Julianna Margulies could easily have canceled our interview. On this freezing afternoon in late January, there’s a full-on blizzard in New York, and she might have preferred to focus on getting home.
Instead, Margulies stays late, smiles wide and welcomes me to her “fancy digs,” as she jokingly refers to her airy dressing room in the Brooklyn studios where she has just finished a day’s work on The Good Wife, now in its fifth season. On the hit CBS drama, her complex portrayal of Alicia Florrick, the wronged political wife who’s now head of her own law firm, has earned her Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for Best Actress.
Having committed to this interview, she’s not about to let a little snow—OK, a lot of snow—stop her. “Julianna is the most dependable person you will ever meet,” says Nancy Banks, an acting coach and teacher in Los Angeles and a longtime close friend. “She’s there when you need her, across the board.”
“She’s tough,” says Michael J. Fox admiringly. He joined The Good Wife in 2010, in the recurring role of sly attorney Louis Canning, and was surprised to discover that “Julianna’s more of a broad than I thought she was. She’s got a kind of Lauren Bacall thing going. She’s all that and a bag of chips.”
Margulies, 47, has already shed the wig, makeup and form-hugging suits that help transform her into Alicia. Her own raven locks are pulled back in a ponytail, and she’s wearing a striped top, skinny jeans and high-heeled black boots. The dressing room’s picture windows offer a view of the storm, but it’s cozy inside. There’s a fridge and a microwave oven in a corner and a profusion of family photos on the walls: her husband, Harvard-educated lawyer turned corporate strategist Keith Lieberthal, and their son, Kieran, six. Does having a lawyer at home help her play one on TV? Margulies laughs, then says she only occasionally asks him to clarify complicated legal maneuvers in a script. “He loves the show, and I don’t want to ruin it for him,” she explains.
She settles in to talk on a large red sectional couch that she had shipped from the Santa Monica house she sold in 2010. That place was a last vestige of her life in L.A., where she lived for the six years she wore pink scrubs as nursing supervisor Carol Hathaway on ER, a character she loved playing and for which she won an Emmy in 1995. Longing to return to New York—she was born close to the city, went to college at suburban Sarah Lawrence and attended acting school in Manhattan—she made the decision to leave the top-rated ER in 2000 to come back east, a risky move that paid off handsomely, both professionally with The Good Wifea nd personally with a happy marriage and motherhood.
“I may work long hours, but I really love my job,” says Margulies, who puts in 12- to 15-hour days on the set. “Alicia is ever evolving. It’s a challenge and fun and hard and everything that you dreamed you’d be able to do when you were taking acting classes. Aside from an amazing cast, I get these great guest stars [including Fox, F. Murray Abraham and Nathan Lane], and I’m like, ‘Really, I get to play with you today?’ And I get to live in New York, raise my kid here and come home to my own bed every night.”
Well, OK then, that sums it up. Story told.
Actually, this is exactly why Margulies says she’s reluctant to do interviews: “I can’t bear braggarts.” Her life is pretty fab, and she’s grateful for it, but she feels it’s self-aggrandizing to say so. “I never want to talk like I’m rubbing anything in anyone’s face,” she says.
She’s more than happy, though, to talk up The Good Wife. The show is having a banner season with its engrossing story line and improved ratings. That’s because Michelle and Robert King, the married couple who are the show’s creators and executive producers, audaciously goosed the plot: Alicia and attorney Cary Agos (played by Matt Czuchry) broke away from their established firm, Lockhart/Gardner, to start their own legal shop. Margulies calls the move brilliant. She and her castmates refer to the resulting legal squabbling, client stealing and general nastiness between the two firms as the Civil War.
Even as the show moves forward, with Alicia pitted against her former boss, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), viewers have glimpsed, in flashbacks, the passion that Alicia and Will shared during a brief affair. “What I love about the flashbacks with Will”—many of them steamy sex scenes—“is that you get to see her true happiness in a moment where she’s not thinking about anyone but herself. And that’s not a normal day for Alicia. She’s -always thinking about everyone but herself,” says Margulies.
Charles, whose character feels betrayed by Alicia because of her departure from his firm, echoes her enthusiasm. “Jules is the reason I’m involved in this show,” he says, explaining that she reached out to him to join the cast. “This year has been really special for me because we’ve had so much to do together.”
The Good Wife is an ensemble drama, but Margulies, who’s also one of the show’s producers, is its undisputed star. As she sees it, that makes her responsible for establishing the tone on the set. “I learned from watching George [Clooney on ER] and James [Gandolfini on The Sopranos, in which she guest-starred four times during the 2006–07 season]. I want people to feel welcome, like family. You do your best work when you feel safe.”
Fox says when it takes him three or four tries to figure out a tricky scene and then two takes to nail it, Margulies is always supportive. “She wants to help you get there, to work on it and take a little extra time,” he says. “I’m just crazy about her.”
She also suggests, and even lassoes, actors she admires for parts. “Jules ran into Matthew Perry at a party,” remembers co-creator Robert King, “and he said, ‘I’m a fan of the show.’ And she said, ‘Don’t say that unless you want to be on it.’ ” Within weeks, Perry was slotted into a recurring guest spot as a slimy political rival of Alicia’s husband, Peter Florrick, played by Chris Noth.
Her marriage on the show is problematic, but here art doesn’t imitate life. “I chose the right guy,” she says. “I feel more secure in the world, like there’s this other half of who I am out there who always has my back. There’s never a moment when I feel that either of us would second-guess the other. And that kind of security at home has made me braver as an actress.”
When she was younger, Margulies never saw herself as the marrying kind. Her parents—her father was an ad man, her mother a former ballet dancer—separated when she was two. “There isn’t one moment I remember my parents in the same house except now, at Thanksgiving, when I make them both come,” she says, laughing. “I say, ‘You want to see your grandkid? You all have to come and get along.’ And they do.”
She had a 12-year relationship with ER costar Ron Eldard, but they parted in 2003. A few years later, during a friend’s party at a SoHo restaurant, she spotted the strikingly handsome Lieberthal, and the two began talking. And talking. She ducked out on Lieberthal just long enough to phone her pal Banks to rave about him. “At first she felt like, Oh my God, he’s too good to be true,” says Banks. “But he was true. He really is a special guy.”
The two wed in 2007, with Banks as maid of honor, and their son was born the next year. The family now lives in an apartment in downtown Manhattan and spends weekends at a second home in upstate New York. “We have this beautiful screened-in porch overlooking the Catskill Mountains. I always tell Keith, ‘One day you and I are going to be old and tired, and we’re going to sit on this porch and read every book we can get our hands on,’ ” says Margulies.
That kind of relaxed future wasn’t always in her sights. As an adolescent, she was a high achiever intent on getting into every college to which she applied. “I had this drive—and at one point when I had gotten straight A’s on my report card, my father jokingly said, ‘You know, if you had a B or a C, these A’s would really look amazing.’ I get it now. He was trying to tell me that you don’t have to kill yourself.”
It’s a life lesson she has taken to heart in her forties. “I lead a hectic, crazy life, but you know what?” she says. “I’m going to just lie and read with my kid for 20 minutes and put him to bed even though there are 20 phone calls waiting for me. They’ll all be there.”
She looks out the window at the snow, still coming down fast. “If we can get home,” she says, laughing. (Happy ending: She did.)
LEAH ROZEN profiled Emma Thompson in the December/January issue of More.
Julianna Margulies was previously profiled in the April 2012 issue of More.
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