|Interview conducted by Lauren Berkley
Photograph by Russell Baer
Even if you don’t recognize the name Carrie Preston, I’d be willing to bet you most definitely have seen her face.
While her career began on the stage, Preston has been seen all over TV and movies since 1996 including My Best Friend’s Wedding, Mercury Rising, Spin City, Sex and the City, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Emeril, Wonderfalls, Numb3rs, The Law & Order franchise, Arrested Development, Desperate Housewives, and Lost. She’s even worked with the iconic Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
But perhaps she’s most known for her current roles as waitress Arlene Fowler in True Blood, Harold Finch’s former fiancée in CBS’s Person of Interest, and attorney Elsbeth Tascioni in The Good Wife.
I spoke with Preston via phone recently, just in time to discuss her cryptically “pivotal” role in tomorrow night’s finale of Person of Interest, what’s it’s like to act opposite her husband, becoming a fangirl herself at Dragon*Con, and if she would ever do nudity for a role.
FOG!: How did you and your husband [actor Michael Emerson of Lost and Person of Interest] meet?
Carrie Preston: We met at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. We were both doing a production of Hamlet.
I had just gotten out of school and he was there, and he was getting his MFA, so he was playing Guildenstern and I was playing Ophelia, so we discovered the long-lost storyline – the love affair between Guildenstern and Ophelia – and created a whole storyline that Shakespeare had somehow forgotten along the way.
You appeared briefly in Lost and now you play Grace Hendricks, a recurring role in Person of Interest. What is it like acting opposite your husband?
It is really wonderful, because we have this ease with each other, obviously, because a lot of times when you do these film and TV roles, you really don’t have a lot of time at all to get to know the other person or establish any kind history or rapport with them; you just jump into it.
With Michael, obviously, we’ve been together going on, like, 19 years here, so there’s a level of ease with him.
But then it’s also quite strange, too, to be standing there, pretending that you’re somebody else, talking to your husband, who’s pretending that he’s somebody else.
So, there’s a total change of communication that is unexpected and kind of interesting and fun.
In particular with Person of Interest, when I came on to act with him, he had already been playing the role [of Harold Finch] for some time, so he was very comfortable in the skin of the character and I realized when I walked in for the rehearsal that I was actually standing there with Mr. Finch.
You know, he had actually sort of changed and I was like, “Oh! That’s not my husband, that’s Mr. Finch!” So that was really a surprise and quite fun to see how he works on that set and it was a real treat for me.
Is it easier to play two protagonists opposite each other, rather than one where you are being more villainous, so to speak? For example, if you were playing Root (played by Amy Acker) on Person of Interest rather than Grace Hendricks, Finch’s former fianceé?
I guess that would be an interesting experiment to see if it would be different.
The fact of the matter is that we are both professional actors and we know how to create other characters and live in them and so I think the way of working would be very much the same, but the energy, I guess, would be different, because it was obviously always a very sweet and romantic energy when we were shooting the Grace scenes, but if I was playing Root, I think the dynamic would be a little more tense, you know?
I don’t want to reveal too much and I also have personally tried to avoid any spoilers, but will we see Grace again after tomorrow’s season finale of Person of Interest?
Well…you will see Grace in the finale; you’ll definitely see her. And it was so interesting for me, because they had to work around my shooting schedule on True Blood, so we actually put the Grace scenes all in the can at the same time in December, so it was sort of like a standalone unit; we didn’t have a script or anything. We didn’t have it in the context of the script, so not even I know what is happening in the finale. Obviously, Michael [Emerson] does, but he’s not even sure how they’re gonna choose to edit in the stuff I shot with him, so it’ll be a big surprise for him, as well.
Oh wow! So you guys watch one another’s shows?
Oh yeah, we watch each other’s shows. If we’re able to watch the show real-time, we definitely do that.
Otherwise, of course, there’s the DVR, but we always watch them together, if we’re in the same town. And sometimes, we’ll get together with family or friends to watch the episodes, too.
What do you do to prepare for a role or does your method vary, depending on who you’re playing?
It does vary, depending on that, but I guess I have a way in which I break down a script and do pre-work on it, like creating, you know, beats for myself and obviously, learning the lines and why the person is saying those things and what they want and all that stuff is very much the same. But there are interesting little tricks that you do, depending on the role, you know?
Like with Arlene on True Blood, I’ve been playing her for so long that I really don’t have to spend a lot of time on the script, you know? It’s really just a matter of learning the words, and not making any choices, because I know how she’s going to behave once I get on set. I can trust that the words and all the work I’ve done on the character is gonna take me wherever it needs to go, but for a newer role, like the one on Person of Interest, it’s a little more finding the rhythms and finding a place of comfort before going on set, so then you can feel a little freer.
