Actor-Producer Jessalyn Gilsig, well-known for her roles on Boston Public, Nip/Tuck & Glee, spent time with Press Pass LA to answer questions about her current hit series Vikings and her passion project film, Somewhere Slow. We began by talking about Vikings which, after four episodes, continues to be the #1 new cable series of 2013 and has made the History Channel the most viewed cable network in its time slot since debuting.
PPLA: The Vikings cast is reportedly a notorious band of pranksters, did you have any first-hand experience with that?
JG: They were hilarious, I mean hilarious. I remember one night we were doing this episode where we go to Valhalla and we’re basically camping out in the woods for three or four days. The scene was set by a campfire and so the way it would work is if we were shooting a scene by a campfire we’d all just sit by the campfire all night. Nobody would get up and go back to a trailer or check their iPhones, we all just wanted to be together and integrated into the story. The monk Athelstan, played by George Blagden, was supposed to be wandering through the woods lost and we were all supposed to be watching him. Unbeknownst to me the guys had tied a tripwire in his way, so George was just wandering through and the next thing you knew he was flat on his face. It was hilarious. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed that hard. I guess it was a lot like Camp, all the good parts of Camp. Everyone was so hilarious.
PPLA: How would you describe Travis Fimmel as a lead actor and castmate?
JG: There’s a kind of ease about him, I almost don’t know how to describe it. He was so instrumental in setting the tone of the show. You know the old saying “the fish stinks from the head?” I think that always rings true in production. Whoever no.1 is on set, and in this case I think that would be split between Gabriel Byrne and Travis, however they approach the job is how everybody else will approach the job. And Travis just came in like he was running a marathon, he didn’t leave until the final take, for five months. He was just completely committed and got to know every single crew member and knew everybody by their first name. He completely became the fabric of the show and that made everybody comfortable with taking risks because he was so invested with his body and soul. It’s such a helpful thing when you’re working with an ensemble if your no.1 leads the way in that manner.
PPLA: What was it like to work so closely with Gabriel Byrne for five full months?
JG: It was phenomenal. What a wonderful opportunity it was for me. When you see the show you see that a lot of the time I’m really just sitting beside him in scenes, and since those scenes would take all day to shoot that meant that I got to sit beside Gabriel all day which was a pretty good gig. From day one it was great. He let me know that he wanted this marriage to be real. He wanted it to be textured and he wanted it to have all the complexity of a 30-year marriage, since I figure we probably got married when Siggy was thirteen. We wanted it to reflect all of that. So as a result we spoke a lot about our characters and what had happened just before we entered a scene and what was gonna happen once we exited. He made it very clear to me that he was really open to the idea that even though he would be the mouthpiece when we were in the Great Hall, when we were out of the Great Hall we were absolute collaborators on our position in the community. In their relationship a lot of what I’m doing is silent and it’s a huge credit to him that we’re able to have those exchanges that are nonverbal yet so there and important.
PPLA: Did you draw inspiration from anything specific in depicting their complex marriage?
JG: We talked a lot about Macbeth and the Ceausescu and Marcos families – dictatorships that had these horrendous track records but who felt completely justified and almost as if their lives were sacrificed to lead their people. We also talked about our characters’ vulnerabilities and the idea that he would be impotent and I would be frustrated, so there was a human component as well as a larger than life caricature and that they were also just people who had wants and needs and wishes and hopes like everyone else. As an actor, that’s how you hope to go into every role and in this case I was just so grateful for that because they’re both complicated roles and we wanted to do them justice.
PPLA: Do you have any favorite moments or scenes related to Siggy from Vikings’ first nine episodes?
JG: One scene in particular that comes to mind is when Gabriel and I are alone in our bedchamber and we get into an argument. What I liked so much about it was that the themes of the argument are so large. We’re talking about war, marriage, vulnerability of the state and at the same time what’s driving the argument is this feeling we both have that we’re not connected anymore and a marriage that once had so much love and hope is now just flooded with pain.
PPLA: That argument is in tonight’s episode, titled “Raid.” In that scene Earl Haraldson tells Siggy how he found their sons buried, correct?
JG: Yes, and the fact that we had lost our sons was not only a strategic loss but was the greatest pain a parent could ever endure and one we would never recover from. It defines us as a couple. I think that is what’s so special about the writing and [series creator] Michael Hirst’s approach to the project. He didn’t want to romanticize who the Vikings might’ve been but rather humanize them by really exploring their actions as people, as opposed to as a concept. A big driving force for me was when Michael said, “If there’s one constant that transcends history and transcends culture, it’s that we all love our children.”
PPLA: As Vikings is shot in very isolated locales did you bond with any fellow castmate during that time?
JG: Katheryn Winnick. She’s such a lovely person and for a long time we were pretty much the only women on the show so anytime we could cross paths we’d be excited to connect. I’m so happy to’ve met her and I think she’s done such a beautiful job on the show.
PPLA: Speaking of Katheryn, she’s spoken about how the remoteness of the show’s locations actually helped the cast get into the mindset of their 7th Century characters. Are you among those that it helped?
