They’d never met, but it didn’t take long for Julianna Margulies and Matthew Rhys to discover they have much in common after the two Gotham-based actors sat down with Variety’s Cynthia Littleton in early May at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. The lively conversation between the stunning star of “The Good Wife” and the dashing Welshman at the helm of “The Americans” touched on the struggle to balance work and family life, their mutual dislike of divas on the set and their abiding love for the stage.
Variety: In “The Good Wife” and “The Americans,” both of your characters grapple quite a bit with unrequited love. Is that a hard emotion to get across to the audience?
Julianna Margulies: I really think it all depends on who it is you’re acting opposite. With Josh Charles, I got really lucky. We had known each other for years. I had gotten him the job on the show for selfish reasons, because I knew our characters were ultimately going to get together and I wanted to be with someone who I respected and loved working with. It was so easy to act with him because it felt very natural.
Matthew Rhys: It’s the most potent kind of love to play, I think. It’s always the loves in your past where you look back and say, “That was unfulfilled” or “Was that the one?” The relationships that come up short are the “What could have been?”
Margulies: Will and Alicia wouldn’t have been as interesting if they’d stayed together. Our job as actors is to make it so enticing to make you think you want them to stay together. But if you do, within five episodes everyone’s going to get bored. OK maybe not five, maybe 10. But that’s the drama.
Rhys: We’ve all had those relationships where you think, “I wonder what they’re doing now,” “I wonder what would have happened if …”
Margulies: If the stars align, it’s great to play. If you have great writers and actors who like each other. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had Josh and George Clooney. You hear about actors who were doing five years on a series as lovers and actually hated each other. I don’t know if I could pull it off.
Variety: Matthew, how was it for you at the outset connecting with Keri Russell?
Rhys: What was great about it was we both came at it with the same approach. We both loved the central relationship in the show — these two strange people who have lived together so long masquerading as a marriage and ultimately beginning a relationship when we first meet them. The madness of it intrigued us.
Variety: When you’re on a TV series, you spend so much time in the skin of your character. Do you live with them even when you’re not on camera?
Margulies: I always turn it off. I learned that really early. When I started on “ER” I’d never done a television series before. I was pretty young and I was playing a complicated character who was suicidal. When you’re on network TV it’s nine and a half months (of production). I realized early on when I put my key in the door that character has to stay outside for me to have a good, healthy normal-human-being life. It’s easier to be that kind of a method-y actor when you’re not on a TV series. If you are on a TV series and you have a hard time disassociating from that character when you get home, your love life is going to suffer, your children are going to suffer, your friends will suffer.
Rhys: You learn early on when you’re doing anything where you’re fighting with darker elements, that it is best left on the soundstage.
Margulies: But sometimes after I’ve spent the weekend being mommy and wife, cooking and cleaning, on Monday mornings even though it’s a 5:30 a.m. call, I go, “Oh good, I get to be Alicia.” Someone’s going to put makeup on me. I’m going to say someone else’s lines — there’s a relief to it.
Variety: On the flip side, how do you deal with the fatigue factor that comes with working on a series?
Margulies: There’s no way around it: You are physically and mentally exhausted. Just to learn lines — we do nine pages of dialogue a day and a lot of it is legal stuff. Wrapping my head around it is hard. I definitely pace myself better than I used to. But the exhaustion is going to come. … But I always say it’s an Upper East Side problem to have, a very privileged problem.
Rhys: Oh yes.
Margulies: I always get physically sick the week after we wrap. My whole body just crashes. It’s like everything just has to get out of you. You wake up a week later and you’re like, “Ah, now I’m OK.”
Rhys: In the first season of “Americans,” I had a bit of bravado. “I can burn the candle at both ends!” In the second season it was: greens, vitamins.
Variety: Is it hard to get everyone to pull in the same direction on a series that requires so much collaboration?
Margulies: My feeling is that we’re hosting a party and I want everyone to be really comfortable and happy at my party. From the smallest guest star role to the boom operator, I want everyone to feel welcome. You do your best work when you feel safe. … I try to set the example. If I know my lines and I’m on time after being up with a baby all night and having been (at work) 14 hours the day before, then you have no excuse not to show up, be kind and decent and know your lines.
Rhys: I learned from Sally Field (on “Brothers & Sisters”) that the leader sets the precedent of what you have to do. That was a very valuable lesson.
Margulies: I’m always shocked when actors have diva-esque behavior. It’s like, you’re really going to walk by the d.p. and not say “Hi”? These people are here to make you look good!
Rhys: Yes, it’s like, “Use my gun to shoot yourself in the foot. It’s quicker.”
Variety: How have the decisions you’ve made as actors influenced the development of your characters?
Margulies: They told me after the pilot that they realized Alicia shouldn’t talk so much. They liked my silences. I would wait before I delivered dialogue because lawyers always think before they talk. They’re cautious about what they’re going to say. I found that her power, her fear of showing her feelings was best left without words. They loved that and they’ve given her a lot of what I brought to her. Alicia will often stop a scene with a look rather than a word.
Rhys: Do they script that in now? Will they actually write that in the script?
Margulies: The words they use a lot are “She eyes him.” That’s everywhere in the script now.
Variety: Matthew, how has it been to develop a character that has so many sides, let alone wigs. You have so many quick pivots in your show.
Rhys: That’s the challenge. It’s a given that it’s going to be athletic and there’s jumping around. But what you want to land is that this is the reality for them. You’re not James Bond-ing it. You’re not parachuting in in a tuxedo with a martini glass. It’s not that smooth. It’s the bumps and the insecurity that makes these people human, that makes these relationships. That’s what I strive for.
Variety: Do you look to work in other realms during your downtime? Or is another acting job the last thing you want to tackle?
Rhys: I love the stage. I’m always sniffing around to see if there’s something I can squidge in quickly. I haven’t found a play this year but the beauty of our job is that you can bounce around to such variety.
Margulies: I’m one of those pathetic actors who will say yes to every play reading just because I do miss the stage so much. What I really miss about the theater is that in the end, it’s yours to give. In television and film, it’s yours to do and someone else’s to take and someone else’s to give. As much as I love television — the biggest luxury of all is to know that you have a job to go to — I do miss that connection and having that power over my own performance on stage.
Variety: Matthew, what was your path in coming to the U.S.?
Rhys: I was doing a play at the Royal Court Theater, a two-hander with Paul Bettany, and an American agent came to see me. He said, “You should come to L.A. for pilot season,” which sounded so exotic.
Margulies: You thought you were going to fly a plane.
Rhys: (Laughs) Right. There were hordes of (British actors) saying, “Yeah! Let’s go to pilot season.” We thought it was going to be glamorous — we were thinking palm trees and parties. And then there were eight of us in a motel room. My first time out I got Julie Taymor’s “Titus.” I thought, “Oh L.A.’s great! You just walk up and get big movies. It’s
brilliant.” Then I went back nine years consecutive and couldn’t catch a cold.
Margulies: It’s good to have that experience because you get a little humble pie, and then you can appreciate what you get. … I just really hope that if our show only goes one more season, that your show is still going because I want to be a guest star.
Margulies: I want to play a Russian spy.