Fresh episodes of the Disney+ series Big Shot have become something of a constant companion during the past few months as we excitedly open our account each Friday morning for the David E. Kelley, Dean Lorey and Brad Garrett created series. While this week’s upcoming episode is the finale for the season, this was an exciting interview as we chatted with series co-lead Jessalyn Gilsig, who happily guided us through this season. Gilsig also led us through a bit of a self-styled retrospective, through the film that she herself produced (Somewhere Slow), through favourites such as Glee, Nip/Tuck, and then also The Practice, Snoops and Boston Public (all produced by Kelley, making this series a bit of a full circle moment for her). Gilsig talked up her excellent chemistry with Big Shot co-star John Stamos, as well as being something of a mentor to the young cast. But most of all, she stressed the fundamentals, both on the show as Holly Barrett and in her profession.
The following is a condensed and edited version of an in-depth phone conversation with the Montreal-born Jessalyn Gilsig.
Brief Take: This show feels quite current and a bit of a throwback in a way as well. Why do you think that the time is right for Big Shot?
Jessalyn Gilsig: I think that a show like this is a good example of storytelling catching up with the truth. This is to say not so much that it’s a new perspective, but that it’s a more honest perspective than we’ve traditionally given to female characters. I don’t think it’s particularly radical, I think it’s more accurate. I think that because I feel that we have under-represented what makes up female characters, we’ve often minimized them and turned them into tropes or devices or that sort of thing. Especially teenage girls within this show and seeing them as athletes, we start to remember that girls are driven by more than fashion or social media or relationships or even infighting in cliques- stories that we traditionally tell about girls. In reality, anyone who has ever been a girl- or known a girl- knows that they’re also invested in their own ambition and their dreams and their concerns are infinitely more complex than the stories that we told in the past. In that sense, I feel like it’s not a particularly radical premise, but I hope that it is more honest and representative of what it is truly like to be a teenage girl.
BT: Do you feel as though perhaps education is a common theme in the work you do?
JG: [laughs] No, it’s so funny to be back in school (after Boston Public) and back in David (E. Kelley’s) world. It’s really nice and really special and there is a familiarity in that. I think that if there has been a common thread in my work, I think that I have always… [pauses] sometimes you get a role and you know that it’s an afterthought of a role. I feel that I’ve always thought of my job that I’m an advocate for my character and my character’s never going to be an afterthought. And that’s how I feel sometimes, that I battle a little bit in my work to make my characters important because I owe it to them.
BT: What was it like for you to narrate ‘My Secret Left Me Unable to Help’ by Joyce Maynard for the Modern Love podcast?
JG: That Modern Love was a little bit of a [laughs] dream come true for me because I’m such a fan of that column, so I was really amazed to participate as well. I think that very privately, in a lot of ways, I take what I do very seriously. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to take what I do very seriously, but for me it really matters. And as an actor, it’s such an interesting job because I leave a little piece of myself in everything that I do. And everything that I do is personal and the thing that I care about is advocating for the human condition and our experience with humans. And that can be through humour, that can be through drama, but the idea is that we’re all connected in some way and we’re all having some sort of a common experience. I’m presuming to represent that and that is very important to me. You know, I don’t talk about it very much, because people are busy and they have things that they’re doing and I’m not asking people to make what I do important, it’s important to me that I care about it very deeply.
BT: You made Terri Schuester somehow a character for whom to root on Glee. How did you do that?
JG: Yes, Ryan (Murphy) is so good at that. When we were shooting Glee, Terri was unpopular but she made so much sense to me. I know that she was going about it the wrong way but everything that she was doing, she was motivated [chuckles] in trying to save her marriage and love. Obviously her approach was deeply, deeply flawed, but the drive made sense to me. One day- Ryan had this way of dropping gems for you – but very casually, we were on set one day and he walked by me and he said: “Poor Terri…she’s always right”. It blew my mind and I thought: “Okay. Don’t give up on her. Everybody doesn’t see it…” But if you look back on that show, and it’s funny because people have come around in their second viewing and say: “Wait a minute! He was married. Why was he with that woman (Emma Pillsbury) at work?” I was like: [screams] “Yes! Thank you so much.”
Between Glee and Nip/Tuck, Ryan (Murphy), you rarely work with another showrunner that…I remember people saying to me: “Do you ever think that you can say no when he asks you to do things on the show?” I did some things on the show that I probably wouldn’t be comfortable doing in another environment. But he makes unique sets, because it doesn’t matter who you are…talk about an incredible producer who puts so much trust in his hair and make-up, so much trust in his wardrobe department, so much trust in his camera department, and all the way down, and that’s why his crew works for him forever. He is loyal and they are loyal to him and lot of that is because he creates a lot of room for us to be creative and to make choices and you can go really far. And then if he wants to pull you back, he’ll pull you back. What he’s really asking you is: “What have you got?” And that, as an actor, is the ultimate environment in which to work.
