Emmys 2012: Josh Charles on Falling in Love with 'The Good Wife' (Video)
The 40-year-old, who first rose to prominence in "Dead Poets Society" and on "Sports Night," now stars as Alicia's old flame-turned-boss on the hit CBS drama.
I must confess that I didn’t expect to like CBS’s The Good Wife when I first heard about it, shortly before its premiere in the fall of 2009. Firstly, the title seemed to imply that it wasn’t exactly aimed at people who fall into the demographics that I do—young, male, and heterosexual. Secondly, the premise seemed to be drawn directly the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal and the public humiliation that it caused his wife Silda Wall Spitzer, which struck me as a gimmick that couldn’t possibly sustain itself for very long. And, thirdly, the broadcast networks hadn’t—and haven’t—exactly been on a hot streak, in recent years, in terms of producing dramas of a quality comparable to those that air on the cable and premium-cable networks, so, despite the fact that this one was set to feature some very talented New York actors, I doubted that any truly smart, edgy show made by and for adults would have wound up at the former rather than the latter.
How wrong I was. The Good Wife hooked me from the very first episode of its first season (2009-2010) through the very last episode of its third and most recent season (2011-2012), with its multitude of complex characters, intersecting narratives, and provocatively entertaining socio-cultural commentary. And, while the broadcast networks generally remain a wasteland in terms of quality drama series, The Good Wife has emerged as its last and best bastion of hope in the top category at the Golden Globe Awards (one nomination for best drama series), Screen Actors Guild Awards (three nominations for best ensemble), and Emmy Awards (two nominations for best drama series), where it is regularly the only broadcast nominee chosen to compete against a plethora of cable competitors.
The show has yet to win the highest honor at any of those ceremonies, but its actors have certainly been recognized at them. Prizes have been awarded to lead actress Julianna Margulies (a Golden Globe Award, two SAG Awards, and an Emmy) and supporting actress Archie Panjabi (an Emmy), while other contributors—regulars (Christine Baranski, Chris Noth), guest stars (Dylan Baker, Michael J. Fox), and people who have been both (Alan Cumming)—have accumulated a considerable number of nominations.
Prior to this time last year, though, one actor with a role as central to the series as anyone but Margulies’ had somehow slipped completely under the awards radar: Josh Charles, the 40-year-old who plays the show’s most prominently-featured male character, Will Gardner. To its credit, though, the TV Academy righted that wrong last summer by nominating Charles for a best supporting actor Emmy (he lost to his old pal Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones), and may well do so again this year.
Last week, I met up with Charles at his publicists’ office in New York for an interview about his life and work. While the formal portion of the interview lasted for 38 minutes (see the video at the top of this post), the entire conversation was much longer, beginning beforehand in the waiting room, thanks to Charles’ early arrival, and continuing well afterwards as we walked a half-dozen city blocks through the pouring rain, under Charles’ umbrella, to a subway station from which we would both return to our homes. I knew before I ever met Charles that he was a terrific actor. But what I didn’t know, and am pleased to report, on the basis of both our on-the-record and off-the-record time together, is that he also seems to be as lovely and decent as any of the more than 350 people in show business who I have interviewed over the past decade.
Josh Charles was born on September 15, 1971 in Baltimore, where he was also raised, and his career path was pretty much established before he was even a teenager. Charles—the son of Laura, a gossip columnist for the Baltimore Sun, and Allan, a commercial director for an advertising agency—says that his decision to become a child actor was entirely his own, but that his parents were always very supportive of his dream. In hindsight, he says, “I’ve always questioned if that was the right decision to make so early, but it wasn’t something that I felt I really had control over; it just was where my passion was.”
He realized that much at the age of 10, thanks to two formative events. The first involved comedy and the second a summer camp.
