Carrie Preston is certainly on a hot streak with her career. With memorable and much loved roles on True Blood, as sassy waitress Arlene Fowler, The Good Wife, as the quirky Elsbeth Tascioni, and Person of Interest, as Finch’s love, she’s proven to be as gifted at humor as she is drama. And when you add in her feature film work and the projects she’s working to produce and direct, it doesn’t seem as though she’ll be slowing down, anytime soon.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Carrie Preston spoke about what a treat it’s been for her to create such different characters on three shows at once, what it’s been like to be a part of True Blood, how refreshing it’s been to shake things up with a new showrunner, whether Arlene might ever catch a break in Bon Temps, how surprised she was at how well-received her character on The Good Wife has been, that she’d love to continue to work on that show, what it’s been like to work with her husband, actor Michael Emerson, on Person of Interest, and when she might direct next. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
CARRIE PRESTON: It’s such a treat for me. I was trained to do theater, and that’s all about creating different characters through the text. In this case, I get to actually exercise those things. A lot of times, in film and TV, they just want you to play yourself. But, when you’re someone who’s more of a character actor, you get to experience what it feels like to play a bunch of different kinds of people. I find it more invigorating than challenging. I definitely trust the writers to give me the material that I will take and turn into the person that I’m playing. It always starts with what’s on the page. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. That’s a little expression we say. And in these cases, I am fortunate to be working with really good writers.
Do the characters all feel very different from each other, when you’re playing them?
PRESTON: Yeah, they are very different. Arlene is such a very specific person from a very specific place. She is the one that I’ve played the longest. We’re on our sixth season of True Blood. So, she comes very naturally to me. At the same time, I continue to discover things about her because the situations that the writers put me in keep changing, and that’s a treat. With Elsbeth Tascioni on The Good Wife and Grace on Person of Interest, I’m like a pinch hitter when I go in, as a guest star. There’s not a lot of margin for error, so you really have to be ready to roll with whatever is coming your way, and be really on top of your material and your choices. That’s really exciting. I’m someone who really gets excited by those kinds of situations, where you’re a little bit nervous, but you’re ready to tackle whatever it is that’s coming your way.
When you originally signed on to do True Blood, did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into, not just with genre fans, but also with the stories you’re telling?
PRESTON: Oh, no! I think True Blood was my seventh pilot that I had done. Other ones had come and gone, and I was like, “Okay, I’m doing another pilot.” I figured it had a shot, just because it had great pedigree behind it with Alan Ball. But then, to have seen it turn into such a big hit, and HBO’s highest rated show since The Sopranos, it was suddenly something that was going to be around for awhile and that was something new for me. I hadn’t ever had that kind of a steady gig on a television show. It’s been a great ride.
PRESTON: It feels a little different. Luckily, there’s the consistency of having already done five seasons, which established the pace of the show, the tone and the characters. That’s all there. I think it’s kind of refreshing to shake things up a little bit, in a nice, fresh way. It’s a new look at the same story with a fresh perspective, and that’s been fun. We’re always used to having so many guest stars, and that’s the same. I feel like I don’t know half the people on the show, nearly as well as I know the ones that I work with. I’m on a show about a bar.
How are things for Arlene, this season? Will she ever catch a break in Bon Temps?
PRESTON: I don’t think anybody really catches a break on True Blood. I really don’t. What’s inherent in the show is that there’s gotta be drama and conflict and obstacles, and this season is no different. We will definitely pick up right where we left off, last season. The ramifications of what Arlene and Terry (Todd Lowe) did, and the killing of Patrick (Scott Foley), will definitely be present, and they will have to deal with that.
Do you find yourself personally rooting for her to stay one of the few humans in this town?
PRESTON: Yes! At one point, I used to think that the supernatural characters have more fun on our show, but now that I’m one of the only humans left, I feel like I’m now the special one on the show. I’m not just one of the many garden variety supernaturals.
Your character on The Good Wife is so quirky and so brilliantly mad. How much of that character was on the page, when you signed on, and how much of that has developed, as you’ve played her?
PRESTON: I remember when I got the call about, “Hey, there’s this guest star that they want you to play.” I didn’t even audition. It just came to me. So, I read it and my heart started beating. I was like, “Oh, my god, this could be special. I think I might know what they want here.” And so, I had a couple of conversations with the creator, Robert King, and he gave me an idea of what they were looking for. They wanted her to be a female Columbo. But then, I just started really investigating how this woman could come up with a way to solve the case, at the same time she’s studying what you’re wearing and the cabinets in your living room. I wanted to know what kind of brain works like that. I started really thinking about that and looking at that, and figuring out the twists and turns in this woman’s mind. And I’m a bit of a comedienne, so if you give me a funny role, I will go until you tell me to stop. So, there was that, as well. But, it was just the perfect alchemy of all those things. Once the writers saw what I was doing with it, they started writing towards that. And then, there was the challenge of, “Okay, so now how do I make sure this is a real person and not somebody who’s just being quirky to be quirky.”
