Sarah Steele Talks Growing Up on 'The Good Fight' and Playing the "Anti-Kalinda"

The fan-favorite talks to THR about juggling the spinoff and Broadway, tackling politics onscreen and a potential Alan Cumming return.
Patrick Harbron/CBS

When The Good Wife spinoff was first announced, few could have predicted Sarah Steele's role in it.

Introduced as Eli Gold's outspoken daughter for a two-episode arc in season two of the original series, Steele returned for a major arc in season six when Marissa became Alicia's famed "body woman." Steele quickly became a fan-favorite and ultimately appeared in 22 episodes of the network drama. But since her scenes were almost exclusively with Julianna Margulies and Alan Cumming, a role in the Christine Baranski-led offshoot seemed unlikely.

Offscreen, Steele was busy as well, winning rave reviews in the Tony-winning Broadway play The Humans. However, when The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King approached her about returning for The Good Fight, she couldn’t say no.

"It was honestly the hardest thing that's ever happened in my professional life, trying to balance both of those jobs at once," Steele tells The Hollywood Reporter of juggling the play and series.

But it's one that's paid off. The Good Fight was recently renewed for season two and has allowed Steele to show a whole new and more grown-up, side of Marissa as she moves out of her father's large shadow and into the role of Diane's secretary and hopeful investigator-in-training at Reddick/Boseman.  

"I think, finally, people are starting to understand that I'm not in high school anymore and that's been a huge relief," she says. "I don't really get those calls anymore and I'm being asked to come in for stuff that's all a little bit more adult so that's been really nice."

In the midst of The Good Fight's first season, Steele jumped on the phone with THR to discuss her "unconventional" road from guest star to series regular, the "relief" in tackling politics onscreen post-election and what's to come in season two.

Going all the way back to the beginning, do you remember how the role of Marissa originally came up and how the role was first described to you?

It's so funny and amazing that it's turned into what it is. I auditioned for it my junior year in college and at the time I auditioned for it, it was only supposed to be two episodes of introducing this character of Alan Cumming's daughter. I went in and there was no discussion of, who is she? I went in, I got the job and did the first couple of episodes. Then The Good Wife sort of went on. I was a fan of the show, I watched the show and there were a few seasons where I wasn’t in it at all and then I came back in season six. So I wasn't really expecting that. I thought, 'OK, that was a great job.' And then I got to have this much more major arc than I had anticipated on The Good Wife and now I'm getting to carry it through as a full-fledged character on this show. I feel like it's been a totally unconventional way of becoming a series regular on a show.

Did the Kings give you any indication way back when that they might bring you back? Did you have any sense that the character had clicked with viewers?

Not at all. There was some episode in season six where I got to kind of do a lot; it was the first episode where Marissa comes to Alicia's door and says, "I'm your body woman." When she's first having that interaction and got to kind of do some more meaty stuff. Then I got an email from my agent that said, "The Kings love what you're doing and there's a feeling that you're going to be with us for awhile."

Why do you think the Alicia-Marissa dynamic worked so well?

People feel comforted by Marissa's presence, and Alicia kind of had that response to her. She is sort of fearless and isn't intimidated by anyone and I think that's a really nice energy to have around, especially when you're on something like a campaign where you're caught up in a lot of BS. It's nice to have someone who cuts through all of that and Marissa has a quality of that to her.

Going from season two to season four is a big time jump in a young person's life. What was it like stepping back into that character and figuring out who she was at a more mature point in her life?

Well, it's funny you're saying that but I really feel like I'm going through that for the first time now with the character. On The Good Wife, it felt to me like, oh that girl that I played a few years older but she still was very much someone's daughter on that show. It felt like a similar thing to me. But now that I'm getting to play her on The Good Fight where she is a full-fledged person working in an office and you never see her parents, I really feel like I'm getting to do that now.

So how has it been navigating that evolution on The Good Fight? What were your discussions with the Kings at the beginning of The Good Fight about having Marissa come back?

They were so sweet. They sort of quote unquote "pitched" her to me as eventually someone who's going to become an anti-Kalinda in that Marissa is interested in investigating. She has a way of getting information out of people that is very different from Kalinda. Kalinda is sneaky and mysterious and Marissa is very open and is easily underestimated and people sort of tell her things sometimes without even realizing that they've done it because she's easy to talk to. That was sort of the discussion that we had when we were first talking about.

Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) and the other investigators on the original show were such beloved characters. When you heard that pitch about becoming the anti-Kalinda, did you feel pressure? What was your initial reaction?

I did a very silly thing which was to go online and read an article that came out that I was going to do it. Of course the comments were like, 'Does Marissa have what it takes to be the new Kalinda?' I was like, 'Oh OK, got to x out of that window.' I was definitely intimidated. I loved Kalinda, but that's why it was comforting to me in that conversation I had with them that the idea is not for Marissa to be Kalinda. The idea is for her to to very much be her own person and I do think that it's a very smart move in that you do trust Marissa to get to the heart of things. So I was very flattered that we had built something where people feel that way; that she's smart and she's on it. It's super fun to play a woman like that on TV.

