Actress Jessalyn Gilsig has shown over and over again that with determination, hard work and skill, you can carve out an amazing career in film and television. With roles in films such as The Stepfather, Prom Night and The Horse Whisperer along with roles in hit television shows like Glee, Heroes, Nip/Tuck, Friday Night Lights and Boston Public, Jessalyn has become one of the most recognized and sought after actresses in the business today. She can be currently seen on the History Channel hit series Vikings and just recently finished the film Somewhere Slow where she is not only the lead actress, but a first time producer as well. She took a moment out of her busy schedule to sit down and chat with us about her career, acting and her love of art.
PCP – Why did you decide to become an actor?
JG –I have no idea. I remember as a child I read a lot. We had a TV in the basement and it had two channels, but we weren’t really allowed to watch it. So we read, books like “Little House on the Prairie”, “Little Women”, “Pride and Prejudice”—books like that. The two things I’ve became obsessed with were: 1) becoming a pioneer, and 2) I wanted to die of consumption! I would stage these scenes where, if I had a cold or something, I would have my dad carry me down to the living room couch and have my family gather around as if I was dying. I was really dramatic, but my family was very patient with me. And every Halloween, without exception, I would dress up as an old lady. I don’t think I chose it, I think it was just there, and there was no way out basically!
PCP – Congratulations to you and the cast and crew of Vikings on being renewed for a second season.
JG –Thank you. It’s funny, as an actress I’ve always wanted to wear a corset or be in a period thing, and I wanted to do that thing where you are preparing a meal over a wood burning fire. Neither of which I had ever done on Glee or Nip/Tuck. So, finally, Vikings is the realization of my childhood dream of what it would be like to be an actress. It’s such a cool and interesting world that there is no resemblance to ours.
PCP – What was it about the script that made you want to play Siggy?
JG – She’s my kind of part in that I think that there’s so much about her that is unspoken, and I really like those kinds of roles. When the series begins, and she’s sitting beside Earl Haraldson, there are several episodes at the beginning of the season where I don’t speak much, but I am there. And Gabriel Byrne is so great as a collaborator, because we would talk about the siginifigince of whether or not I was present or not present in a scene—what that would mean about us as a couple, and what that meant about our strategy and how much we were telling each other. I knew that, even though I was sitting in those scenes, even If I didn’t have lines, I was still contributing. I had to figure out why I was there, what brought me there, and what conversation we had prior and after. I like that kind of part; I like that kind of slow burn. I’ve always enjoyed the role that sort of slowly bleeds out, and I feel like she’s a really good example of that.
PCP – If you watch your character develop over the course of the season, you realize that she is a very cunning and powerful individual. Is this something you were conscious of while doing the role?
JG – Absolutely! What’s interesting about the series is how people are using their sword skills, strength and their youthful exuberance to conquer, and I think that the Earl and Siggy are from a different generation, where we are more about mind control. I love the idea of a woman who probably couldn’t win against anyone in sword fight, but could probably convince someone to turn the sword on themselves. I really like that idea, and it’s interesting to see if she can take a guy like Rollo, who is really his own worst enemy, and can manage him to get her where she really wants to go.
PCP – What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role?
JG – They gave us some material to read which was great, but there wasn’t much about the women of the time. A great resource for me was that the wardrobe department was pulling a lot of their inspiration from a burial site that had been discovered. They think it was the site of a woman who was of great status, so they shared with me what had been found there. One of the things that they were learning was that instead of the idea that Vikings were just barbarians, that they were actually very conscious of their public selves. From this woman’s site, they found jewelry, combs, and there was this idea that if you were of this status, you could live an existence that wasn’t in the muck. There are some amazing scenes at the beginning when the Earl and I come in, and the wardrobe department would give us these all white clothes, then they would put stains on my cheeks, and this black coal around my eyes. You would get the idea that there was a mask that these women would put on to come out and say we are not the same. I am wearing white, you live there, and I live here. It’s really a way of exerting your position and saying, “I am chosen to be in this position”. That was very helpful to figure out how she would hold herself and regard herself. In contrast to the private life, when we are in our bedroom, where we don’t have any of those trappings, and we are just a couple going to bed and having a conversation that reflects on the day. I really liked that Michael Hirst wanted to make our marriage very real on the show.