Have you been surprised by how strongly viewers have reacted to that character and how much of a fan favorite she’s become?
PRESTON: Yes, I was surprised. I’ve been doing this for awhile now, and a lot of times, you’re just there serving the show and the character. You do your thing and people like it, and you go on. The fact that this one just landed so well and hit some kind of nerve in people that made them want more of her was such a compliment. I feel really humbled by it, to be honest. I really appreciate that people are embracing Elsbeth. She’s a rather bold character. I’ve made a career of making some bold choices, and I stand by them, but I never know if people are on board. It was extremely clear that, in this case, people are.
Is that a character that you’re hoping to continue to explore?
PRESTON: Yes! I would love to come back to the show. They’ve been very good at working around my schedule, and HBO has been kind about working around theirs, so I’m hoping that will continue. I would definitely love to come back.
PRESTON: Obviously, it’s a delight to work with my husband. He just got a call, one day, from Jonathan Nolan, the creator of the show, who said, “Hey, would you mind if we offered your wife a role?” Michael was like, “Sure, I don’t mind, at all, if you can get her.” So, it was a real treat to see that they wanted to bring me on in such a pivotal way that was so crucial to his character, and the revelation that he was someone who had a personal life that he had to give up. It’s so sad and romantic. And walking onto Michael’s set was a real treat. We don’t generally visit each other on each other’s sets very much. We’re both people who, when we go to work, we like to get our head in the work and stay there. I had really only visited him on the set once or twice, very briefly. So, to go on there as a part of the cast was really fun. Just to see how much the crew and everyone loves him was very nice. He is much beloved over there, and it was nice to see that firsthand. I’m very proud of him.
With a character like that, who has become something of a myth for Finch and who is truly his Achilles heel, does it help that you came to it with a personal history already established? Do you feel like that worked to your advantage, in that situation?
PRESTON: I think so, yes. There’s something very comforting about acting with someone who you’ve known for so long. We’ve been together for going on 19 years now, so the history that we have together and the comfort is so present. And then, from that place, you can work. Most of the time, when you’re a guest star, you’re coming onto a show and having to create a history with someone immediately. You have to figure out how they work and take cues from them. If you’re a guest star, you’re visiting. You don’t live there. So, you have to defer to the people that are living in the house. We didn’t need to do that kind of prep work. We didn’t even rehearse or run lines at home. We just showed up prepared, on the day, and were able to jump into it. It was also fun for me because he’s been playing that role for so long. When I walked onto the set to rehearse, I realized that I was standing there, not with Michael Emerson, but with Harold Finch, and that was a very interesting moment. I was like, “Oh, wow, okay. This is not my husband.” Michael likes to stay focused in the mind-set of the character. He doesn’t walk around in character. He’s not one of those method actors, but he definitely keeps his head in the game. Some actors like to joke around and get on their cell phones between takes, but he doesn’t do that. It was fun just to watch him navigate this world that he feels very, very comfortable in, and that he knows more than I do. It was fun for me to be able to be with him and take my cues off of him.
PRESTON: You know, the scenes that we’ve done together have been so sweet, and they’re very respectful of each other because they’re getting to know each other. We’re not playing ourselves. We’re playing these other people. We’re both professionals and we both feel comfortable creating characters. We were able to draw on our own acting abilities there. But, there was something very fun about standing on the set, pretending to be someone else, with your husband, who’s pretending to be someone else. There are layers of removal there.
With three TV shows, how do you find time to also work in movie roles and even directing your own feature?
PRESTON: I’m crazy! I like to keep busy. I’m just one of those people who is a very creative person and I just like to be involved in storytelling. If anything, I have to learn to take a few things off my plate. I just enjoy the filmmaking side of things. I feel like when you’re an actor, sometimes you’re in other people’s hands and they’re in charge of your creative life. Whereas with my production company, I’m the one that gets to make those choices for how I’m gonna spend my time and what content I’m going to be creating and how it’s going to come out. I definitely learn a lot, especially about acting, by producing and directing and seeing how it all comes together, and seeing the other side of things, and appreciating what goes into pre-production, post-production, and all those things that you don’t see when you’re an actor. I’m just a Gemini who can’t get enough.
Have you thought about when you’d like to direct again, or what you’d like to direct next?
PRESTON: Yeah, I actually directed a web series. We’re going to put those online, and I think we’re going to do a Kickstarter campaign to raise a budget for the rest of it. That’s called Darwin, and it’s about a life coach who really has no business being a life coach. And then, my producing partner is writing the next feature that we’re hopefully going to get going whenever I can find time.
True Blood airs on Sunday nights on HBO.