Home Entertainment ‘Elsbeth’ Star Carrie Preston on Columbo’s Inspiration, That ‘Good Wife’ Reference and...

‘Elsbeth’ Star Carrie Preston on Columbo’s Inspiration, That ‘Good Wife’ Reference and Taking Center Stage

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SPOILER ALERT: This story includes major plot developments on the first episode of “Elsbeth,” airing on CBS and streaming on Paramount+. 

On “Elsbeth,” Carrie Preston reprises her Emmy winning role as the eccentrically shrewd attorney Elsbeth Tascioni, a fan favorite character from the CBS drama “The Good Wife” and its Paramount+ spin-off “The Good Fight.” On those shows, Elsbeth’s scatterbrained behavior disarmed her courtroom adversaries — and, just as often, her own clients — only for her to upend everyone’s expectations with some ingenious legal sleight of hand. 

Robert and Michelle King created all three shows, but rather than another serialized legal series, “Elsbeth” is a crime procedural, relocating its title character from Chicago to New York City as part of a government consent decree requiring the NYPD to allow a lawyer to observe their activities. The conceit places Elsbeth on the other side of the legal equation in the vein of the classic series “Columbo”: The audience knows from the start who did it — in the case of the pilot, a well-respected theater director (Stephen Moyer) who kills a student to cover up their affair — and then watches Preston’s Tascioni try to solve it.  

Preston talked with Variety about how Peter Falk’s iconic TV detective was an inspiration for Elsbeth from the very beginning, how she approaches performing her character’s daffy intelligence and why fans of “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” shouldn’t hold out for cameos any time soon. 

Courtesy of Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

How was Elsbeth first described to you for “The Good Wife”? 

It’s funny that you asked that, because the first thing that Robert King said to me 14 years ago when they offered me this role was, “We’re looking at her as like a female Colombo.” And here we are 14 years later, basically borrowing the structure of “Colombo” to make the show. She is an unconventional character in the same way that he was, somebody that people don’t see coming. 

Did you rewatch Elsbeth’s first episode? 

I went back recently, because I hadn’t looked at it in 14 years. It was fascinating. They say your cells change every seven years, so I’ve gotten two new complete cycles of cells since I played this part to begin with. But you can see that I was finding my way as we were all figuring out who this person is. I was there as a guest to serve the bigger story, so I didn’t know how far I was being encouraged to go. A couple of seasons later, when they bring me back, I think that was when we all found the flow with the character. The alchemy between the writing and the actor started to gel. 

Elsbeth makes these hairpin turns of thought from something that seems frivolous to life-or-death serious. How do you find your way into that? 

In the very first couple of scripts, they just wrote the word “pause” in parentheses, and I became more interested in what the pause was than what the words were. I started thinking, what is happening in that pause? What if there’s something that’s firing in her brain that nobody else knows? What if they were completely opposite from what I’m about to say?

Then they stopped writing the pauses, but I started figuring out where the twists and turns are. I started thinking of it almost like creating a map that I would follow: What am I thinking? What is my body doing? And what am I saying? If all three of those things are at odds, it makes her fun to play, and hopefully surprising to watch. 

How did the Kings broach the idea of doing a spinoff to you?  

It really started at the end of “The Good Wife.” There were a lot of fans who were suggesting that a show centered around Elsbeth would be a fun idea. So Robert reached out and said, “Are you interested in that?” And I said, “Of course.” Then they decided to do “The Good Fight,” and they invited me to come on a couple of times, and they even invited me to direct, which was an incredible opportunity. But then in the deepest part of COVID, when everybody was at home watching TV, Robert and Michelle found that they were gravitating towards reruns of “Colombo,” and they thought, this will be this is our way in if we were to do a spin-off centered around Elsbeth. But let’s not make it a law show. Let’s make it like a police show. 

