Eye on Emmy: Julianna Margulies on The Good Wife's Perfect Union of Story and Performance

What makes The Good Wife such great drama? To hear Julianna Margulies tell it, it’s a sweet marriage of top-notch ensemble acting and scripts that are as compelling in what they sometimes don’t say as in what they do. Even so, it’s Margulies who is at the heart of the CBS series, an actress whose portrayal of a strong woman betrayed by those close to her rouses a passionate fan base. Is this the year Emmy falls hard for Alicia Florrick, too?

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TVLINE | The end of this season had Alicia confronting Peter, and then Kalinda, about their betrayals, and then she hooked up with Will. How did you approach three scenes so tonally different and uniquely intimidating?
That’s an interesting question, and here’s what I keep saying about this show: When the writing is that good, all I have to do is say the words, because the intention is already there. The way I was able to rationalize her staying with Peter was that when it comes to it being a hooker, there’s almost an understanding of “Someone isn’t getting enough at home,” and she can see her fault in that. But when it becomes about someone [Kalinda] she has opened up her heart to for two years, the hurt was so beyond deep. I love playing this character because she’s so smart and yet incredibly naïve in ways, and her eyes have been opened to a whole new world because of Peter’s behavior and also because of her own, by not being more in tune with what’s going on [around her].

TVLINE | Viewers may have expected Alicia to fly off handle, but instead she was powerful in her quietness.
Well, he put his hands inside her and ripped out her heart. And so did Kalinda. All of Alicia’s friends turned against her when the [original] scandal happened, and she could only survive. Then along came this woman who at first judged her and didn’t have much respect for her, but throughout their work relationship they become friends. You know, a friend of mine once found out that her husband had been cheating on her with their nanny, and I watched her crumble every time she thought of an instance where she’d been in the same room with the [the two of them]. When those moments come back to you, you feel like you’ve been had, that it was almost calculated. Alicia’s trust was just being built back up, and not only was that knocked out, so was her belief in what’s right and wrong.

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TVLINE | Because TV offers so few strong, non-adversarial female relationships, was a part of you sad to see the rug pulled out from Alicia and Kalinda?
Sure, partly. But Kalinda is such a mysterious sort of character who can at times border on caricature when placed in such a real show – with the boots and the skirts, the way she doesn’t answer questions – I think it was very important that this happened, to keep her real and see that she’s actually human and doesn’t just hit guys with baseball bats. Also, we’re hoping for a few more seasons, so this gives us ground to find new friends, and it allows us to find a way back – or not. One way or another, confrontation is the best source of drama.

TVLINE | With Alicia and Kalinda, too, the confrontation was subtly played.
The interesting thing with that scene in [Alicia’s] office was I did not want to cry, mostly because in the next scene Kalinda goes in the elevator and cries, which you never see her do. I wanted her to have that moment, where the audience is like, “She actually has an emotion.” It was such a sad scene to me, because it is the end of their friendship, and the director kept saying, “You’re holding back. Why?” When I explained, she was like, “Don’t worry about that.” It was a moment I intended to play differently – stoically strong – because I didn’t want Kalinda to have that power over me, to see Alicia reduced to tears. But in a way I get why they used that take, because it’s more powerful to see the devastation that happens. When Kalinda later says, “You were just a housewife”? I cannot tell you how many people have stopped me on the street to express how unbelievable it was for them to hear those words. “Just a housewife,” as if I didn’t have a face, that it was OK to sleep with the husband. Those words were possibly more devastating than any in the entire episode.

TVLINE | The sequence with Will, in the hotel, was so perfect in its slight awkwardness. When Alicia says, “I think it would look like an exceptional moment…” That’s not the stuff of greeting cards.
[Laughs] That was so much fun to film because A) [series cocreator] Robert King was directing, and B) we had been waiting two seasons to have this [hook-up] not be a Hallmark moment, but be real. Josh Charles and I have known each other for years, and that allows for the discomfort to happen. Alicia has to take a minute before the “exceptional moment” line because the right, appropriate words never fall off her tongue. When you hear that, and then see that little hint of doubt when the little kid has pressed all the buttons in the elevator, you think: Maybe this is a sign? I loved how [the elevator sequence] was shot, because you got to see what we’re thinking. Television is filled with so many words for the sake of talking, and what I love about our show is the silences.

TVLINE | There’s debate about whether Alicia is in the right – she’s not divorced from Peter, and Will’s sort of with Tammy. Your take?
Oh, I think the girl deserves a little loving, man. It’s been a long time coming, and she needs to be held. [Laughs] There is definitely one camp saying, “She’s still married to Peter and she cheated on him.” Wow, really? You think she cheated on Peter? Wow. Her world has been turned upside-down and she packed him up and shipped him out. Wouldn’t you be happy for her to get a little something? I don’t know if I’m “pro” her being with Will, but I’m “pro” her being with Will for the last episode, for sure. I just hope that she’ll be able to separate an exceptional moment from a complicated life.

TVLINE | Are you relishing the chance to now play Alicia with a tilted halo?
I am. The first season was fantastic, but the second season outshone it. What I think is slowly happening is we’re all making strides, and we also have the support of our network to be the show we are rather than conform to what they think we should be. That gives us confidence to do things that have never been done before, and there are so many colors Alicia has yet to play. She’ll have a tilted halo – and I think she’ll open herself up to other experiences because of it.

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TVLINE | Does being part of this ensemble make your job easy, because everyone is so good, or hard, because the bar is set so high?
It’s like playing tennis with a really good tennis player – you only get better. If you play with bad people you get lazy. When I’m in a scene with Josh Charles or Christine Baranski, I learn about acting. When I get to do a scene with [guest star] Michael J. Fox, all I do is learn the lines, and when I get to work it becomes a scene because I listen to what he’s saying and react, because he truly is that character. And vice versa. It’s one of those blessed moments that I know won’t last for the rest of my life.

TVLINE | A drama series in its early years, solid cast and scripts…. How is The Good Wife similar to your ER days, and how is it different?
It’s similar in that it is television and it’s long hours. But it is completely different. First of all, the most important thing for me nowadays is getting home in time to see my kids; on ER, the most important thing was to maybe sleep until noon – that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s very different when you man a show, because I feel very responsible for the crew in a way that I never [previously] have; I feel very responsible that the cast is copacetic. I feel it is my responsibility to keep the tone on the set professional, fun and calm. When I was on ER, I didn’t feel like it was all on my shoulders, whereas if “the good wife” isn’t there, there’s no Good Wife. Also, I’m part of the process – the producers never do anything or hire anyone without asking me. This whole Kalinda-Alicia thing was presented to me six months before it happened, and if I had felt it was not the right way to go, they wouldn’t have done it. It’s a very different spot to be in.

TVLINE | What do you remember most about your first Emmy win [for ER, in 1995]?
When they called my name, I remember them saying I only had 30 seconds – and I thought, “Does that mean from the chair to the stage…? Or once I get to the stage?” David Duchovny handed me my Emmy and I remember seeing his blue eyes and thinking, “Concentrate on those and you’ll be OK.” It was all very surreal. [Watch video here.]