The Good Fight has been recommended by many, it's screening on Stan at the moment. The image above is from Vanity Fair and the interview from The New Yorker.
Christine Baranski suggested that we meet for a languorous lunch of salades Niçoise at Sant Ambroeus on the Upper East Side, near her new apartment. When I walked in, the actress, who is sixty-nine years old and five feet ten, was sitting at a corner table in a cornflower-blue sweater and tinted glasses, looking like a glamorous heron. She chose this exact table, she told me, because it reminds her of the “chocolate-ice-cream story.” Then she launched into a wistful monologue.
It was September, 1984. Baranski was having an incredible year. The previous fall, she married the actor Matthew Cowles. (The couple stayed together for thirty years, until his death, in 2014.) A few weeks later, she went into rehearsal for Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” directed by Mike Nichols. She played a disgruntled, huffy actress named Charlotte, and won the first of her two Tonys, in the spring of 1984. She also became pregnant with her first child. One day in September, she felt labor pains, but she didn’t want to bother her napping husband with them. She went for a walk instead. “It was a gloriously beautiful, early autumn day,” she e-mailed me later. “I was wearing a white jumpsuit with large white buttons and looked rather like Frosty the Snowman. I walked up Madison and found this St. Ambroeus place, ordered three scoops of chocolate ice cream, and then headed up to the Met.” By the time she got home, she was so deep into labor that she had the baby within forty-five minutes of getting to the hospital. “I barely had time to take off my underwear,” she said.
Drama seems to find Baranski. A native of Buffalo, she attended Juilliard in the nineteen-seventies and then spent much of the eighties on Broadway before making a transition to Hollywood, in her forties—the role that finally lured her to California was playing Cybill Shepherd’s louche best friend on the nineties sitcom “Cybill.” She is a fan favorite in the “Mamma Mia!” movies, alongside her friend (and fellow Connecticut sometimes-resident) Meryl Streep. She plays the crusading, hard-nosed lawyer Diane Lockhart on the CBS drama “The Good Fight,” whose fifth season débuted in June. And soon she will appear in corsetry to spout withering lines in Julian Fellowes’s period series “The Gilded Age,” set in moneyed nineteenth-century Manhattan. Baranski and I talked for two hours about her current projects, her theatrical past, and how she pulled off playing Auntie Mame with a hobbled knee. At the end of our chat, she insisted that we order chocolate ice cream. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
I want to go back to your childhood. How did your family end up in Buffalo?
They were Polish immigrants. My grandparents were actors in the Polish theatre. My grandfather, my father’s father, looked like Rudolph Valentino. He died before my brother and I were born, but my Nana lived with us for the first eight years of my life. We shared a bedroom. She did operettas. She wrote her own radio show, which was on the Polish radio. Looking back now, I realize how influential she was, because she was so vivacious. If I couldn’t sleep, Nana would just scratch my back with her beautiful, delicate fingernails. She was a pianist, as well. She had beautiful hands. I think she was my Auntie Mame.
So you had a theatrical presence in your life early on.
Yes, but sadly my father died abruptly, of an aortic aneurysm, and then it became a problem living with her. My mom and my grandma didn’t really get along. We wound up moving away from my childhood home, which was very dear, and I had to change schools. Then Nana wasn’t a part of my life anymore. Looking back, I realize that that was a stunning loss for me, and it was never really dealt with. Actually, my mother never really dealt with the fact that my father had suddenly died, and all I felt was anxiety. I so admire my mom, but she was really the opposite of my grandmother.
She was raised in the Depression and walked to school with newspapers in her shoes and ate jelly sandwiches. She had a permanent chip on her shoulder. She was not lovey-dovey. She was a draftswoman in an air-conditioning factory. She ordered parts.
So when did the idea of performing enter the scene for you?
My parents were also singers in an amateur Polish singing group. So I would go and hear my parents and my grandparents sing at concerts, and music was very much a part of our life. I remember my deepest, most vivid memory of my father. Shortly before he died, my father took me to Kleinhans Music Hall, which was the Carnegie Hall of Buffalo, to see a Polish singing troupe from Warsaw. They were called Slask. At the curtain call, the audience was clapping, and the performers were waving their shawls. My father shouted “Bravo!,” and he was crying. I was so embarrassed by this. He enrolled me in ballet school before he died.
