It wasn’t a speaking role. It wasn’t even a human role.
About this article
- This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of 400-The Life, a publication of the Forsyth County News. To read the entire magazine, click here.
Six-year-old Kelli Giddish stood behind the curtain at Big Creek Elementary School, the costume’s large, colorful petals nearly overwhelming her petite blond head.
As the lights turned on, she stepped onstage.
“I think I was in first grade when I did my first play,” she said, laughing. “I was the main flower, and all I remember is having a big costume on.”
The Forsyth County native speaks with an affectionate twang, a fondness in her voice as she remembers her acting debut.
Though she is now based in New York, Giddish hints at her metro-Atlanta upbringing in the way she speaks — her words drawn out a little longer than her Northern co-workers and the occasional “grandmamma” thrown into conversation.
The actress, who is most well-known for her role as Detective Amanda Rollins on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, remembers her years – and mentors – in Forsyth fondly.
“When I was around 8 years old, I went and auditioned for a play; I think my first audition was ‘Do Your Ears Hang Low?’ and I had to pick out a poem and say it on stage,” she said. “I did Shel Silverstein’s ‘Homework. Oh, Homework! I Hate You! You Stink!’ and that was for the Velveteen Rabbit, and I got that.
“I auditioned for the next play the next year, and I think I had to have a German accent when I was 9 years old, and it was so much fun because Yatesy Harvey would direct the plays and put them on and everyone was super excited to be there. It really got everybody involved and excited.”
Giddish’s respect for her former drama teacher, Harvey, is evident as she remembers the woman who helped make her acting career possible.
The teacher, who built Forsyth Central High School’s theater program while teaching from 1989-2010, was instrumental in the lives of many, both on and off the stage.
“I did her drama camp, which might sound cheesy to the people who don’t know what it was, but she took about 20-25 kids to the north Georgia mountains or wherever she could find a house that was willing to rent to 25 middle and high schoolers for a week every summer,” Giddish said. “She just inspired a fierce curiosity and very high standards of what acting was and how much dedication it took and rehearsal and we would do plays every night, and everybody had a particular night to do their scene and we all sat down and critiqued it afterwards.
“She had full confidence in us as teenagers and treated us with the utmost respect. When people treat you like that when you’re that young, you kind of say, ‘Oh, ok, they are listening to me and I need to step up and actually earn the respect that they’re showing me.’ It was that kind of atmosphere.”
Every year during her time at Central, from 1994-1998, the school won the one-act play competition — a tournament where drama classes from schools around the region perform a 55-minute play.
“If I tell anyone here in New York we competed in plays, they look at me sideways,” Giddish said. “But we really had to make the sets, we had to paint the sets, we had to put the set up yourself — you had to know how to do all of it, and the whole experience just really inspired me and really gave me a good base as to what I was going to go on to do.”
Giddish sounds determined as she remembers her post-high school years.
After graduating from Central in 1998, she went on to the University of Evansville in Indiana where she majored in theater performance and graduated with honors.
Soon after, she moved to Manhattan to pursue the career full-time.
“Kelli is in New York after she graduates, couch surfing,” said her mother, Nita Giddish. “She was doing everything. But it’s all part of it, I guess, and one thing I’ve never worried about since is wherever she lands, she’ll be able to take care of herself.”
Giddish largely credits her parents for her current success.
“You can be talented, but if you don’t have the backbone and the wherewithal to take rejection over and over and over again and still believe in yourself, you’re not going to make it,” she said. “Because I had them, I had that. So I stuck with my [acting] and every little play that I did, even in a black box, they were there, in the audience.”
Kelli's supporting cast
Nita Giddish as "The Mother"
Charles Giddish as "The Father"
Eli Giddish as "The Brother"
Lawrence Faulborn as "The Husband"
Ludo Faulborn as "The Son"
Yatsey Harvey as "The Teacher"
11:10 a.m. Thursday, May 25
Giddish apologizes for her brief tardiness: “hi! just putting my son down for a nap, he was late today! call you in the next 20 minutes, sorry for the delay,” she texts.