“I was really into Richard Pryor," he says. "I used to have his tapes and his records, and I used to imitate all his bits. I was just obsessed with him—which sounds really crazy for a young kid, I know, because his comedy could be very, very dark and risqué—but I was, and I would channel him, and I tihink I did a pretty good impersonation of him at the time.” Meanwhile, he continues, “A guy who worked for my father, who also did comedy, hosted an open-mic night… We went to watch him one night—my parents took me—and, like, I was a really precocious punk kid, and I yelled, heckled something out, and he called me up on the stage and kind of made fun of me, like, ‘What’s a 10-year-old doing here in this place?!’ And, I don’t know, I said something back, and got a laugh, and [thought], ‘Oh, that’s kind of exciting, to be on stage!’”
Later that same year, Charles’ parents divorced, and he headed off to sleep-away camp for the first time, at the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center in upstate New York, feeling a mixture of nervousness and excitement. He quickly came to love the place, at which he says he took “amazing acting classes,” including one in “theater games” that was taught by a young counselor named Mark Saks, who, if you can believe it, later became the casting director on The Good Wife and, along with Margulies, recruited Charles for the show. “It just changed my life, that place, in so many ways—just great summers, a great learning experience, getting to play Reverend Hale in The Crucible when I was, like, 12, you know?” Moreover, he notes, “There were children’s managers that would come up and watch the productions, and that’s how I got my first manager, and therefore got my first gigs.”
Charles first movie was the original Hairspray (1988), directed by John Waters, which he remembers as “a huge deal” because, I mean, he’s such an iconic figure in Baltimore” and “was just a hoot” during production. He followed that film soon after with a role as a prep school student in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989), which was tremendously received and scored Oscar nominations for best picture, best director, best actor, and best original screenplay, the last of which it won. The only downside to the “memorable and great” experience of making it, Charles says, was that it set the bar so high that few subsequent projects could ever meet it.
(Of Dead Poets Society’s classic “Oh Captain, my Captain” denouement, Charles recalls, “Weir liked to use music a lot on the set to keep us relaxed for the mood of the scene, something that I took from him that I still use to this day… But he had this, like, terrible boom box. It wasn’t very good. And my dad had a really good Bose one, and brought it up, and he was playing the music from The Mission, Ennio Morricone’s score for The Mission. And I remember my dad said, ‘Well, you can use this boom box,’ and so [Weir] did. So I remember, when we were actually shooting that scene, Peter was playing that beautiful score from The Mission. So, every time I hear that, it always comes into my mind. Nobody would know, seeing it, because the film ended up being scored by Maurice Jarre, which was also a beautiful score, but that song was always in my head. And it was played on my father’s Bose boom box.”)
Over the next decade, Charles kept plugging along in film roles of varying size and importance, and then scored a part that introduced him to the medium of television, and reintroduced him to the public as a grown man: Dan Rydell, a fictional sports anchor, on Aaron Sorkin’s first television series Sports Night (1998-2000), 45 episodes of which aired on ABC before the show was rather abruptly canceled. “To be perfectly honest, I can’t say it was always the easiest experience to be a part of,” Charles says. “I mean, we knew we were making stuff that was really good; perhaps if the show was on a different network, at a different time— Who knows? There’s so many different variables that go into what makes a show click. We had a cult following. People were passionate about it. And, critically, people seemed to respond to it. But people weren’t watching it to the level that I think ABC needed at that time.” On the upside, he says, several people who worked on the show have become close friends, including costars Peter Krause and Josh Malina, and, he adds, “Getting into that grind [of churning out a regular network series] was very good for me,” as it taught him what to expect in the future and how to prepare for it.
