Glee and Vikings alum Jessalyn Gilsig discusses her starring role as Assistant Coach ‘Holly Barrett’ on Disney+ series Big Shot.
Canadian-born actress Jessalyn Gilsig has held major/supporting roles in a variety of television series. She has played Terri Schuester on the hit FOX series Glee and appeared in Ryan Murphy’s earlier series, Nip/Tuck.
Currently, Jessalyn co-stars opposite John Stamos (Full House, ER) in the new Disney+ sports dramedy Big Shot, which follows a basketball team at an elite all-girls high school. Jessalyn plays the Assistant Coach, Holly Barrett.
Check out our interview below with Jessalyn all about Big Shot, as well as her time on Glee.
Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to do this.
Jessalyn Gilsig (JG): Thanks for having me, I’m excited.
Although you have appeared in several well-known American television series (Glee, Vikings, Boston Public etc), you’re originally from Montreal, Canada. What first inspired you to pursue acting and was working in the United States always a goal?
JG: Yeah, so I was born in Montreal. I always wanted to be an actor, I can’t quite figure out where the inspiration came from. Ever since I was a child, it was just what I intended to do. To be honest, I had no thoughts of Hollywood or coming to the States, I just knew I wanted to be an actor. I started very young, when I was 12.
When I finished University in Canada, I had the thought of continuing my education in theatre. I thought, “If I’m going to make a career out of this, I should get some more formal training.” That’s really when the idea of the United States opened up to me. I applied to various schools. One of the schools I got into was the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. That me brought me down to the States.
Then, once I was there, I moved to New York and I’ve kind of been in the States ever since. It wasn’t a particularly conscious move to leave Canada, I just sort of followed where the doors opened and have been in the States for over twenty years now.
Your current role is as Assistant Coach Holly Barrett on the Disney+ series Big Shot. Could you tell us about your process of becoming involved with this project and why the role appealed to you?
JG: So, Big Shot is produced by David E. Kelley. After I went to graduate school and after I moved to New York City, I came out to Los Angeles at some point. I worked on a show called The Practice, one of my first ever television jobs. I met David Kelley there. From that, he offered me a role on a show he was creating called Boston Public. That was really how I ended up moving from New York to Los Angeles.
I did Boston Public, then went on my way and did other shows. Now, so many years later, he contacted me and said, “I have another show, set in a school. Now you would be a coach.” There’s nothing really more special than being invited back. So, it’s kind of an honour for an actor to feel like, “Oh, someone wants to collaborate with me again.” He just has such an amazing standard of work and does such interesting character development. I was thrilled and happy to come back into his production.
Early on, Holly plays an important role on Big Shot as somewhat of a mediator between Maryvn Korn (John Stamos) and the girls’ basketball team in their conflict. Would you say, in a sense, she has a foot in both camps or is she leaned more towards one way or the other?
JG: I think that’s a really great way of describing it, especially how the show begins. I think she’s really protective of the girls. I always think of her as ‘he’s a coach, he’s focused on basketball and winning. From that, there are great advantages for the girls experientially.’ Holly is an educator, so she’s always thinking of the girls’ experience. How is this impacting them and going towards their personal development?
I think that’s a nice description, that she’s this bridge between the two worlds. As the series progresses, I think what’s kind of healthy and interesting is that she starts to focus a bit more on herself and her own aspirations. That sort of brings in a little bit of conflict, as her ambitions start to become a part of the story.
From your own acting background, how different is it working for a streaming service such as Disney+ in comparison to a network?
JG: I think this is my first streaming show. Vikings streams on Amazon, but we did it originally for the History Channel. This is my first experience of shooting everything, putting it in the can and waiting for so long. Normally, you’re kind of shooting while it’s airing. So far, it’s been fantastic. Disney has done such a beautiful job; all their content is really interesting and progressive while staying within their brand. That’s a really hard balance to strike.
I’m incredibly proud of the show. I think it’s telling stories of teen girls in a way that we haven’t done traditionally, that’s long overdue. For me, so far, it’s been a really great experience.
Although Big Shot is about a high school girls basketball team, some of your fellow adult actors on the show include John Stamos and Yvette Nicole Brown, who are both very well established. How have you found your experience of working with them?
JG: I was just saying this morning to my daughter, “we were so lucky” because the three of us have a very similar approach. We’re very positive, enthusiastic and I think kind of grateful. John is amazing, he’s dynamic, he’s invested. He’s relentless in his standards that he holds himself to and that bleeds out to all of us.
Yvette is the same, she’s the gold standard for an actor. I just sort of bring up the rear, but I feel very lucky because sometimes you will work on a show and feel like people are only invested in their own experience. Or, they’re not even that invested. It’s not the show they want to be on, they just don’t want to be there. The three of us really, really want to be there. That makes a really big difference on the day-to-day.
I was saying too, I think that’s part of what people are picking up on. The love and authentic care that people are feeling coming off the screen is because that’s what really happened. We really care about one another, we also went through the pandemic together. That created a bond, I think, for the entire cast. I’m really glad that it’s playing out and the audiences are picking up on that emotion.
Due to the pandemic, it was a much longer shoot than you originally anticipated, right?
JG: It took us three calendar years; we started in October of 2019 and finished in February of 2021. It should have taken us 4-5 months but it took us 14-15 months. It was long, we got shut down a few times, we had people get sick. It was stressful. Then, of course, these young women… they’re young. For a lot of them, it’s their first job. Some of them were away from home. So, we felt very protective of each other. Everybody did during the pandemic, we just happened to be experiencing it in the workplace.
