Elsbeth Tascioni has been called many things.
The Good Wife scene-stealer has been called crazy. A genius. A crazy genius. Quirky. Off-kilter. Odd.
So we asked her portrayer, Emmy-winner Carrie Preston, what she thinks best describes Elsbeth’s apparently strange personality.
“I tend to think of her as mercurial,” Preston tells me, the day after one of Elsbeth’s biggest episodes yet airs. “She’s trying to live within the confines of the world in general…and yet a burst of color can’t help but come busting through.”
Though Preston has gotten to play Elsbeth at her wacky height before—12 other times, to be exact, winning a Guest Actress Emmy for her performance—this is the first episode to be framed around the character. It begins with giving us a glimpse into her said wacky mind, providing insight into what exactly it is about her that makes her seem equal parts distracted and savant and why it is that it seems Elsbeth is always frantically catching up to her thoughts—which seem to be at her closing argument while she’s still making opening remarks.
What we didn’t expect, however, was for the glimpse inside Elsbeth’s mind to include detours to dancing penguins, creepy clowns, and old men playing the xylophone in trippy fantasy sequences that attempted to explain the intellectual hurdles the brilliant lawyer must clear each time she wins a case.
Sunday’s episode began with that window into Elsbeth’s cognitive quirk, before squaring her off against typical comrade Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) as Alicia defends a woman who claims to have been fired for sexist reasons and Elsbeth must argue for the defense, claiming that the woman was fired for being a bitch. With two of the show’s most complicated and powerful women facing off, the “bitch or tough manager” debate added even more delicious complexity to the case of the week—which, we learn at the end of the episode, will bleed into next week in a very unexpected way.
So how does Preston access Elsbeth’s beautiful, crazy mind? We chatted with the star about Sunday’s big episode, her Emmy-winning run on the show, her bonkers wardrobe, and more.
This was a big episode for you! What was your first reaction when you first read that we were going to have this big look inside Elsbeth’s mind?
When I first read the script I was absolutely delighted. To be the very first moment that we see on an episode of The Good Wife was quite a compliment and very humbling. Everything they give me to do is so rich and delicious. It was fun for me to watch the episode last night because I hadn’t seen any of the graphics. I just read them on the page. So it was fun to see how they strung those together and had the hybrid between live-action and animation.
You’ve been inside Elsbeth’s mind for several seasons now. When you’ve been inside her mind were you also seeing penguins and clowns and old men playing the xylophone?
[Laughs] Well, not specifically. But when I read that in the script I thought this is just a glimpse into a few of the things that go through her mind on the way to her revelations. It’s not the end stop. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I think they conveyed that pretty well with how they strung them together so quickly. I think part of what makes the audience interested in watching her is that no one really knows what’s going through her mind. Even she surprises herself along the way.
I’ve read her described as a crazy genius, as quirky, as off-beat. In doing these interviews and talking about her these past seasons, have you developed a shorthand for describing her personality?
I tend to think of her as “mercurial.” Because she just has a real quicksilver way of thinking and moving through the world. I also like to say that she gets seduced by her next thought quite a bit. And I play that. I use that when I’m on set and find that that helps me get from point A to point Z, which she does rather quickly.
One of the things I like seeing in each of her appearances is when the characters who have never seen her work before try to assess her behavior, and if it’s manipulative or scatterbrained—what her “game” is. In this episode it was Taye Diggs.
[Laughs] That was fun. Working with him, too, he cracked up a couple of times with what I was doing in the scene-work. I think it was also fun just working with him, because he’s an actor I hadn’t worked with before and admire. That’s fun. I do like to make people laugh.
Matching Alicia and Elsbeth against each other at the beginning of the episode was fascinating because we’re not used to seeing either one of them lose a case. It was unsettling to think that we might have to watch one of them lose.
I know! Even when I got the script, I thought, “Oh no…what’s going to happen here?” I thought it would be very interesting to see how Elsbeth would deal with losing a case, but then they—very carefully—didn’t have either one of us lose. They threw in this surprising twist with Josh Perrotti [Kyle McLachlan] coming in and trumping both of them, which I thought was very smart storytelling. So we get to see them square off but we don’t have to see them relinquish to each other.
Have we seen Elsbeth lose a case?
No! We haven’t.
How do you think she’d react to that?
I’d be curious to see. I think it would be probably very frustrating for her. And I think we would probably delight in her frustration.
I’m glad it didn’t happen with Alicia, though, because they have such a cool and interesting and different friendship.
I think there’s mutual admiration there. I think Elsbeth tends to be fascinated by women who are strong and have the logistical part of life together, like Diane and Kalinda and Alicia. She definitely respects and looks up to women who dress well, are articulate, who are not quite as thrown by the logistics of life. So Alicia is the epitome of that and Elsbeth admires her. And I think Alicia admires Elsbeth’s ability to come at a problem from a different angle, and is willing to take that leap of faith with her knowing that the result nine times out of 10 is going to be a positive one. So I think that’s why she was so nervous when she saw that Elsbeth was the one who is up against her in that case, because she knows that Elsbeth is going to find a loophole in there that’s going to trip her out.
But knowing the respect Alicia and Elsbeth have for each other, I was shocked by and disappointed that Alicia was so mean with the methods she used to distract Elsbeth during the trial!
[Laughs] I know! But if that’s the only way that you’re going to win then that’s what you have to do. It’s not like Elsbeth was playing nicely either. When you think about what she was standing for, which is basically flawed sexism. Clearly they were being pretty sexist towards this very capable, albeit not likable, woman in a very powerful position at this corporation. Elsbeth, in her desire to win her case, was maybe not really standing up for a woman in power. But that wasn’t her job! Her job was to defend the guy who maybe fired this woman for sexist reasons.
And I love how this show subtly—and only occasionally, but so well—treats Alicia as a feminist character, like when she weighs in the “strong woman or a bitch?” debate. They do it so delicately and so well.
I agree. It’s a strategically placed case like this that shows Alicia’s evolution as a self-empowered woman. The Kings are very, very savvy about building the long arc for their lead characters.
Then Kyle McLachlan returns as AUSA Perrotti. Why is Elsbeth so resistant to his advances?
Um, because he’s corrupt? [Laughs] And because he’s someone who, on paper, is despicable to her, and yet she’s attracted to him and can’t quite reconcile those two things. Of course that’s what makes it so fun to watch, this inner battle she has going on between her intellect and her animal instincts. They’re butting heads. It’s really fun to play that, too, because the conflict going on inside of her is where the humor comes in.
I was also hoping to get your thoughts on Elsbeth’s wardrobe. It’s very, very unique.
Well I trust Dan, our costume designer, implicitly. He always wants to find little flourishes in her wardrobe that are her way of expressing herself in a rather conservative world. So she’ll wear the suit, but she’ll put the blouse on with the bow. Or with the fringe at the wrist, or whatever. They create those blouses a lot of times, where they will add a bow or take fabric from another shirt to create the cuff. Or they will build a suit to fit perfectly. It’s not like anything is ever off the rack. It also makes her stand apart from the other characters as well, who may be more subdued or contained, because I feel like that’s what Elsbeth is. She’s trying to live within the confines of the world in general, but particularly the legal world, and yet a burst color can’t help but come busting through.