So they approached me again. This was in 2020. And right around that same time, Elizabeth Vincentelli from The New York Times wrote an article about how she was watching reruns of “Colombo.” And the last the last line of her article was we don’t need a reboot of Colombo, “just give Elsbeth Tascioni her own show.” So it was kind of in the zeitgeist there. But it took until the end of “The Good Fight” for them to pitch it. They knew they wanted it to be a network show, not a streamer. Luckily, CBS ordered the script, and they liked it and there we went. 

How has shifting from being a recurring character to the center of the show affecting your approach? 

Each storyline is different and engaging, which is fun. Each episode is going to be a different world.  One week you’re going to be in real estate, the next week you’re going to be in the tennis world. I’m so used to doing one or two episodes and then not playing her for a year. Just being able to play her every day, I’m getting to know her more, and I think that is a real gift.  

Will we see more aspects of her personal life on this show? Elsbeth has talked about her son before. 

He has a name now — he’s called Teddy. She talks about him more. We see her confiding in her co-workers about Teddy, and little comments about her divorce, things like that. But it is still a crime of the week setup, so we are definitely [focusing] on solving the crime more than seeing Elsbeth chilling out at home. Whether you’ll ever meet Teddy — I’m not sure. They haven’t told me yet. But I think it would be more interesting not to. Colombo always talked about his wife. We never met her.  

CBS

You directed episodes of the TNT drama “Claws,” on which you had a supporting role. Are you directing on “Elsbeth”? 

No, I’m not. I don’t know how people who play leads direct themselves. I would think that would make me feel pretty crazy. I like to throw myself into one or the other if possible. I’m not saying I won’t consider it if we’re lucky enough to have future seasons of this show. But for this season, I’m just trying to play the role of Elsbeth Tascioni as best as I can. 

I could be reading too much into this, but the premiere of “Elsbeth” makes a big deal that it’s set in New York City. Is that possible a nod by the Kings to the fact that “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” were both set in Chicago but famously shot in New York? 

You hit it right on the head. I think Robert and Michelle were like, “OK, we are going to make New York City such a character that this is the only place that we can shoot and we don’t have to try to pretend to be anything other than where we are.” I think they were praying that the network would not move them to Vancouver or Toronto and try to shoot that for New York. Luckily, we’re here. I’m grateful, because this is where I live. 

The pilot also mentions Cary Agos, the character from “The Good Wife” played by Matt Czuchry, as a possible replacement NYPD monitor. Does that mean we might see Czuchry on the show? 

I think it was just a little Easter egg for those fans. When they were testing the show, the majority of the people had never seen “The Good Wife” or “The Good Fight.” So they are hoping that this show is going to stand on its own and not be connected at all with “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.” These little winks and nods about Chicago and her past and the people that she’s worked with are just that, for the moment. I have not heard that they’re going to be bringing back any characters. All that to say: Maybe? I mean, it would be really fun to interact with some of them again. They all have occasion to come to New York. So we’ll see. 

The premiere ends with the revelation that Elsbeth is secretly tasked with investigating Wendell Pierce’s character, NYPD Chief Wagner. This is an episodic show, but is that a thread we’ll be following for the full season? 

Definitely. It’s something that they’re peppering in. It gives us fun things to play besides the crime aspect of it all. And the audience doesn’t have to have to watch the episodes in order to get what’s going on. 

Does the episodic nature of the show, and not wanting to alienate viewers who haven’t watched every episode, change how you think about playing Elsbeth? 

It does, in that the language is different now. There’s a lot of questioning. There’s a lot of police procedural situations, which are quite different than what we did in “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight,” so I’m acclimating to that. But I’m still the same person. So I always think, “How does Elsbeth question somebody?” It’s not going to be how Mariska Hargitay’s character questions people on “Law & Order.” But she’s in a situation that is rather “Law & Order”-like, you know? This very bright, colorful, prismatic, mercurial character is dropped down in the middle of the black and white and gray world of New York City police procedurals. I think that’s where the fun of it is. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.