FOX’s “Glee” is a series about spreading your wings and soaring, but inspirational teacher Will (Matthew Morrison) has a heavy tether in his own living room in the form of his wife Terri, a spouse willing to do anything to keep her family together, even if it means making her husband miserable.
On a show fans love (after only one oft-repeated episode), Jessalyn Gilsig plays the woman fans love to hate, a formidable adversary standing between Will and seeming happiness with Jayma Mays’ Emma.
With credits including “Boston Public,” “Nip/Tuck” (with “Glee” co-creator Ryan Murphy), “Heroes” (like her romantic rival Mays) and “Friday Night Lights,” Gilsig is one of the veterans in a cast of fresh faces.
HitFix caught up with Gilsig to talk about just how wicked Terri is, just how far she’ll go to keep her man and when she’s going to get to share some scenes with the rest of the “Glee” cast. We stopped discussing “Glee” at a certain point, but I left that part of the Q&A intact, because the McGill University grad is mighty interesting.
[There are things in this interview that might be considered spoilers… Full interview after the break…]
HitFix: I’ve seen three episodes and I’m becoming more than more comfortable with the show’s tone. Did you require some convincing or did you get it right away?
Jessalyn Gilsig: Oh no, I think I got it immediately. I think part of it is having worked with Ryan before, I had so much confidence in him creatively. I knew he had a vision. I just knew it. There are no accidents in Ryan’s world, or if there are accidents, they’re accidents you can capitalize on. So for me, coming from that advantage of having watched him develop character on “Nip/Tuck,” I have a very genuine trust that he is watching and conscious and that things that you’re watching and saying “What? Where is this going?” he’s on top of it as well. In that sense, I was up for it from the moment I read the script.
HitFix: The “Glee” team has been very out and about promoting the show this summer. How many things have you gotten to do?
JG: I haven’t done that many. It’s mostly the kids. I did the TCAs and… um… Most of my promotion of the show happens when people come to you and they’re really excited about it.
HitFix: And what have the reactions been to you and to your character?
JG: Oh, it’s been amazing. I feel like for a lot of people, the show just speaks a language that they understand that they haven’t seen on television. I’ve talked to people who have been in show choir and people who were theater geeks or even just felt ostracized in high school for whatever reason and I feel like they’ve just connected with that illustration of that experience. Everybody feels good in their skin for about a minute a day and the rest of the day, you’re just trying to navigate your way through the sea of terror.
HitFix: And you haven’t gotten the feeling that people might be rooting against your character?
JG: Oh yeah. She’s definitely… [she laughs] complicated, but it’s a comedy and you’ve gotta have a nemesis and if Will were in a happy marriage going after Emma, then everybody would have to hate him, so I’m happy to stand in and complicate his life for him. I love doing the part, because I think that obviously her choices are completely reprehensible, but her motives, oddly enough, are really pure. She really loves him and she’s not really the sharpest tool in shed. She could probably try a different form of communication than lying. But that’s all she’s capable of doing. I’m happy to be the force that’s pushing him towards Emma. And it’s fun to hate somebody. If we loved everybody on the show, it would be an after school special, so there has to be some darkness.
HitFix: So you don’t have any problems calling her the antagonist of the piece?
JG: She is. There’s no grey. The grey is that, for me, my job is to find out what makes her do that and I think that the writers have been great about making clear that she really loves him. She’s really, really terrified that he’s going to leave her. But you can’t talk your way out of a fake pregnancy. There’s no way that you’re going to turn around and say, “Well, he’s the culprit. Why doesn’t he check under her shirt?” For sure. It’s a terrible lie. But I love playing characters like that and it’s just so much fun, because you try to find the logic and you try to find the world in their head where all their choices are making sense to them, when on the outside it doesn’t make any sense to anybody else. I think parts like that are challenging, but they’re also really fun, because it’s like a mind game.
HitFix: I’ve talked to a number of actors who’ve said that no matter how evil the characters are, they can’t view them as the villains, because the characters would never view themselves that way. Is there something about the universe of “Glee” that allows you to embrace badness her in that way?
JG: The show is comedy, so all these dynamics have to be set up. Sue is like the nemesis at the school and I think I’m like the nemesis once he gets home, so he’s bouncing between the two of us. Without conflict, I don’t know how you would have anything fun to watch. The other tier comes, and this is where Ryan and Ian [Brennan] and Brad [Falchuk] are, where we feel like we’re in really good hands, is they’re not just sacrificing Terri and making her run the same pattern over and over again. It goes throughout the first 13 episodes and you understand her motives more deeply. At the same time, there’s no way to every be like, “I can see why she told that terrible lie and made him think that they were having a baby.” That’s just horrible. There’s no two ways about it. If you heard that somebody in your own life had done that, you’ve be like, “Oh, poor girl. That girl’s crazy. But that’s reprehensible.” But I’m OK with that. It’s a comedy.
HitFix: You used the word “innocent” earlier. Initially, I had the impression that Terri was conniving and wicked, but watching further, I started to wonder how calculated she really is and whether she’s really able to plan that far in advance. How far ahead do you think she’s playing the game?
