Michael J. Fox Talks 'Good Wife' Role: "I Wanted to Prove Disabled People Can Be Assholes, Too"
The Emmy winner earned his 18th nomination for his guest performance on the CBS legal drama as attorney Louis Canning.
When Michael J. Fox's The Good Wife role was first announced back in August 2010, it was just supposed to be for one episode. Six years later, Fox has logged 26 total appearances on the recently departed CBS legal drama and earned five Emmy nominations for best guest actor in a drama series — including one this year — for his memorable portrayal of manipulative defense attorney Louis Canning.
Although the veteran actor already has five Emmys at home for his roles in Family Ties, Spin City and, more recently, Rescue Me, Fox is the first to acknowledge his performance on The Good Wife has allowed him to show a different side, far from the leading men he so often has played. The experience also has been a personal one for Fox, as Louis Canning has a condition causing erratic body movements not dissimilar to dyskinesia, a side effect of Parkinson's, which Fox was diagnosed with in 1991.
Fresh off his latest Emmy nomination, Fox speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about channeling his own life experience for the part, his final scene in the series and what he wants to do next.
How did your involvement with The Good Wife originally come about?
I was on Long Island, it was middle of summer six years ago, and I got a call from some writers from The Good Wife, and I had happened to see the show. It was a weird thing because it's not historically in my demo, but I had watched the first episode because it was on, and I got hooked on and thought it was a great show. So it was interesting when they called me because I thought, "Did somebody inform on me? That I'm a big secret Good Wife fan?" But they pitched an idea for a character, and it just sounded great, and the show, like I said, was really great and I enjoyed it. The writers, Bob and Michelle [King] — I didn't know them at that point — sounded really informed and very smart and very excited about trying to do something with me.
Your character has a condition that causes erratic body movements — something that is referenced frequently on the show. Was that always a part of the pitch for the character? How did that part of it come into the conversation?
Actually, originally they talked about him being wheelchair-bound, and I had just done Denis Leary's show Rescue Me, and I played a character that was in a wheelchair, so I didn't want to do that again. I thought it might be interesting to have a kind of version of Parkinson's, maybe not Parkinson's explicitly but dyskinesia, which is a side effect of it. So we toyed with that idea, and they came up with that scene in the courtroom where I stand in front of the jury and say, "You may see me move this way or that way" — I think it kind of blew people away on the set that I would be so open with it, but I just knew this was a perfect opportunity to funnel a lot of my life experience into a character and be coy with it and kind of let it out in dribs and drabs and see if I can make it an effective tool for him to do his job, as opposed to something that prevented him from doing his job.
What was that like when you were shooting that?
It's funny because whenever a show or any representation of characters with disabilities on television tend to be sentimental, with soft piano music playing in the background, and I wanted to prove that disabled people can be assholes, too. And you want to feel sorry for him, but he's such a dick, whether intentionally or not. I think he's pure-hearted, I think he just wants to win, and whatever may be seen as a deficit, he'll turn into an asset in order to prevail.
What quality or trait of your character did you tap into the most and why?
Given my history, I'm used to being the bass or the drums of the show, and in this, I get to be a soloist, doing riffs on the side, where I didn't have to worry about carrying a show. Julianna [Margulies] and the cast are so amazing, and the show is structured so well where it just kind of goes along with this stream, and you just have to get in the current and swim with it. What was fun for me was to make an enemy enigmatic and not to worry about throwing in a lot of personal notes and building a foundation for the character, just let him trickle out and be a mystery. He's the kind of guy that can quote from The Road to Damascus and at the same be riffling through Alicia's purse while she searches for her missing daughter.
As you said, Louis will do whatever it takes to win a case, and he really was an antagonist for Alicia, yet he was a fan-favorite character. Why do you think that is?
I think it goes back to that enigmatic thing; you just see the cracks and you can't help looking at him. He shows up, and he attracts your interest. Beyond what I did, I think the character was just so brilliantly constructed that he was just an unfolding mystery. "Oh yeah, that guy again. What the hell is he up to?" I think that gave him his longevity; they could always just find a way to put him in there. They were really great for me because they really worked around my schedule. They would say, "We've got an idea for an episode coming up, are you free?" And I'd say, "Yeah," and I'd cancel whatever else I had going on because I loved doing the show so much.
What great advice or life lessons you were able to glean during your time on the set of The Good Wife?
No, they're just great examples on that show. Julianna works so hard and was so good and so consistent and so fun to work with and Christine [Baranski] as well and the rest of the cast, and I just wanted … It's a means to a mean, it's not a means to an end. Acting, performing, playing a character — you're not driving toward something, you're just driving and enjoying the scenery.
Over the years you were on the show, were there any changes you noticed in the character or maybe in your approach to the character?
Well, it became clearer and clearer that he was fixated and obsessed about Alicia. So it was just a matter of playing against that and playing that and when to make it evident and when to make it not evident and when to make it something that people maybe had doubts about again and what his fixation was: if it was getting her and the firm or owning her firm or having them work on a case together. It became more and more obvious that he was fixated.
So it was very appropriate that in his last scene on the show, he told Alicia he loved her.
I loved that. I thought that was so great. That's what those writers do and what Bob and Michelle are so clever at. They could have concepted a big, long goodbye for him and mentioned that relationship, but it would have been overstated, and it would have dragged down the show, but just to have him just say, "God, I love you," and her say, "I know" — it was the perfect ending.
What was your take on the finale and particularly the slap at the end?
I thought it was perfect. I don't question Bob and Michelle. They always know the right note to begin and end.
What do you think Louis Canning is doing now? If your character could get an extended life, what would you want him to do next?
I don't know if he's the kind of character you want to flesh out and carry his own show or something. I don’t think it would work. But I'd love to see him get into and get out of trouble. He's never really been busted on his actions, and I would love to see missteps he makes and what shit he puts his foot in.
The Good Wife spinoff debuts next year. Have there been any talks about you reprising your role on that project?
Not that I'm aware of. But I haven't given it much thought.
Would you be open to it?
I don't know. I mean, probably. It's hard to know what tomorrow brings. I always live day-to-day and so I take every adventure as it comes, but I don't try to anticipate anything.
Now that you've been playing this more antagonistic role for six years, how has that changed what roles you're approached about?
I think the biggest thing I've noticed is the reaction of people who really love the character and love seeing me play somebody that was kind of against type for me. There's a lady I always think of … [My wife] Tracy [Pollan] and I were on the beach in The Hamptons a couple summers ago, and a lady came over and said, "I have to make a confession to you. I was watching you walk down to the water with your wife, and I felt this feeling of revulsion and hatred and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I realized it was because of Louis Canning," and I said, "Oh, I'm flattered." (Laughs.)
That must have been one of the first times you've heard that.
I thought it was so cool because I'm so used to being Alex P. Keaton or Marty McFly, and it's cool to have this other persona that I'm identified with, especially one that was so well-constructed and so well-delivered by the writers and directors. It's such a great experience and a real privilege.
You obviously have your pick of projects these days, so at this point in your career, do you have an idea of what you'd like to do next?
I'm in no rush. I mean, if something happens like The Good Wife, where I get a phone call from some writers that I don't know pitching a show that I was kind of a little familiar with and it's just a great match and a great experience, and I'm really grateful that they called me ... If I get a similar call for a similar situation, I'd be happy to do it. And if not, I'm just happy hanging out with my family and doing my writing and working with my foundation and taking it easy. It has to be something really tempting to get me to go at this point, but certainly something may change or something along the lines of the experience I had on The Good Wife would be temptation enough.