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Julianna Margulies is ready to tell her story.
After CBS’s hit legal drama The Good Wife concluded in 2016, the Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG Award-winning actress got sick with chickenpox and during the healing process finally found the time for herself to reflect on her life and career thus far. “I think I unknowingly did not spend enough time on my own,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So it was the process of letting go of Alicia Florrick, who had been under my skin for so long and getting to know myself and try and understand what it was playing this character that gripped me so much that I got to really dig deep.”
The cathartic time period resulted in the writing of her debut memoir, Sunshine Girl: An Unexpected Life, which will be published by Ballantine Books on Tuesday.
Margulies, 54, has achieved huge success on both stage and screen in a career that has spanned three decades, in particular with her longstanding roles as Nurse Carol Hathaway on ER and Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, but she emphasizes that her book “is not a tell-all.”
“When I first had my meeting with Ballantine Books and Random House, I remember when they read the first draft they said, ‘Oh, there are no stories in here about what it was like to win an Emmy.’ And I said, “Guys, you’ve got the wrong girl. I’m never gonna write about that,’ ” she recalls. “Someone else can write about watching me win an Emmy, but it doesn’t interest me because it’s a fleeting moment that means nothing in the big picture. So I’ll never write about that.”
Instead, through her memoir, Margulies says she aimed to “convey my journey and how my reactions to every situation is how I managed to get to where I am.” “It’s almost like I got to shed this skin onto these pages and walk away feeling refreshed and renewed.”
However, there are moments where she does write about ER and The Good Wife, including her comical audition story for the iconic NBC medical series and receiving a call from George Clooney who informed her that she would be brought on board — before the actress almost took another job elsewhere. And while she notes she’s “not throwing anyone under the bus” in her memoir, she does detail her encounters with the likes of Steven Seagal and Russell Simmons, both of whom have faced multiple sexual misconduct allegations.
Of Seagal, Margulies revisits the hotel meeting in which he toted a gun. Then in another passage, Margulies recalls being a waitress and waiting on Simmons, who she writes “snapped his fingers” at her like she was “a servant in his castle”: “I knew at 22 when I waited on him that this guy was an asshole,” she tells THR.
Throughout the book’s pages, Margulies takes readers on a very personal journey as she recounts prominent moments in her life that helped shape the woman she is today. From a complicated childhood with divorced parents that led to multiple moves across different continents to the ups and downs of a previous relationship to finding unexpected love and becoming a mother, through each chapter she introspectively paints an image of a young woman and eventual award-winning actress finding herself through trials and tribulations and discovering strength, fulfillment and happiness.
Ahead of her memoir’s release, Margulies spoke with THR about writing her first novel, the heartfelt conversations she had with both her parents, reflects on the criticism she received after leaving ER and that $27 million check, the lessons she learned after The Good Wife and what she hopes readers take away from her journey thus far. THR also shares an audiobook excerpt of Sunshine Girl, found at the bottom of this story.
How are you feeling with the memoir about to release soon and that readers will finally be able to read it?
It’s sort of a mix between anxiety and excitement (laughs). I guess that’s the best way to describe it. I feel optimistic. What’s been interesting is hearing different people’s reactions. My editor was so excited. She sent me a review that said, ‘This is great for young adults,’ which I never in a million years thought of, but the reviewer was saying how it could really help young adults trying to navigate a divorce in the family. So I thought wow, maybe it’s going to reach a broader audience than I had originally thought because it touches on quite a few things, about coming of age and moving through difficult times.
At the beginning of your memoir, you write that it all came about after concluding The Good Wife, but had the thought to write a memoir ever cross your mind before?
So what ultimately really pushed you to write this?
The beginning of this idea happened because when I finally finished the show, I got very, very sick. I was so sick in bed with the chickenpox for three weeks and it allowed me time that I hadn’t had in so long to reflect and to try and let go of this character, Alicia Florrick, that I had played for seven years while spinning plates trying to be a new mommy and wife in my own life and navigate that journey. For seven years, I had been trying to think like her, act like her, be like her, understand her feelings and I think I unknowingly did not spend enough time on my own. So it was the process of letting go of Alicia Florrick, who had been under my skin for so long, and getting to know myself and try and understand what it was playing this character that gripped me so much that I got to really dig deep. And from that came this book.
It’s almost a full circle moment that being secluded is how the book began because now the book is releasing in a time where we all have experienced and continue to experience a pandemic in which we have had to self isolate and have had moments of reflection.
