Julianna Margulies: Good Wife, Great Life

When she turned down $27 million to stay with ER, the world thought she was nuts. But after a rocky few years, Julianna Margulies now has a brilliant series, a family after 40 and a confidence she’s never known before 

by Johanna Schneller
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Photograph: Alexei Hay

Ladies and gentlemen! Step right this way and prepare to be amazed. Before us is a creature so rare, she’s practically mythological. Her name is Julianna Margulies, and she is The Woman Who Has It All.

Consider the evidence: At 45, an age when many actresses sink out of sight like stones in the sea, Margulies is doing the best work of her career, starring as law-firm associate Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, the CBS series that boasts a passionate following and a whole shelf of awards. After decades of believing that marriage wasn’t for her, Margulies met and married Keith Lieberthal, an attorney six years her junior. A happy accident (Margulies was seven months pregnant at her wedding) brought them their son, Kieran, now four. Add to those blessings friends from coast to coast who sing her praises.

“I think the world of her,” says Christine Baranski, who plays the firm’s founding partner Diane Lockhart. “She’s the gold standard of elegance, integrity and intelligence. I know I will have great conversations with her in 10 years. It’s going to be fun to be her friend all down the road.”

“Julianna works really hard, and she doesn’t take any shit,” says Alan Cumming, who plays Alicia’s irascible colleague Eli Gold. “But she also makes it fun. It took me ages to get her name, ‘Mrs. Florrick,’ right,” he mischievously adds. “I kept calling her Mrs. Frolic. Freudian slip.”

And now here Margulies sits, sipping an iced cappuccino in the library of the Crosby Street Hotel in New York’s SoHo, a 10-minute walk from her home, looking and behaving exactly the way you’d want her to. She arrives precisely on time, wearing gray skinny jeans, gray leather ankle boots, a black cowl-neck sweater and a honking big diamond with her wedding band. Her face, untouched by knife or needle, is riveting, eyebrows like dark slashes above bottomless hazel-green eyes, strong mouth and jaw. (Frida Kahlo would have loved to paint her.) Her first laugh, delightfully throaty, occurs two minutes into our conversation; her first four-letter word arrives soon after. She has a charming habit of finishing a statement and then pursing her lips together, as if to say, “What do you think of that?!”

The Woman Who Has It All also has a healthy dose of self-effacement. When three people spy her from a table across the room, they drop any pretense of talking; soon they’re openly eavesdropping. But when I point them out, Margulies is surprised. “Honestly, I think no one knows who I am,” she says, laughing. “I’ll walk out of a store and say to my girlfriend, ‘They were so nice!’ She’ll be like, ‘Um, Julianna?’ And I’ll go, ‘Oh, right!’ I forget. Because in my real world, I don’t live that way.”

At a panel discussion of The Good Wife in a New York theater, Margulies sits center stage, flanked by Baranski, Josh Charles (who plays Alicia’s boss and sometime lover, Will) and Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife team who created the show. For the uninitiated, Alicia Florrick is a former stay-at-home mother of two who restarted her career as a lawyer after learning that Peter, her powerful state’s attorney husband (played by Chris Noth), had been a regular client of a hooker named Amber. Margulies’s character has evolved from the hurt but steadfast wife of season one: Last year, she found the courage to separate from her straying spouse; in the current season, she embarked on, then halted, a hot affair of her own. All this while becoming a more confident member of the law firm.

For 45 minutes, the panel banters good-naturedly. Robert King: “The network was concerned about the number of lunges in the sex scenes. Josh was lunge heavy.”

Margulies: “Lunges? We prefer to call them thrusts.”

Then comes the Q&A period, and women rush the mics. They say what a relief it is to see female role models who aren’t catfighting and who wear clothes that are work appropriate but still sexy. “I spent two years wanting to yell at Alicia for being so composed, and now I want to be Alicia,” one woman says, earning applause from her fellow fans.

Margulies has had a lot of practice handling such responses. Ever since the first episode, with its iconic image of Alicia standing next to her man during his public mea culpa, women have been telling her their opinions and spilling their secrets. One flight attendant ended up plopping down beside Margulies and sobbing on her shoulder about her own cheating spouse for an entire six-hour trip.

Back on the hotel sofa, Margulies says, “What I love about this character is there are so many points of entry. People relate to everything, from her putting her career on hold for 13 years to being a working mother, to having a husband who’s cheating, to having an affair of her own, to having a daughter who gives her grief for drinking a glass of wine.” She laughs. “But I’ve always had that kind of face. Even in high school, I was the girl people told their problems to.”

