A stunning blonde who happens to come equipped with a wicked sense of humor, Jessalyn Gilsig starred for two years on David E. Kelley's high school drama Boston Public as a levelheaded teacher. She checked out just before the show slid into complete silliness and came back to television with two high-profile roles: a recent five-episode arc as a tough cop on NYPD Blue, and a recurring role as a crazed sexaholic on the hit FX show Nip/Tuck. How did she land two great shows simultaneously? "I wish I knew," she says with a laugh. "Obviously I got really lucky. I had auditioned last year for Nip/Tuck, and it was supposed to be a two-episode arc. [Creator] Ryan Murphy really liked the character and had some ideas to keep it going, and it turned into five episodes last year, and they asked me to come back this year. In the meantime I met with Steven Bochco, and he asked me to do five episodes of NYPD Blue. It was really madness and quite a challenge, I must say."
A fan of NYPD Blue, Gilsig views appearing on the show as almost a rite of passage. "I've never done Law & Order, and I've always thought, 'Are you really an actor if you've never done Law & Order?' NYPD Blue is that kind of feeling. It was just amazing to sit at that desk and pick up the walkie-talkie, all the things I've been watching for 11 years."
The big break: Gilsig studied at the American Repertory Theatre in New York and, upon her graduation, was invited by one of her teachers to perform in its production of The Tempest. "To me that was sort of more than I really dreamt of, not only to have a job, but to have one I was really excited about," she recalls. "I remember that moment because when he asked me I said, 'Well, what do I wish for now?'"
Gilsig considers The Tempest her biggest break but admits that most people would recognize her from her Boston Public role. The part came about after she guest-starred on several episodes of Kelley's legal drama The Practice and was approached about joining his short-lived detective show Snoops. "I don't know who I thought I was, but I said no," reports Gilsig, who was committed to do a play in New York with Julie Harris. After financing for the play fell through, Kelley called her and asked her to reconsider. She came to L.A. to shoot two episodes of Snoops, which never aired. "Pretty much as soon as I got out here, the show was cancelled," says Gilsig. "But David said, 'Don't go anywhere. I have a backup plan. I have another idea for a show, and I'd like you to be a part of it.' When I heard the subject matter, it was something I really wanted to get behind. It seemed like the possibilities were endless."
So why did she leave after two years on Public? "That's a complicated question, but ultimately the show changed a lot," confesses Gilsig. "David didn't write for it anymore. The end of my second year, I didn't work that much, and I really got to the point where I wasn't relying so much on the salary. You don't choose to be an actor to make money. So I really had to sort of assess where I was, and I said, 'I'm really not growing. I'm not becoming a better actor from this.'" She talked to Kelley about leaving. "He was great about it," she notes. "He understood what I was talking about."
Gilsig admits it was a risk to leave, but she was lucky to have theatre to return to. She appeared with Parker Posey and Robert Sean Leonard in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July and found herself reinvigorated. "It was just what I needed. Doing theatre is exhausting, and I hadn't been tired from work; I was missing that feeling of being stretched and challenged and in over my head."
Art and craft: In addition to Nip/Tuck, Gilsig has several other projects in the can, including the lead in a hockey movie with Jason Priestley, titled Chicks With Sticks. She also stars in an as-yet-untitled film as the ex-girlfriend of an aspiring filmmaker (played by Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers) who secures a spot in the Montreal Film Festival for a film the character hasn't yet made. The film was shot last year at Montreal's festival, guerilla-style, and features appearances by filmmakers Miguel Arteta and Paul and Chris Weitz.
In addition, another of her talents was recently on display in the film The Station Agent—the paintings done by Patricia Clarkson's character were Gilsig's. She was approached by writer/director Tom McCarthy when they were appearing together on Boston Public. "He said, 'I've written this film, and don't freak out but your pictures are sort of featured in the film. If I ever make it, can I use your paintings?' Of course I said, 'Absolutely.' Two, three years later he finally got the money and told me to send them. What he didn't know is how many more paintings I then did in a panic, wanting them to be good enough."
Gilsig originally wanted to be a painter and had attended art school. She says of her choice to pursue acting, "It doesn't really make any sense to say this, but it seemed like acting was a safer bet in the sense that there's a business structure in place. So I kind of knew where to go, whereas painting seemed so elusive to me as to whether I could support myself." However, thanks to McCarthy, she is currently considering putting together an art show.
Saying thanks: While the instability of show business can drive some actors crazy, Gilsig says she's made peace with the lack of job security. "At some point you just have to accept that the business being unstable is the nature of it," she says. "And that's what I've come to love about it. You really never know where you're going to be. If I look at the past year, one day I'm on this high-concept, high-fashion, amazing show where I'm playing a ball-busting bitch, and two months later I'm in Calgary wearing full hockey gear at 4 in the morning. So if you like that idea, then you're in the right business."
She is also determined to remember those who helped get her where she is today. "Anytime I've ever gotten a job it's because somebody took a chance on me," she notes. "Somebody said, 'I feel like you can do this, and I'm going to fight for you to be the one to embody this part.' I really do try to make an effort, not in a Pollyanna way but in a genuine way, to thank people. Because people stick their necks out for you, and I think agents and casting directors and producers get a sort of bad rap; but in reality they are your access to your work. I wish schools would teach people that—to thank the people who go the extra distance for you."