Between the end of Sports Night and the beginning of The Good Wife, though, it wasn’t at all obvious that Charles would ever get another chance to headline a major series. He worked less often than he had before, and, when he did appear on screens big or small, it was usually in smaller roles in smaller projects. The role and project that seemed to reinvigorate him and his career—indeed, in which he did some of his best work ever—was the part of Jake, a Stanley Kowalski-esque man trying to save his rocky relationship with his unhappily-pregnant wife Amy by going to counseling, on season one of HBO’s dialogue-driven In Treatment (1998-2000), which was adapted from a series on Israeli television. “It’s unlike anything I’ve done,” says Charles, who says the show contains some of the work “that I’m most proud of.” He continues, “It really was as close to doing a play on film as you can [get]. I mean, sometimes you would have, you know, eight-, nine-, 10-minute takes.” He also personally connected to the material for two reasons. One: “Therapy is something that’s been very important to me in my life, so it was great to sort of look at it and work on the text with Embeth [Davidtz, who played Amy], and Gabriel [Bryne, who played the therapist], and with our directors, and kind of make it our own.” And two: “The fact that it’s something that started in Israel gave me, as a Jew, a tremendous sense of pride, to be perfectly frank with you. There’s such great creativity coming out of that country, and a lot of times we don’t always hear about that.”
Around the time that In Treatment was airing, Charles got a call from two old friends—Saks, his camp counselor-turned-casting director, and Julianna Margulies, the actress who was then best known for her work on E.R. (1994-2009), who Charles says he had met years earlier in L.A. through mutual friends and had been a friend ever since—about a pilot called The Good Wife. He remembers, “[Margulies] said, ‘Hey, I’m doing this pilot, and I think there’s a great role for you in it… We’re going to shoot the pilot in Vancouver. But, if the show goes, it’s shooting here in New York.’ And so I read it. I felt like the writing was really sharp. I love Jules, obviously. And it just seemed like something that would be a really fun experience.” He adds that he was particularly excited that the project, if picked up, would shoot in New York, where he lives. Not long thereafter, CBS was sold on the pilot, picked up the show, and, in September 2009, started airing it on Tuesday nights at 10pm. (It stayed in that slot until the start of season three, when it moved to the much more competitive timeslot of Sunday nights at 9pm.) And so began Charles’ association with the role for which he is now perhaps best known: Will Gardner, the professionally ambitious and personally frustrated partner at the law firm of Lockhart & Gardner.
While the show’s central character is Margulies’ Alicia Florrick, its greatest drama seems to come from the conflicted relationship that exists between Florrick and Gardner, two fundamentally decent characters who seem to bring out the best in each other, just like the actors who play them. (Charles attributes his great chemistry with Margulies to the fact that their relationship is grounded upon a similar real-life "bond," albeit not a romantic one.)
For those who need a refresher: Alicia and Will first met and dated 15 years earlier, when they were both students at Georgetown Law. Afterwards, they had gone their separate ways, with Alicia marrying Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), the future state’s attorney and sacrificing her career to become a stay-at-home mother to their two children, and Will marrying his work, as a partner with Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) at one of Chicago’s premier law firms. After it is revealed that Peter had engaged in a Spitzer-like sex scandal, Alicia, clearly conflicted about how to respond, stands by his side at the press conference at which he announces his resignation, and then moves on with her life without him, retaining custody of their children and trying to find a firm that will give her a chance to return to the law. Will, for reasons as much personal as professional, gives her that chance, and, inevitably, sparks again begin to fly between the two. (As Charles says, “Having her come back into his orbit, I think, reawakened his passion for the law a bit, reawakened his emotional feelings that maybe he had put down.”)
While Peter is certainly not the most appealing character, Will is not without flaws either. “Will is a gambler,” Charles emphasizes. “I mean, literally, figuratively, it’s in his genetic makeup. He likes the rush of it, the adrenaline of it. And he’s utilized it, I think quite brilliantly, in his career, for his firm, for his clients. He’s not afraid to sort of cut corners to get things done. And it’s served him well in business, but… hasn’t served him well in his personal life,” which is basically non-existent, aside from a few meaningless flings that he’s had over the years. “This past season we really got to see him pay a real price for what he’s chosen to focus on in his life and what he’s ignored.” He notes that there are “a lot of lonely characters in the show,” and that Will is certainly one of them—along with virtually all of the people who populate his law firm (including the also-excellent Panjabi, Cumming, and Matt Czuchry). “I think there’s something really interesting about that, exploring that in today’s America and work.”