That is a great point! Absolutely, Oh my God I didn’t even think of that (laughter)
So how has this time been when compared to that time? Have you learned anything new about yourself during quarantine?
I was just working doing The Morning Show and I finally wrapped and flew home and I got the press schedule for the book and I found myself back in an old pattern that during quarantine and lockdown I had promised myself I would never be in again, which was the anxiety for schedule and time and how am I going to fit it all in? And that panic of if I can get it all done in one day and the constant running in and out of doors and what’s next, next, next, next, instead of what’s right here. We [her family] talked about that around the dinner table.
That was something so special and I have to preface this by saying within the lockdown, I felt so privileged because so many people were in pain and lost their jobs and in the midst of it all, there we were because of The Good Wife and the fortune that my career has afforded us in our country house in the middle of nowhere, cooking food and being together. And my son, who I felt bad [for] because he wasn’t around any kids his own age and he was locked in with his parents, I asked him one night at the dinner table, “How are you doing?” And he said, “What’s not to love? I go to school in my pajamas. You and dad are home every night. You cook great food.” To see it through his eyes, I realized it had been so long since we were home every single night for dinner. What a gift. We all said let’s make sure, that if we go back to normal, let’s remember this. So the other day when I was running and rushing because I had this business, I went, “oh you’re doing it. You got to sit down and take in this moment and not get panicked.”
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process for this memoir in deciding what to include and how you wanted to structure it? Did you have a vision for your memoir?
I went in totally blind. I am also technologically disadvantaged (laughs). I understand Microsoft Word, which is what I wrote my book on but I did not know how to organize chapters within the book. All of that stuff was daunting to me! I felt the only way I could do it was as my editor [Pamela Cannon] said. She read the first draft that I wrote and she said, “You have a book here, but now I need you to vomit everything out on the page. Stop being polite, stop being worried, stop trying.” And the second I heard that and had permission from her to just be my authentic self and not worry…that was such freedom for me. I panicked because everytime I would get a job in my acting world, I would write to her and say, “I can’t meet that deadline because I’ve got to learn dialogue and I’m working 14 hours a day on a set. I have no time.” I would [also] say, “I’m going to give you back the advance!” (laughs) So when I didn’t have a job to go to, I actually really enjoyed the process of it because I’m an actress. So my job entails probably 150 to 200 people a day in my work. I’m around people all day long. So to suddenly have a job where once my kid was off to school and my husband was off to work, I would make a cup of tea and walk into my office and shut the door and sit down and say for the next two hours, “You can do nothing but write. ” There were days where I looked at the screen and I’ve got nothing and then there were days where I would just start writing without any inhibitions.
I can imagine it was also therapeutic to just kind of let it all out.
It’s incredibly therapeutic. Everything I would think about I’d jot down in a notebook and I would refer back to the notebook when I was coming up with nothing. I would just find one word or one phrase and it would bring me to a whole chapter. So often in life, we are rushing through it and then we forget the feeling and forget the moment. One of the main things I wrote, in the beginning, was this book is not a tell-all. I’m not throwing anyone under the bus. What I want to do is convey my journey and how my reactions to every situation is how I managed to get to where I am. This is about my journey. It’s a coming-of-age and navigating my way. What else could I do but act? I was always putting on someone else’s shoes, someone else’s clothes, someone else’s accents, someone else’s dialogue in order to fit in. It’s almost like I got to shed this skin onto these pages and walk away feeling refreshed and renewed.
Though you do write about your craft and your career, as you said, you put a lot of focus on your personal journey and really allow people into that privacy that we don’t really ever obviously have access to.
Even when I write about The Good Wife, I really write about the underbelly. I know people look at that life and in that role, and it seems all so glamorous and, believe me, there were glamorous, wonderful, “I can’t believe this is my life” [moments]. I wanted them [readers] to see me tip-toeing past my infant’s room at 5:00 a.m. after pulling an all-nighter and, if I hear him, not being able to go and sleep because the guilt of the mother is always there and you will always run to your child when you have to. I wanted them to see me coming onto set with 60 stitches in my mouth, trying to do a defamation in the middle of court while I was high on Percocet because I had just gotten a gum graft. I wanted them to see the human side of this business and also the glorious, glamorous side. When I first had my meeting with Ballantine Books and Random House, I remember when they read the first draft they said, “Oh, there’s no stories in here about what it was like to win an Emmy.” And I said, “Guys, you’ve got the wrong girl. I’m never gonna write about that.” Someone else can write about watching me win an Emmy, but it doesn’t interest me because it’s a fleeting moment that means nothing in the big picture. So I’ll never write about that. And I have to say they were amazing about it. I hope it reaches people beyond the audience that watched The Good Wife or ER. This isn’t just a female book, but I’m going to talk about being female. We have been dancing backwards in high heels for so long and accomplishing just as much that I think this will allow women to see that even though I look like this strong capable person, I am just struggling just as hard as they are to make it work.