When not on scene, the 37-year-old mother of one is tending to her son, Ludo, and spending time with her husband, Lawrence Faulborn — an artist who facilitates the creation of Giddish murals throughout the streets of New York.
Though she considers her fellow SVU actors to be family, Giddish adores her husband and son. Giddish said she has already been asked if she thinks the one-and-a-half year old will take after his mom.
“People ask me if my son were to act, would I let him?” she said. “I’m like, ‘Well, he’s going to be a New York City kid so his experience growing up is going to be a lot different than mine, and why people get into acting in L.A. or here is probably a little different.
“In [Forsyth County], it was just complete abandonment with your curiosity and imagination.”
The seeds you sow
Giddish sounds almost incredulous as she recalls her path to SVU.
“I had been the lead of two shows that didn’t make it more than a year,” she said. “I had just finished one called 'Chase' that we filmed in Texas. Within six months, I got a call that there was a new character that they wanted to develop on Law and Order: SVU, and they were going to hire a new show runner named Warren Leight.
“I had met him when I was doing a play development conference when I was 18, and it’s so crazy because the seeds you sow when you’re trying to do acting – it’s a silly metaphor – but you don’t know when they’re going to come into fruition, and this one happened to really come into bloom. I think the character of Amanda Rollins was originally from Philadelphia, and I have a little bit of an accent and a little Georgia attitude, so they made her from Georgia.”
Giddish speaks of her character, Rollins, fondly.
Having spent seven years playing the part of the detective, Giddish knows her like the back of her hand. Rollins is more than a fictional character, Giddish said.
“As my character evolves, you come to find out her mother came and her sister comes [to New York] and Warren goes, ‘Well, what city do you want [Rollins] to be from?’” Giddish said. “I go, ‘Oh, gosh … it has to be Loganville because that’s where my grandmamma [was]; my mom was raised there and that’s where I always went. So Amanda Rollins is from Loganville, Georgia.
“It has been nothing short of just an honor, and most shows don’t even make it the amount of time I’ve been on [SVU]; it was on for 12 years before I even joined. I’m so very fortunate to have this job, and what it’s taught me is to work really, really hard. It’s 14-hour days sometimes, so that means you get home at 10 and you’re working up at 5, 6 a.m. to be right back at it. It’s quite a family.”
As the conversation turns to SVU’s content, Giddish takes a more somber tone.
“It’s not just like every other TV show,” she said, pausing. “It treats a subject matter that’s so hard to talk about, and it treats it with respect and it shines a light on things that are hard to talk about, in terms of sexual assault and what survivors go through.
“That is also the most difficult part of the job; I don’t know how many times I’ve cried. But it’s also very joyful because it’s not something that people are just surviving. They’re actually healing, and [Rollins] is helping and I hope that the show kind of helps survivors that have gone through things heal, as well. The subject matter is very difficult, and it’s not something you can just leave at work.”
She pauses, taking a breath, her voice catching.
“I have fans that have come up to me and said thank you. That’s the most difficult, yet the most rewarding, thing,” Giddish said. “At the end of the day, it is a TV show of course, but I think it helps people.”
The smile returns to Giddish’s voice as she speaks about her future.
SVU, which is going into its 19th season, is the fourth-longest running U.S. TV show, behind The Simpsons, Gunsmoke and the original Law and Order.
With 410 episodes and counting, the show is a staple. Regardless of its lifespan, however, Giddish will likely stay in television.
“I’m very suited for TV work because I like to work,” she said. “If I don’t get something right in that day’s work, I can try all over again the next day. I get to weave a character through so many episodes, and I get so many chances to show different sides of [Rollins].
“It’s not like a film where you do it for three months and it’s done and if you didn’t get something right, it’ll kill you — if you didn’t get a scene right, you only had that one chance. I kind of get a lot of chances, and if I don’t get something exactly right, I get to try again. That’s what [I love] about TV.”