Julianna Margulies on separating real life from work

Julianna Margulies, who found fame as Nurse Hathaway in ER. Picture: AP
Julianna Margulies, who found fame as Nurse Hathaway in ER. Picture: AP
Share this article
Have your say

She has had to put up with the wayward ways of George Clooney and Chris Noth - on screen at least. But fortunately for Julianna Margulies, real life does not imitate art, as Siobhan Synnot discovers

BEAUTY is all very well in an actress, but for a long and interesting career it’s probably more useful to send out signals of being relatable; the kind of person your audience might imagine sharing a coffee with, or even advising on your choice of life partner. “It is amazing to me how many people stop me in the street and say, ‘Oh, give him a chance,’” says Julianna Margulies, arching a dramatic eyebrow. “I say, ‘He slept with hookers – what part of that is OK?’”

It’s a very modern dilemma, but one that Margulies has only been dealing with since she started playing Alicia Florrick in 2009. Audiences have been itching to find out if she will ever get around to divorcing her philandering spouse in The Good Wife. On the one hand, as Margulies says, he’s a disgraced politician and a cheating pig, and when he is sent to jail, Alicia is forced to start at the bottom with a law firm in order to pay his legal fees and raise their two children. On the other, he’s played by Sex And The City’s former Mr Big, Chris Noth, and is desperate to get Alicia back.

For the last four years, she’s been dithering as to whether to ditch him completely, or cut him loose and throw herself into an attraction to a work colleague (Josh Charles), which has built into a tantalising torn-between-two-blokes storyline.

“All men want me to stay with my husband – ‘Cmon, we’re all weak,’” she snorts. “Older women want me to stay with Chris too. But younger women want me to go with Josh.” Margulies has her own preference. “I personally think she shouldn’t be with either of them. She needs a break.” However she’s asked the show’s creators Michelle and Robert King – who, ironically enough, are husband and wife – not to tell her what their long-term plan is.

Margulies’s own domestic situation is far less complicated. In 2007 she married attorney Keith Lieberthal – “when I am learning my lines at night, I often get him to explain some legal term so I don’t have to look it up”.

They met at a dinner party, where he spotted an attractive brunette with a woodsmoke voice and zeroed in on her immediately. She was suspicious. “He was so bright and smart that I knew I was interested right away. So I asked him, ‘Are you a model or an actor? Because I’ve been there and done that. Nothing against actors, but I’m not interested.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s good, because I’m a lawyer.’”

Was he impressed at all, to be chatting up the artist formerly known as Nurse Hathaway from ER? “He didn’t have any idea – and I loved that.” The couple live in New York with their five-year-old son Kieran, who has shown no signs of wanting to act or litigate. “He can do anything he wants once he is 18,” says his mother. “But first I want him to have a childhood, I want to give him an opportunity not to have a life of rejection.”

In her two major TV roles, Margulies has found herself playing women with overcomplicated love lives, while she has always been drawn towards long, stable relationships. For most of her time on the top-rated ER, when Nurse Hathaway was progressing and regressing through a romance with the hospital’s king lothario Doug Ross, played by George Clooney, Margulies was with actor Ron Eldard, one of Hathaway’s suitors in that show. She thinks being the child of parents who divorced when she was a year old made her look for long, reliable relationships. “Now I wish I hadn’t been so serious. I wish I’d known back then that I was going to meet the right man and have a child, and that I didn’t have to worry.”

The youngest of three daughters, Margulies was raised in Paris, England, New York and New Hampshire. “When I arrived in Sussex, I was The Yank, so I immediately got rid of the accent,” she recalls. As a result, Margulies can turn on a great estuary accent even now, and she only lost her slightly posh English accent when she moved back to a small town and wanted to fit in. She adopted the jeans and lumberjack shirt uniform of her peers, and turned to a voice coach to relocate a suburban American accent.

It sounds like the birth of an actress, but Margulies isn’t a fan of cheap psychology. It was more a case of a travelsick child wanting to fit in, she says. Ironically for the star of two top-rated TV shows, who rates Mad Men and Downton Abbey as appointment viewing, she wasn’t allowed to watch telly as a child because her parents were united in the belief that television drained a child’s imagination. One side-effect was that for years she didn’t appreciate her father’s small celebrity for coining the ‘plop-plop, fizz-fizz’ copyline for Alka Seltzer

Acting began at school, then Yale. She headed to New York and took jobs from waitressing to packing up the belongings of dead people for their surviving family. She found work onstage and made her screen debut as a hooker in a Steven Seagal action movie called Out For Justice.

She has flirted with film ever since, but nothing she has done on the big screen has had quite the impact of her small-screen work. She appeared alongside Renée Zellweger in A Price Above Rubies, as a devout Hasidic Jewish wife. Then there was Traveller, where her sexy barmaid charmed Bill Paxton, and Paradise Road, a Second World War drama about women PoWs who form a choir that also included Cate Blanchett, Glenn Close and Pauline Collins. She also starred in the agreeably daft Snakes On A Plane with Samuel L Jackson. “I’m not good with snakes, and I found out that he put it in his contract that the snakes could be no closer to him than 25 feet, so I got that clause added into my contract too.” She squeaks with laughter. “So the two leads for a movie called Snakes On a Plane made it legally binding they wouldn’t have to go near any snakes.”

