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Carrie Preston has played a lot of parts, but there’s only one Elsbeth

NEW YORK — In one of the first scenes of her new TV show, Carrie Preston stands on a Manhattan curb as a taxi drives through a puddle and splashes her with a not-small amount of dirty street water. Preston’s character is stunned, but not upset. She gleefully pulls a foam Statue of Liberty crown from her bag, smiling as she affixes it to her head and another car passes and soaks her again.

The joy, the confident dorkiness — that’s Elsbeth Tascioni, the beguiling, funny lawyer who stole scenes in 19 episodes of creators Robert and Michelle King’s hit legal dramas “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” over more than a decade, a role that earned Preston an Emmy Award in 2013. At first glance, Elsbeth was a sweet but scattered defense attorney who interrupts herself mid-thought to say something like, “These are beautiful bookcases,” or “Ooh, I like that brooch.” A minute later, she would casually eviscerate a witness on the stand or pull off a brilliant legal maneuver that left her opponent speechless.

Viewers clamored for more Elsbeth, and at last they’re getting some: The crime-solving drama “Elsbeth” premiered on CBS in February and, after State of the Union and March Madness preemptions, resumes its first season Thursday. Even as Elsbeth’s mind is clicking away on levels that others can’t fathom, her genuine sense of wonder shines through. Preston read the script and knew exactly how to play the scene where she gets soaked by the car. Obviously, Elsbeth is a huge “Sex and the City” fan, and therefore thrilled to experience a Carrie Bradshaw moment in New York.

“I decided that Elsbeth would find that absolutely 100 percent delightful,” Preston said in a recent interview on set in Brooklyn. On the show, Elsbeth has just moved from “The Good Wife’s” universe of Chicago to work as a court-mandated legal observer of the New York Police Department — and she is truly dazzled by all the Big Apple has to offer. “She’s like, ‘Yes, I’m here, I’ve been splashed … I’m a New Yorker!’”

Preston is also having a moment to shine and splash. At 56, she’s one of those actors you recognize but have trouble placing because she has been in a long list of shows and movies. Strangers call her “Arlene” (her breakout role in HBO’s “True Blood”) or “Polly Poll” (the con artist manicurist from TNT’s “Claws”). Or they just go with, “I loved you in that thing!”

Character actor — Preston doesn’t love the phrase, because every actor plays a character. She enjoyed when someone once referred to her as an “illusionist.”

“That’s what character actors do … they try to make you forget who they are,” she said. “There are a lot of people like that who have been doing it for decades, like myself, where people might not really know what our name is as an actor.”

Preston is “someone who has deserved to be No. 1 on the call sheet for a long, long, long, long time,” said Stephen Moyer, who starred in “True Blood” and reunited with Preston — at her invitation — to play a murderous drama professor in the pilot episode of “Elsbeth.” Moyer was overjoyed to work with Preston again. He remembers watching her develop the Elsbeth character from scratch, back when HBO gave her permission to occasionally film episodes of “The Good Wife.”

“The thing about Elsbeth is that she’s a character who sees joy around her in everything she does and experiences — and that is also Carrie,” he said. “So Carrie is getting express that sort of love of life through that character’s eyes.”

Preston has had a few significant turning points in her career that led her in directions she never expected. One arrived in 1997 when she made her feature film debut in a Julia Roberts movie titled “My Best Friend’s Wedding” — now a rom-com classic that made nearly $300 million. She played one of the flirty bridesmaids who was practically joined at the hip with her sister (played by Rachel Griffiths). The two provided enthusiastic vocals in the iconic scene where an entire restaurant breaks into Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer.”

“I feel grateful that I got to be part of something that was so revered,” said Preston, estimating that she had been through “hundreds” of auditions until that point. “It was a big deal for me to be in that movie. … It sort of gave other people permission to cast me.”

At the time, Preston was mostly working in theater, a passion that began while growing up in Macon, Ga. She studied theater at University of Evansville in Indiana and moved to New York to attend the Juilliard School; in 1995, she made her Broadway debut in “The Tempest” opposite Patrick Stewart and saw raves from critics who called her “vibrant” and “delightful.” The year prior, while performing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, she met Michael Emerson, who would eventually star in ABC’s “Lost” and CBS’s “Person of Interest.” (They recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, though Preston laughed that she still gets “Wait, you two are married?” comments from fans when she posts photos.)

Casting directors saw her as a “a bit of chameleon,” she said, and while versatility meant she didn’t get typecast, it meant almost exclusively secondary roles where she would drop in to jazz up a scene or episode. She appeared in everything from Oscar-nominated movies (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “TransAmerica”) to TV hits (“Desperate Housewives,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” the aforementioned “Sex and the City”) to short-lived shows (“Emeril” and “Good Morning Miami”). Between gigs, she started a production company and started sharpening her skills as a director.

Two life-changing moments coincided when she became a series regular on the 2008 buzzy vampire series “True Blood,” where she played a human waitress in a bar filled with supernatural customers and co-workers. First, there was the success of being on a hit show. Then, a few seasons in, Preston — who was blond and wore a red wig on camera — decided to dye her hair red. Suddenly, fans recognized her wherever she went.