You write deeply about your parents and your upbringing. Did you get a chance to speak with them about what you hoped to include in the memoir and what was their reaction?
So, unfortunately, my father passed away in 2014, before I started writing the book. So I didn’t get to confer with him and I wish I had. I have to say he was definitely there with me every day. I could hear him every day. I asked my mother for her permission. I said, “Mom, I think I have a book inside of me [about] my childhood, where I got to my career and I won’t write it if you don’t want me to but I would like to.” And she said, “Honey, you are free to write whatever you need.” And that was the biggest gift I could have gotten. I called her numerous times and asked her questions and taped our conversations. Then I would read her chapters over the phone or sit on her porch. We would laugh and cry together. She was so available to me, so open to me and so responsive without being angry at me for pointing things out that she’s done or without getting defensive. I sent her the galley when it was finished — I was actually on my way to the airport to start The Morning Show — and she called me and the first thing she said was, “I am so sorry.”
The second thing she said was, “I love this book” and that’s really all I needed to hear honestly. That’s a gift and I don’t know how many parents would be able to really fess up to their actions. My mom definitely wasn’t easy (laughs) [but] I wrote about her with so much love because ultimately, at the end of the day, that’s what I came out of it with. I always look at my adult friends who have tenuous relationships with their parents and I think they might be ready to work through it but oftentimes their parents aren’t. I was lucky enough in my mother’s crazy spiritual search that allowed me in my adult life to have a mother who was open to hearing my grievances and open to apologizing.
In one passage, you write about reading letters written by your father and later confronting him about them and your childhood to which he also apologized, which was incredibly emotional.
How fortunate was I to have been hormonal enough because I was pregnant to confront him and how lucky was I that he did not get angry? Instead, he got sad and explained himself and asked for forgiveness. I tear up talking about it, cause what child gets that? It’s so much braver to fess up and own your stuff than it is to build a wall and get angry at it. There’s real power in asking for forgiveness and being forgiven. I know what it’s done for me as a parent seeing both my parents apologize to me. What it’s done for me as a parent and I’m hoping to give to my child is when I know I’ve acted out of being tired or made a rash decision that was ridiculous, I go straight up to my son and I go, “I’m only human. I hope you can forgive me. That was not good what I just did, whatever it is.” What it does is it teaches him that he can also own his own stuff and say he’s sorry and also that he can accept an apology and move on from there and not then bring it into his adult life (laughs). Children don’t realize that parents are just human. I never really realized that. When I think back at my parents, how young they were when they were going through all of this, they were kids! And then you become an adult yourself. I think that’s really what the book is about, it’s a coming-of-age saying, “Wait a minute, I’m an adult now. Let me make my own life. Let me have my own narrative with the richness that I could take from my childhood.” As crazy as it was, what a rich tapestry to draw from. And I had love! I had so much love from them both.
In other passages of your memoir, you do touch on moments from your career. In a lighthearted moment, you detail your comical audition story for ER and being so convinced that you wouldn’t get that role. Did you ever ask or find out what it was that made them choose you because you were so convinced that you didn’t?
It was because I walked in with [Nurse Carol] Hathaway’s attitude, instead of a mushy doctor who was supposed to fall in love with the George Clooney character. I walked in with a “don’t mess with me” attitude that they made me wait for two hours. I thought it was so disrespectful and rude. In the end, it did me great service! (laughs) Thank God things worked out the way they did. I mean, a confluence of events that just melded into this iconic moment. ER changed my life.
You write about how George Clooney called and told you that you were going to be asked to come on board. What was that like for him to essentially give you that inside scoop?
He is a generous man. He and I worked well together. In a two-hour pilot, I think I had seven minutes of screen time — It’s not that much — but the little bit of screen time I had with him was so easy. I don’t think Hathaway wouldn’t have been Hathaway without the Doug Ross character… All of us together, it was how the stars aligned, this unbelievable moment and lucky streak where we all reacted so beautifully together that it made the show what it was really and then it allowed the show to have this incredible 15-year lifespan with all these other incredible actors that kept that torch lit…George wasn’t well-known then. It wasn’t like he was giving a kid a let-up. He overheard something [and] he was gracious enough to let me know because, honestly, I would’ve taken the other job. I was broke and I really didn’t want to go back to waitressing. Taking that gamble on that phone call was really scary for a minute. But what I’ve learned in my life, going with your heart and taking a gamble sometimes really pays off. And, in my case, it’s paid off time and time again.
