the physically demanding role. After the comedies Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23 and Friends With Better Lives, he knew the next step should be action. He trained in Krav Maga and jujitsu and worked out at a gym for stuntmen.
But that’s not the only thing that informs the role for him. “My uncle was a police chief,” he said before laughing and following up with, “Maybe I’m finally old enough to play the FBI agent. I certainly wasn’t at 26, which is what I wanted to do.”
He’s excited to be working on a new frontier of storytelling. “The book is still being written on how to portray [cybercrime] and how to make it interesting.” He is fascinated with the way the writers and producers are doing that with every script — “Much in the same way that the original CSI did 15 years ago with fingerprints and blood splatter and bullet trajectories. We all take for granted now that we all know what that is — but I don’t think before the original CSI it was in our vernacular.”
Check out this exclusive clip from the series premiere episode, “Kidnapping 2.0,” featuring Arquette and Van Der Beek taking their investigation from digital realms to the streets. It could hardly be a genuine CSI without a few kicked in doors, after all.
Shad Moss: “Just because your computer might be asleep someone could still pop into it and snatch your IP, so the good thing is to just turn off everything.”
Moss has had personal experience with the kind of crime they fight on the show. “Who the hell is wiring money at 3 in the morning?” he remembered thinking as he started receiving banking notifications. It turns out that criminals were draining his bank account to buy gift cards in another state. “That was first time I witnessed a cyberhacking incident — a real one,” Moss said ruefully, since he now has to call the bank every time he makes a credit card purchase.
He’s also finds himself taking his character home with him. By day, he plays a tech-savvy character who breaks down difficult cyberconcepts; by night, he finds himself faced with more ordinary questions from his fiancée, like “What is RAM?” “I feel like that’s a scene out of CSI and I gotta explain — which we usually have to do — explain what it is. So, yeah, it’s pretty much become a part of my life.”
When he first got the call from CSI’s creator, Anthony Zuiker, he thought it was a prank. He taped his audition during commercial breaks on 106 and Park and was shocked when Zuiker got right back to him, asking when he could come to L.A. “It’s a blessing,” he said of the speed at which things came together. “To come from music, and then do movies, and then do two years of television hosting as a rapper, and then from that, jumping right into this: CSI. You didn’t walk, you jumped into the ocean!”
And though he remains humble, he still does have some requests for his character. “I want a gun. Aww, man! When you see James doing all the stuff he’s doing?” said Moss with genuine excitement in his voice, “I’m like, man, I wanna do that too!”
Charley Koontz: “Change your passwords: That is the number one thing is change your passwords early and often!”
“I’m not going to say it showed up in a script about two days later,” said Koontz about the massive Sony hack from last year, “but it may have!” The cutting-edge nature of the show means that sometimes it almost predicts the future. “To go out on a limb with a show when you start and, in the course of six months while you’re doing it, have it catch up to itself is superweird.”
But also, the show focuses more on the relationships between the team members than past CSI shows have done. “This spinoff of the franchise has been really nice because they’ve had a bigger interest in doing more character work and having the relationships make more sense and bringing in the ensemble,” which, he hopes, is the part of the show that will bring people back week after week.
And despite the doom and gloom warnings of our phones and computers turning against us, Koontz said there is a bright side. “We don’t want to put out that everything about technology or the Internet is horrifying — it’s just that there are ways to be responsible” with our devices. The team members all love technology, and his character, in particular, joined the FBI “because he doesn’t want that thing he loves so much manipulated and used for evil,” he said.
“So it is a positive show in that way.”
CSI: Cyber premieres Wednesday, March 4 at 10 p.m. on CBS.