Carrie Preston pops up and pops out as the smarter-than-she-seems 'Elsbeth'

Carrie Preston lives to get a laugh out of the man who helped create the role of her life. So when Robert King was directing the pilot for CBS’ “Elsbeth,” the long-overdue spinoff putting Preston’s Emmy-winning, idiosyncratic “The Good Wife” lawyer, Elsbeth Tascioni, front and center as a brilliant, bedeviling murder sleuth, he wanted a crime-scene entrance befitting an eccentric. King set up a shot of a sidewalk, dramatically thick with uniformed officers, and Preston poked her head into frame with the timing of a silent film comedian. King’s cackling commenced. “Victory for the day!” recalls Preston, who has coined a name for the fast-forming arsenal of kookiness that includes the character’s now-trademark pop-up arrival: “I call them ‘Els-bits.’”

Elsbeth came into our lives early in the run of “The Good Wife.” What do you recall of her origins?

When I got offered the role, Robert said, “We’re thinking about her like a female Columbo.” I knew what he meant, that she would go about things in an unconventional way and people would underestimate her. In that first script, they wrote the word “pause” in parentheses. And I thought, “I’m really interested in what’s going on in that pause. I’m going to fill that in and see if it’s something they find interesting.” So I started digging and figured, maybe she’s thinking one thing, saying another, and her body’s doing a third thing.

It starts to feel like great musical comedy, the timing of it all, the physicality and words.

Oh, thank you. I’m theater-trained, and the classics are very much about rhythm. On our show, there’s a lot of exposition, and it’s our job to make that writing sound fantastic, new and fresh. So those things I map out, because I have to know how her brain is doing all these things and keep it grounded. So it’s not just a woman who appears to be flighty — like there’s something else going on.

Are the writers tuned in to Elsbeth mode?

Everybody has figured out her rhythms, and some people write more toward the comedic, and some more toward the dramatic. And I like that, because that’s life, right? Full of good things, bad things and neutral things.

Embarking on “Elsbeth,” you must have been excited for what else you’d learn about her.

Absolutely. I’d played her maybe once a year, and I had to really work up to remember the character, because I’d played several other people in between. Now I can breathe my way through the character all day long, and that’s a gift. What is she like in a quiet moment? We didn’t get that [before]. What is she like with a girlfriend? When she talks about family? That’s fun for me.

Is there an origin story for her attraction to the fabrics others are wearing?

I don’t know about an origin, but you can understand the tactile thing. She’s so observant and receptive that anything, sensorially, she’s going to respond to.

Do you share her boldness in clothing choices?

I’m not afraid of color. I live in New York City, so I have black clothing; it’s required. But I’ll mix a pattern like Elsbeth. When I was a kid, my mom called it “humor dressing.” Crazy red parachute pants and funky tennis shoes, or an oversized dress. I say put things on your body that make you feel happy.

You guested for so long on “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight,” what’s it like to now be the greeter?

That can sometimes be intimidating and lonely, being the guest player. So I always make sure everyone feels welcome and as comfortable as they can. I give all guest stars a tote, and I made these little tags that say, “From the personal collection of Elsbeth Tascioni.”

Elsbeth’s tote bag, the object of so much online speculation. What’s in it?

I’m not telling you! You’ll notice, though, that I’ve made the choice, whenever I do finally catch the criminal, I’m not carrying any bags. Because I decided I don’t need them!

What’s your take on why she’s so popular with viewers?

She’s funny and extremely brilliant, and the fact that she’s so positive and allows herself to be vulnerable. I feel like it’s what audiences are craving right now. The old-school structure [of the show] is comforting. I really want to bring joy to people, and Elsbeth looks for the good in things. She assumes positive intent, makes friends, and that’s a great role model for all of us.

You mentioned Elsbeth being underestimated. Has it happened to you?

As actors, most of us who have been doing it a long time feel sometimes, “They’re not quite getting that I could do a lead on a TV show.” You hear, “Oh, they’re going for a name.” I’m like, “Well, I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I’m not sure what else you want from me!” But when you’re a character actor, you get lost in the character. And then I realized, “Oh, I have a name. It’s Elsbeth.” This character gave me this incredible opportunity. It’s not lost on me, the significance of it at this age and stage in my life and career.

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