In a moment of introspection, Melina Kanakaredes turned the high-beam flashlight she totes on “CSI: NY” on the traits she shares with Detective Stella Bonasera, the forensics sleuth she plays on the hit CBS series. For starters, Bonasera is a science whiz; Kanakaredes won her eighth-grade science fair, albeit for identifying the shampoo that makes greasy hair the cleanest.
“She would probably do her crossword puzzles in ink, and I like to do them in pencil,” Kanakaredes says of Bonasera. “She’s also a lot tougher than I am, but I think we’re both very much the same in our ethical approach to not giving up. If I know something is right there will be no stopping me in getting the right thing done. The biggest difference is this poor woman has no luck in family and love, and fortunately for me I have the biggest Greek family and non-Greek extended family. I’m a very lucky woman that way.”
At nearly 5’9”, svelte and sporting signature long brown curls, Kanakaredes, 43, is statuesque and resembles something of a Greek goddess. It is a look that has served her well on both the small screen and in film. Among her television credits are roles in “Providence” and “NYPD Blue” and Emmy-nominated work in the daytime soap “Guiding Light.” In feature films, she has appeared in “Rounders,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “15 Minutes,” the latter opposite Robert De Niro.
Kanakaredes’ heritage, through its focus on family, social bonding and a famously healthy ethnic diet, figures prominently in shaping the second-generation Greek American’s approach to wellness. She also still embraces the hybrid endurance sport of synchronized swimming, a combination of swimming, dance and gymnastics, at which she excelled in high school.
Kanakaredes is the youngest of three sisters and is one of seven women first cousins who were raised like sisters. She has two young daughters of her own. As such, she is keenly attuned to women’s health issues, particularly breast cancer, having seen friends both succumb to and win battles with the disease.
After her nanny was diagnosed, Kanakaredes lent her support to the breast cancer advocacy group Susan G. Komen for the Cure; Kanakaredes was impressed that the organization translated medical documents into Greek, the nanny’s primary language. More recently, Kanakaredes has designed breast cancer awareness t-shirts in a partnership between Susan G. Komen and Hanes.
She spoke to us from Los Angeles, where she lives with her chef husband Peter Constantinides and their two daughters.
Energy Times: The Mediterranean diet is a favorite among the health-conscious. How does your Greek heritage shape your diet and health?
Melina Kanakaredes: We eat peasant food, and it’s fantastic—there are olive oils and greens. I probably have the only kids that don’t have pizza Fridays; they have stuffed grape leaves. We have moussaka, which is basically eggplant. It’s a great cuisine for healthy living and fortunately it happens to be one that’s delicious and easy.
For me, breakfast is my best meal. I have a Greek grandmother who always used to say, “The breakfast—you break the fast.” I’d always have an egg white omelet, maybe with a little feta cheese and a little spinach and some veggies in there, some fruits. If I’m going to have some carbs I’ll have a little whole wheat toast with that, and that’ll be breakfast.
Lunch is usually a salad and some chicken breast. Somewhere in between in the day I always give myself a sweet because I’m the granddaughter of a chocolate maker. There is no way I’m missing my sweet of the day. And then dinner is something sensible that works, and not too much of it.
ET: We’ve reported that the social aspect of the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest things about it. It’s not just “eat and run.”
MK: My husband is always cooking, and we have a full house. My parents live with us six months out of the year, my in-laws are here, my cousins. Nobody believes in hotels. They’ve always all stayed with us, whether it was the beginning of my career when I was struggling in a small place or now when things are better. We’re always together. The joke is if you’re nearby our house by six o’clock, stop in—we won’t notice—and just grab a plate. There’s always enough food. The more time you can spend with your family the better, and that’s my motto. That sit-down at the dinner table, that one hour, especially now when the kids are little, is sacred to us. Whether I’m working downtown and we do it in a trailer or we do it in our house, wherever I am we do dinner together.
ET: So on the set the family will come to you?
MK: Yes. When I did the series “Providence” I was pregnant with both babies. I was pregnant all the way through. I thank God everyday that I get to do what I love doing for a living but the nice thing about being offered a series after this is that the precedent has been set, where I had a trailer for myself and a trailer for my children. It didn’t have to be fancy, but I wanted to be a mom. I don’t want to have my kids raised by someone else. When Leslie Moonves, who runs CBS, offered me the job on “CSI: NY,” I said I have an 11-month-old baby, and as long you don’t mind me having a trailer for them I’m happy to go back to work. He said, “Absolutely, not a problem.” It’s in my contract. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
ET: As a professional chef, your husband must make a big contribution to the family’s dietary health.