BT: What was one of your best experiences on a set?
JG: After Glee was over, I had a fantasy that I wanted to work on a cable show that was kind of challenging and had an ensemble. I was a really big fan of shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, that sort of thing. And I found myself on Vikings and I was cast to play Gabriel Byrne‘s wife. In the first few episodes of Vikings, I don’t really have any lines. I have very few lines. I made the decision that I really wanted to work on my camera work and on listening, because everyone tells you about acting that it’s listening, it’s listening, it’s being confident listening, it’s being comfortable listening and that kind of thing. Suddenly, I was in this place in which my entire job was to listen, and Gabriel Byrne, even though I didn’t have any…I had been cast as this woman who had so little to say, immediately embraced me and created a dynamic between us and designed a relationship and a marriage that our characters had and he included me in everything. He said to me at one point: “My character doesn’t do anything without checking with you”. When you watch the show, before he speaks, he would look at me, which would immediately pull me into the scene. I learned so much from Gabriel about being present and really distributing the story throughout the characters that are in the space and understanding why everybody is there. I’ve never really had anybody do that as deliberately and as effectively. That really kind of transformed my relationship to my work and I think made me more relaxed.
Then when you get into a room with somebody like John Stamos, who’s one of the most dynamic actors with whom you’ll ever work…he’s a dynamic person and he’s like that on set. And he’s really present and he’s really going to do something only if it’s truthful and if it feels motivated and if it’s supported. I think because of that experience I had with Gabriel, I was comfortable letting go of any expectations and really building with him in that space and finding our characters and our stories together. Everything is in communication, which is one of the nice things. As an actor, you’re always evolving, you’re never done. [laughs] I got a lot more to learn and it’s really when you work with people who are generous in that way that you can grow. I definitely feel that those two actors have pushed me in ways that have been really helpful.
BT: How do you feel having scene partners that are able to give back to you what you give to them?
JS: John Stamos comes in every day so happy to be there, wanting to make it the best that it can be, caring, and when somebody comes in with that attitude, it’s infectious and it makes for such a great work day, because we work such long hours. [laughs] I always say that as an actor, no matter how early I get there and how late I leave, I’m never the first one there and I’m never the last to leave. Because somebody’s working even longer hours than I am. Why not be colleagues? And why not be supportive of one another?!
BT: Your shows have meant a lot to people like me. Which shows have meant something meaningful to you?
JS: Thank you. That is very kind of you to bring that up. Yes, it has been such a profound year for all of us. I have noticed that art has been a connector, really, for everybody and one of the first questions for everybody is you ask your friends: “What have you been watching, what have you been streaming, what have you been binging?” You realize that we need these stories because they make us feel seen and they carried us through such a dark chapter. And it has been the same for me. I really loved The Queen’s Gambit. I thought that it was original and sort of identify that show with that year (2020). What else did I watch? I watched Schitt’s Creek, I mean, the year was so long. [laughs] Then I rewatched all of Downton Abbey wth my daughter, which was really fun and sort of nostalgic. It felt like sitting by a warm fire on some really long, dark, confusing days. But it’s been interesting. I watched Nomadland the other day and I thought it was really beautiful and life-affirming. In music, you would see John Legend releasing some things or Taylor Swift brought her stuff out and [laughs] there were many connectors for us and many of them were through art.
BT: Do you feel a connection to Canada?
JS: Well, my family is still in Canada. My parents are there, my sister is there. I haven’t seen them. Normally I would see them a few times a year and we haven’t seen them since December of 2019. That was an odd feeling, to feel that I couldn’t get into my home country without going through some really complicated quarantining. Now we could if we had the time to do the quarantining. But I think that this…you sort of touched on this when we first started talking, this year in the United States has been…many issues have come up and many new ideas are being turned over or old ideas are being revived and I didn’t grow up in this country. I am sort of ashamed to say this, there’s a lot of history with which I am learning for the first time. I didn’t grow up learning American history, we had an awareness, but it obviously wasn’t the centre of my education. A lot of it I have learned through my daughter’s education. Then you start to see how it is taught and how it might not always reflect the truth and I have reflected a little bit on “Am I American? Am I Canadian?”. My daughter is American and I feel like wherever her home is, that’s my home. It is something with which I grapple a little bit though, especially in this past year.
Season one of Big Shot is now available on Disney+