Carrie Preston on Moving the Wacky and Wonderful 'Elsbeth' to Her Own Series

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Carrie Preston

If you’ve watched The Good Wife or The Good Fight, you’re already familiar with the character Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston) from her scene-stealing guest star appearances on both series.

But now the unconventional attorney who utilizes her unique point of view to make curious observations will be moving her skills from Chicago to New York City to help the NYPD catch criminals—and to keep a watchful eye on the police as they do so.

Series creators Robert and Michelle King are comparing Elsbeth to the Emmy-winning detective series Colombo, which starred Peter Falk, and Preston, who first played Elsbeth in 2010, definitely sees the parallel.

“When Robert called me to talk about the guest spot on The Good Wife, he described the character as being a female Columbo,” Preston tells Parade. “I think it’s fascinating that 14 years later we’re doing this show that is in essence borrowing the structure of Columbo, which is seeing the crime at the beginning of the episode, knowing who the criminal is and watching an unorthodox or unconventional character then piece together what the audience already knows.”

Relocating from Chicago to New York moves Elsbeth into a whole new world, a world of police rather than courtrooms and judges, and while she’s hired for her skills as an attorney, she discovers she has a penchant for detective work.

Carrie Preston<p>Photo credit: Shawn Flint Blair</p>
Carrie Preston

Photo credit: Shawn Flint Blair

“She’s a bit more of a fish out of water,” Preston says. “But she takes to the water quite well it turns out. She uses the same intellect that she has as a lawyer to solve crimes and piece things together in the same way that she did during her tenure in The Good Wife and The Good Fight. I remember there was a line in The Good Wife once where she said, ‘I don’t know how I know half the things that I know.’ You see her drawing on knowledge that she has filed away in the Rolodex of her brain, so to speak, more so than ever in this scenario.”

Related: She Makes Weird 'Good!' Everything to Know About the Elsbeth Spinoff of The Good Wife

Preston’s co-stars will include Wendell Pierce as NYPD Captain C.W. Wagner, who is none too happy to have her overseeing the work of the NYPD. So, he assigns Officer Kaya Blanke (Carra Patterson) to keep an eye on Elsbeth, and the two develop a bond when Kaya realizes that Elsbeth’s insightful and offbeat ways could be of benefit to her.

“They both turned out to need each other,” Preston says. “Elsbeth is not a member of the NYPD. She’s brought there under the consent decree as an observer. She really needs somebody who has the authority to be on a crime scene for her to stick her nose in where she doesn’t belong. She leans on Kaya for that. Kaya sees how brilliant Elsbeth is and that her expertise might give her, Kaya, a leg up in maybe moving up the ladder to detective herself.”

Carra Patterson, Carrie Preston<p>CBS</p>
Carra Patterson, Carrie Preston

CBS

During our chat, Preston also discussed how much of Elsbeth’s persona is real and if she ever uses it to her advantage; how the show, which is essentially a procedural, has a lot of comedy; the impressive list of guest stars for Season 1; and her role in the Oscar-nominated The Holdovers.

She’s got quite a brain. She’s this cunning lawyer, which people don’t realize when they first meet her because she’s a little scatterbrained. Is she really that scatterbrained? Is any of that an act to cover up how smart she is? Is she like that when she’s at home?

I do think that she is a multi-tasker in her brain, her body and her clothing even. So, I do think that that comes from a place of truth. I do know that she is also very aware of how people perceive her, and she might manipulate that situation to get what she needs or for an end goal. But I don’t think of her as someone who is in any way Machiavellian or mean spirited about it. I do think that she’s someone who’s extremely present and sometimes that means that she’s thinking about 50 things at once and knows that if someone thinks of her as spacey it might in some way help her. So, she doesn’t always try to correct them.

This is essentially a procedural. But having Elsbeth as the star brings a lot of humor to this series. How do you find the balance between the comedy and solving the crime of the week?

We like to say that Elsbeth is plopped down in the middle of a Law & Order episode or NYPD Blue or one of these traditional procedurals. She’s this very colorful, unconventional, interesting, quirky, comedic character. I think the tension between those things makes for something fun along the lines of, say, Monk or Sherlock, one of those types of characters that we’ve seen before. But Elsbeth has her own unique take on that situation.

