“If I was a Viking, I would never survive. I’d be dead by nine years old,” says Jessalyn Gilsig, the actress who plays the quietly powerful Siggy in the History Channel’s first-ever scripted series, Vikings, opposite Gabriel Byrne. So perhaps it’s best that the viciously primitive, seafaring lifestyle of the Viking world is confined to the TV screen – a place Gilsig has found herself consistently, in roles on hit shows like Glee, Boston Public, and Nip/Tuck.
While her characters have ranged from unpredictable and fiery, to still and insightful, the Montreal native has discovered one common thread that unites them all: love. "They’re women who are really driven – for better or worse – by love and the difficulty of making the best decisions.” Siggy, who’s the Earl’s (Byrne’s) insightful and observant wife, acts as moral compass and motivator to her reigning husband.
But this year, with the debut of Somewhere Slow – an indie film hitting festivals nationwide this spring – Gilsig leaps into unprecedented roles in front of and behind the camera, with her premiere as both the star and a producer. The film follows Anna Thompson, an unhappy skin care sales rep who gets mixed up in a convenience store robbery and makes the split-second decision to walk out of her life and start anew. The film, written and directed by Jeremy O’Keefe, also stars Robert Forster (The Descendants) and David Costabile (Breaking Bad).
“I never thought I’d get to play Anna,” she says. “I thought she should be played by a bigger star. But when they cast me, I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, then I need to take the risk with you and come on as a producer.’ And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
And the hardest too. Gilsig quickly learned the tremendous work behind not just screenplay development, but also film production – finding a composer, casting, mixing – which actors on set and in a trailer are rarely exposed to.
“I never knew how the room got dressed before with chairs and tables, how actors were scheduled to get there,” she says. “I learned never to ask for a bottle of water again.”
Gilsig’s newfound love of production has trickled into her writing as well. During her breaks on set, she works on several different scripts at a time, and also makes time for one of her greatest passions: painting. On her personal tumblr, you can find artwork inspired by Vikings, her daily musings, and various female body types. In fact, though she wasn’t in the film, Gilsig created all of the paintings by Patricia Clarkson’s artistic character in the 2003 movie The Station Agent.
“Conventionally, it’s considered a joke to want to be an actor,” she says. “So I’ve always been a little bit embarrassed about painting. But I’m realizing you can be creative in whatever material of the moment.”
With such temporal thinking, perhaps Gilsig relates a bit more to her Somewhere Slow character – who lives the fantasy of stepping out of her life and reinventing herself – than first perceived…
“Sometimes I imagine myself pouring coffee at truck stops across the country, living another life,” she says. “And I still like that idea.”
Photo: Udo Spreitzenbarth.