There are plenty of candidates for Busiest Person in TV, but Carrie Preston would have to be in that discussion.
This summer, Preston will begin her sixth season as Arlene on HBO’s vampire soap “True Blood,” but being a regular on that premium cable hit hasn’t prevented her from pivotal recurring roles on a pair of CBS favorites.
On “Good Wife,” Preston has made nine appearances as quirky-yet-effective attorney Elsbeth Tascioni. While Elsbeth is just a part of the deep “Good Wife” bench, her every appearance prompts cries of “Spinoff!” on Twitter and message boards.
Although Preston has made fewer appearances on “Person of Interest,” there remains a sense that her Grace is a pivotal character, both in life of Michael Emerson’s Harold Finch and possibly in the overall shape of the show.
Oh and as if that’s not enough on Preston’s plate, she also has a developing behind-the-camera resume. Her feature directing debut, “That’s What She Said,” had a Sundance Film Festival premiere, with other producing projects ready to go for both the big screen and the web.
I chatted with Preston in advance of Thursday (May 9) night’s “Person of Interest” finale, in which Grace appears, even if the actress playing her doesn’t know the context. Preston discusses working with real-life husband Emerson, her Emmy hopes and how “True Blood” feels different without Alan Ball.
It’s a good chat. Check out the full Q&A…
HitFix: I want to start with nuts-and-bolts. You’ve got the show you do regularly out of Los Angeles and then you’ve got the two shows you recur on that are both out of New York City. How do you determine your availability and how does that relate to when “Good Wife” and “Person of Interest” need your characters, I guess?
Carrie Preston: Yes, I know. It’s a bit of a logistical challenge. But I, luckily, have a lot of good representation who help me out with all of that stuff. I live in New York. That’s our main home and sort of our home base and that’s where “Person of Interest” shoots and where my husband is most of the time. “True Blood” shoots usually seven months out of the year, so I have five months where I can do other things. Contractually, I’m not allowed to be shooting any of the other stuff while I’m actually in production on “True Blood,” so it has to fit into those five months and luckily the other shows have been able to work around that and I’m very grateful for that. I don’t think I would have been able to do it otherwise.
HitFix: When you’re on the set of “Person of Interest” or “Good Wife,” do the producers ever go “Boy, we wish we could have Elsbeth more” or “We wish we could have Grace more”?
Carrie Preston: I have not heard that. Both of those characters seem to be needed a little less than you would need if you’re a series regular. Know what I mean? Elsbeth is very much a nice spice to add, but I don’t know how it would work with her in a long run, but I would love to do it. I would love to do all of them full time if I could.
HitFix: Starting with Grace on “Person of Interest,” how much do you actually feel like you know about that character and how much did you know when you came in the first time to play her?
Carrie Preston: There’s not that much on the page with her. All I heard when I got the offer was, “Do you want to play Michael’s love interest?” So I was, “Of course!” Michael was excited, but what I didn’t know was that she was a past love interest. I thought it was going to be somebody who he meets in the course of his present life, so that was a surprise. Then, really, we were not told that much beyond what was on the page and that was pretty clear. They rather seamlessly put the exposition in there with how they meet and you see it on screen and her past and what she’s done and she talks about it a little bit. And then we basically were able to show up and play what they handed us, which was very sweet and strong stuff.
HitFix: How does that relative uncertainty impact how you build a character like this as an actor? Do you have a sense of who she is unconnected to Harold, really?
Carrie Preston: Yeah. Yes. When you’re talking about a woman who has studied art, a woman who has been abroad, who is an illustrator, who seems to live a very artistic life, you can start to picture the person and inhabit the person. I always start with the text and remain with the text. I do my own internal backstory, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a Method actor who feels like they need to go and live in Florence to play somebody who’s been to Florence. I don’t go that far, but I really trust the writers and then bring my own take on what I would think that a person like that would be like. Certainly working with the other actors will inform how you’re gonna play something as well.