MK: His whole thing is that we don’t do fake butter, we don’t do fake sugar, we don’t do fake anything. Anything that isn’t something that can spoil isn’t usually healthy. So we try to live by the idea that if it’s an orange, it’s an orange—not orange-flavored. We try to teach our kids that same sort of mentality. It’s all about portion control. I pretty much eat everything, but I don’t overeat and I try not to eat big meals after seven o’clock at night. Unless it’s a weekend, in which case I treat myself because of my schedule and having fun on the weekends is great.
ET: Some nutritionists recommend that people eat five small meals a day rather than three larger meals. Considering what must be long days on set, do you subscribe to that?
MK: Some days are 15 hours; some days are only 12. I’m in the makeup chair at 6:30 in the morning. Yesterday, for instance, I got home at 8:30. I do [try to have a number of smaller meals] when I’m working especially if I’m working a 15-hour day and there’s junk food all over the place. I’ll always have something healthy to munch on in between as opposed to grabbing whatever is on the [catering] service table, which isn’t always the best thing.
ET: Tell me about the allure of synchronized swimming.
MK: I swam in high school. I just love it. It’s just the best exercise. I’m a singer and I have a lot of breath control, and in Akron, Ohio our high school had a swimming pool. I found it just came second nature to me so I enjoyed it. Then all of a sudden I was kind of good at it, so I started doing synchronized swimming, which sort of combined my love of dance and music.
A lot of people like to tease me about this every time I do a talk show interview. They’ll go, “You really think that this should be a sport for the Olympics?” And I do. Until you’ve tried it, don’t make fun of synchronized swimming. It’s tough. And sure enough I’ve gotten all the brutes in my life to try it, the workout guys. My husband is the oldest of twelve first cousins that were raised like brothers and they’re all very close. All these guys come over, and I’m like, “Okay, boys let’s see if you can scull (using continuous hand movements to balance and support the body in the water). I want to see if you guys can do this.” They’re all suffering after a couple of minutes.
So, yes, I enjoy swimming very much. I think it’s a great combo and an awesome exercise especially for anyone who has had any injuries in any way. I fortunately have not, but when I was pregnant, it was a wonderful way to exercise your entire body without hurting anything, without stress.
ET: How often do you swim, and what other exercise do you do?
MK: Especially now with the weather being nicer, I try to swim three or four times a week. Sometimes I do it in conjunction with weights. But nothing more then 20 minutes in the sense of the workout; the rest of the exercise is coming from being with the girls. It’s fun if you can do activities that are with your kids and family. We’ll ride bikes together. We’ll put on some music they like and all of a sudden we’re jamming to Hannah Montana. Whatever I can do to multitask, to spend time with my kids and exercise at the same time, it’s much more fun.
I also started doing a little bit of boxing, which is fun and cathartic. I laugh for the first ten minutes when I put the gloves on. I have a trainer who wanted me to get a little cardiovascular activity while I’m doing the weights, so I suggested dancing and that led to boxing. I tell you, I had a blast. I have a big driveway with a hill and he was having me punch and spar. He had these little hand pads on and I was sparring while running up and down the hill. That will do a lot for you.
ET: Based on your work with the Susan G. Komen organization, what is the most important thing for women to know about breast cancer?
MK: Awareness. The most important thing is for people to do self-exams, to go in and do their yearly mammograms. My mom and I and my sisters make it sort of a date. Whatever it takes, just get in there. Preventative medicine is the best medicine. The earlier the detection the better your chances are at fighting this disease and winning. First and foremost the most important would be early detection by you, and the rest is support, understanding and encouragement as a family. And that’s what I like about the Susan G. Komen organization; it’s a support system and team effort. The organization is run in such a way that it’s a team—it’s the mothers and the daughters and the sisters. This was started by the sister of Susan G. Komen, who died of cancer and fought the fight. Her sister made this organization come to life. The idea is that you’re absolutely not alone.
ET: Teamwork is certainly a theme on your television series. I would imagine that you’re very active on the set.
MK: When I’m doing the stunts it’s hilarious. Just recently I had to do a stunt underwater, and it was a little scary. A bad guy was trying to choke me underwater. Usually they have the stunt doubles do this but I was like, “No, I can do this. This will be fine.” It was a blast. I had a great time. Now had I not been a swimmer I probably would have opted out of that, but, yes, definitely there are these moments where we get to run across town and get the bad guy, and it’s hilarious. I like to do some of the stunt work but then I leave some of the flipping over the side of a building to the experts.