One reaction did shock her. “A guy wrote in, ‘Why don’t you call this show The Good Slut?’ ” Margulies says, pursing those lips. After everything Alicia’s husband did, “this man calls her a slut. What’s amazing to me is that in 2012 we have such judgment on the woman having an affair. Especially this poor woman, who really had her head in the sand for years. I was so happy when she got together with Will, even for just a little sexual liberation. Because she needed to feel wanted and sexy and loved again.”

Margulies had long been fascinated by the press conference presence of wronged wives such as Silda Spitzer and Dina McGreevey. “I remember thinking, Get off the stage!” she says. “I couldn’t believe the women were gullible enough to get up there, and I couldn’t believe that the men could be such assholes as to ask.”

But when considering what she would do if her own husband cheated, Margulies grows thoughtful. “It’s happened to friends of mine,” she says carefully. “I’ve seen marriages dissolve, and I’ve seen one marriage make it—with a lot of hard work. I don’t know if I could do it, because I think I’d be playing [the betrayal] in my head the whole time. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to be fully present, and I don’t want to live that way. But you have to figure out what’s best for you. Maybe the Spitzers and the Clintons already had an arrangement, and quite frankly I don’t care. There are some things where you go, ‘It’s none of your business.’ I think the most crippling thing of all is judgment.”

Before signing on to The Good Wife, Margulies had one requirement: It had to shoot in New York. Her extended family lives there, and she was adamant about raising her son in the city. The Kings conceded, though their writers’ room is in Los Angeles. “We wanted somebody with dramatic chops but also good comic timing, because we knew without a sense of humor the character would sink into earnestness,” Michelle King says. “Julianna has done so much to bring Alicia to life. She and the character are so completely enmeshed, it’s hard to tell what came from whom.”

“It’s amazing what Jules can do just with her eyes,” adds Charles. “She conveys so much emotion with just a look. She would have been a fantastic silent-film actor.”

On set, Margulies is ready for anything—including a surprise from Charles, who one day dressed for a fantasy sequence in leopard-print underwear. “I dropped trou, and Jules burst out laughing,” he says. “We’re of the same mind, that sex scenes can be uncomfortable, so the more you laugh, the more you can relax, and the better your work.”

As the show has progressed, Margulies has had to relax aplenty. Season three offered an urgent sex scene that involved a mostly clothed Will and Alicia pressed against a wall. Season two included what was probably a network first: a heroine receiving oral sex from her husband. So, Ms. Margulies—what was that like to play?

“The first thing that went through my mind is, Oh dear God, how are we going to film this?” she says. “Then, Oh God, my father’s going to watch the show. But I love it. Michelle King is so prim and proper to look at, and she’s one of the raunchiest—the strong Alicia voice, that’s Michelle saying, ‘Enough of this bullshit. Alicia needs to have oral sex performed on her.’ I truly believe she’s instigating a sexual revolt for network television. I think it’s brave, and I love to try things people haven’t tried before.

“But you also have to look at what we’re competing against,” she adds. “We’re constantly put in the same category as cable shows. It’s incredibly flattering but incredibly unfair, because we’re not allowed to do half of what they do.”

The Good Wife season also involves twice as many episodes as a cable show. “I get high from it,” Margulies says of what many would consider a taxing job. “Keith will say, ‘You just worked another 16-hour day!’ I’ll say, ‘I know, but can I tell you who I was working with? [Guest star] F. Murray Abraham!’ I remember the first time Michael J. Fox [who plays a rival lawyer] and I worked together. We both said it—we fell into each other’s eyes. Or Christine, Josh and I will have this incredible scene together where literally a pin could drop. Who gets that? It’s thrilling.”

“Sometimes Julianna’s so tired, she’s hanging on by her fingernails,” Baranski says of her pal the actress-wife-mother. “You get a stiff neck, juggling all the balls you have in the air. Only another woman who’s lived through it can say, ‘Take deep breaths. You’ve got to ride this wave in.’ ”

Margulies knows this is her time, and she intends to make the most of it. After all, she’s been working for it her whole life. Her father, an advertising copywriter (he came up with Alka-Seltzer’s famous “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” jingle), and her mother, a dancer, divorced when she was young, and Margulies and her two sisters moved a lot, even doing stints in England and France. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she landed a few small film and TV roles. Then, in 1994, she was cast as Nurse Carol Hathaway on ER. Her character was supposed to die in the pilot; instead, she grew into the moral compass of the show and brought Margulies fame, awards (she was the only regular cast member to win an Emmy) and friendships, including one with George Clooney that’s still going strong. (“We just e-mailed. All the accolades—it’s been a good year for both of us.”) With another actor on the show, Ron Eldard, she had a romantic relationship that lasted nearly a decade. But after six seasons, she felt Hathaway’s story had come to its logical end, and she was homesick for New York. Despite an extraordinary offer—$27 million for two more seasons—she left the show.

