INTERVIEW: Jessalyn Gilsig On the New Disney+ Series, ‘Big Shot,’ Working With John Stamos, and Her Amazing Career

Photographed by Manfred Baumann | Make up by Nelly Baumann

Jessalyn Gilsig is best known as Siggy Haraldson on History Channel’s Vikings, Terri Schuester on Fox’s hit show, Glee, and Lauren Davis on Fox’s Boston Public. Jessalyn plays assistant coach Holly on the Disney+ show, Big Shot, which is set to premiere on April 16. This sports dramedy, created by Brad Garrett, and developed by David E. Kelley and Dean Lorey, also stars John Stamos. Stamos plays Coach Marvyn Korn, a temperamental basketball coach who was fired from his current job and ends up coaching basketball at an all-girls high school.

Did you know that David E. Kelley and Jessalyn have worked together before? She was on Boston Public for years and has grown to love collaborating with him. Jessalyn has some sage advice on self-love and her positive message to all women. Read on to find out more about her role on Big Shot, her big break, and how she uses her voice for change.

GLITTER: When did you first discover you had a love for acting and how did your journey begin?
JESSALYN: I wanted to be an actor since before I can remember. As a child, I would beg my parents to let me be an actor and they would tell me that when I was 18 I could do whatever I wanted. But I was stubborn and when I was 12, I read about an audition in the newspaper for a child’s voice to do a voice-over in a film. I found my way to the audition and booked the role and I have been an actor ever since. My drive was stronger than I can explain and now that I am an adult it surprises me in retrospect. But it was never a choice really, it just always was.

GLITTER: What would you say was your big break? 
JESSALYN: In truth, I feel I’ve had many breaks: my first job when I was 12, my first professional play, my first role out of theatre school…Anytime someone takes a chance on you it’s a break, really. But in the traditional sense, my big break was when David E. Kelley asked me to be on Boston Public. I was living in New York at the time, subsisting on theatre roles and commercials and contemplating a move back to Canada when I got the call.  Working on that show changed my life in many ways; it’s why it’s so meaningful to me to be back on a David E Kelley show so many years later.

Photographed by Manfred Baumann | Make up by Nelly Baumann

GLITTER: What can you tell us about the Disney+ show, Big Shot? Who do you play?
JESSALYN: I’m really excited for people to see our show.  I play Coach Holly who is the assistant basketball coach at an all-girls high school. John Stamos’ character, Coach Korn, is a disgraced NCAA coach who comes to our school to coach our team. It’s a show about how the presence of this unlikely outsider causes everyone to grow in unexpected ways. The show has a lot of heart and humor. The young actors are wonderful and incredibly talented. And I think, like all David E. Kelley shows, it’s the magic that happens when such entertaining and distinct characters are forced to deal with one another.

GLITTER: What was it like to star alongside John Stamos?
JESSALYN: John is an incredibly dynamic actor and it’s always exciting to work with someone like that. He cares very deeply about the work and won’t stop until we have found something authentic.  As a result, every day felt new and fresh and as though we were diving deeper and deeper into the story and our roles.  In some ways working with John reminded me of why I love this work so much and I am grateful to him for that.

GLITTER: What can you tell us about the first season without giving anything away? 
JESSALYN: Nothing! Except that I wear a LOT of tracksuits. And someone has to kiss a pig.

GLITTER: How are you like or unlike your character Holly?
JESSALYN: Well, like Coach Holly I love sports.  I could watch any sport, with the exception of Ultimate Fighting I guess. I love watching people push themselves to be their best and the flow that happens in team sports when athletes work together in sync for a common goal. Holly is confident on the court, but I think she is still getting to know herself off the court. With the arrival of John’s character (Coach Korn) I think it jolts her into realizing she’s been drifting in her life a little and not identifying and pursuing her goals.  I can relate to that, sometimes it takes an outside force to remind you not to be complacent in life and to reengage with your dreams.

GLITTER: You are reuniting with writer and executive producer David E. Kelley after working with him as a lead in Boston Public; what was it like working with him again?
JESSALYN: A hallmark of a David E. Kelley show is a balance between grounded drama and comedy. Our showrunner Dean Lorey has done a wonderful job with all of our characters and I have especially enjoyed finding the laughs within all the drama. On a personal level, it’s incredibly special to be on another one of David’s shows. Life is funny, sometimes you don’t know what’s in store, and there are sweet surprises along the way; this is one of them for me.

GLITTER: How do you prepare for your roles? 
JESSALYN: Everything begins with the script. Seeking to understand my character’s choices, behavior, and then why they say what they do and in the way they say it. Then it’s always great to collaborate with a wardrobe designer because there is something to be said for working from the outside in. What we wear says so much about how we carry ourselves and so shoes for example can be a great gateway into a role. And the final most important piece is the other actor.

Acting is all about listening and reacting and so you can only prepare so much until you meet your scene partner and look to see, “why is my character in love with this other person? fear this person? dominate this person? etc.” And the process never ends as you are always learning new things about your role based on the encounters you have with other characters.  That’s why sometimes when a show ends it’s kind of sad to say goodbye to your role because they’ve really become someone you know very well, and have spent a lot of time thinking about and suddenly they are gone.