I grew up with people who loved performing arts, who loved music, who loved dancing, but I didn’t think of myself as destined for that life. It took me a long time to get to a point where I would audition for a play in high school. Then I wound up being the leading lady for the next two years. I was Mame in the senior-class play.
There’s a “Mame” theme happening here.
There is a Mame theme! And I wound up doing Mame at the Kennedy Center, in 2006. After I did “Sweeney Todd,” they said, “Wow, is there any other musical you’d like to do?” I said, “Mame.”
It’s a rite of passage for a hammy woman of a certain age.
I got it out of my system. It’s the hardest thing I’d ever done. Now we’re fast-forwarding drastically. So we were going to go into rehearsal in April, and in January I wanted to start training, dancing, singing. So I’d set it up so that I take an early-morning private ballet class on the East Side, and then take a bus over to Luigi’s dance studio, on the West Side. Some February morning, I finished my ballet class and I was walking to the crosstown bus on Sixty-fifth and Madison. I was wearing a pair of boots my girlfriend had just given me, because she didn’t fit into them. Somehow, the heel slipped. It was a fluke, because it was dry pavement and flat shoes. Anyway, I slipped and landed directly on my right kneecap. All I remember is trying to get up, and I think it was two or three New Yorkers—God bless them, wherever they are—helped me into a cab. On the first floor of this apartment building where I still live, there was a doctor who actually was a doctor for the New York Yankees. He takes me into his office, looks at me, calls the hospital, and says, “Have a gurney waiting.”
And this whole time you’re thinking, This can’t be! I have to be Mame!
I know! But if you listen to all of my stories you’ll realize I’ve had quite a charmed life. I mean, it’s not charmed to smash your kneecap, but it’s pretty wonderful when people help you into the cab. Then the head of the trauma department of the Hospital for Special Surgery rebuilt the knee. I said, “I have to do this musical in April.” They said, “Well . . .” This was February. I said, “I have to be the lead, and I’ll probably have to go up and down stairs.” They said, “Well . . .”
Yes, there’s that grand staircase.
You’re not Mame without a staircase. Anyway, as soon as I got out of the hospital, I was on crutches. I said, “Work every part of my body that you possibly can. Just my upper body, but I’m going to move.” By April, I went back into rehearsal.
And the choreographer, Warren Carlyle, whom I adore, decided that I should be a dancing Mame.
I thought Mame just drapes herself over a divan.
Usually, leading ladies should walk down the stairs, do a few dance steps, and then a lot of very handsome young men lift you up, carry you, and you sit on the piano and the dancers do all the hard work and heavy lifting. Then you do the ending with your arms up, looking fabulous and you haven’t broken a sweat.
Not here. I was dancing, dancing, dancing. Honestly, at intermission, my knee would be the size of a grapefruit. They’d be putting ice on it. The other really hard thing is they created a staircase that was the size of a Tyrannosaurus rex. It was so tall that they said, “You can’t stand at the top because we can’t light it.” So I’d have to keep going up and down and making entrances. I’m very happy I did it. But, on my day off, I literally couldn’t move.
Looking back, though, it was probably the best thing I could do. If you break anything, I highly recommend playing Mame. I used to call the show “Maimed.”
Let’s leap back again. Why did you pick Juilliard? How did you set your sights there?
I was already very excited about acting. This is something nobody’s ever written about. Back in the nineteen-sixties, I read in the Buffalo Evening News that there was something called the Buffalo Theatre Workshop, and I was determined to audition for it. I got in, and it was a summer program that was aligned with New York Theatre Workshop. The University of Buffalo then was like the East Coast Berkeley.
It was a bohemian scene then?
There was a lot of antiwar stuff going on. There was avant-garde music happening. It was attracting a lot of left-wing, very interesting people and artists. It was transformative for me, because I was this girl from a white Polish American neighborhood. All I did was go to school and church with white Polish Americans. So suddenly I’m doing acting and dancing with Black kids and Jewish kids and Latino kids. We did this street-theatre performance in Bed-Stuy. I was about sixteen, and that blew my life wide open. After that, I was invited to be in something called the Company of Men. It was an avant-garde dance-and-theatre company that performed in the old Pierce Arrow plant in Buffalo. I did my first professional play, although I don’t think I got paid. I wore an actual American flag, as a mini dress, and white go-go boots.
