Julianna Margulies apologizes “for the snotty voice.” She’s sick when she calls from New York, but fortunately on this day, Margulies’s shots for CBS’s acclaimed series The Good Wife simply entailed walking through her character’s old neighborhood. “I worked for seven hours without having to talk.” Well, I point out, her character, Alicia Florrick, the on-the-rise attorney torn between her cheating politician husband, Peter (Chris Noth), and her slick lawyer boss, Will (Josh Charles), is all about the silent, meaningful glances. “Yes, it’s true,” a wheezy Margulies says. “And as the series has progressed, those glances have gotten more and more prominent.” So has the 45-year-old actress herself, back in the spotlight after her ’90s run on ER. We spoke in advance of her Chicago visit for Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s annual Women in the Arts fund-raiser on March 12.
Shooting the Chicago-set Good Wife in New York is a sensitive spot for Chicagoans.
I’m very aware. Josh Charles tweets, and he lets me know the fine people of Chicago are not happy with our New York choice. It’s ironic that I ended up on two shows based in Chicago. I’m from New York, and aside from my family being here, when you’re on a television show, it’s your life. It’s nine and a half months a year, five days a week, 14 hours a day.
Actors are routinely asked how they are or aren’t like their characters, but that’s been especially true of you and Alicia: People ask you what you’d do if you learned your husband had been unfaithful, especially so publicly.
Every single person is saying, “What would I do?” I got it today: We were shooting in Riverdale, and a woman stopped me on the street and said, “Stay with Peter!” Two steps later, a woman said, “You gotta go back to Will!” I was very judgmental of all those political wives that you saw standing by their man because I thought, Oh, my God, I went to Sarah Lawrence College. [Laughs] It’s not that I’m feminist so much as I’m a believer in equal rights, and I can’t imagine a man standing up on a podium behind his cheating wife. But I went from being very judgmental about it to questioning what I would do in that situation if children were involved.
Given your parents’ own divorce, do you channel your mom at all to play Alicia?
[Laughs] There’s no aspect of Alicia that channels my mother. My mom was much more of a free-spirit hippie woman. Coming from a divorce and then playing a character in a pending divorce definitely makes me much more sympathetic to the children.
You’ve noted of Alicia that women over 40 can stop being people pleasers. As a woman over 40, does that speak to you?
Yeah. For me, 36. I started realizing I had to do what I wanted to do. People panic about getting older, but your life is so much better lived with knowledge. Life throws you curveballs, but as you learn from these curveballs, you become a better person.
What’s been the biggest curveball for you?
Finally realizing that I needed to be in New York to feel like I had my life around me.
I see the Web is quite enthused about your husband’s looks.
I know. I happened to marry an incredibly gorgeous man. People are a little miffed by his existence ’cause whenever we go to these award shows, people just don’t understand that he’s not a movie star. And then the poor man has to go into work on Monday, he runs a company, and on his desk will be People magazine’s “Number one hottest spouse: Keith Lieberthal.” [Laughs] It’s a little hard to then bark orders at someone when they’re all laughing.
You guys met before The Good Wife. He’s had to get used to this.
Yeah. He was in law school when ER was on, and he did not know who I was. The first few months [of The Good Wife] were daunting. Kieran was 15 months old when the show aired, and it was a little scary to suddenly have people at us with cameras.
You got a lot of backlash for your decision to turn down $27 million for two more years of ER. Why do you think that was?
I’ve never made a monetary decision in my life. As much as I love making money, if it isn’t feeding you spiritually and artistically, it isn’t worth it. I called my father: “Oh, my God, I’m on every talk show, they’re being so mean: ‘Who does this girl think she is turning down that money?’ ” My dad said, “Honey, you just turned down the American dream. What everyone’s saying is what would they do, and not many people would say no to that kind of money.”
After ER, did you ever wonder, What did I do?
Never. I’m a smart girl. I had money in the bank. The day I left ER, I flew straight to Prague making a ridiculous sum of money doing a miniseries for TNT, did a play Off Broadway, did two independent films. For me, I was living the dream.
What’s this like the second time around?
I am savoring every minute of it because I’m very aware how fast this all goes.
The Good Wife airs Sundays at 8pm on CBS. Steppenwolf's Women in the Arts happens March 12; for details, visit steppenwolf.org.