As a show that airs on a broadcast network, as opposed to premium cable, the team behind The Good Wife faces a set of challenges and demands: they have to churn out 22 or 23 episodes a season (whereas some cable shows produce as few as eight), which means they have to work for nine months out of the year (whereas cable shows, and even half-hour network shows, provide much more off-time); they have to convey their point within strict censorship rules (whereas cable shows can pretty much say or show whatever they would like); and they have to remain gripping despite frequent commercial interruptions. “It is very difficult,” Charles admits, but he insists that the show has provided him with “truly one of the best experiences I’ve had in television, really because of the cast and the crew—we’re all really close.”
Robert King and Michelle King, the husband-wife team that co-created The Good Wife and serve as its showrunners, run the writers room from Los Angeles while the show shoots in New York—which poses as Chicago, at some times more successfully than others—under the supervision of one of its executive producers, Brooke Kennedy. “It’s probably not the norm,” Charles notes, “but it’s worked for us.” The Kings, he says, “come in throughout the year periodically, and we have our discussions and sort of meetings about where the next arch is going for the next six to eight episodes.” He finds himself constantly impressed by “how good the writing is, you know, how brilliant Robert and Michelle King are… I would put their writing on par with anyone I’ve worked with… You don’t always know that people are going to be able to sustain it… These guys just keep turning out interesting material… There’s drama on the show. There’s comedy. There’s sort of satire at times. They stay very current, but they’re always trying to find a different angle.”
Though the show has managed to juggle dozens of engaging and intersecting narratives that touch upon a wide variety of topics (see this recent New Yorker article for a list of tech-related examples), the audience seems most engaged by its most fundamental question: will—or should—Alicia return to her remorseful husband Peter (as a "good wife" might do), or enter into a relationship with her old flame Will (as she did for a 10-episode arc spanning the end of season two through the first half of season three), or remain on her own (as a hard-working woman in the 21st century certainly reserves the right to do)?
Many—probably even most—audience members are rooting for Alicia and Will to wind up together, and some of them have expressed exasperation that one thing or another always seems to keep them apart. That is music to Charles' ears. “I think if you’re pleasing everybody, you’re doing something wrong.” He says, “At its core, these two people are really, really close friends. Yes, there’s a romantic attraction, and we saw the intimacy increase and then, sort of, blow apart this year. Just because it increased didn’t mean that all the obstacles that were in there were going to immediately disappear. There’s many reasons that they shouldn’t be together. He is her boss. She has a family. It’s difficult.” He goes on, “In a perfect time where everything was sort of equal maybe they would be together, but I think there is this sort of quality where it’s meeting each other at the wrong time, you know?”
Asked for his own prediction about where Alicia and Will's relationship is heading, as well as where he would like to see it head, Charles pauses for a bit to mull over his response. He eventually replies, “I think the ultimate thing that you’ll see—and that you maybe saw a little bit towards the end of this season in that final scene between them in the elevator—was just that where their relationship’s shifting to now is just, like, a deeper place… It’s not romantic, but, in an odd way, may be more enduring because it’s deeper. So I like that, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go with that… I never envisioned that the two of them are necessarily [going to have] an endgame where they sort of walk off into the sunset… I don’t know, and I’m happy to just be surprised by it."
Finally, of course, I have to ask Charles about the Emmys, at which he has been—and is once again—eligible in one of the most competitive categories, best supporting actor in a drama. (On top of the same competition that existed last year, Breaking Bad, which was ineligible at the time, returns this year with two strong contenders in the category, Giancarlo Esposito and Aaron Paul.) Charles says, “It was a great honor to be nominated [last year], and I would be thrilled if it happened again. Honestly, it means a lot. But it’s really not what drives me in what I do. It’s just not. I mean, the work is what drives me, and wanting to do good work and get better and better.” He adds, “I feel like this last season I did some work that I was really proud of, and that’s not always easy for me to say... I have no idea if it’s the kind of work that inspires people to nominate you or not.”
He doesn’t have much time to think about it, either: “We’re about to start in a couple of weeks on season four!”