Ballerina Onscreen: Madison Keesler Guest-Stars in “FBI: International”

You may recognize freelance ballerina Madison Keesler from her former positions with San Francisco Ballet, English National Ballet, and Hamburg Ballet. But this Tuesday, April 11, at 9 pm EST, you may be surprised to see her on television as a guest star in the CBS police procedural “FBI: International.”

In reality, there’s little reason to be surprised. The principal guest artist, who struck out on her own last June to begin a freelance career in New York City, has always loved acting (she trained at American Conservatory Theater during her time in San Francisco) and has already made strides onscreen. She had a speaking role in the feature film TEST (2013), appeared in a music video for musician Julian Lennon, and has danced in several video projects for SFB, the BBC, and filmmaker Henry Thong. A self-proclaimed “tech geek,” Keesler has also gained experience directing and filming as a co-founder of FreelyMad, a small dance film company she leads with Benjamin Freemantle. Now, with newfound flexibility thanks to her freelancing schedule, she’s been enjoying the chance to pursue additional film opportunities while continuing her ballet career.

Keesler will appear in episode 217 of “FBI: International,” titled “Jealous Mistress,” in which she plays a beloved American prima ballerina, Nicolette Clarke. In the episode, Clarke becomes subject to a violent acid attack on the eve of her principal premiere in Vienna and finds herself in the center of an international criminal investigation led by the show’s core FBI International Fly Team. Viewers can tune in on the CBS channel or stream it on Paramount+—but if you’re not caught up on the show, says Keesler, there’s no need to worry, as the episode is self-contained.

We spoke with Keesler to learn more about her TV debut experience, what she’s gained from her work in acting, and more.

How did you land this role?

This was the universe giving me a reminder that community is very important! A few months ago, I met up with my friend Courtney Lavine, who’s a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and mentioned how I was looking for agents. I’d finished several programs through the acting school I’ve been going to, T. Schreiber Studio, and felt like I was ready to do more auditions. She suggested the agency CESD, who she’d worked with before. I emailed them immediately after lunch on Thursday, and they responded on Friday saying that there was a unique opportunity—and that if I was available and interested, the self-tape audition was due on Monday.

I jumped on it, and it turned out to be this episode. I immediately had a feeling it would be a good fit. These shows are cast so last-minute, so to have an actual trained professional dancer who’s available is a rare thing. I submitted the audition and heard back right away. By that next Saturday, I was on a plane to Europe!

A still from "FBI: International." Madison Keesler sits up in a hospital bed, bouquets of flowers visible in the background, a look of exhaustion on her face as Vinessa Vidotto's character looks at her intensely.
Madison Keesler as Nicolette Clark and Vinessa Vidotto as Special Agent Cameron Vo in “FBI: International.” Photo courtesy CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

That’s so exciting! What was it like to film on set for TV?
It was fantastic! These shows are well-oiled machines, and I was treated so well. I was there for about 17 days in total and loved meeting the cast members, because of course, I’d started watching the show right away! It was also really nice meeting the other guest stars. We got to explore Vienna, and since we were there during Valentine’s Day and away from our sweethearts, the six of us had our own celebration. It was a great bonding moment!

There were a lot of similarities with ballet. I realized on set how familiar it felt in the sense that you have a big team surrounding you, and everyone has the same common goal. It’s very similar to being in the theater and how everyone becomes a team, whether they’re the ones you see onscreen, onstage, or behind the scenes. So in that way, it felt like I was stepping into a mini company.

I’ve always been a dancer who’s gravitated towards acting roles. When I was 16, I remember wondering if I should move to Los Angeles and act or if I should dance. So that question has always been in the back of my mind, and I’m grateful for these opportunities where I’ve been able to marry the two.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

It was a challenge reminding myself to stay in the present and not overthink. It was easy to have impostor syndrome and say, “Do you know what you’re doing?” I had to trust my training. And I really did feel prepared, which is a testament to all the classes and teachers I’ve worked with here in New York so far.

I also had to say some German words and speak in a Viennese accent! I have lived in Hamburg, which helped, but I’m also American, and we’re historically bad with languages. [Laughs.] But they did provide a session with a dialect coach, which was great.

How did you approach the role of Nicolette Clarke?

I wanted to go with my instincts. For the audition, I basically shut myself away for those couple of days and dove through Nicolette’s background—and, honestly, a lot of it could easily align with my own life. My acting teachers have said, especially at the beginning, not to be afraid of that or to overact. So a lot of the process was diving into my own history.

But there are definitely some pure Nicolette twists. She’s a rising U.S. ballerina who’s even caught the attention of the First Lady. She has lots of fans in Vienna and is a big deal, which was fun to play! She also forms a pretty close bond with [Fly Team member Cameron] Vo. They find a common ground over similar histories, Vo’s being a passion for piano and Nicolette’s being ballet. The scenes delving into their relationship were probably my favorite to film.

Are you excited to watch the show?

I’ve only seen bits and pieces of scenes where we had to refilm dialogue, so now I’m even more excited to see the rest! The whole experience has been exciting—there was a lot of jumping up and down when I got the call from my agent. I’ve been trying to soak up every moment!

What are your future plans or goals for your career?

I want to do everything! I definitely still want to continue dancing as a classical ballet dancer. I’m not retired, just freelancing in a way that gives me space and time for other opportunities. New York City is a great place for that.

We can’t dance forever, so long-term I’d love to keep acting and share different stories. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for future TV shows and films, and I’m dipping my toes into musical theater—I’ve been working on my singing voice! I find humans and the brain so fascinating, and I think there are endless stories we can tell.

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