You appeared a bit in the last season of The Good Wife so when and how did you first hear about the spinoff?

I actually went to The Good Wife wrap party and I was sad. I was like, 'Oh, gosh I'm not going to see these people. I love this crew. I love this cast. I love this writing.' I was sad to say goodbye to all of it. And then word started running around the party, like, there's a budget due for the spinoff, it's really happening. And then the Kings approached me and they knew that I was still doing The Humans. They were like, "Can we steal you for the spinoff in September?" I was like, "Uh, definitely, of course."

The Humans was very critically acclaimed as was your performance in it so how difficult was that decision process like of figuring out how and if you could juggle both projects?

It was not easy. Very understandably, both jobs were very apprehensive about me doing it. I only ended up missing eight shows of The Humans for The Good Fight. Since The Humans was a family play, the cast was very specific, so if one person was out, it changes the whole dynamic of the play. It was honestly the hardest thing that's ever happened in my professional life, trying to balance both of those jobs at once. Also just because you're on stage until 10 p.m., really at a very high energy level, and then you have to wind down for a few hours to wake up at 5:30 [a.m.] for the TV show. It was crazy and it was right after the election so it was a pretty hard time. But I'm so glad they were so generous to allow me to stay in the pool and still do the TV show. I'm so grateful I got to close out that beautiful chapter in my life that was The Humans.

Speaking of the election, how was it shooting in New York in the weeks following the election considering how much the show has tackled politics and this new administration?

Personally, I just didn't anticipate going into both of these jobs being depressed because I really didn’t think this was going to happen. For me, that was really tough, but in terms of the show, honestly, it was a relief to be doing some television that tackled the topic. It's really nice to be in something that's talking about it because it's on everyone's mind. … This sounds so silly but it almost feels like the Kings are my professors or something. They're so smart and they're processing this too.

The Good Fight has also introduced this new dynamic between Marissa and Diane (Christine Baranski), who didn't have many scenes on the original show together. What has it been like working with Christine to figure out that dynamic?

I have to say it is a different dynamic from that of Marissa and Alicia. And I'm not sure exactly why because of course both of those women are so strong. Maybe it was because I was literally the body woman on the campaign trail. But I had this feeling that I protected Alicia in some way and Diane, I do not feel that about. I think Marissa really cares what she thinks and really admires her and that Marissa works really hard to make sure that her value is felt by Diane. Because I think that she knows that Diane is fearless too, and maybe doesn't need her in quite the same way.

It's also been interesting to see Marissa befriend the Maia character (Rose Leslie) since they're obviously closer in age.

Yeah, I feel like it's that same thing she had with Alicia a little bit where she's like, 'Let me help you out here. I think I can figure this out for you and I can sort of be of service to you.'

In your mind, do you think Marissa and Alicia are still in touch?

They're both people who live their lives and are thrilled to see each other when they see each other but I don't think Marissa is big on keeping in touch with anyone. I feel like she's super flighty, she's super in the moment and she's probably not spending her nights catching up with old friends on the phone. (Laughs.)

What kind of obstacles will Marissa face as she pushes to harder to become an investigator?

In that last episode when she gets that information from the alt-right guy and then is kind of standing in the office and Adrian Bozeman asks her to leave – I experienced that as a really tough moment for her, again, because I think people underestimate her. She got that information and the bosses don't know that or assume that that's not true. So I think she's going to bump up against some of that just maybe not always getting credit for stuff that she's done or figured out. She'll maybe have to eventually step up and say, "I did this. I should have a promotion." So we'll see.

Now that the show has been renewed, have you talked with the Kings about what to expect from Marissa in season two? Do you have things you'd like to see for her going forward?

Yeah, they had meetings with all the series regulars to talk about all that stuff. I know a couple of things, but kind of want people to watch and find out. It's going to continue to go in the same direction that it's been heading of her becoming an investigator and doing some more stuff with that firm that's not assistant work. Then eventually next season will give us a little bit more time to see the home lives of some of the other characters aside from just those main three characters. I don't know exactly what that's going to look like but I'm certainly very interested in what Marissa's life is like outside of the office, as well as Adrian's and Barbara's.

Do you see any possibility of her dad coming back and seeing her in this new position at this new firm?

I hope so. I think that would be great, especially because I feel like I have kind of grown her up a little bit. I would be interested to see her talking to her father again, or just [see] what he's up to. But he does have his own show now so it might be a little complicated.

But his pilot is also produced by CBS so it might work out.

Oh yeah, that's true. That's a good point. We were actually shooting on the same stage one day so I went and bugged him in his dressing room and played with his dog. They had to separate us eventually. (Laughs.)

New episodes of The Good Fight are available to stream every Sunday on CBS All Access.

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