Actor Carrie Preston: ‘I love it when people can’t figure out why they recognise me’
Known for roles in TV hits The Good Wife and True Blood, theatre stalwart Carrie Preston is directing a show about RSC director Buzz Goodbody. She tells Howard Sherman why it’s been a revelation in more ways than one
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival may seem an unusual launch pad for a new play about a pioneering British director who died tragically young. But for its director Carrie Preston – an actor familiar to fans of TV series True Blood, Claws and The Good Wife – this is not just a celebration of a unique theatrical talent but a universal story about “what women are going through today”.
Buzz, written by Susan Ferrara, was inspired by the life of the first female director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Buzz Goodbody, who was described as one of theatre’s “brightest lights” and died in 1975 aged just 28.
Yet Preston, who played the quirky fan-favourite Elsbeth Tascioni in The Good Wife and its spin-off The Good Fight, reveals she had never heard of Goodbody when Ferrara brought her up at a meeting of the Hyphenates – a group of 10 women artists who meet to discuss and support each others’ projects.
“We didn’t know what she was talking about,” Preston says. Ferrara told them Goodbody’s history as the first female director at the RSC: creating the venue’s studio space the Other Place and directing an acclaimed Hamlet with the not-yet-famous Ben Kingsley in the title role – and how she killed herself a few days after the first performance of the show.
“We were all just completely and utterly shocked,” says Preston, “not only thinking about this woman, Buzz, taking her life while doing that play in particular – ‘To be or not to be’ – but the fact that none of us in that room, all theatre people, who all went to school, who all studied, had never heard of Buzz Goodbody.”
Emphasising that the play is inspired by the British director, Preston says it’s not a realistic portrait of the people or events that surrounded Goodbody in life. Kingsley’s name is never invoked. And the play does not attempt to answer the questions regarding the director’s suicide.
“In the way that Shakespeare used his history plays to make allegorical comments about his time, Susan is doing the same thing with Buzz,” the director says. “It’s very much about every woman striving to be seen, to be heard and to be remembered. So it’s very relevant to what women are going through today, not just in America, but everywhere.”
Preston has an extensive stage background, including playing Ophelia twice – once at Alabama Shakespeare, where she met her husband, actor Michael Emerson, another time when she doubled as the second gravedigger (“Yes, I dug my own grave,” she chuckles). While she has directed for film and television, as well as readings, Buzz marks her full professional debut as a stage director. “It’s very particular to this play,” she says. “This is a story I’ve been interested in telling.”
Q&A Carrie Preston
What was your first non-theatre job?
At 16, I worked concessions at the local movie theatre in Macon, Georgia.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I was a paid apprentice at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival in 1986 playing small roles, making costumes, building sets, doing admin — anything anyone needed. The next summer I played Juliet.
What is your next job?
I am waiting to hear about a Claws season four pick-up, but it’s looking likely and I will be back shooting in New Orleans later in the year.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The journey is the destination.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My teachers and training from my time at the University of Evansville and Juilliard, and also the great directors and actors I have worked with throughout the years.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be as prepared as you can, studying the lines and doing the work on why you’re saying what you’re saying, the given circumstances, etc. But when you get in the room, try not to make the choices happen – let the choices happen to you.
If you hadn’t been an actor and director, what would you have been?
A writer. What can I say? I’m a storyteller…
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I do, but they are so secret that if I tell you, they will lose all their power.
Preston is subverting the expectations of the Alabama audiences by staging the show not in one of the company’s theatres, but in the scene shop. It suggests what it must have been like at a performance in the Other Place in the mid-1970s, Preston says, adding: “It will be a really interesting experience to go into a space where theatre pieces are being made, and seeing a piece of theatre being created.”
Save for some platforms and risers for seating, the space is not being made over. “It looks like the scene shop, and that’s a very deliberate choice on my part. I don’t ever want it to seem like we are anywhere but in the scene shop.”
Having been away from the stage with her screen work, Preston is candid about why she’s spent much of her time in recent years working in TV and film. “As an actor, I really, really love rehearsal. Then when I get into performance, I don’t love it as much. I like the process. I wasn’t loving doing long runs. Then I realised: ‘Oh, I’m describing the job of the director. Okay, maybe this is what I should be striving towards: creating the thing, getting it up, and then turning it over to the actors.’ ”
On TV, you’re doing your opening night and closing night on the same day – so you’ve got to work quickly and be decisive
She is attuned to the differences between the mediums. “With film and TV, you have to get it performance-ready on the same day that you’re shooting it,” she says. “You’ve never said these words out loud with the people that you’re with. So you’re doing your opening night and closing night on the same day. Therefore, you have to be able to work really quick and be decisive.
“Whereas with the stage, even if you only have a three-week rehearsal period, which is what we have with this play, that’s infinitely more time. So it’s wonderful that way. I had to readjust to that, and not push the actors to get their final performances yet because they don’t have to, they can keep exploring.”
Preston says that her acting experience prepared her for the transition into directing. “I find I do a lot of borrowing from my training as an actor, certainly in how to speak the language of actors. I find that a lot of directors don’t really know how to talk to us, like there’s this mystery about what it is that we do. They don’t really know how to unlock the mystery. I’m not claiming that I do, but I certainly know what I do as an actor to unlock a scene. I can generally figure out what language each of the actors is needing to hear to unlock what they need from a scene.”
Save for the occasional catering-waiter gig, Preston says she did not struggle to find employment as an actor at the beginning of her career, citing her work during summers at university: all classical work, ticking off Georgia Shakespeare, Utah Shakespeare, California Shakespeare and Alabama Shakespeare. Such festival performances led to work in a wider range of regional theatres and New York. Her Broadway credits include The Rivals, The Tempest and Festen.
Given her presence on multiple hit TV series, she is frequently recognised by members of the public and finds it gratifying. “I always love it when people come up to me and want to talk about the work I do, and they get excited about a character I’m playing,” she says. “Or sometimes it’ll be: ‘Do I know you?’ and they can’t figure out why – and that’s even better. I try to be a chameleon, so to me that is a compliment.”
Preston says that while she has directed herself on Claws, she prefers to be either an actor or director, not both at once. While she enjoys directing, stage acting still beckons to her. “Sometimes I will see a play and think: ‘Oh gosh, if I could be guaranteed that I would be in a play that was that great, I would love to be on stage again.’ ”
Yet moments later she says: “The great thing about what we do is we never know what’s going to come next. You’ve got to be a gambler and a risk-taker, and somebody who’s happy with the unknown to be an artist. Sometimes something magical can happen and you answer that call. I feel like I’m going to be on stage again.”
CV Carrie Preston
Born: Macon, Georgia, 1967
Training: University of Evansville, Indiana; Juilliard School, New York
• Hamlet, Alabama Shakespeare Festival (1994)
• The Tempest, Delacorte Theater, New York (1995)
• Antony and Cleopatra, Public Theater, New York (1997)
• True Blood (2008)
• The Good Wife (2009)
• Claws (2017)
• When We Rise (2017)
• Emmy for outstanding guest actress in a drama for The Good Wife (2013)
Agent: Jonathan Howard at Innovative Artists
Buzz is running at Alabama Shakespeare Festival from September 4-15
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