It was all so new to everybody. We were protective of our crew, we didn’t want people to get sick or get hurt. It’s funny to think of it now as a memory because it was very intense at the time.
How was your experience of working with the actresses who played the Sirens (Big Shot’s basketball team), both the five regulars and the wider group?
JG: Yeah, that’s a good point. So, for “the five”, it was great. They’re all so individual and they all have such individual voices. It’s always fun to work with such young talented people because they’re not jaded. They’re really excited to be there and they bring a lot of interesting elements to their performance. I think Tiana (Le, who plays Destiny), she’s got a rhythm that I’ve never really experienced in an actor before. That’s really good to kind of keep you on your toes. To be like, “Wow, this is coming at me in a different way.”
I’m glad that you mentioned the other girls because they were our extras but our regular extras. They worked incredibly hard and they don’t get featured but they’re there, day in and day out. They became a part of the team as well and hopefully, as time goes on, we can start to feature them a little bit. They worked just as hard as everybody else.
Holly and Marvyn’s daughter Emma (Sophia Mitri Schloss) are both able to talk sense into him, in different ways. As only three episodes are out as of this interview, will those characters start to bond over their roles in Marvyn’s life?
JG: It’s interesting. As of now, we have a little bit of crossover later in the season. Certainly, like you say, I think Holly counsels him a lot on not giving up his role as a parent. There are a few really interesting storylines along that line that also involve Destiny, where Holly, like you said, brings in this voice. I’m always complaining, “I want more time with the girls!” I’m hoping I get more scenes, interactions and opportunities to play with all of them.
One of your most notable roles is Terri Schuester on Glee. To what extent was that character a double-edged sword? On one hand, you’ve got a starring role on a FOX show. However, especially when sometimes people can’t differentiate between actor and character, you’re associated with a controversial role.
JG: Well, I don’t take it personally. First of all, if I’m really honest, I think that’s driven by gender. People really react to women who make unpopular or amoral… I think we have a lot of male antiheroes who we all kind of love to hate, or hate to love them. I think with women a lot of the time… people just get turned off, “Oh, I hate her!”
I’m perfectly happy to take on those roles, try to kind of get under people’s skin a little bit, get them thinking. The funny thing about Glee is that I feel it’s had a second life on Netflix. A whole new generation has started to watch it. Terri gets a lot more support the second time around.
I always thought, “Listen… she’s kind of an odd person, but she’s not wrong that her husband is flirting with another woman at school. That woman is flirting with her husband’. We think we’re pregnant when the show begins. Terri, her approach was flawed but her motivation was sound. I never had a problem with Terri. I always said, “we treat women as if they never have a dark thought.” That’s obviously not true. I’m happy to take on those roles, I like the controversy, I think it’s fine.
John Stamos was a guest star on Glee. Did you ever meet John on that show, or was Big Shot when you got to know him?
JG: The first day I met John was the first day that Holly meets Marvyn on Big Shot. I literally did that scene where I walked in and shook his hand. That was my first day, it was a bit of a whirlwind. I was like, “Where am I and who is this guy?” That was pretty authentic. But no, we never crossed paths on Glee even though we both appeared.
Aside from Big Shot, are there any other upcoming projects you are able to discuss?
JG: Nothing that I can really talk about right now. I have a couple of things that I’m actually developing that I’m really excited about. I don’t want to say anything until it’s real. That’s too Hollywood, you know.
What are you hoping to accomplish with the rest of 2021?
JG: Wow, well, I’d like to see my family because they’re in Canada and I’m here in the States. I haven’t seen my parents, my sister and my nephews for a year-and-a-half. The first order of business as soon as my daughter’s out of school is that we’re going to meet up.
They’re actually going to come down to the States because the quarantine laws are so restrictive in Canada. It’ll be easier for them to come down here. Beyond that, you know, I think like all of us… I’m so glad to be coming out of the pandemic and able to connect with friends, appreciative of what we have and the fact that we’ve come through this.
We’re all really really hoping that we’re going to get a second season on this show. We’ll see if it happens, but that would be really nice.
What would you want to say to fans of Big Shot about what they can expect going forward?
JG: I just want to say that I’m so grateful. You know, when you shoot a show… it was the same with Glee, Vikings, any show I’ve ever done. You work in a vacuum, no idea if this is going to connect with an audience. You really hope that it does. There’s nothing to say that it will or it won’t, you just don’t know.
People think that you know – people think we knew Glee was going to be so successful, we had no idea. I remember shooting the pilot, we thought, “Well, I like it but I don’t know if other people are going to like it.” It’s really the same with Big Shot, we tried to do something that was really genuine and came from true emotion, true care.
We also really wanted to tell stories about teenage girls that wasn’t focused on boys, social media, all the things that people tell us what teenage girls are about. It was really focused on them as individuals, their own personal ambition and drive in life, doing that through sports. I can’t describe what it feels like, that moment before the show launches where you think, “Will anybody care?”
The fact that people have and they responded, the feedback has been fascinating. I’ve heard from women who played sports in high school, men who are coaches in high school. I’ve heard from kids, obviously, so many kids and parents. When a show connects with an audience, it’s the greatest feeling, so I’d like to say thank you.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Jessalyn! Take care and stay safe!
JG: Thank you, you too, be safe.