GLITTER: What is your approach to auditioning? 
JESSALYN: I like auditioning. I know that sounds strange, but I do for some reason. The only part of auditioning I don’t like is the rejection. 😉  But I like to be very prepared, I’m always off book or nearly. And I look for things in the role that I can make very specific and that will help to highlight the writing. I try to embrace the fact that I get to explore a role I may not otherwise play and then let it go and hope it comes back my way.

GLITTER: What were some of the highlights of doing a period role in Vikings?
JESSALYN: Vikings was as much fun as it appears to be. Sometimes I would be on set in my incredible costume and think, “This is mad, I get to pretend to be a Viking as a job?!”. The world Michael Hirst created was incredibly rich and detailed. When you were on location there was livestock everywhere, fires burning and incredible sets that felt completely authentic. It was the most wonderful world to play in. 

Also, I loved my role, Siggy. She was ambitious and proud and completely unapologetic in her power.  Playing her was a true gift. Not to mention working with Gabriel Byrne which was like a master class in acting. He was incredibly generous and I enjoyed every minute we worked together.

GLITTER: Most memorable moment from working on Glee?
JESSALYN: There are so many.  I remember when we were filming the pilot and thinking “I really like this show, I would watch this show, I wonder if anyone else will?” Little did I know! But I had a great time on that show. The writing was hilarious and I loved getting it all word perfect so people could hear how brilliant it was. And in spite of popular opinion, I loved Terri. #teamterri

GLITTER: How do you use your voice for change? 
JESSALYN: During the pandemic, like so many of us, I felt useless.  I’m not in the medical field, I’m not a teacher, I didn’t feel I had any skills that could really help people.  I had heard that one of the devastating bi-products of the pandemic was that children in abusive homes were now in a sense trapped with their abusers as they didn’t have school as a respite. That just shook me to my core.

I teamed with @childhelp, an organization that works to identify victims of child abuse and supports them through their recovery.  I started a campaign on my Instagram where I would draw people’s pets in exchange for a donation.  It was a small way that I felt I could give back and spread a little joy. It was incredibly rewarding and gave me a sense of purpose during those dark days.

GLITTER: What do you like to do in your free time? 
JESSALYN: I love to draw and paint. I went to art school many years ago and in my downtime, I still try to be creative.  It’s a great outlet when I’m waiting for the phone to ring.

GLITTER: Glitter has a Celebrity #SelfLoveCampaign; what does self-love mean to you? 
JESSALYN: I think in a lot of ways unless you love and care for yourself you can’t be of use to other people. Health – both physical and mental – need to be prioritized if we want to be able to care for others. I know that when I am eating healthy, making time for sleep and exercise, and patient with myself I am a better mother, a better friend, and a better person. So I guess the irony is that when I think of self-love I think that the best way to love others is to start with yourself.

GLITTER: What positive message do you hope to send women who follow you? 
JESSALYN: You are more than enough!!! I think as women, we are inundated with messaging that tells us we are not enough: not young enough, thin enough, pretty enough, not enough in every way.  The messaging is so powerful and debilitating and I think works to take away our power.  Try to be aware of those signals.  Build relationships with women who support you in your dreams and goals and share your values. And tell yourself every day, “just as I am, I am enough”.

GLITTER: How important is it for you that women are given more seats at the table in Hollywood, behind and in front of the camera?
JESSALYN: I think it’s imperative that we have more representation in the workplace. Partially because it means we will be more accurate in the stories we tell. But I also think the work is better as people can perform better when they can see themselves represented and are not the only one.  And also because it’s safer, to be frank. When you see yourself reflected in your environment, you feel you have outlets to express yourself. If you are alone in that space, or the power doesn’t ever look like you, I think you are less inclined to express yourself and ask for help.  There are only upsides to more representation at work in all areas.

GLITTER: What pushes and motivates you on a daily basis?
JESSALYN: I would have to say, my daughter. Being a mother has helped me be more brave, more focused, and more able to enjoy the moment. When I realized that I am a living example to another person, I think it made me more honest in myself.  I am motivated by the realization that none of this is forever and as imperfect as life is, every day is a chance to find some joy.

GLITTER: What was a day in isolation like for you?
JESSALYN: Exercise is the way I maintain my mental as well as physical health so when lockdown started I knew I would have to have a physical outlet so I immediately ordered a spin bike. In fact, when they delivered it, they couldn’t come inside so it is still in my living room! Most days I would do a spin class, check-in with friends, draw, cook, and marvel at the quiet. I also had some magical times with my daughter that never would have happened were it not for the pandemic. But my feelings about that time are mixed as I do have friends whose families were devastated by the virus and so somedays it’s hard to see the silver linings.  

GLITTER: How have you adapted to working during the pandemic?
JESSALYN: One of the things I love about our industry is that it’s all about problem-solving. I remember when we were shut down in March thinking, “we’ll be back, we’ll find a way.” I have so much respect for our crew who adapted so quickly to wearing masks and shields all day. As an actor, it was less of an adjustment as we got to remove our PPE from time to time. We were all so grateful to be there and to be working when so many were at home waiting to get back to their jobs. I always loved my job, but I think this experience amplified my appreciation even more.

GLITTER: What would be a dream role for you?
JESSALYN: That’s a hard question.  I remember an actor gave me advice when I was starting out “never play casting director.” I think as an actor you dream of certain roles or see performances and wonder what it would be like to play that part, but then when I look at the roles I played, I never would have cast myself in them, and yet they are so personal to me. Acting is so much about discovery and staying open. So, I guess my dream role is the one I have at that moment.