Luckily, with her [Grace Hendricks on Person of Interest], she’s a character who’s closer to who I am as person than a lot of the other things I’ve played in recent years, so that in and of itself made it fun and different for me.
Now, there is a lot of nudity on True Blood. Does being around that nudity make you uncomfortable? Would you ever play a part that involved nudity?
I’m never on set when there are nude scenes or anything like that. My experience on True Blood is I play the funny waitress.
They generally don’t make the funny people take their clothes off. [laughs]
Before we even started working on the show, in our contracts, we had to sign a nudity waiver, so if nudity had come up, then I would have done it, but in the case of Arlene, a little bit of false advertising there, with the enhanced bust line that I have [laughs] so I don’t know if it would behoove the viewer to see what I really look like under there – although, I’m very happy with my body – but it’s definitely not what we built Arlene to be on the outside.
But I think [the nudity] serves the story and that’s what people know they’re going to be seeing when they watch the show.
I mean, it might even be part of the reason they watch. [laughs]
Are there any tidbits about this season of True Blood that you can dish to us, especially with Arlene?
Well, the ramifications of what Arlene and Terry did last season are definitely fully in place and they’re dealing with it and the immediate effects of that.
I guess, currently, my favorite character is Elsbeth Tascioni on The Good Wife. It was just such a perfect blend of great writing and great storytelling, and then mashing it up with my style of acting…it all gelled in a way that is quite rare and it’s a delight to play and I really relish it, relish the moment, and enjoy seeing how her mind works and the twists and turns it takes. It’s really fun to play somebody who’s so mercurial and nimble and brilliant, at the same time.
Do you ever get a say, sometimes, in your character choices, especially if it’s a character that’s been created, like Elsbeth, rather than a pre-established one?
I think what happens is you bring to the writing what you feel will best bring the character to life.
Once the writer starts seeing those strengths and those choices of how you’re taking the writing and bending it or twisting it or taking it in this direction or that and they will take their cues off of you and start to tailor it that way, and I think they’ll write to your strengths and challenge you and get you to take the character in a different direction or maintain the road that your character is on, so it is really a dialogue, although I don’t really talk to the writers, necessarily, about what I want to do with it.
I generally very much trust that the writers are going to give me quite enough to think about and chew on and make work. I studied theatre and that was what we learned to do – work with the text – and so that is where I definitely feel super-comfortable, so yeah, it’s definitely a partnership I would say, between the writer and the actor and of course, the directors and creators of the show.
Would you consider going back to theatre? Do you have any plans for that?
Yes, I would, but right now it’s just been so great learning this medium, which is something that I came to way after I had already been acting on the stage and I still have so much more to learn and I find it incredibly challenging.
I love theatre, and I’m sure I’ll go back to it, but I even surprise myself by how much I don’t miss it. As long as I’m able to get this kind of work, I’m gonna keep doing that. I’m sure I’ll do theatre again, because it was obviously my first love.
What do you geek out about?
[laughs] I think I really geek out over television, in general. I pretty much watch everything. I download shows onto my iPad and watch them on plane rides, I take them to the gym…that’s where my entertainment default is more than movies, which is surprising, since I also make movies – I’m a filmmaker – but when I want to entertain myself, I definitely watch TV.
In terms of the genre stuff, I’ve been a huge fan of shows like Battlestar Galactica – it was amazing to me; it’s one of the greatest shows ever – so, I really geeked out on that. At Dragon*Con , I was on an elevator going down to the lobby of the hotel and I got on and I didn’t really look around at who was there. I kinda felt like somebody was staring at me, and I looked over and it was Katee Sackhoff [Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica] and we both totally geeked out on each other.
She was, like, staring at me and she goes, “I love your show!” and I was like, “I love your show!” and we did a whole gal moment on each other, which is so fun.
Also at Dragon*Con I geeked out, because LeVar Burton came over and wanted to take a picture with ME! I was like, “Geordi wants to take a picture with me?!” [laughs]
Was Dragon*Con 2012 your first foray into the convention world or had you been to San Diego Comic Con before, for example?
Yeah! No, I’ve never been to Comic-Con. You know, HBO has a set number of cast members that they want at those things and those are generally, like, the supernatural characters and stuff, so I usually don’t go to those, but it was a real interesting experience for me.
Seeing that level of fans and seeing how many people were there and my favorite part, of course, was taking pictures with all the people dressed as Arlene. That’s really cute; they were very excited that I was taking pictures with them instead of the other way around.
Besides the new season of True Blood, which premieres in June, and your season finale appearance on Person of Interest, which airs tomorrow night on CBS, what else do you have coming up?
I’m prepping for a film I’m gonna be starring in and one of the producers on called Your Ass is Grass. It’s sort of a Southern, art house psychological thriller and it’s shooting in Asheville, North Carolina in the summer, so that’s what I’m gearing up for after we wrap True Blood.