Written by Jenn Elias Photography by Daniel Garcia/Jeremy Givens/Khiem Hoang Hair by Kien Hoang Make-up by Jennifer Toy
Jessalyn Gilsig is no stranger to playing complicated roles: ex-wife of Will Schuester (Glee), destructive nymphomaniac (Nip/Tuck), and fire-starting superhero (Heroes) just to name a few. But this weekend, she debuts her most risky and complicated role yet and she’s giving Cinequest viewers a front row seat.
When director Jeremy O’Keefe wanted Gilsig to play the lead role in his new film Somewhere Slow, she insisted he get someone more “high-profile.” When she finally accepted the part, Gilsig felt the need to match his efforts by joining as a producer and taking every risk with him, since he was taking a risk of casting her. But, behind the camera, she was met with unique challenges, or as she calls them, “gifts.”
Departing from her typically strong, proactive characters, Gilsig’s Somewhere Slow character Anna Thomson continues to steal the screen, but in a provocatively subtle way—an elusive feat for the actress. A middle-aged, self-conscious, skincare rep from Delaware, Anna Thomson is just going through the motions of each day, becoming numb to relationships (including marriage with Lincoln’s David Costabile) and life, when she comes across a robbery and decides to make a change. “I’m usually playing the one who comes in and blows things up. But Anna is the opposite. She’s allowing things to wash over her and I’m not used to doing that. It was a gift to play the role and something I had always dreamt about doing,” Gilsig explains.
But Gilsig’s no stranger to challenge. While not always noted, Gilsig leads a small pack of glass ceiling breakers in television. In a profession where women are often portrayed as either “good” or “bad,” Gilsig may take more heat than anyone with eccentric characters like turmoil-causing Terri Schuester in Glee and the obsessive, sex-crazed Gina Russo in Nip/Tuck. But, she argues that each woman is all of those things to an extent yet always coming from a place of genuine love. “I defend my characters because it’s my responsibility and they make sense to me. Whether or not their decisions are respectable or admirable, I still feel like they’re human and fallible like we all are,” she says.
Alas, Gilsig is no stranger to cultural evolutions either. Changing mainstream perception of the arts comes courtesy of herself and her fellow Glee cast. “We knew we had something special when filming the pilot, but had no idea there were so many theatre geeks in the world. For a lot of kids, there’s life before Glee and life after Glee. It really made art ‘cool’ again which is invaluable and has been so good for the culture as a whole.”
Just like Anna Thomson takes risks, so did Gilsig. Her role behind the camera of Somewhere Slow proved extremely challenging, yet more gratifying than ever. “Many times it felt like the smartest thing I had done and also the stupidest thing I’d ever done,” she says jokingly. “The post-production process is very long, difficult and nerve-racking.”
When Cinequest accepted the film, Gilsig was excited to reach a new audience in San Jose. “I love this kind of festival because it involves people with no connection to the Hollywood industry, but people from all parts of the country and the world,” Gilsig says. “It feels so much like a creative collaboration—it’s the reason you get in the arts to begin with, before you get swallowed up by the industry.”
Seeking Silicon Valley’s innovative environment, Gilsig and director Jeremy O’Keefe agreed that Cinequest was the ideal place to premiere their film. “Festivals like Cinequest are what Sundance was. Truly about the content and true independent films,” Gilsig says. The technical history doesn’t hurt either. “For me, digital has changed everything. It’s made it possible for us to make a film on a budget but with a big scope. It helps us in post-production with different looks and edits. This technology has made film much more accessible.”
Going into Saturday’s premiere, Gilsig and company are enthusiastic that people other than their friends and family are buying tickets to the film. “I’m excited and nervous, but really grateful. You make a film in a vacuum, especially an independent film. We’re hoping that people respond and it’ll be interesting to see what people will take away. I’ll be very tense. But, it’s the final step of our whole process.”
Beyond Cinequest, risks continue to challenge Gilsig as she tries to find balance in her personal and professional life. With newest role as “Siggy” on The History Channel’s first scripted drama Vikings (airing March 3), she is traveling between her home in the states and on-set in Ireland, all the while raising a six year old. “It’s conflicting because there’s a lot of great things about giving her this experience, but I also want her to feel a sense of place,” Gilsig says. “It’s intense.”
But Gilsig is applying her newfound education from character Anna Thomson to herself as a person. “I always felt like Kramer from Seinfeld. I’m the guy who comes in and makes things crazy, then leaves. So, I had to learn that patience,” Gilsig admits. “Now, I feel like I’m a more patient person because I’ve always had to drive the moment. Because life is operating at such a high frequency, we forget to let the moment unfold and we don’t see the people in front of us. But, that’s what life is all about.”
Special thanks to Fairmont Hotel, Umbrella Salon, Hector Manuel Designs & Pinnacle Public Relations.