I just try to play what is written on the page in the best way that I know how. I am looking at this as a comedy. It might be under the auspices of an hour-long drama, but I think we’re all aware that we’re doing something light in the way that Only Murders in the Building is light. I think we’re all sort of in agreement on that.

Carrie Preston, Wendell Pierce<p>Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS</p>
Carrie Preston, Wendell Pierce

Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

How many actors can say that they won an Emmy for playing a character that they haven’t even started to play in this new series? You won it in 2013 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for The Good Wife?

Yeah, that is interesting. I don’t know, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if there are other people who could say that.

Maybe Kelsey Grammer.

Maybe, yes, because he’s played that character in several universes. So, this is the third one for Elsbeth.

You were a series regular on True Blood and Claws and you’ve done numerous guest appearances. This is your first time as No. 1 on the call sheet for a TV series. What does that mean to you?

I’ve been No. 1 in feature films, but to be one on a television show is really the dream come true. I always thought that that would be something that I would be interested in trying out. I would love that opportunity. But it wasn’t something that if I didn’t get it, I would somehow be devastated. I’m thrilled with my career; I’ve been extremely lucky and blessed. So, this is coming at a later time than it usually comes—for women especially. And so, it’s humbling, it’s profound and I am coming at it with a daily hefty dose of gratitude.

Elsbeth has attracted some great guest stars. Stephen Moyer, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jane Krakowski, Blair Underwood, Retta, Linda Lavin. Usually in its first season people take a wait-and-see attitude, but people are jumping on board this. Why do you think that is?

I think the writing is good and fun. But I also think Robert and Michelle King have amassed such respect in this industry and they are known for creating really wonderful situations for guest actors. And Jonathan Tolins, who is our showrunner, has been a writer for them for a very long time. So, he is definitely picking up that baton from them and carrying it.

I think people understand that when they come on the show, they’re going to have something delicious and fun to do. Also, just to shoot in New York City and to have these long dialogue-based scenes, which are full of subtext, I think, is really fun for actors.

Related: Carrie Preston on Working With Her Husband Michael Emerson

You guested on Person of Interest. Any chance your husband Michael Emerson might be added to that guest list?

I certainly hope so. He’s finishing up on Evil. We are eternally grateful to Robert and Michelle King for keeping us employed. I’m hoping that they will find something for him down the line.

Carrie Preston<p>Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS</p>
Carrie Preston

Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

There’s a lot of talk about Cary Agos in the premiere episode. Might he pop up? Or Alicia’s in New York. Anybody from Elsbeth’s previous universe?

From what I’m hearing from the writers, and all we can do is trust what the writers are saying, that’s not going to happen. I think they want to keep the show in its own world. A lot of people who saw the pilot when they were testing it had never even seen The Good Wife at that point and they were still interested in where this character was going to go and the world that we’re building in New York with it. So, that was a good sign for us all.

You have directed a couple episodes of Your Honor, The Good Fight and Claws. I know you’re finding your feet in the first season, but do you have any interest in down the line possibly directing Elsbeth as well?

Well, I would never say no to that opportunity. I love to direct. But I am also still trying to get the stamina and the workflow down of being trusted with so much material as an actor. Right now, I’m thrilled to just be playing the role of Elsbeth and then we’ll see what happens if we have the great fortune of doing more episodes after this.

You’re also in The Holdovers, which is nominated for five Academy Awards. What is it like being part of it?

I’ll say this, I’ve done so many independent films and quality films that I’m so proud of, but it does make a difference when you’re in an Alexander Payne film that’s nominated for so many awards because people watch it. People actually want to see his work and they want to see these awards movies. I can’t even tell you the last time I got this much attention for one of these smaller films. From people that I haven’t talked to in 20 years reaching out and going, “I saw this movie and I just loved it so much.” Alexander intentionally made a movie that evokes nostalgia. I think he was so successful at that that people are really feeling nostalgic when they watch it. So, they’re really wanting to reach out and express words of appreciation. I feel very proud to be a part of that movie.

Elsbeth premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS and streams next day on Paramount+.

Next, The Holdovers Is a Heartwarming Holiday Tale: Everything to Know About the Upcoming Movie