The old adage says behind every powerful man is a strong woman, but the opposite also rings true for the Emmy-nominated lead actresses who are playing complex characters juggling leadership roles and personal lives.
From Kerry Washington’s D.C. fixer in ABC’s “Scandal” and Lizzy Caplan’s sex researcher in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” to Robin Wright’s manipulative first lady in Netflix’s “House of Cards,” Julianna Margulies’ upwardly mobile lawyer in CBS’ “The Good Wife,” and, yes, Amy Poehler’s local politician in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” the characters these women embody have strong male counterparts who may support them but don’t really define them.
Even the title of Margulies’ series, “The Good Wife,” has become what seems like an intentional distraction from the way her character has evolved over the past five seasons. Not only has Alicia Florrick become a formidably talented, confident lawyer, but she’s also practicing while keeping up appearances with her politician husband, played by Chris Noth. Noth says the fortitude of his onscreen wife is easily traced back to the actress who plays her.
“The strengths of the character are the same strengths that Julianna has, which is an impeccable work ethic,” Noth says. “She’s undaunted by any mountain that she has to climb. You see that in Alicia, that ability to take on what would make other people run for the hills.”
Noth, whose mother was the breadwinner after his father died, says he sees some similarities in Alicia.
“I won’t say my mom defined herself by her work, but in a way, she did. It was more important to her than any man was,” Noth says. “I don’t think that’s the same with Alicia, because we have this complicated relationship, but I think her work is as important to her soul as her family.”
While Alicia lost her love interest this season with the exit (and onscreen demise) of Josh Charles, Washington’s Olivia Pope still has her own fair share of messy romantic liaisons, like an affair with the president of the United States. But what appears scandalous on the surface is far more complicated, says her co-star and onscreen love interest Tony Goldwyn.
“What’s true about Olivia is that she’s a very dynamic, powerful, willful individual,” he says. “I think it’s been hard for her to find a relationship that matches her, where she feels challenged. And as dysfunctional as the relationship with (President) Fitz (Grant) is, put very simply, she’s met an equal opposite force in Fitz that she didn’t find in a man before that.”
Pope also doesn’t hesitate to double-cross Fitz when a situation that needs fixing presents itself, something happened in both season 1 and 2.
“He’s tried multiple times now to end his marriage, and Olivia is the one who has blocked it and is actually in partnership with his wife,” Goldwyn says — and that speaks to Pope choosing her job over her love.
Poehler’s Leslie Knope also met her romantic match in Ben on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” though it’s a far less dysfunctional relationship than what is on display in her drama competitors.
“The first episode that I was on we go and have a beer together, and it’s extraordinary writing-wise to look at the dialogue from that scene,” says Adam Scott, who plays Knope’s husband. “It maps out the next four years of our relationship. We brought these things out in each other that only happens when you meet the person that you want to end up with. The writers let it unfold in a real and lovely way.”
It’s no surprise that Scott credits his co-star’s ability to make each scene feel natural with helping the onscreen chemistry.
“Amy is just an easy person to act with,” Scott says. “It’s not something that we ever really talk about, but once we’re doing a scene together there’s just something that clicks in and it feels very natural. She’s obviously incredibly funny but intuitive as a person and as a performer.”
Even for a series like “Masters of Sex,” in which Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen’s William Masters play professionally and emotionally linked sex researchers, Caplan’s character manages to defy conventional stereotypes of the 1950s.
Producer Sarah Timberman says there’s something intrinsically contemporary that made Caplan right for the role.
“She is a very modern girl, but that quality in Lizzy suits the role perfectly because Virginia Johnson was a decidedly forward-looking woman,” Timberman explains. “She’s a brave woman, and she’s unembarrassed by delicate subject matter.”
In much the same way that “Scandal’s” Pope remains somewhat outside her emotions or “Good Wife’s” Florrick maintains a calm demeanor in even the toughest of situations, Johnson uses a detached persona to survive.
“Virginia Johnson is working within the system to get what she wants, but she’s also something of an outsider in the sense of being a woman in that period who is twice-divorced,” Timberman says. “It came into play last season, and it comes into play this season, as far as what the toll is on a woman who’s essentially functioning as a single mother, and how she’s judged and viewed. In that sense, she makes decisions that necessarily mark her as an outsider.”
But, of course, romantic entanglements remain a storytelling staple, and “Masters of Sex” couldn’t work without them. Although Virginia is setting herself apart from her peers, Timberman points out that part of the show’s thematic intention is addressing how relationships affect everyday lives.
“Our show provides an opportunity to find unexpected ways in which romantic yearnings contribute to the behaviors of our characters,” she says.