PCP –You’ve touched on it a bit already, but the costumes in the series are amazing.
JG – I couldn’t agree more. Joan is a genius, and she’s unrelenting in her standards. If you were to pull any extra out of the group—sometimes we had up to two hundred extras—their wardrobe was as detailed as any of ours. You couldn’t find a single element on anyone on the set that wasn’t supporting this world. I have no idea how they did it. All the leather was hand cut and hammered—the lacing and everything. The detail was mind-blowing, and it really upped your game because you really wanted to showcase that it was so important. You would look left and look right; the whole world is supported. For actors, sometimes you shoot something and you can see the edge of the set, but because we were on location so much and they had built these incredible sets, we could never see the end of our world.
PCP – Once a show becomes popular, people start comparing it to other shows. Your show has been compared to Game of Thrones. Has that been a hindrance to the series?
JG – Well, we are lucky that we shoot it in Ireland, so we are away from the industry when working on the show. We have so much to do, we don’t really have time to worry about how it would be interpreted or compared. But I do find that to be an interesting question, because storytelling is just an investigation of the human condition and whatever context you put it in. There are cop shows and hospital shows, so who cares: just make a good show and people will come. I don’t think that when we are doing shows, we’re really not thinking about it. We are too concerned about doing the best job we can that we can’t actually worry about the results. Someone once said to me, every story is Hamlet. Every story is a coming of age story. Well, they did that—Hamlet—but you are going to keep telling the story and investigating it from all sides. That’s what I think is happening in television right now, and thank goodness there are so many options. It’s amazing.
PCP –Are you at all surprised by the popularity of Vikings?
JG – I am surprised at how quickly it has become popular. I am thrilled that people are watching it, but I know that when we were making it, you just don’t know. The History Channel did a great job promoting the series. There is so much good programming to choose from, and that fact that it’s on the History Channel: there just seemed to be a built-in appetite. We only shot nine episodes, and it seemed like from the first episode people had become so invested in the show so quickly. There is a big argument these days that you have to release a whole season upfront, and we’ve only aired one episode a week. People have actually tuned in on Sundays to watch, which I think is pretty interesting.
PCP – Your character Terri Schuester on Glee was interesting. Did you have any weird fan encounters?
JG – Yes: all the time! I remember I was standing with my daughter, who was probably about five at the time. This woman came up to me and said, “You’re a mother? You have no business being a mother!” I was like, “What? Are you kidding?” I didn’t even write the show. It’s just a TV show, lady! I mean, it’s hilarious and kind of great that people care that much. I am so lucky. When you become an actor, you want to be an entertainer. That’s the whole point. You want to create that exchange with an audience that you believe in, and you believe it has a great purpose in society: anything from escapism to us feeling more connected. The fact that I’ve played these parts that have really gotten a rise out of people is interesting. I think that what is different now with social media and the way celebrity has evolved, there is this assumption that I am an awful person. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I am not inclined to rewrite someone’s impression of me because I want people to be lost in the world. Sometimes people don’t see the divide, which is fine.
PCP – What was it like playing Gina Russo on Nip/Tuck?
JG – It was a great character. I thought she was so human, and someone that I knew and in some ways could relate to, though she was far more extreme and I am a much more reserved person. You know when you have that friend that keeps running that same pattern and they can’t figure out why—they just can’t see it? That’s how I felt about her. She just couldn’t see that she was just running the same pattern, over and over, until it just ultimately destroyed her.
PCP – The way Gina was killed off on the show was rather unique, don’t you think?
JG – Tell me about it! I thought the same thing when I read it, and then I thought, of course, how else would she die? It’s a great way to go!