That is so sixties.
You know, in my Polish neighborhood, people weren’t antiwar. They were working-class Eisenhower Republicans. Suddenly I’m doing all this left-wing stuff, and my mother deeply disapproved.
But there was no going back for me. I was going to be an actress. I read about this new drama division at Juilliard. I remember cutting the article out, taping it to my wall, and saying, “That’s where I want to go.”
You didn’t get in at first, right?
I was waitlisted. I had my teeth capped and would do a series of syllable and “S” exercises. Then I returned to New York for an audition and did nothing but pages of “S” words, and they let me in. So I would say I got in by the skin of my teeth.
Really by the caps of your teeth. Was it competitive for you there?
I’ve often said that, if you could survive Juilliard, the professional theatre was easy by comparison. A lot of kids didn’t survive. There wasn’t enough feeling for how vulnerable kids are at the age of eighteen. I mean, imagine leaving an all-girls Catholic high school, when you’re a virgin, and suddenly you’re in New York and you’re being judged, and your voice is being criticized, and also your speech, and they’re looking at you through a microscope. But I was so passionate about it that I did better than most kids. I was on fire in my Juilliard years. I played all these great mothers of Western literature. It was great training for being a character actor. I didn’t leave Juilliard thinking of myself as some pretty ingénue who would get leading roles. I was almost immediately the soubrette or the best friend.
There’s a real hunger in the world for older women character actors now.
I know. I’m laughing, thinking, God, we’re all having a senior moment! Not in the sense of being forgetful but in the sense that, Wait a minute, if Bob Dylan is eighty, then it must be cool to be eighty, you know?
When did you meet Meryl Streep? I know you two are friends.
Meryl and I did a benefit years ago, at the Public Theatre. We didn’t socialize then, but I always thought, God, all the years that I spent commuting to L.A. and keeping my kids in [Connecticut]—that’s an aspect of my life we could talk about. I did not want to raise my kids in Los Angeles, and it was an exhausting three and a half years doing “Cybill.” I was really lonely, because I didn’t know any woman who had my life, and nobody could share what that was like. Now I know Audra [McDonald] and I’ve known Meryl, and we talk about it. It’s a small group of women who were raising children and holding their marriages together and doing the thing you have to do for your career, which is leaving your kids and travelling. When we finally did “Mamma Mia!,” we connected as girlfriends. That was in 2006.
Your knee was back in action.
Yes. I was skipping down the hill and everything. Another great thing is, because Meryl and I had to play friends in “Mamma Mia!,” she was, like, “Let’s be friends. Let’s hang out.” I read so many interviews with actors who say how intimidating Meryl is when they worked with her. But she was never intimidating to me, because she wanted to be pals. That was one of the great gifts of doing “Mamma Mia!” That and being on a dinghy in a red bathing suit with Colin Firth next to you. I’m telling you, a charmed life.
So you and Meryl connected about living in Connecticut. Isn’t Stephen Sondheim, whom you have worked with, also there?
Meryl and he and I live in the same neck of the woods. We might knock on his door with takeout pizza and insist he sit with us in the back yard. I’m sure he’s very cautious, at ninety. He was definitely in quarantine.
What was the first Sondheim show you did?
The very first thing was “Company.” I played April in a production when Playwrights Horizons had a theatre out in Queens. He came backstage. The second thing of Steve’s was the workshop of “Sunday in the Park with George.” Oddly enough, I have never been in a Broadway production of his.
The early eighties seems like such a magical time for New York theatre.
That year, 1983, was extraordinary, because I did a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the park. I got wonderful reviews for it, and I won an Obie Award, my first, and Steve Sondheim saw it because James Lapine directed it. And then James asked me to audition for “Sunday in the Park.” And, while I was doing “Midsummer,” I was falling in love with the man that I then married. He and I did a production of “Ghosts,” by Ibsen, and he asked if I wanted to ride home on his BMW motorcycle. And the rest is history.
In 1983, we did the workshop of “Sunday,” and on the final night Mike Nichols was in the audience. I remember Mike saying something nice to me on my way out of the theatre, and I auditioned and got the role in “The Real Thing.” I went into rehearsal for that in October. That was the month I got married. By December, I was pregnant, By May, we had all won Tony Awards. So, within the course of one year, I had worked with Sondheim and Tom Stoppard and Mike Nichols.