JG: Oh, I think she’s moment-to-moment. I think her sister, Kendra, probably has a lot of complex plans in place and is pretty good at setting up a process to the lie, but I don’t think — or I know, based on Ryan’s direction — that when I sat down with Will and said that I went to the baby-doctor, I was going to tell him that there was no baby and then, in that moment, she just knows that he’s leaving, that he’s pulling out of this marriage, and so in a ridiculous, panic move, she tells this lie. And now she can’t get off the train. No, I think poor Terri to do well to write down a plan, but I don’t think she’d ever take the time to do so. I think she’s moment-to-moment.
HitFix: Does that provide a different challenge or level of fun for you as an actress? To play a woman who’s in-the-moment, rather than a long-con artist?
JG: I think’s more interesting. There’s a higher degree of risk that it might not work, as opposed to the feeling of, “Oh, this person has lined up all the possible scenarios and so everything is covered and it’s more like watching him walk through this house of cards.” In this case, it’s really just watching somebody fly by the seat of their pants and it gives a kind of tension to every moment that they’re in the room together, that she’s wondering if he’s going to figure it out. I think she’s really insecure about even her own ability to pull of this lie. Definitely, when we were playing the scene, it was a more interesting way to go.
HitFix: How about in terms of difficulty for you as an actor? I’m sure you like to plan out your characters as much as you can, but is it harder to play a character who couldn’t plan out her own life?
JG: I like it, because it forces you as an actor to be really present and to move moment-by-moment yourself. What’s interesting about the world that Ryan sets up is that everything on the page is very specific — obviously the dialogue’s very deliberate, a lot of the settings and even some of our actions are on the page — and then when we get in to shoot, somehow by having so many clear anchors in place, it actually gives us permission, because we have the perimeters, we can play within that. There were a lot of times when we would go in and do a scene and you’d think on the page that the scene was about one thing, that it would play out one way, and in the moment in the scenes, the tables had turned and it would be clear that Terri had to get out of the room, because if she didn’t, she knew that she was cooked. It wouldn’t necessarily be so obvious on the page, but somehow through the actions that we would choose or how close Terri and Will would get or maybe the idea that he was about to touch her stomach or that it was natural that in that moment they would hug or they would have their marital affection and then, all of a sudden, it was like, “I’ve gotta get the hell out of here, because everything’s going to fall apart if you get any closer.” And I liked it that way. It kept me on my toes, which is always a good things.
HitFix: For the first few episodes, your character really only has scenes with her sister and with Will. Did you sometimes feel like you were doing a totally different TV show?
JG: Yeah, I did sometimes. I’d be like, “What are you guys doing over there?” Yeah. We were conscious when we’d come to work and it was just Kendra and myself or just Will and myself, you could tell the crew was like “Wait, where’s everybody else?” Everybody was used to doing those big scenes with all of the glee club and all of the extras in the school, so it was creating a a different world. But the different worlds are really important, because if Will doesn’t have that home life, you don’t understand… The kids, everybody comes from somewhere, so I think if you just make the show about the school, it’s hard to build up the stakes that everybody’s navigating. Would I like to be a student in the glee club? I guess so. But those days are over.
HitFix: It looks from the fourth episode, though, as if Terri’s starting to become a bit more integrated with the other characters, right?
JG: That’s exactly right. Terri very effectively works her way deeper and deeper into Will’s school life as the series progresses.
HitFix: Who do you get to have good scenes with?
JG: I think I finally got to work with everybody, but the people I really got to have great scenes with were Sue, with Jane Lynch, so that was a blast, and then I got to do some great stuff with Jayma [Mays] so that was really fun. That’s the thing, we built up all this tension, so finally when we meet, there’s just so much anticipation and so much that I’ve projected onto this girl, that it’s really fun to get to work all of that stuff out together.
HitFix: I’m looking forward to those scenes with Jane, because both of your characters seem to have the ability to get away with saying absolutely anything…
JG: Oh my God! Some of her lines! They are unreal, those lines. I read the script and my jaw is just hanging open and then the way Jane does it, it’s just so masterful, because you watch and you think, “She didn’t say what I…” and then the moment’s gone. So yeah, when you get the two of us together, we’re not the least bit self-conscious about the way that we characterize anybody else on the show.
HitFix: You guys were still in production when FOX announced the plan to do the sneak airing in May and then no new episodes until September. What was the reaction when you heart that strategy?
JG: We were pretty excited, because we knew we were going to be paired with “American Idol” and it’s an understatement to say that that seemed like a vote of confidence from the network. It was a huge vote of confidence. It was nice for us, because we have done these 13 in a vacuum and no one had seen them and so for us to air one and just to know that people were getting it and connecting to it, it gave us a second wind to finish the order that we were working on. And then, as far as I can tell, over the summer, it seems like the expectation has really been maintained. I meet a lot of people who say that they’re really excited to see it and I meet so many people who say that they’ve watched the pilot numerous time, which is also something I’ve never experienced.
