Jessalyn Gilsig has a long and colorful resume playing characters we often love to hate.
On Disney+'s Big Shot, Gilsig is an assistant coach at an all-girls school named Holly. Holly is warm and genuine, with a respectable and healthy understanding of work/life balance.
Put simply, there isn't a single thing about Holly that is anything but lovely, and Gilsig plays her beautifully.
Big shot centers on Coach Marvyn Korn, played by John Stamos, a former college coach out of prospects who takes what he thinks is a professional tumble down to coaching high-school basketball.
Landing the role of Holly brought Gilsig together again with producer David E. Kelly, with whom she worked on the acclaimed series Boston Public, and director Bill D'Elia, with whom she's worked several times over the years.
Her role initially skewed younger, but when the story went in a different direction, she got the call and was thrilled to come on board.
"There are some showrunners that you work with, and you immediately trust the project because you know that it's operating with such a high standard and there's so much care," Gilsig said.
"And obviously, David Kelley is the gold standard for scripts and story, and especially in the interest in an actor's interest for character."
Gilsig said that walking into an environment like that ensures you're going to be working with great people and that your character will be clearly drawn. "It's kind of exciting. There's this a lot of confidence in the air that gives you a freedom as an actor to really play and experiment because everything around you is so strong."
Gilsig described the character Stamos plays as a fish out of water who, after taking a job he thought beneath him, discovers that he still had a lot to learn.
As for her character of Holly, Gilsig said Coach Holly seems like a more logical fit with the girls as a member of the faculty and assistant coach. She's passionate, committed, and extremely protective of the girls. Still, she's quite excited about Coach Korn's arrival.
"She thinks she's going to learn a lot, and this is going to be a great experience for her. And I think along the way, she realizes, 'Hey, wait a minute. Why didn't I get that promotion? Why did they bring this guy from the outside? I'm the assistant coach. Nobody gave me a look.'
"And his arrival forces her to examine her own trajectory and whether or not she's really going after her own personal goals."
With her more natural fit in the role and her experience with the girls, Coach Holly will grow by both supporting and challenging Coach Korn to grow as well.
"She's used to being the assistant and is perfectly comfortable in that role, and she's extremely protective of the girls. So she's comfortable being a go-between at times," Gilsig said.
"And then, at the same time, she has to challenge a lot of his assumptions and areas where he has to understand that our intention here is to win, but the whole goal of this basketball team is to help these girls develop their confidence to reach their own personal potential. And that has a purpose that transcends basketball. And it's much more about the girls' development than it is necessarily about whether or not we win or lose."
And it's easy to have those warm, fuzzy feelings when you're working with a group of fresh and talented young women, like those starring with Gilsig on Big Shots.
"It's a really good reminder that when you work with young, talented actors who don't have a lot of experience, you can learn so much from them because they don't have any tricks yet," Gilsig said of her young costars.
"They only tell the truth. They're so pure in their performance, and they're so emotionally available, and they're not guarded in any way. They come with a sense of trust and enthusiasm for the work, which is really infectious.
"Honestly, they really became a team, a genuine team that supports one another deeply. We shot this through a pandemic, and some of them were away from home, and that was really daunting for them, and I know that they created a support system for each other," Gilsig said, adding that she found their actions inspiring.
"That was really beautiful to observe and to be a part of. It's always a good little wake-up call to work with young actors who are still open."
Landing on a show about basketball wouldn't surprise anyone who knows Gilsig, who is a fan of the sport -- one of the only genuine fans on the show, she says. "You'll find that I'm one of the few on the show, which is kind of hilarious. But I love sports, and I'll watch anything. I used to live in New York, so I was a big Knicks fan. I follow the Lakers.
"I've watched college basketball. I personally find watching sports such a great escape for me. When you're an actor, and you watch TV, and you watch film, it's hard really to lose yourself in it because there's a little piece of you that feels like you're going to work."
Gilsig realized that she loves sports so much because she's removed from its production, allowing her to escape into the moment without considering whether they made great choices with scenes and dialog that she understands so well. But will being so close to the sport change her favorite escape?
She's considered that. "I watched Last Chance U. I don't know if you've seen it yet on Netflix. It was a show about East LA College, their men's basketball teams. It's a fantastic docu-series, and it's so different now that I've played a coach because there were some things that I thought, 'Oh, that would've been so cool to use.'
"And then there were other things I thought, 'Oh, I know exactly what that feels like.' So yeah, I do think so, actually. I think it's probably changed the way, unfortunately. Maybe now it will be like I'm going to work again," she said.
And while it's the first time Gilsig has played a basketball coach, it's not her first time walking the hallowed halls of our education system, appearing on Boston Public and Glee. She seems to have a knack for it.
"I thought the same way," she laughed. "I remember landing on the first day of set and walking in the hallways at the school. And I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe I get to do this again.' I don't know. I have no idea, but I do know that I have deep respect for educators. Anytime we can highlight them and the work that they do, I think that's a worthwhile thing to do."