PCP – Can you talk a little bit about working on Boston Public?
JG – I think Boston Public was a little bit ahead of its time. If you look at television now, it would have had a better shot because it required a kind of patience. I hear from people all the time about that show. It was really good, almost fifteen years ago. I had just moved to L.A. To be honest, I felt that I had failed on that show. There were so many firsts when I did that show. It wasn’t so much the work on the show that overwhelmed me, but everything around it and outside it. I wasn’t prepared for anything. When I left that show, after two years, I went back to New York and really had to think about if I wanted to stay in the industry, go back to L.A., or just do theatre. I’ve never been really good with things outside of action and cut. It gets easier when you get older, and you become less relevant as you get older, so a lot of pressure just comes off you. But, at the time, I was kind of overwhelmed.
PCP – You had some amazing scenes with actor Chi McBride on the series.
JG – Oh ,yes—it was such a beautiful relationship between this principal and this teacher. There was this kind of affection between them that was really sweet and unexpected. We really had a great time together. He’s such a lovely guy.
PCP – Is it easy for you to shake a character when you are done with them?
JG – Well, oddly enough, when I did Friday Night Lights, I was doing Nip/Tuck at the same time, sometimes on the same day. When I did Vikings, I flew back and the next day I did Glee, then flew back to do Vikings. I was really nervous. How am I going to go from Siggy to Terri, then back to Siggy? Like you mentioned about the wardrobe, hair and makeup—the world is so distinct, it’s kind of a layering affect. Once you get on the set and all the characters are facing you, it sort of snaps you in to it. I’ve definitely had to say goodbye to a lot of characters: Gina, for example. There’s a little sadness in me for that, just on a personal level. They definitely come to mean an awful lot to me, and I often think as an actor you are a personal advocate for this character, so it’s always a little hard to say goodbye to them.
PCP – You just produced and starred in a film called Somewhere Slow. Can you tell us about this project?
JG – Sure—thank you! It’s an independent film that I produced, and it’s the first time that I have produced a film. I think of it sort-of as a short story that has an amazing cast. What’s fun about independent film is that, not only did we get this amazing cast for the film, but it also let them play roles that are outside of their box. We’ve been doing the festival rounds and it’s been going really well. We are also talking to a few distributors, and I am hoping by the fall we will be able to share the film with an audience. It was a massive undertaking for me personally, but I think it was something that after Glee I felt I had to do. I think sometimes you have this drive to do this because—like the impulse you had as a child—you find this forum that allows you to do it, and that’s wonderful. People even pay you, and it’s beyond your expectations, but you can feel like you are getting further and further away from that initial, pure motivation. So a project like Somewhere Slow was me trying to say, “Okay, if I really want to define the kind of stories I want to tell, and if I really want to identify my aesthetics, and if I really feel like I know what that is—instead of sitting around and telling people what it is—it’s time to step up and do it.” So, this was really a challenge to me: to be proactive and become a part of a process.
PCP – Was producing the film a big task?
JG – It is a daunting task. The producer title is a really hard one to interpret. Sometimes people get the title because they brought one element—probably a really significant element, but it doesn’t mean necessarily that they were required to put in the time and the effort. On a film of this size, when you produce it, you do everything from raising the money, assembling the cast, creating the schedule, and setting up craft services! Making the film is so much fun, especially if you are prepared and you are learning along the way, and all these talented people in front of and behind the camera are just bringing all their gifts and abilities. You just can’t believe what is happening. It’s so exciting. Then you wrap and everyone goes on with their lives, and you are now sitting there with all this footage and you have to assemble a film! That is really where the challenge is, because you are out of money, you are trying to edit it, mix it, find a composer, color-correct it, find the source music, and find a story. You are trying to assemble a film that people will want to see, and you have to what-they-call “kill your baby”. There might be moments that you are in love with, but they are dragging the story down, and that is the part of filmmaking that is so difficult, especially when you are out of money. Trying to really push it, get up every day, make those difficult calls and find talented people who are excited to become a part of something that may not have major financial returns, but creatively is really gratifying. That’s the part that is really tough, but being on set is fun. It’s all worth it, though. You have all these people that put in their time and effort and you think, “I made them a promise that I am going to showcase them, so I have to complete that. I have to get these people their money back.” Sometimes you lie awake at night thinking, “How am I going to complete this circle? I can let this be an incomplete sentence.”