Outsiders were stunned, wondering what was going on in her head and how anything could be better than that. And for the first few years, with only the miniseries The Mists of Avalon and a few minor projects on her plate, it looked as if Margulies had committed something close to career suicide.

The actress never saw it that way. “I’m a smart girl,” she says. “I had a year’s worth of work waiting and a mortgage completely paid at age 32. I was under no illusion that I was going to be some big movie star. My dad said, ‘If you got hit by a bus tomorrow, were you living your life truthfully, or were you waiting to get rich?’ If I died and my soul started leaving my body, would I be looking down going, ‘You idiot. You could have gone to Prague, you could have been on Broadway’? Those are the things I wanted to do.”

What she didn’t expect was to fall in love. She and Lie­berthal met at a mutual friend’s dinner party and married soon after, in November 2007. “I thought everyone was full of shit about marriage until I met the right guy,” Margulies says. “I’m from divorce. I didn’t have a great example of marriage. My father paid alimony, but we didn’t have a lot. At 12, I wrote in a journal—I have it still—‘I will never depend on anyone for money.’ I always struggled with finding the right mate . . . It’s one of those things where if you live long enough with a man who has a cold, you’re going to catch the cold. Why would it be any different if you live with someone who’s angry all the time or depressed all the time?

“But Keith only adds to who I am,” she continues. “If he’s not in my life, the fun and enjoyment aren’t there . . . I’m not saying you’re not great alone. Listen, my mom lives alone; she loves it. She was a free spirit. She had many, many lovers. That was her path. But when you find that one [love], it’s like putting a spice in a great dish—suddenly everything’s enhanced. I didn’t know it could taste so good.”

Now what makes her happiest is to see “10 people sitting at my table, eating a meal I prepared.” Other nights, she and Lieberthal might join Baranski and her spouse for burgers and martinis or go out with Cumming and his husband. “Dancing is often involved,” Cumming says. “And show tunes.” Or Margulies and Lieberthal might invite friends to their country house. “We cooked a great pasta together there once,” Charles says.

She’s open to having another baby, but: “Ticktock, as they say. It’s not for lack of trying. But we always say, if it happens, great, and if not, great. There’s no pressure.”

Well, maybe a little pressure. One recent morning, Kie­ran walked Margulies to the elevator and said, “Mama, when you come home, bring me a brother or sister.” The memory makes her laugh. “I got in the car and told my driver, ‘Joe, I have a really tall order today.’"

Margulies wouldn’t be The Woman Who Has It All if she didn’t also have this: a genuine appreciation for how lucky she is. If she says “I’m grateful” once, she says it 20 times. “I’m such a different person now than I was in my twenties,” she says. “I had all these insecurities—about doing the right thing, about how people would perceive me. It stopped me from having fun, where now I feel comfortable with who I am, no matter who’s in the room. I go out and have a good time. Now this is me, take it or leave it.”

On her 30th birthday, her mother told her, “Honey, if I only knew how young I was at 60,” and Margulies tries to remember that. “When you look in the mirror and see one more line, do you say, Oh God, or do you say, Wow, I’ve lived? That’s the choice you have,” she says. “I’m not going to blank out my face. I want people to know what I’m feeling. But I eat well, I work out, I don’t go in the sun. I try to maintain what I have with dignity. Every now and then I’ll see a rerun of ER and think, Oh my God, what happened to my face!”

She needn’t worry—her looks remain so striking that Margulies was signed to be the face of L’OrĂ©al’s RevitaLift skin-care line. But she has a clear, persuasive way of seeing her path from ER to the present: “I wouldn’t be who I am today if I were back there. That’s the beauty of growing up. I feel like everything has fallen into place, so I feel younger than I did in my thirties. I’m in better shape. I have a better understanding of the world. I feel more free. And psychically, the mind relaxes if you let it.”

So when she’s gotten in at midnight and Kieran wakes up at 2 with night terrors, instead of panicking, she thinks, “I haven’t seen him all day. I can’t wait to hold that little boy! I run into his room and jump into bed with him and smell his little head. He falls back to sleep in two seconds. I don’t, because once I’m up, I’m up.” But she’s aware that soon her son won’t need her as much. “I know in the snap of my fingers he’s not going to let me in his room. So I’m taking this moment, and I’m going to embrace it.

“It doesn’t mean there aren’t days where, the exhaustion, you want to just keel over,” she sums up. “My feeling is, if I can do this job and still manage to be a wife and mother and have a life, then I can pretty much do anything.” And though, she adds, it took her some time to get here, “I feel this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”


JOHANNA SCHNELLER previously profiled Diane Keaton for More.

First Published Fri, 2012-03-02 15:20

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