This June she’s back in cinemas as part of The Stand Up Guys, which comes across as a twinkly grey power picture with an Ocean’s 11 veneer. Al Pacino and Christopher Walken play retired gangsters who reunite for one last night. Margulies plays the daughter of their getaway driver (Alan Arkin). There’s even an ER joke, when nurse Margulies wheels Pacino into the hospital after he overdoses on Viagra.

Margulies brings weight to a daughter under no illusions about her father’s life as a crook but she’s also under no illusion that this movie is much more than an old boys night out. “We shot it during a break from The Good Wife, and I worked for three days with Christopher Walken and Al Pacino. It was heaven; like watching great tennis, so I got a masterclass in acting.”

It also took her away from the pressure of carrying a drama. “As much as I’d like to pretend it’s an ensemble, it’s called The Good Wife, and if The Good Wife goes down there’s no show.” She’s right. Despite an ensemble that includes veterans like Noth, Christine Baranski, Alan Cumming, and boutique guest stars such as F Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing or Friends’ Matthew Perry, Margulies is the heart and soul of The Good Wife universe.

It’s a rare attempt by American TV to focus on the life of a middle-aged woman who isn’t a cougar or a cartoonish desperate homemaker. It’s also a role that asks a lot of a 46-year-old with a young child. Episodic drama is a continuous and ravenous beast, where actors work long days with little time for script study or rehearsal. “There are days when I work till midnight, then have to start again at 5am. I look at my husband and go, ‘This is why Judy Garland was on pills.’ You want to be kind and generous, but you need to pick the right partner in life. Because no matter how hard my day I can’t wait to go home and I know I’ll be safe.”

She is politely tolerant of questions that solicit her opinion of infidelity and good wives, because that is Alicia Florrick’s burden, but her own temptations stop at chocolate and martinis. “We are tired. With all the things we do in our lives, what woman has the time to fit in an affair?”

A brave and delicate actress, she still worries what lies around the corner, despite working pretty steadily since she first arrived in New York almost 30 years ago. Margulies was supposed to be pronounced dead within the first five minutes of the pilot episode of ER, as the victim of a deliberate overdose. Studio executives thought she was “too exotic” to find a place on TV but the reaction from test audiences revived Nurse Carol Hathaway. She was about to sign up for Homicide: Life On The Street as Ned Beatty’s girlfriend, when one of the ER actors phoned with a tip off. “Don’t even think of auditioning for another series,” George Clooney counselled her. On her 27th birthday, she joined as a semi-regular cast member.

“The character of Hathaway was so underwritten because she was meant to die,” Margulies has said. “When they brought her back to life, I was able to give so much to the character that wasn’t written, to fill in all the blanks and create this history, which makes it really real.” It speaks of her considerable determination and self-possession that in her 20s she was prepared to push the ER writers for a more empowered character arc than just Dr Ross’s long-suffering handmaiden.

By the second season, she was a regular cast member, and also one of Clooney’s favourite targets for practical jokes. At one point he was obsessed by a gel lubricant used in hospital scenes, so answering a prop phone might leave Margulies with Surgilube running down her neck. “And I still had to keep going with the scene,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe he lubed the phone.”

During Carol Hathaway’s reign as the warm romantic heart of the show, she had some great storylines, including a hold-up in a chemist shop with Ewan McGregor, clashes with hospital management and a run of affairs at work, dominated by her on-off relationship with Clooney’s Dr Ross. In 1995 she won an Emmy ahead of anyone else in the cast, but when her contract came to an end, she turned down an offer of £17m to renew and stay with ER for two more years. “Once George left the show it felt like I was drifting in and out of any goodlooking guy who came on to the show,” she says wryly. “It was, ‘Oh here’s a guy for Hathaway.’ And to be honest I was homesick. I felt very stuck out in LA. I grew up in places like England, where you freeze your ass off during winter and then you’re so 
excited about spring, and summer and fall. There’s a natural progression and in LA I felt I was stuck in a car going to the studio and it was always the same weather outside. After six years I’d fulfilled my contract and I was done.”

She left on a high, with an episode that in the final few minutes managed to surprise viewers by reuniting Carol Hathaway with Doug Ross. “It was so secret I had to steal Carol’s clothes from my trailer and take this private jet to film the scene on location.” She also stayed friends with Clooney, and when the curtain came down on the series in 2009, they made pulses race one last time by appearing together as Ross and Hathaway, apparently now working in a Seattle hospital. For fans, it felt like closure. “Which is exactly why we did it,” cries Margulies. “I called George up and said, ‘If you do it, I’ll do it’. We were both very aware we had careers because of that show, and we also loved those characters. I remember walking on to the Warner Brothers lot, and they asked for my ID. I used to have my picture on the wall there. It was a little surreal, but a lovely way to come full circle.”

Clooney and Margulies were never romantically involved but she regards him as a close pal and surrogate big brother as she negotiated her way through early stardom. “He taught me all about set etiquette; he’s old school, and a movie star not just because he’s talented but because he treats people well. Fame hasn’t changed him”

She doesn’t envy his celebrity – helicopters circle above his house – but for a long stretch it looked as if she would never enjoy the kind of high-profile work she experienced with ER. There were guest parts in the hospital comedy Scrubs, playing a feisty lawyer, and in four episodes of The Sopranos. The Good Wife, though, is proving a bona fide hit.

“And I love the work even more because I know how fleeting it is, and how fortunate I am. So it’s an even bigger experience this time round.”

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• Stand Up Guys is on general release from June 26; The Good Wife is on Thursdays, More4, 9pm