Sara Gilbert on Life After ‘Roseanne,’ Guiding the Reboot and the Upcoming ‘Living Biblically’

Sara Gilbert portrait
Dylan Coulter for Variety

It was all about the couch.

Yes, Archie Bunker had his easy chair, and the “Friends” had their sofas in Central Perk. But the couch in the Conner family’s living room may well be one of TV’s most iconic pieces of furniture.

So when the idea of a revival of the late-’80/mid-’90s ABC sitcom “Roseanne” began to take shape, Sara Gilbert — the architect of the reboot and one of the series’ stars — insisted that the couch be the same, if a bit more weathered.

“I really wanted the house to feel a lot like it did before,” she says. “I felt like there would be little changes in artwork and things like that, but this is a working-class family. I think sometimes people in Hollywood do working class through the lens of people who are privileged.”

The sitcom, which aired for nine seasons, broke ground for its no-holds-barred portrayal of a blue-collar family — then and now, still a relative rarity on television (hat tip to “The Middle”). Capturing that authenticity was paramount to Gilbert, who served as a hands-on executive producer on the new iteration.

“It was very important to me that they were still struggling,” she says. “We did a lot of research, and it showed that people who were in their income bracket then were actually often making less now, not even factoring in inflation.”

That’s also one of the reasons why the reboot is airing on ABC, its original home, rather than Netflix, the platform du jour. “Because it’s a working-class show, we wanted it to be for every woman and every man,” Gilbert explains. “We wanted to make sure it was something everyone has in their living room.”

That attention to detail is a hallmark of the child star turned talk-show host turned producer, now 43. And it helped her navigate what might have otherwise been a crushing workload over the past year, which included not only shepherding and starring in “Roseanne” (which bows March 27), but also maintaining her daily role as host and producer of CBS’ “The Talk” — and a recurring role on the CBS sitcom “Living Biblically” (it debuts Feb. 26).

“I think I’ve got a lot of tenacity,” she says. “If people tell me I can’t do something, I just keep trying for years. I don’t think I’m naturally successful. I just don’t give up and don’t quit till something happens.”

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Gilbert. When “Roseanne” ended its initial run and she graduated from Yale, she made a pilot that wasn’t picked up. Charting her next step wasn’t immediately clear.

“I just felt like a free-floating orb,” she confesses over a vegan lunch of spicy tofu and soup in Beverly Hills. “That was a hard time, finding my feet again, because I’d been in all these institutions — the institution of family, the institution of education, the institution of ‘Roseanne.’ Suddenly I had no affiliations anymore.”

Eventually she found her way back onto the screen, stacking up recurring roles in “24,” “ER,” “Twins” and “The Big Bang Theory,” where she reunited with Johnny Galecki, her co-star on “Roseanne.” Then in 2010, she launched “The Talk,” now in its eighth season, wanting to create a show where women chatted honestly about the issues in their lives. She calls it “a little ray of light in the world.” As of the end of January, “The Talk” is averaging 2.55 million viewers, just below the audience of its main competitor, ABC’s “The View” (2.86 million).

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Dylan Coulter for Variety

That’s of little concern to Gilbert, who says she doesn’t have the time to watch much television. But while the competition has seen an ever-rotating lineup of hosts, the women around the “Talk” table — Julie Chen, Sharon Osbourne, Sheryl Underwood and Gilbert (the newest member of the team is the rapper Eve) — have been relatively stable after a rocky first season. “I think our relationships are genuine with each other and with the audience,” she says. “And that’s probably nice for people to watch in the middle of their day.”

She dismisses out of hand any questions about just how real their off-screen relationship is. “People always say, ‘Do you guys really get along?’” says Gilbert. “And we just think it’s like it’s amazing that there’s this idea in our culture that women can’t get along. Who’s putting that idea out there? Is that just a tool to keep women down?”

Chen vouches for their bond, pointing proudly to Gilbert’s evolution through the years. “I would say there’s more of a sense of who she is as a producer, and a level of maturity and confidence that maybe didn’t exist as much when we were starting out,” she says.

In the morning meeting when the hosts review the day’s topics, Chen says Gilbert can be counted on to weigh in when something feels “too lowbrow” or strikes a nerve, like spanking. “She’s adamant about never doing a story that might go down an avenue where someone on the panel is going to appear like they endorse it,” she says — wary that viewers might see that as tacit approval.

Gilbert, who’s married to singer Linda Perry and has three children (including two with her ex, producer Allison Adler), has also gotten more comfortable opening up about her personal life. “My first instinct will be like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’” she says. “I’ve learned that it’s better to push against that and just try it. If it stays no, that’s fine. But a lot of times as you start engaging in a process you’re like ‘Oh, actually this is fun.’”

With the talk show established as a “well-oiled machine,” Gilbert wanted to branch out into producing a scripted series. Her strengths behind the camera, she says, are that she has “a good truth meter and decent taste.”

“A lot of times as a producer, you’re relying on other people’s talent, so I think my talent might be surrounding myself with talented people [and saying], ‘Now you do the work!’”

Among the talented people she’s surrounded herself with is Galecki, who’s trying his hand as a producer with “Living Biblically.” “We probably would have been the two least expected to be producing shows 20 years later,” Galecki says with a laugh.

Her bond with Galecki — the two dated early in the show’s run — has endured in the years since. So when he was launching his own show, it was natural that he cast his friend. “She was always on the list before there was a character list,” he says. “And then I made her audition,” joking again.