HitFix: People weren’t talking about how many times they’d watched the “Boston Public” pilot?
JG: Listen, there’s probably somebody who’s watched the “Boston Public” many times, but I don’t think that they’re on Twitter right now.
HitFix: But there was never any concern that after the one airing, y’all would be out-of-sight-out-of-mind and people would forget about you?
JG: I’m sure everybody had run all kinds of scenarios through their heads, but for me what’s been so fascinating to watch and so inspiring is that everyone’s been trying to figure out how television and the Internet are going to co-exist, but really it’s been the fans who have maintained the excitement. Granted that FOX has been really great about having a lot of visibility for the show, but the reality is that Facebook and Twitter have been so active and that’s just generated by the fans. Really, it’s a credit to them that “Glee” has stayed alive since the end of “American Idol” and into September. I don’t really think we can take credit for it. They’ve taken on a life of their own.
HitFix: You guys are waiting on a hopeful back-nine order, but you’ve had more than the usual amount of down-time since you finished the first 13. What other work have you been able to fit in?
JG: [She laughs] Oh, nothing. I have a little girl, she’s almost three. This is that moment that I dream of, as an actor, when something is wrapped and, knock on wood, there’s a good chance that I’ll be going back to work in a couple months, so this is the moment I dream of where I can just be with her and not feel as if, while I’m sitting with her and playing whatever it is that she wants to be playing, I should be out harassing somebody to find me work. This has been amazing. I’ve really been just given a chance to spend time with my daughter and anybody who has a job knows that it’s so rare to have that have that quality time. So I’ve been focusing on that and once she gets back to school in September, then I’ll get back out there and see if I can find anything and then I really hope that we get to go back in January.
HitFix: So that’s been the luxury of having this regular gig after spending the past few years mostly doing extended guest work?
JG: Oh my gosh yes. To have a home? For myself, anyway, I think that recurring has been such a gift, because I’ve been able to work on a lot of shows that I’ve really had a lot of respect for before I went in, shows like “Friday Night Lights” and “Nip/Tuck,” for example. So I’ve been able to work simultaneously on all these different shows. Creatively, that’s been what you would dream of, but from the sense of security and consistency and being able to feel like, at the end of the day, I can really focus on my family, there’s really nothing like having home. I feel really fortunate.
HitFix: Did that lifestyle as a migrant actor given you an idea of what you look for in a series home?
JG: I would say that’s true. I’ve been lucky to look into a lot of work scenarios and then, when I’m at home, paint a picture of what I imagine would be a perfect scenario. The strange thing is that, like anything, it all comes down to the people, at the end of the day. The material’s a key factor, obviously, and then the support of the network you’re working with — there are all of these large factors that you’re working with. But at the end of the day, it’s really about who you’re interacting with on a personal level. I knew, from my experience on “Nip/Tuck,” that Ryan assembled very, very professional people, the entire crew and all of the producers, there’s just a mutual respect throughout the set that is afforded to everybody. I could never imagine, but I knew that if I every got a call from him saying, “Can you come and work for me again?” from that point of view, I would be thrilled to do it, because there’s no real hierarchy when you work with Ryan. You walk on set and the production designer has designed something and we’ll give him a round of applause and say, “This is unbelievable.” Everybody gets their credit and everybody gets acknowledged. That really really comes from the top and that’s the definition of collaboration. I guess that’s really all I want and then you just hope that people watch.
HitFix: I hate to ask, but how rare is it to find that?
JG: It’s not as rare as people think. I think that everybody’s worked on shows where you feel like maybe a divide has happened between the talent and the crew. Those are the hardest jobs to do your best in, because as you’re performing, you’re aware that the people around you, because they haven’t been afforded the respect that they deserve, they’re not as invested. Why should they be if nobody’s really paying them any respect? I’m being very dramatic. If you spend any time on the set and you see how in-synch people have to be for 12-to-17 hours a day, I think people work pretty hard to maintain the peaceful and respectful environment. It’s really hard because everybody’s responsible for their own department and their own department is, as important as Terri is to me, that’s how important the props are to the props guy and so it’s trying to find a place where we can co-exist and both get our jobs done. I always think it’s remarkable that we can live in such close quarters and we can all accomplish our responsibilities. People are always like, “Actors, divas, whatever” and I always say, “Well that guy would probably be a jerk if he worked Whole Foods, too. I don’t know how much it has to do with being an actor and how much it has to do with there being jerks everywhere.”
HitFix: The jerk working at Whole Foods just might not be tolerated for as long.
JG: I think the notion that the fish stinks from the head is very powerful. This is all just observational, because I’ve never produced a show, but I think you can set a tone pretty early from the top and I think we’ll all fall in line with whatever that tone is. You’re right. If some behavior isn’t tolerated, we’re all kind of animals at our core and we won’t try that trick again. But it’s easy to say. I’ve never produced a show before, so I don’t know how hard that is and how desperately you want problems to go away so you just get your day.
“Glee” premieres/returns to FOX on Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 9 p.m.