“Going to those Comic-Cons and stuff, I guess it’s the closest that I’ll ever feel what it feels like to be a rock star,” Preston said.

Those who have worked with Preston describe her as a mix of a studiously prepared professional and someone who can improve the mood of everyone around her.

“She really understands the fun that comes with doing the work we do. She’s never lost that,” said Judy Reyes, who starred with Preston in the dramedy “Claws” for four seasons starting in 2017. “As impacted as we all are by challenges, she’s the one who finds the solution, she’s the one who stays excited, she’s the one who stays positive. … She’s a huge part of helping everybody stay on task. She’s a true actor’s actor.”

Coincidentally, another Julia Roberts project helped push Preston’s career: She was cast in the 2009 movie “Duplicity,” starring Roberts and Clive Owen as rival spies. Preston had one scene with Owen (where he seduces her to steal her company’s secrets) and one with Roberts (where she tearfully confesses but admits she doesn’t regret at thing). Critics loved it a review in the New York Observer lamented, “Carrie Preston should be more famous. … It’s tough to imagine her fronting anything other than an independent movie and we doubt she’ll ever get to be the star of her own television show.”

Well! TV producer Robert King also happened to catch “Duplicity” and was equally impressed at how Preston lit up the screen in scenes with two major movie stars. He thought she might be a good fit for a quirky lawyer character — Elsbeth — on an episode of “The Good Wife.”

“Obviously Carrie took it so much further, but our expectation was Carrie was going to bring that kind of innocence and kind of oddball — like someone who might be in a Jonathan Demme movie,” King said.

When Preston heard more about the part, she was sold. “I didn’t even have to audition, which, 15 years ago. … I wasn’t getting a lot of just straight offers,” she said.

Elsbeth charged onto Season 1 of “The Good Wife” as a blast of comic relief and physical comedy, wearing bright colors and patterns and textures and admitting her technological ineptitude as she poked around on her flower-covered laptop. (“You’re not good with computers, are you? My son keeps buying me new ones and then just backing away … and laughing.”) The characters would be extremely annoyed and then change their tune when her shrewd legal mind repeatedly got them out of scrapes. In one much-discussed scene in a later season, she furiously made out with her professional rival (Kyle MacLachlan) over the sounds of pop smash “Call Me Maybe,” and then didn’t hesitate to destroy him in court.

“We love characters that are underestimated, and Carrie has really emphasized that and embraced that with Elsbeth,” “Good Wife” co-creator Michelle King said. “She brings a goofy, kooky energy to it that could mask the smarts if you don’t know where to look.”

Over the years, viewers begged the Kings to consider Elsbeth for her own spinoff. The idea didn’t crystallize until the coronavirus pandemic, when the Kings started watching reruns of “Columbo” and thought about how they could put Elsbeth in a similar scenario: a police procedural where you see the crime play out in the beginning, and then watch as she tries to figure out the culprit.

Preston still can’t believe her once-recurring character is now the star of the show (“This is a dream that I dared not let myself have”), helmed by showrunner Jonathan Tolins. Assigned to watch NYPD personnel (including co-stars Wendell Pierce and Carra Patterson) work after the department has been hit with too many wrongful arrest lawsuits, Elsbeth demonstrates a knack for solving the crimes herself. Elsbeth may carry too many tote bags (Preston guesses they hold everything that Elsbeth thinks she might need in a typical day, such as a protractor or a 1972 encyclopedia or a cheese sandwich), but her naiveté masks a highly effective sleuth.

“It’s like Elsbeth has set off a colorful glitter bomb in the middle, a black, white and gray ‘Law & Order’-type scenario,” said Preston, who considers the show more of a comedy.

On a day on set last month, Preston and Pierce filmed a very serious scene in the storage closet Elsbeth has been given to use as her office. Not only does Elsbeth not mind this, she embraced it, decorating the storage closet with nicer lighting.

“So much about TV is trying to stay hip and cool … there’s a posture of removal from the things that are kitschy about life or silly about life,” Robert King said. “And I do think that’s one of the things that Carrie brings and also the show dives into — the things that are kitschy can be fun.”

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Online, fans sometimes wonder if Elsbeth is on the autism spectrum, or has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and say that they feel seen by Preston’s portrayal. The Kings and Preston avoid giving it a name.

“I don’t diagnose her. No one does. I mean, I think that’s good, because in that way, she’s not a representative of any one type of a thing. She just is who she is,” Preston said. “And I think that’s wonderful. It makes her very unique. And so if people relate to her, I like to think that they’re relating then to whatever is unique about themselves.”

Preston said she also hears a lot from lawyers who say that they relate to Elsbeth’s plight of being overlooked at work — because of the way they dress, the way they talk, how they multitask — only to reveal themselves as very good at their jobs. Recently, a young law student on a train asked Preston to sign her textbook.

“There are a lot of women who are underestimated in the world, and so I think she kind of represents that,” Preston said. “Women who maybe on face value aren’t taken seriously because of just how they are, or maybe they don’t follow social norms or whatever it is — and then they end up being incredibly brilliant. And that’s their superpower.”

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