Television has changed a lot in the 20 years since she starred on Boston Public, and Gilsig shared her thoughts on the differences between the representation of education on TV then versus now.
"In a lot of ways, Boston Public was ahead of its time. What we do reflects the culture, and then we reflect back onto the culture. Glee was such an interesting conversation starter, and I think it started with a lot of really important conversations, helping a lot of young people who didn't feel seen, or appreciated, or even sometimes safe, and then that could be more deeply understood.
"With this show, one of the things that are encouraging for me is that we really get to highlight these young women and understand the complexity of their characters, which is more than whether or not they are invested in relationships with boys or thinking about infighting.
"This is about girls, who, like all young people, are invested in their futures and trying to learn who they are and grow through that. So storytelling is evolving, and I welcome it. That's what we're supposed to be doing.
"We're supposed to be investigating the human condition and doing it to the best of our ability, and we should get better over time," Gilsig said, glad that improvements are always made and to be a part of implementing that change.
While Coach Holly will be a character you can easily love, Gilsig hasn't always portrayed characters with such sunny dispositions. Her roles are often skirting the boundaries between good and bad.
"It's funny because I feel like men play complex characters that make unethical or amoral choices all the time, and we love them. And often, I would play these characters, and it really would inspire a lot of emotion in people.
"And I was thinking, women aren't just nice. We're people, were individuals, and we're driven by all kinds of different motivations. And so I'm hopeful that, as an audience, we can expand what we're going to see a woman do. Because I think we have no trouble having male antiheroes. I think we have to get more comfortable with female antiheroes."
One of Gilsig's best characters was Gina from the FX series Nip/Tuck. While she'll never have the opportunity to play her again given Gina's fate in the series, Gilsig still thinks of her fondly, knowing that no matter what decisions her character made, she was always going to have a rough road.
"I think it's always a struggle. The way I saw Gina, I really loved her and always thought if I had a friend in mind... Sometimes you have a friend who kind of keeps running the same pattern and hoping for different results," she said of Gina, who was always sure that the new direction in her life would elicit positive change.
"And then she would just kind of run into the same wall. And I think that's really human. But I don't think it was going to get easier for her, unfortunately."
Gilsig is relieved that the opportunities for expanded conversation within the world of television have exploded with the advent of streaming. She's excited about the possibilities of this increased level of content that adds conversations and representation that have been a long time coming in the entertainment world.
"It's something that I thought about all the time and was aware of all the time, and I didn't know if it would change in my lifetime," she admitted.
"But to see the shift and to see these watershed moments and to see that we've raised our standards, that we have higher expectations of ourselves as artists and creators, and that we realize that the stories that we tell need to be reflective of the world that we live in, I know that it's going to take time. But the fact that the conversation is being had, and it's such a relief.
"I often felt that I was trying to move the conversation forward through my performances and sometimes felt like I was given roles that I knew were devices. We're really there to highlight something in a male character.
"And I just used to think I'm digging my heels, and I'm at least going to make sure that you can't just dismiss this character. Gina is a really good example of that. You know, she wasn't just somebody of another kind of conquest for us to get some questions. I needed to advocate for her and her story.
"And now, you don't have to necessarily fight that battle alone, trying to leave that on the screen. Now we're able to actually have this conversation and say, 'Hey, let's just make sure that we're getting everybody's perspective in this story. And we're understanding all the players, not just the ones that we're used to hearing from.'"
Even if it's three steps forward and two steps back, Gilsig finds the progress motivational. "It's not just a question of who's in front of the camera, but it's really who's behind the camera and who's making those decisions.
"The more voices that we have, then the more inclined we are to expanding our idea of what is an important story and what's a story that people really want to hear."
"And what we learned, of course, is that none of the assumptions are true, and if people can see themselves, then they'll show up. And seeing yourself is more universal than I think we originally assumed."
And that will work very well in Big Shot's favor, as it not only features a diverse cast but focuses on the entire range of characters, going deep into their pasts to explain their experiences in connection with their growth.
"We get to go deep and understand so many more experiences than we used to shine a light on. And that's why we do this. That's the entire point. It's almost more relaxing because it's more honest," Gilsig said.
She's committed to the new show and believes that although it's centered on sports, it will command a wide audience like so many great sports stories of the past.
"It's really great for young people because they're going to see themselves and the things that they care about. And if you're a fan of Yvette Nicole Brown, I suggest you tune in; she's got a lot of fans and with reason. She's phenomenal.
"And then, I don't know if you've heard of John Stamos, but he's talented, and he's all right to look at, so he might be a draw for some people," she laughed, before giving him kudos for his performance, "I do think that this is a really special performance that he did. It's incredibly layered, and I'm excited for people to see him in this role."
And we're excited to see her as Coach Holly. Mark your calendars to tune into Big Shot on Friday, April 16, streaming on Disney+.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.