JG: Certainly there were many times that we didn’t have cell service which was somewhat distressing to me only because I have a child. As a parent you always want to feel that you’re reachable. In regards to the work itself, you know I’ve been kickin’ around in this business a long time and have worked on many shows and it’s always interesting how they break down. There’s some shows you work on where you never really get to connect with the cast because everyone’s buried in their iPad or phone, and then there are other shows that, for whatever reason, the culture just doesn’t support that. Vikingswas one of those shows where technology just felt really out of place. It wasn’t like people didn’t sometimes send a text, of course, but it just didn’t fit the show to continue to be connected to the outside world. We weren’t preoccupied with that. We were in Ireland five thousand miles away from Hollywood which is fantastic if you want to do a story like this, so yeah, to me it was a real help. I think it also helped because we were taking risks physically with our looks and appearance. It was just so outside the realm of the modern world that I found it helpful not to have to come home to my house and friends and community, but rather to stay in that environment where we were all taking that risk and where it felt right and never felt odd.
PPLA: In recent interviews, while promoting your new filmSomewhere Slow, you’ve spoken about Hollywood’s obsession with youth which made me wonder if you think the aging Baby Boomer’s growth in population has a chance of ever changing that? I have a theory that as mature men in their forties and above begin to outnumber younger men the entertainment culture’s youth obsessed paradigm may be offset. Do you think there’s any validity to the notion that 40 might someday become the new 20?
JG: Your theory is interesting and encouraging. There are a lot of shows now that are being carried by women over forty. If you look at where women over forty are really killing it in performance, it’s in TV for sure. Television is a fantastic place, and when I think of the roles that I’ve played, it’s been so good to me.
PPLA: The fact that George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise are all now the same age as Wilford Brimley was when he shot Cocoon makes an argument that the nature of aging itself has changed. For men and for women.
JG: Certainly, these days we’re more fit and there’s so much more education about food, exercise and how to take care of ourselves. I try to be very careful on this topic because I never want to sound like I feel like I’m a victim of my career choice. I don’t have time for that complaint. There are horrible jobs in the world that are demeaning and difficult and underpaid and mine is not one of them, so I’m never suggesting that I’m somehow victimized by it. On a personal note, though, you definitely see that you just get less work – because everybody likes to see young people, but the landscape has changed a lot. More women are writing, producing and directing and the role of women in society is changing. So, if we look back over time, we see there’s more supporting roles for women today. I feel that has been changing. Where once the roles of cop, lawyer or head of administration would’ve been a man now we can diversify. That’s really what we’ve been waiting for. It’s not so much who the lead is all the time, it’s also whether or not the supporting characters are reflective of society. Society is made up of both genders and sometimes Film just doesn’t represent that.
PPLA: Now that you’ve ventured behind the scenes to become a critically acclaimed movie Producer, I’m curious if you’re also interested in Directing either for Television or Film?
JG: I really, really would like to. One of the things I enjoyed most about producing Somewhere Slow, even though I’m all over the movie, was assembling the cast and all the other departments behind the scenes. When you read a role on paper and couple that with a great performer, David Costabile comes to mind for example, and you see him flesh out and embody and bring his own choices to what was an eight line scene on a sheet of paper and then it becomes this full experience, to me that was so exciting. It’s just amazing. I would love to be on the other side of the camera and really be able to work with that, to start assembling all that talent that I’ve been lucky enough to work with and kind of give people the opportunity to shine.
PPLA: You’ve described your character in Somewhere Slow, Anna Thompson, as the sympathetic hero of the story. What motivates her choices in the film?
JG: I tend to play very proactive, motivated characters. The kind of character that sort of walks into a room and drops a grenade and then walks out. What was exciting for me about playing Anna Thompson was that she’s the absolute antithesis of that. She’s kind of in a coma. She’s just numb. And she’s allowing life to just wash over her and not engaging in any real way. She knows its a problem, on some level, but doesn’t have the tools to take herself out of it. She’s simply lost the ability to make a human connection. I always thought of her as the kind of woman that makes you think, “Oh, I know a woman like that. I like her,… but I don’t really wanna hang out with her.” That’s sort of how I thought of Anna. The way the story evolves leads her to meet Travis, played by Graham Patrick Martin (Major Crimes, Two and a Half Men), which causes her to slowly but surely wake up. It even kind of touches back to when she was most alive, which is what we all remember when we were children, when we were fearless and we weren’t censored. And that kind of brings her into a more present state of consciousness in her life so she can actually have an exchange that’s real and meaningful. That’s very different from what I’ve had the opportunity to play in the past. It was a real gift for me to play somebody like that and to have to be patient and to allow the story to unfold and not be the instigator of change but rather to let the change come over the character.
PPLA: Having had a hand in his casting, how did you find the experience of working with Graham Patrick Martin?
