Fourteen years after being introduced to audiences as the kooky attorney Elsbeth Tascioni in the CBS drama series The Good Wife, Carrie Preston still feels like part of an ensemble in the new spin-off series Elsbeth.

Elsbeth quickly became a fan-favorite in the universe created by Michelle and Robert King after audiences fell in love with Preston’s guest-starring eccentric and deceptively fierce performance, which earned her an Emmy award in 2013 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. The Good Wife spin-off series The Good Fight ended its run in 2022, and the Kings opted to expand the world to include a show centering solely on the scene-stealer, Elsbeth. 

The CBS series, which also airs on Paramount+, sees Elsbeth transferred from Chicago to New York City to monitor NYPD investigations in the precinct run by Captain Wagner (Wendall Pierce) after some controversial arrests. Elsbeth is tonally lighter than its predecessors as Elsbeth gets to know the city and befriends Officer Kaya Blanke (Carra Patterson) as they investigate the murder of the week. The series’ structure takes cues from Columbo, playing cat and mouse game rather than exploring a whodunit, and features a new guest star each episode, including Jane Krakowski, Retta, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Blair Underwood. 

The True Blood alum brings buoyancy to Elsbeth, sometimes popping up in the corner of the screen and interrupting herself mid-thought. It’s that light, quirky touch to the police procedural that the series has garnered strong viewership and is renewed for a second season. The Holdover’s actress admits that while it is a leap to lead a show after playing a recurring guest star, she hasn’t changed her approach to playing Elsbeth.

“I don’t feel like suddenly I’m the lead,” shares Preston. “I bring the same work ethic to [the show] and am always trying to keep Elsbeth grounded… It’s just there’s a lightness dropped down in the middle of it.”

With three episodes remaining in the first season, Preston spoke with Awards Focus about calibrating her performance with the added screentime of a lead character, whether Elsbeth crosses the line with people she’s investigating and jigging and jagging with Keegan Michael-Key in episode 7.

 Awards Focus: You won Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series at the Emmy’s in 2013 for playing Elsbeth on The Good Wife. Were there discussions back then about a potential spin-off? How has she developed since that time?

Preston: She’s evolved quite a lot because when you come on the show as a guest star, you’re there to really defer to the energy of the tone of that show. Most guests are just there to kind of help move the plot along and support whoever are those series regulars. So, I didn’t quite know how far I could go as far as being inventive with the character, but I knew on the page that there was something very special about Elsbeth. She was not going to be your average lawyer of the week, you know? 

We found this groove over the years of playing her because they kept bringing her back into the story around season three.  They realized what I was bringing and started writing to it, giving me some creative freedom. But they did describe the character at the very beginning as like a female Colombo. I had never read or watched Columbo, as that really was a little before my time. But I knew that what they meant was someone who was underestimated, who was going to go about things differently. So we kept exploring that, and as the show, The Good Wife, was going along, people like yourself kept suggesting that it would be fun to do a spin-off with Elsbeth. But the cards just didn’t line up until the end of The Good Fight. 

AF: How have you calibrated your performance as Elsbeth in this new series now that she’s the lead and you’re on top of the call sheet? 

 Preston: When I was first approached with the idea, we were all very aware of making sure that we transitioned Elsbeth between being the side dish to being the main course. My concern always was that I’m being trusted with many of the lighter, more comedic moments on The Good Wife and The Good Fight and that they bring Elsbeth in for that particular brand of fresh air. I wanted to ensure that that could be sustained in every scene in Elsbeth. 

Now I’m there the whole time except for the murder. I decided to give myself over to the writers, and we have incredible writers. Jonathan Tolins is now our showrunner; Robert King and Michelle King did the pilot, and they’ve passed the baton to him. Jonathan has created quite a talented roster of writers. We have these self-contained storylines and all these incredible guest stars, as well as Wendell Pierce and Carra Patterson. So, I still feel like it’s an ensemble. I don’t feel like suddenly I’m the lead. I bring the same work ethic to it and am always trying to keep her grounded, even in the comedic moments. By all accounts, we’re doing a drama. It’s there’s a lightness dropped down in the middle of it, which is my character. I also like the tension between the drama and the comedy because that makes it interesting.