Wow, that’s a good year. I think, because you became a television actress in your forties, people are not so aware that you spent several decades as a devoted stage performer.
When I was at Juilliard, the whole training was about being a theatre actor, and that was my dream—to be a great stage actress. I never thought of having a major film career. I didn’t think I had that kind of a look. I resisted television. I had quite a few wonderful offers. James L. Brooks offered me a comedy called “Sibs,” and I turned it down. I didn’t feel I could make the jump at that point. And Carsey-Werner, the people who produced “Cosby” and “Roseanne,” had been knocking on my door since my second Tony Award, for “Rumors.” If you were a hot theatre actor, they wanted you for a sitcom.
So what finally roped you into doing television?
I read the script of “Cybill,” written by Chuck Lorre. It was this witty, Martini-swirling, sophisticated character, and I said, “I know how to play this role.” But the overriding reason I did it—and I did it with extreme reluctance—was it became clear that a theatre career was not going to pay the bills.
Also, the head of the network didn’t want me.
I think it was the man who preceded Les Moonves who said, “No one’s interested in Christine Baranski.” Thirteen episodes later, I won an Emmy.
Amazing that after winning two Tonys you still had to win people over.
I didn’t go to TV until I was forty-two—that’s a very late start to go to Hollywood and be the new girl in town. And suddenly I was winning an Emmy and hosting “S.N.L.,” and then Mike Nichols asked me to be in “The Birdcage,” and Warren Beatty asked me to be in “Bulworth,” and then I did “The Grinch.” I started doing a lot of big movies. I got more powerful representation. And now I’m sitting here, still on a CBS show.
Is there any role that you didn’t do that you really wish you had?
No, nothing. You know, when actors tell their stories, it’s so often a narrative of struggle and difficulty and heartbreak. But I just keep going and working, and it’s amazing. I didn’t go to television until my forties, I didn’t start doing leads in musicals until my fifties, and now I find myself as No. 1 on two call sheets in my sixties. I’m beating the odds here.
When you were thinking about taking on “The Good Wife,” and then what became “The Good Fight,” was shooting in New York part of the appeal?
When I was saying no to television, I so often said to my agent, “Look, if there’s a series that shoots in New York, I’ll consider it.” But they weren’t doing shows in New York. “Law & Order” was it. All the sitcoms were on Radford Avenue, in L.A. “Seinfeld” was there, so was “Frasier.” Everybody was there. So I chose to be a commuting mom.
A lot of people don’t make that choice. They move the family entirely.
First of all, having been a child who, at eight years old, was transplanted from one school to another and had to make new friends—it was very traumatic for me. I felt one of the great gifts my late husband, Matthew, and I could give our children was consistency and a sense of rootedness. Like, this is our home. These are your routines. Yes, you can pack your kids and take them all over. But I think there’s a price tag there. And, although they had a mom who was coming and going, the longest I was ever away from them was three weeks. Somehow, we made it work, but I’m not saying it was easy. I mean, I’d get off the red-eye at J.F.K. and still have a two-hour trip to my home in Connecticut. I remember just going upstairs, brushing my teeth, putting a comb through my hair, and taking the kids to ride horses or whatever. I was always playing catch-up.
Did you ever imagine you would marry another actor?
I didn’t have a thing against it. You get warned not to marry another actor, but this was a particular human being who was so extraordinary. I was in my early thirties, and I remember actually praying that I would meet a man, because I was ready to have children. And I remember that afternoon, or the next afternoon, I got a call from a man named Bill Gardner, who said, “Christine, I’m producing a show in Garden City. It’s Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts,’ And I’d like you to play Regina. And there’s this incredible actor named Matthew Cowles.” Answered prayers, huh?
So I’m in rehearsal with this really dashing guy, with the shaggy blond hair and a leather motorcycle jacket, and he smokes unfiltered Mexican cigarettes. Very James Dean. He was eccentric but so warmhearted. One night, he asks me if I want to ride home on the back of his motorcycle, which he named Lucifer. Some angel pushed me on the back of that bike. I remember putting my arms around the leather jacket, going across the Williamsburg Bridge. I remember saying to Matthew, “I’m scared.” And he said, “So am I. It’s good to be scared.” We were married for thirty years.
