Elisabeth Shue: Back on the case

From early fame in Leaving Las Vegas, Elisabeth Shue has had a varied career. Now, as the Blood Queen on CSI, she has entered the TV phase – and she's come to accept her choices, she tells Sarah Hughes

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Elisabeth Shue's career can be divided into two stages: the early years when she was America's favourite girl-next- door and the post-Leaving Las Vegas era when she turned up in quirky films such as Mysterious Skin, Dreamer and, most recently last year's House at the End of the Street, playing mum to rising stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Lawrence respectively. Now, at 49, Shue has entered a third stage: television.

"There's definitely been a shift in our culture towards TV," she says of her decision to join CSI, which returns to Channel Five on 26 February. "As an actor it's harder to find stimulating material when you get older – I spent 10 or 15 years playing mums because in film those are the parts people in their thirties and forties end up playing – but television offers choice. The nice thing about CSI is they sign people for a year so you have freedom. I was petrified about committing six or seven years to one show."

Sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles the relaxed, thoughtful Shue, casually dressed in a fitted black top and black trousers, remains beautiful in an understated way. Not for her the nips and tucks of contemporaries, the shots of Botox and quick-fix fillers: "Every time I've seen anyone who has kind of overdone the treatments I don't think they look younger I think they look like they've done something to their face," she says. "So even if I was tempted to go that route what would stop me is that other people saying 'what did she have done to her face?' Who cares if you have a few more wrinkles?"

There was a time, Shue admits, when she might not have been quite so relaxed. "I did have fears," she admits. "You can't help it when you turn 40 because it's the first time you really notice your face has changed. You look at yourself in one lighting situation and think you look pretty good, and then all of a sudden you're in another lighting situation and think 'oh God I look terrible'. But I realised every time I was looking in the mirror I was looking with fear and that's really psychotic. I started to see how neurotic I'd become and how ugly that is." She pauses then adds with a smile. "You know in some ways there's a relief when you get older that you don't have to look young anymore. You just have to look good for your age."

While Shue sounds remarkably serene, she admits it has been a long, and at times difficult, journey.

"There were times when I was not as wise, when setbacks would make me feel emotional," she says. "I used to sit there and think 'I'm better than this, I can do better, why has this happened to me?' But life isn't like that, it's about continuing the road you're on and blessing the journey."

That sounds suspiciously like therapy-speak. She laughs. "I know the English attitude is to say 'suck it up, don't tell everyone your problems' but honestly therapy really helped me." In what way? "I no longer overthink everything. As long as a project involves people I respect or there's something that will be fun and challenging about the experience then I'm good. I know the hit-and-miss part of my career is firmly established so it's not an issue if I have a few misses. It doesn't affect me now as much as it used to."

She admits she's made plenty of mistakes – "I tried to be picky but I don't know I did such a great job about choosing," she says with a rueful smile – but adds that her career was never as important as her three children with documentary maker Davis Guggenheim. "Whenever I get down Davis always reminds me that our family has always been my major choice and that you have to accept you're not going to be as successful as you might have been when that's your focus," she says. "I look at my son who's three years off going to college and I'm glad I spent so much time with him because right now if I'd done that movie that sucked and wasn't with him when he was growing up I'd be regretting it."

She originally signed on to play assistant night-shift supervisor Julie Finlay aka CSI's "Blood Queen" because "my youngest daughter is now at school" and the show "doesn't try to pretend to be something it's not – it was created specifically and authentically as a procedural."

The search for authenticity is something of a theme. Shue grew up with three brothers in a wealthy family in suburban New Jersey and started acting in commercials as a teenager. After dropping out of Harvard (she returned in 1997, completing a political science degree in 2000) she established herself as a sunny, warm-hearted presence in Eighties hits The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting and Cocktail. She then confounded expectations as a beaten-down prostitute in 1995's Leaving Las Vegas, receiving an Oscar-nomination for the role. It should have marked the moment her career became stratospheric, instead she chose a quieter path.

"I think I was always a bit unnerved by the idea of being an actress," she says. "I don't think I ever embraced it fully. In retrospect I probably hid from it. Yet where I hid [with her family] was the most important part of my life. If I'd done otherwise I'd have regretted it."

That's not to say she's entirely without regrets. "Nobody sets out to make a mediocre film so you can't really second guess but yeah I would definitely make some different choices were I making them now," she admits. Such as? Shue laughs, too wily to name names. "I think I was seduced by the pressure to try and do something that would help my career. I felt the pressure to be in big films, I would never feel that now," she says of the period immediately post-Leaving Las Vegas when she took roles in notable flops such as the big-budget The Saint remake.

No longer concerned about how she's perceived, she no longer worries about whether she made the right moves. "I used to look at Julianne Moore, for example, and think 'Oh I would have loved to play that part' but now I don't really lust after other people's careers," she says. "I think maybe when you've had a Leaving Las Vegas you learn not to be jealous of other people's success and anyway there's no point… I can't have my life and their career".

Instead she appears at peace with what she has and hasn't achieved. "I feel like when I was younger I kept myself back in so many ways because I wanted everyone to like me," she says. "Now I know any career is a long haul, there are always ups and downs." What's the best thing about it? She smiles. "I'm no longer afraid."

'CSI' returns to Channel Five at 9pm on Tuesday 26 February