“I knew how much she wanted to inhabit a character again,” he continues. “So I knew that she would come at it, despite all of her years of experience, with a whole lot of commitment and a whole lot of excitement. And she did tenfold.”

Gilbert stars as Cheryl, an officious co-worker of film critic Chip Curry (Jay Ferguson), who has decided to live his life according to the Bible. It’s a departure from the famously sarcastic Darlene on “Roseanne.”

Gilbert recounts the day she brought her son to work with her, taking him from “Roseanne” to “Living Biblically.” “He was like, ‘Oh, you’re the nerd on this one!” she recalls, laughing.

“I like this idea that you can be completely different politically and still love each other.”
Sara Gilbert

Still, it wasn’t easy for the admittedly controlling Gilbert to take a backseat on the set: “It’s funny because then all of a sudden I get there and I’m like, ‘Oh, wait. No one’s asking me what I think.’”

Gilbert isn’t one to readily claim credit, but all involved agree: The “Roseanne” family reunion was her idea.

She admits she always had a soft spot for the show. “I think I didn’t feel done with it, honestly,” she says. “I think for all these years I’ve thought about it, measured things against it. And I guess I just needed to go back. … I just really needed to know what it would feel like to do it now.”

What you see is what you get with Gilbert, familiar from her on-camera persona on “The Talk.” In person, she’s quiet, considers her words carefully, but is quick to jump in when she’s passionate about something. Darlene’s sharp tongue is all on the page, not a part of the woman who plays her.

“I know exactly where she lives in my body. I don’t have to think about it. And I can say a line like Darlene, and it just feels like me,” she says. “But I’ve changed a lot over the years, and so I think Darlene is probably a little softer and a little more sensitive.”

The reboot, which was long simmering, sparked when co-star John Goodman (who played patriarch Dan) made an appearance on “The Talk” in March 2017 and said he’d do the show again “in a heartbeat.”

The texts came flying in from the other cast members, though Roseanne Barr took a bit of convincing. “[Sara] assured me that she could take on the role of producer,” says Barr. “And she has proven herself to me by doing a great nine episodes.”

Barr may have been notoriously demanding during the first run, but Gilbert won her over by promising to maintain the integrity of the show.

“I never found Roseanne difficult the first time because I just wasn’t working with her in that capacity,” she says. “I think Roseanne in the past could get frustrated creatively if she was hitting a lot of roadblocks or if people weren’t communicating with her. Now there’s such an open line of communication that there’s not room for any kind of breakdowns because we’re all talking to each other about what we want to achieve.”

With Bruce Helford installed as showrunner (he’d served that role in season five), Gilbert and the writers made a laundry list of topics they wanted to cover, then narrowed it down to those that could uniquely be addressed by “Roseanne.” “We wanted to tackle the issues of today through the family dynamic and through the humor of the show,” says Gilbert.

Among the themes on her mind were the struggles that come with aging; her hope is that the audience’s connection to Roseanne and Dan will help them relate. The show also dives headfirst into politics — the premiere finds Roseanne and her sister, Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), still at odds over the 2016 election. “I like this idea that you can be completely different politically and still love each other,” says Gilbert. “When you start talking to people that you think are different than you are, there are nuances to what they believe. I just think no one is hearing each other anymore. So I would hope that even if we just get a few people to start talking to each other, then we can effect some sort of change.”

“Roseanne” holds its first table read for the revival’s premiere episode.
Courtesy of ABC

The second episode centers on Darlene’s young son, Mark (Ames McNamara), who prefers to wear girl’s clothing. “He just likes to wear clothes like that,” says Darlene. “I read a bunch of books about that, and they all said to just let him be who he is.” That, too, was Gilbert’s idea. “I know a lot of kids that are boys that dress in more feminine clothing, and I know a lot of girls that dress in more traditionally what’s considered boys’ clothing,” she says. “I thought that was an interesting thing to talk about, and how society deals with it.”

The other actors were invited to contribute their thoughts on where their characters were 20 years later, a move Galecki calls “not only generous but also very ballsy.”

“Those ideas might not jell with the writers. They might not be conducive to story arcs,” he says. “And you risk having a cast member who is upset because they feel like their ideas weren’t listened to. But she was very confident in the idea, and it worked out fantastically.”

Gilbert was in the writers’ room every day at the start of production until the realities of juggling her other projects intervened. While having an actor so invested may not always be ideal, Helford welcomed her input. “Sara totally has a writer’s head and understands the process, so that makes all the difference,” he says. “It’s the most valuable asset you have.”

As the producer of “Roseanne,” Tom Werner has had a front-row seat to Gilbert’s maturation from child star to multihyphenate. He’s known her since she was 13, playing the bratty teen. Now he calls her “an exemplary human being.”

“I know that she can go from a run-through to going upstairs to the writers’ room and not only talk about her own performance but be able to give constructive notes on other people’s performance,” he says. “Even while she’s in the moment as an actress and doing the rehearsal, she’s also able to see the play from a producer’s standpoint. That’s impressive.”

And she’s not done yet. She’s not sure what’s next — whether it’s another season of “Roseanne” (“If it happens, great, but I feel like I can set it down if I need to,” she says) or simply more work in what she calls “the dark comedy space.” And she’s content to keep doing “The Talk” for now: “I assume at some point I’ll say OK, that’s enough years doing that, but I’m not there yet.”

Her TV mom has another idea in mind for Gilbert: “She could run for governor of California someday, and just might,” says Barr. “She can helm and deliver a great product. Women who can do that and stay honestly funny are rare gems in TV, and should be coddled as f**k.”