 AF: I love those brief moments where Elsbeth shares snippets of her life. What can you share about those layers of her personal life, and do you think that her son will be introduced into the show?

 Preston: I do think that there’s something valuable about not ever seeing her son in the same way that you never saw Colombo’s wife. The audience got to have their own picture of who the wife was, and I feel like that could be a fun thing to do here as well. We get to build the character in our mind along with these little breadcrumbs that Elsbeth is dropping along the way. 

Each episode is so self-contained they’re like a little movie. So, there’s really not a lot of real estate in the 42 minutes that we get to tell this story because we have commercials. The story is crunched into that amount of time with the murder, figuring out how to solve the murder, and then bringing the person to justice. There might not be a lot of room to bring in a bunch of characters, and there’s something fun about learning about a character from dialogue.

 AF: I love the opening sequences where the guest star is introduced, the murder happens, and we see how confident they are that all loose ends have been tied up. Then, Elsbeth comes in and quickly takes them down a few notches. 

 Preston: They never see her coming. Her being underestimated is definitely her superpower. I don’t think she’s doing that deliberately. I think she knows and is aware of how she comes across. She has quite a huge empathic quality. She can see, feel, and observe everything happening, which is why she can use those details to a good effect. 

AF: Elsbeth also embeds herself into a part of the murderer’s life to seek more information. She takes a tennis class, looks at real estate, and takes dance lessons, all to catch the killer. Do you think she oversteps? She’s only supposed to be investigating the investigators.

 Preston: Right? Yes. I think she does probably take it too far. I mean, she’s doing things that she has not been sanctioned to do. We also know that there’s a bigger picture where she’s been hired by the Department of Justice to observe Captain Wagner, Wendell’s character. So, she’s doing many things at once, but she has the ultimate goal of seeking the truth. She will do whatever needs to happen to get to that truth. She’s like a dog with a bone. 

AF: Elsbeth has a beautiful, blossoming friendship with Officer Kaya. Can you talk about working with Carra Patterson to develop their relationship across the season?

 Preston: Kara Patterson is a stunning actor and an even more stunning person. She’s just absolutely generous, kind, and lovely. She’s theater-trained, an NYU grad, and a highly qualified actor to work with, which is a gift. Same with Wendell, too. We all come from the same type of training, so we understand how each other works. There’s a camaraderie there where there’s a trust. 

The writing has been very helpful in inching us each episode towards this friendship, and I really just try to show up, honor those words, and receive all the beauty I’m getting from Kara. We all want the show to be good, and there are a lot of parallels between what we’re doing as actors on a new show and what we are doing as characters in a new situation. Kaya is relatively new to the NYPD, and so is Elsbeth. We need each other, and Carra and I need each other, too, so there’s a beautiful balance there. 

AF: In episode seven, Keegan Michael Key guest stars, and the dance sequence between Elsbeth and his character is so much fun. How much of the dancing was in the script, and could you add some spontaneity to the movements? 

Preston: In the script, it was written that we dance to the ‘Hot Honey Rag.’ But the script would say something like she jigs when he jags. It was very nonspecific. We worked with a choreographer, Susan Misner, who is a big Bob Fosse-sanctioned choreographer and dancer. She works beautifully with actors because she is an actor, so she knows how to work with us. 

But, because of our schedule, Keegan and I couldn’t work together on the dance. So, she had to work with me first, then with him, and then we came together. But what was very important to Susie and me was to ensure that the dance was solely being done to get him to turn a cartwheel because Elsbeth wasn’t allowed to get his watch. We built a scene whereby I was basically manipulating him to do that by trying to get him to one-up me. I was playing into his ego and trying to get him to have a good time, and then I did a cartwheel badly, which made him want to one-up me. Then, we see Elsbeth’s brilliance.