So, yeah, you’re talking to a woman with a charmed life. There was difficulty, no question—doing eight shows a week or commuting, or doing “Mame” on a broken leg, or being married to someone who had really serious health issues, because he was a diabetic. The last many years of life with Matthew was really being a caretaker. Once I started “The Good Fight,” there was a steady but serious decline. He passed away in 2014. I remember reading Jean Smart’s interview, where she acknowledged her late husband as part of her success, because he somehow allowed her to have that success. That was Matthew, too. He knew I was in the ascendancy, he loved living in his childhood home, and he absolutely adored these girls that we were raising.
Did you work even when the girls were little?
Oh, yeah. Mike Nichols did “Hurlyburly” right after “The Real Thing.” I gave birth to Isabel in September, and by Christmas Mike was calling and saying, “Do you want to replace? I’d love you to replace Judith Ivey.” The role was just one scene. So I took Isabel, this beautiful little child, who was born on Greta Garbo’s birthday, to the theatre every night with me. I would nurse her. I was playing a hooker, and I had nice big boobs.
Good for the part.
All the guys in the play would come and visit, including Kevin Spacey, who was doing his first real Broadway show, and Frank Langella and Jerry Stiller. We had a lot of fun. It’s just the most misogynistic play ever written. I’d nurse my daughter, and then I’d go on and do my scene with all these sleazy guys! There was a scene where the men have a baby in their arms, and Danny Aiello, God bless him, always wanted to take Isabel onstage. One night, I said, “O.K., guys, but just be gentle, and you hold her like this.” Well, she started crying. Apparently there were complaints from audience members that a real baby had been used. The ushers didn’t know, so they were saying, “That wasn’t a real baby. They never bring a real baby.”
That baby doesn’t have an Equity card! Did you have designs that your girls would become actors?
No. I was not a Mama Rose, knowing how hard it is. My youngest, Lily, is indeed an actress. She’s on a show called “Roswell,” and she’s been in Santa Fe, and she’s having a wonderful time. But the older daughter, Isabel, who made her début in that Broadway theatre, is a writer now. Not an actress. She very wisely once said, “Why would I be in a profession that’s just going to reinforce all my insecurities?”
Part of show business is so much about the way you look. Did that get to you ever?
I had bad skin when I was growing up, and it took a long time for my skin to settle down, which is why I never imagined that I would be a film actress. Fortunately, I have a metabolism and I seem to be able to eat, but I can certainly relate to people who suffer because of their looks—with bad skin, I always felt bad about myself. I didn’t get jobs because I was the most beautiful actress to walk in. I think that’s one of the reasons I think I’ve had a really long career—because I didn’t have a shelf life based on my looks.
“The Good Fight” just started a new season, and then “The Gilded Age” comes next year. The two shows are so different.
“The Good Fight” is great, because Diane is the complete contemporary leading lady, a liberal feminist being driven mad by Trump, and dealing with #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Whatever’s happening in the world is happening to Diane. “The Gilded Age” is set in 1882, and I’ve never done a period piece on film. I always wanted to. I always wanted to be in a Merchant Ivory film, or be like my great idol Maggie Smith.
The Dowager Countess has all the best lines, and now you get to have them in a new Julian Fellowes show.
Julian does write me very funny, very tart. I’m just this elegant old curmudgeon. I am welcoming the wigs and the corsets and the exactitude of language. I’m allowed to use all my Juilliard training.
The cast is incredible: Cynthia Nixon, Audra McDonald, Carrie Coon, Patrick Page . . .
I’m telling you, everybody who ever won a Tony is on “The Gilded Age.” They were all available this year because of the pandemic. It will be a rude awakening when a lot of these biggies go back to their Broadway careers. Also, so many great people passed away last year. Terrence was the first. My heart breaks that the lights could not be dimmed for Terrence McNally. He was such a lover of the theatre.
Do you feel like going back to the stage, to be a part of the revival?
I’d love to. I don’t have time to do it, but if ever I had a window of opportunity I’d love to do Shaw or Chekhov or Shakespeare. Now that we’re so fluid with casting, I think, what about Meryl as Lear and I’ll play the fool?
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