PCP – What do you do in your spare time to relax?
JG – I paint. I have always painted and actually, when I finished high school, I went to art school for a couple of years, and I continued to act. It was strange; I was supporting myself as an actor, thinking I would become a painter! I have never really given it up. It comes and goes a little bit. I’m trying to make it a bigger and bigger part of my day. I think the industry has changed since I first came into it. People don’t have to do just one thing anymore. It used to be a joke that if you were an actor and wanted to be a director, or if you were a film actor and wanted to do television, you couldn’t cross over in those ways. Now I feel like creatively you are allowed to stretch yourself to whatever medium works for you in that moment. So I am definitely making art a bigger part of my life now, and being less shy about it.
PCP – Do you use social media at all?
JG – No. I just started Tumblr and with that I am producing one piece of art a day. That’s really all I can get my mind around right now. It is such a complicated subject for me, because I realize how important it is, and I feel like I am letting down the History Channel because I don’t tweet, but I also don’t want to patronize the audience. I don’t want to send out beauty secrets because someone gave me free products or is paying me, and then I am taking someone who is taking their time to watch Vikings to then try to take advantage of their interest by selling them a product! I mean obviously that’s what the show does, but I don’t feel that I should have to. It doesn’t sit well with me. I am all for promoting the show that I am doing, but I don’t want to exploit the people who have come to us in an honest way to watch and enjoy the show. I think it’s such a delicate exchange. I think that people taking the time to watch a play or a movie or a television show: that’s their valuable time. Obviously there is an understanding that there will be commercials which makes the programming possible. I just don’t want to do that thing of saying, “Hey, guys. Guess what? My life is so much more interesting.” I also know that it’s the world we live in, and Tumblr is my way of being a part of it where I am taking a risk, too. I know I am overthinking it, but I’ve thought about it so much, and I just don’t know quite how to navigate it.
PCP – What is your advice for people starting out in the business?
JG – It’s a tough business. The internet has changed everything. If you really believe this is something that you want to do, you can actually try it out. You can literally take out your iPhone, assemble your friends, and write something. You can start to learn about the process, how you play, and what you have to work on by actually creating your own material, which is amazing. You don’t really have to sit and wait. I think it’s really important to find training, and really good teachers. You have to continue to challenge yourself, be a little bit afraid, and be uncomfortable. It’s all part of it. If you really believe in it and it’s really what you are meant to be doing, and you really believe that, then stay the course. If there are other things you want in life, and you feel like acting is standing in your way, it’s okay to redirect. There are other things, like family and friends, that make life important and worth living, and it’s not always conducive to that, and so it’s understandable why some people would say, “You know what? This isn’t working with my big picture,” and I fully appreciate why some people come to that conclusion.
All the information is there. We know that women over forty don’t work that much, or most TV shows don’t have people of color, and you kind of have to go in educated and say if you want to change that landscape, I think you can change that landscape, and I think we should change that landscape. You really have to have your eyes open, and, instead of being victimized by it, really assemble all the tools so that you can be a part of the process and the evolution of the business. If I could have done it again, I would have done less waiting by the phone and been more proactive.
We would like to thank Jessalyn for taking the time to chat with us. Vikings has been renewed for a second season with production to begin this summer and the new season to air sometime in 2014. Please make sure you take look at the links section for links to Jessalyn’s Tumblr page for her artwork, the official facebook page for Somewhere Slow and the Vikings page on the History Channel website!
One A Day – Jessalyn’s tumblr page for her art. One new piece added every day. Click here
Somewhere Slow official facebook page click here
Vikings History Channel page click here