It was really fun for me to work with my husband, because there’s a level of comfort, obviously, and trust there that doesn’t have to be built, which is what you have to do when you’re meeting someone that you’ve never acted with and then you have to play like you’ve been married for 10 years, or whatever it is. We already had that comfort and trust, so then it was just a matter of playing the scene truthfully and that was a really lovely experience, walking on-set and seeing my husband standing there and playing with him and also being on a set where my husband has been and by the time I came on, he’d been very much comfortable with the role and when I walked on-set, I was standing there and I realized that it’s not my husband that’s talking to me, it’s Mr. Finch, who I hadn’t really hung out with before. So that was a really fun experience, not that he’s super-Method-y either, but there’s just an energy that happens to a person when they’ve been playing a role for a long time and it just shifts and they are able to seamlessly go in and out of the character and themselves.
HitFix: How would you define the difference in energy between your husband Michael and Mr. Finch?
Carrie Preston: Mr. Finch is much more reserved and he has a keen sense of observation and also is very technologically savvy, which my husband is not. At all. Which is very adorable. If people knew that he is not even really able to turn the computer on, much less build a machine, they would be very amused by that. So it’s a quieter energy, I would say, and a little bit more formidable in a way, than Michael. Both of them are very gentlemanly, but I would say that Mr. Finch keeps a lot more to himself than Michael does.
HitFix: With this character and her importance in Harold’s backstory, there’s a responsibility to infuse an awful lot into sometimes very, very brief scenes. How do you make those brief moments count extra?
Carrie Preston: Well, you certainly can’t play it as if every moment counts, because you have to be honoring the fact that these are two people who are living their lives moment-to-moment the way we live our life, so you do have to take the pressure off of yourself as an actor to create something important and leave that up to the people who are directing it and producing it and editing it and creating the production design and doing the score and all those other things that lend to the revelation of a storyline and keep your tasks to making sure that the character is living and breathing.
HitFix: Your character is often seen being seen from a distance. She’s often being watched or surveilled. Does that produce any different acting challenges?
Carrie Preston: I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge. It’s interesting to do a scene where the camera is so far away from you. Then it becomes more about gesturally and the whole physicality that you’re dealing with with the character. Most of the time in TV, they do a wide shot, but then they pretty much get into your close-ups. So it’s very fun and it’s kind of liberating in a way to see that the camera is so far away and it’s almost as if it’s not there at all and that’s really fun. Sometimes when Michael’s doing the show, the camera will be so far away that people will come up and want to get his autograph and take pictures with him and he’ll say, “Well, we’re shooting. There’s the camera. Sorry.” We’re out in New York City shooting these things, so we’re not closing the city down and that’s pretty fun too.
HitFix: Watching your first few episodes, were you surprised by what the camera can or can’t pick from that distance? And have you been able to modify your performance to that at all?
Carrie Preston: Not really, I’m very pleased… Like, for example, in the last episode where Finch proposes to Grace, we shot that scene the traditional way, the way you shoot everything, with master shots and close-ups. They did the scene that way, but then the way they chose to edit it in was all from the machine’s point-of-view and I thought that that was very, very clever and an important way to show that scene, because the machine was the one who was the matchmaker, so of course the machine is going to be watching and if you could humanize the machine in any way, he or she was probably pretty excited about that moment.
[Preston discusses the “Person of Interest” finale, “True Blood,” her “Good Wife” Emmy hopes and more on Page 2…]
HitFix: Can you tease anything about what Grace’s capacity is in the finale?
Carrie Preston: You know, it’s interesting, because they had to write and shoot my scenes back in December before I went back to work in “True Blood,” so my scenes were shot completely out-of-context and sort of as stand-alones, so it will be very interesting for me to see where they all fit in, because I didn’t read them in the context of scripts. I just read them stand-alone and we shot them stand-alone, which is a very interesting process that I’ve never really had before. So I’ll be curious myself to see what happens in the finale and how those scenes are edited in and what the ramifications of them are on the main storyline. I’m looking forward to it. Of course, Michael knows, but I’m someone who doesn’t like spoilers. I’m a fan. I want to see it for the first time with the rest of the fans and experience it the way the writers and creators want me to experience it.
