There are plenty of lawyers on TV, though most of them are not secret geniuses, that obsess over bears and struggle to pass psych evaluations. Enter: Elsbeth Tascioni, Carrie Preston's recurring "Good Wife" role, which was intended as comic relief and has ended up with a five season arc. Huff Post TV spoke with Preston about what went into crafting the fantastically quirky Elsbeth (and why she definitely deserves an Emmy this year).
Given Elsbeth's dialogue, the character could have easily played in any number of ways. What kind of direction did Michelle and Robert King give you to start?
So, I had one conversation with Robert King, in which he suggested that she was a Colombo-type character. So, I was like, "Okay, I've never watched Colombo, [Laughs] but I think that just means that she is somebody who comes at things in an unorthodox way." And I said to him, it feels to me that she is somebody who is highly capable of thinking about 500 things at the same time, and her brain is working a lot faster than her mouth is. So, the mouth's trying to keep up with the brain, that's juggling the 500 things equally well. And he said, "Yes, that's a good way to think about it." I went into, you know, the first episode that I did, which was at the end of Season 1, with that in mind.
There are definitely gaps that you had to fill in, just given the length of time between appearances. How did you set about giving her a solid back story?
You know, it always starts with the writing. In theater, they say, "if it ain't on the page it ain't on the stage." And, that's the same with television, too. You know, it's gotta be on the page first, and then the actor can really pave that and elevate it and make it into something unique, and different, and specific and singular. So, you know, on the page, she was obviously very bright, and then they would just write in little things, like her getting fascinated by a bookshelf or something, and I was, like, that is a gift to an actor. You can get really specific about what that means, and why she's getting fascinated by someone's blouse and how that informs how her brain works.
And how did that approach develop from the end of Season 1 to these more recent episodes of 4 and 5, in which Elsbeth plays a key role in defending Will?
I think once the writers started seeing my take on that mercurial way of thinking, then they started writing to that. And then I started trying to not play the same thing each episode. Okay, now they know that I know how to do things where I get fascinated by somebody's brooch, but I have to make that different each time and each episode, to continue to make her a real human being and not just somebody who is quirky for quirky's sake.
Right, I think the character was almost automatically going to be comic relief, but it has become something much deeper. There's been a noticeable arc for her.
Yes, definitely. I was very, very pleased to see that, you know? I think that means the chemistry between the writing and what they're envisioning, and the actor and what I'm envisioning, was a good alchemy. That's not always the case, but in this case it was, so I really do owe it to them for continuing to allow me to develop her with these little gifts.
Looking specifically to "Je Ne Sais What?," there's an awesome scene in which Elsbeth fails a psych evaluation. Are we to assume that she is dealing with a legitimate condition or was that just a situation in which she became extremely flustered?
Right, well, I like to always leave a little mystery, with all the characters that I play, because I think that's what makes them watchable and interesting. I have my own ideas about it, but I don't think it's a specific label that I'm putting on her ... And in that shrink scene, I always like to find a character's vulnerability, and where they feel out of control or off their game, and that just makes the stakes higher, when you're playing a scene. I decided that she has this real fear that she is abnormal, and that makes her feel very vulnerable and scared ... [For example], when she asks Alicia, "Do I talk too much?," that was a real, true moment for her of feeling like, "Oh god, once again I'm not sure how I present in the world." We all feel insecure about how we're being perceived by others, and I think someone as brilliant as Elsbeth, that gets magnified by a million and then you sit her down with a shrink? Oh my god, she's gonna crack!
Any insight on what went in to writing that scene?
With that scene, they called my agent and said, "Okay, we've written Carrie her Emmy episode." Now, I was like, "Oh my god! No pressure there." But they were really, really, sort of hell bent on getting me an Emmy nomination, because the previous year I hadn't got one, and they were, like, "Okay, we're gonna write a great episode for her." And boy did they! That episode was just chock full of material.
I really like that she is able to have that kind of curveball quirkiness to her, that does present a vulnerability, without debilitating her (as we see with a character like Carrie from "Homeland"). If anything, that aspect of the character is a strength, in that it puts her opponents off guard.
Yes, that's what makes the character, like you said, so different from most of women characters that you see. Although, I don't think that she is manipulative or Machiavellian at all. I think she is able to accept a moment immediately and use it to her advantage, but it's not like she's pre planning anything.
Where we last left Elsbeth, she had joined a partnership set on wooing Alicia. Are we going see you maybe in competition with Florrick Agos or Diane's firm in the future?
No one has mentioned anything to me, but they did go to those lengths to have Elsbeth be the one that wins this lawyer that everyone was wooing. I don't think they would set something up like that so blatantly, with no intention of following up with it next season. And I am finishing up "True Blood," which has been, you know, my main gig here for seven years, so, I'm hoping now that I'm a little freer, they will find more stories for me next season. But, no one really has specifically said anything to me just yet.
If you were able to decide what path she took next season, is there anything specific you'd like to explore further?
Yeah, it would be wonderful to work again with Kyle [MacLachlan, who plays Josh Perotti] ... and that weird dating ritual between the quirky and the genius. They wanted to actually bring him in for one of the episodes that I did this season, but he was unavailable, so it wasn't a lack of them wanting to do that, it was a logistical reason that it couldn't happen. So, I'm hoping that we get to see a little more about that ... I [also] think it would be fun to join Alicia's firm or something like that would be cool. But I'll take anything! I trust those guys and they continue to write for me, and obviously it's a coveted guest situation and it would be more coveted to be a regular there.