JG: Graham was such a gift to us. We wanted to find an actor who was talented and who was also at that moment that a young man is at when they’re transitioning from adolescence into manhood but haven’t actually crossed over, like right when the voice cracks. His transformation for our film is subtle but significant. Our characters’ relationship becomes romantically intimate and when we’d be in scenes together it didn’t feel inappropriate; I wasn’t aware that we were 20 years apart, I didn’t think of that. I thought of these two people as having found each other and truly connecting and that there was love between them. Then when [Director] Jeremy O’Keefe would yell “Cut!” Graham and I would stand there and I’d think, “I can’t think of anything to talk about because I don’t know anything about being twenty anymore.” You know? I don’t know their music and I don’t know Twitter, but then we’d start acting again and we were fine. His Travis is a beautiful character that he created and we were just so lucky to have him. He’s a really talented actor.
PPLA: You clearly found a great partner in writer-director Jeremy O’Keefe, would you like to collaborate with him again?
JG: Yes, it was such a great collaboration. I’d never been a part of something from development all the way through bringing together the crew, raising the money, finding the cast, setting the schedule, building the day and then post-production. Going through the edit and the mix, finding the composer, color correcting and all of that. It was an incredible experience and it’s all because Jeremy wrote this beautiful script. The story is just really, really special.
PPLA: I’ve heard you say that fundraising for the film was an unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, challenge. Was it the hardest of all the Producing duties you assumed?
JG: Yeah, that was the hardest. We had certain things we wanted to do; we wanted everybody to get paid, nobody got rich, but everybody got paid. And we wanted everybody to be well fed and we didn’t want to waste anybody’s time. That was sort of our criteria. We wanted to be prepared in regards to our schedule. I don’t think that making an independent film is so much about being cheap, it’s really about being prepared because you just don’t have time to do it another day. Raising the money was very complicated because I have no interest in taking money from people and not returning it, that just doesn’t sit well with me. So as soon as you encourage somebody to invest in a project, particularly a project where I’m the lead, top of my mind every morning is returning people’s investment and being responsible with it. Now the two goals are that I want people to see Somewhere Slow because I’m so proud of the film. And I want the people who took the risk with us to feel that we honored their investment, so we need to return it to them. I take that very seriously. Everybody wants to be repaid so that’s the next thing that needs to be done. Fortunately the film’s being really well received and there are so many people that put so much talent, hard work and innovation into it that I’m truly excited to share that.
PPLA: Many of your most memorable roles have been scheming, duplicitous individuals that I know you’ve had a lot of fun portraying. I’m curious, however, as to what you tap into to so convincingly inhabit these complicated, multilayered women? Does it stem from your formal acting training or is it based on experiences or people you’ve known in your personal life?
JG: It definitely goes back to my training. I was always taught, and it’s also why I wanted to be an actor, that it’s your responsibility to have an inner life. We all have an inner life. When you’re speaking to me you’re coming from whatever your experience was this morning and in your head you’re looking forward to whatever you’ll experience this afternoon and that’s all kind of floating around you as we have this conversation; and the same goes for me. In the kinds of roles I’ve been given sometimes, on paper, the suggestion has been, “oh this is just the nemesis,” and I know when I have to fulfill that. I know that I have to lay down these markers in the scene so that the hero can go on and look good. But I was never satisfied with just doing that. I believe everybody has a motivation for their choices and everybody is the hero of their own story. As an actor, it’s my job to find that motivation and not judge it. You know, sometimes we do terrible things and we make choices that are driven by unpleasant emotions but that doesn’t mean we’re not human. So, in a way, I always fee like I’m an advocate for the characters I play even when their choices are unpopular. I feel like I have to understand that inner life in order to do service to a role.
PPLA: Since you’ll be at Colorado’s Vail Film Festival by the time this interview’s published, I’m wondering what aspect of your trip you’re most looking forward to? Are you excited to be screening there?
JG: I’m really excited. It’s been really interesting showing Somewhere Slow at these film festivals. They’re such a fantastic platform for independent film and they’re kind of a new world to me. You get an audience of people who want to see original filmmaking and want to see something that’s a little bit off the beaten path. It’s just terrifying and a real risk when the film starts because it’s something that you made in such an insular manner and is now just sort of being launched out and shared with people who don’t know you and don’t care to know you, who just want to come to the experience. It’s really like free falling. But, again, it’s why I became an actor – because I believe in that experience of sitting in a room full of people and watching a story be told and how that can change us. I’m grateful that I get to have that. I obviously get that all the time with Television and I’m always amazed at how people will tune in to watch things that I’m a part of and to feel like they’ve grown because of it or just been entertained and had a moment to escape. Somewhere Slow is sort of the ultimate example of that for me and my career. It’s been quite a profound experience getting to make this film and now sharing it with people. Vail’s giving us that chance again and I’m really grateful for it.
Somewhere Slow, Gilsig’s first foray into producing, doesn’t have an official release date yet as it’s still making the indie film festival circuit, but when it comes to your town you should take the time to go see it. In the meantime catch Jessalyn in Vikings, featuring her favorite Season One scene, tonight at 10/9c on the History Channel. Don’t miss this pivotal episode destined to leave you on the edge of your seat.