HitFix: You had a couple great Elsbeth-centric episodes this year on “Good Wife.” Do you let yourself think at all about things like Emmys?
Carrie Preston: You know, I did let myself think that I might have a chance last year and I didn’t get nominated and so I was like, “Oh what a fool! I set myself up there!” So obviously it would be a great honor, but the real honor is being on the show and the fact that they keep bringing me back and that the audiences seem to really relate to her and have a good time with her and get excited when she comes on. That makes me very happy because, of course, I am very excited when I get the scripts and when they are willing to trust me with such a wonderful arc on the show. It’s quite nice when I’m on there and as far as the contributions that character makes to the actual storylines of the main characters. So yeah, it would be amazing to get an Emmy nomination, but the way things work with with the “guest stars” is usually the nominations and and winners are people who maybe have a bigger quote-unquote “name.” So I know how that works. I wasn’t devastated or anything last year. I just thought, “Oh, OK. Well… Moving on.” I’m lucky that I get to work as much as I do. It can be a hard business.
HitFix: I know you’re not going to be able to tell me anything that happens on “True Blood” this season, but I’m just curious as to how this season felt different with Alan Ball not running the show.
Carrie Preston: Well, of course Alan was our Papa, our Daddy, so he sorta left us and we were all very sad to see him go, but we have such a great writing team in place and there’s such a continuity with that. Brian Buckner, who’s running show now, he’s been a writer since Season 1, so he obviously knows the tone and the way the thing runs and you’ve got a group of actors, we’ve been together coming up on six years now and it’s pretty amazing that we’ve been able to be on the show that long. It’s just such a rare thing. So I think that, if anything, there’s been a bit of a sorta fresh air, a fluffing of the sheets, so-to-speak. So there are some new things, energy-wise, that are coming down the pike, but the overall tone of the show and the overall way the show is done has remained in line with Alan’s vision.
HitFix: Just as a last question… I know that no working actor is ever going to complain about working too much, but what impact has your currently level of acting busy-ness had on you ability to even contemplate a behind-the-camera follow-up to “That’s What She Said”?
Carrie Preston: Oh! You’re so sweet to even mention “That What She Said.” It’s just airing on Showtime this week. We’re so excited. They acquired it and it’s just starting to show up on TV, so that’s a whole new level of fans, hopefully, that will discover the movie.
So yes, of course I’m always busy doing those things. I have a webseries called “Darwin” that I directed the first three episodes and the writers have at least six more episodes written, so we’re gonna do a Kickstarter campaign and hopefully get a little support for finishing shooting that and I’ll probably be doing that sometime in the fall. And then also, my production company has teamed up with another production company to produce an indie film in Asheville, North Carolina and I will be actually playing the lead in that. It’s called “Your Ass Is Grass” and it’s a Southern psychological art-house thriller and it’s something that I’ve never done before, played that kind of a role, so I’m really looking forward to that. So we’re in the process of putting that all together with investors and actors and all those things that you have to go through before you can actually shoot a film. It takes so much longer to get ready to shoot a film … than the actual shooting of the film.
HitFix: But you are actually still able to find the time to get in the non-acting work?
Carrie Preston: I am! Yeah. I am. Somehow. I’m somehow doing that. On “True Blood,” our cast is so big that none of us work every day, so on the days that I’m not shooting, I’m always always focusing on these projects, just because it gives me such pleasure and it’s such a big part of my career now that I feel excited to always be trying to push those projects forward.
The “Person of Interest” finale airs on Thursday, May 9 at 9 p.m. on CBS. “True Blood” returns to HBO on Sunday, June 16.