Speaking of taking a risk, you also write about making the decision to not renew your contract with ER and receiving criticism for it. Was that something that was so odd to you at the time and even to this day that you would receive so much backlash for a personal decision?
It’s not odd anymore because, as I write in the book, my father explained it so beautifully and on such a human level to me when I called him crying about the backlash and how people were horrible jokes about me. The truth of the matter is if there was no money involved in that decision, no one would have thought twice about it. Because it was a monetary decision, the way my father explained it to me was that it throws that question onto the person reading about it: “Would I have turned down $27 million? Who does she think she is?” So they make me out to sound like I’m above it somehow which really was not the case at all. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the opportunities that were dangling in front of me and I had been dying to take… I had work lined up for over a year before that decision had to happen. I didn’t have a child. I wasn’t married. I owned a home at the age 32. I had no overhead and I had no responsibilities except to myself at that time. I studied the decision for a very long time. It wasn’t a rash decision. It was a mindfully thought-out decision. What hurt me was the accusations of what people thought of me. What I learned from it was it doesn’t matter what people think. You know what you think. It was a growing pain, but I learned it and it served me well later on in life too. Everyone’s going to think their own opinion. I have no control over that. The only thing I have control over is my own life.
You recently joing an ER virtual reunion with cast members. During it, you expressed that the series should just live on as it was and not necessarily have a reboot, but what is it like to see it still have such a following to this day where fans would want more, even after all these years?
I have to tell you, we were all so excited! (laughs) It was such a joyful occasion. Usually, when we get asked to do things, I’ll email George and Noah [Wyle] and be like “Are you guys doing it? I’ll do it if you do it.” This was one of those moments where I didn’t email anyone, I just said yes. And then when I saw that they had all said, yes, it was so exciting to see everyone. I’m sorry they couldn’t have everyone on! I would have so loved to have seen Maura [Tierney] and Sherry [Stringfield], everybody! I think this pandemic has brought a whole new much younger audience to the show. The letters I get for ER, they had sort of dwindled down, obviously, it’s been a long time (laughter). To start getting letters from young women saying, “Thank you for representing nurses. I went to nursing school because of you”… for the past 15 years I’ve been getting letters saying, “I went to law school because of you.” So to suddenly go back to ER, it’s been overwhelmingly positive and it makes you realize the longevity of these things. You no idea when you’re in it because you can’t see it. When you finally come out of that, you can sort of reap the rewards of the positive energy that comes back from such good shows and such good writing, such great characters.
Do you think you’ll ever show the show to your son?
(Laughs) Well, I would love to. I’ve offered but he has no interest in seeing anything I’m in. And this started when he was three and I played a doctor on Sesame Street on an episode. When it aired, I set up the TV and I said, “Kieran look it’s Mama!” and he stood up and looked at the screen and said, “Nope.” When I said to him, “You know, honey, you’re 13. We could start watching ER, It’s a great show.” He was like, “You know Mom, I don’t need to see you on a screen. I have you in my life.” The only thing he ever saw, and I didn’t realize he saw it until he told me, was on YouTube, he watched me do a skit on SNL where I was in a bird family … It sort of went down as one of their all-time best skits. He watched that because it was a comedy and it’s funny.
When writing about The Good Wife you focus more on the personal struggles that you were dealing with behind the scenes. When looking back at that time, would there have been anything you would have done differently to help ease the stress of everything that you were putting on yourself?
Oh my God. Yes, so many things. Everyone’s problems I wanted to solve. You do your best work on a set that is happy and because I was a producer and because I was number one on the call sheet, I wanted everyone to be happy not just so I can do my best work, but just so that we could all collectively do a great job together and enjoy the experience. And in doing so I left myself out of that equation. Nine times out of ten, I would leave myself last to take care of until it was too late. I think I’m also trying to show the underbelly of a working actor. It all revolves back to the title of the book, which is Sunshine Girl. Because I grew up with that name [and] my mother always saying, “You’re the easy one. You make life easier. You smile, you walk into a room and the sun shines,” I never thought I could do anything else. I didn’t think I could complain or say, “This isn’t working for me” or “Guys, I’m too sick. I can’t be on set today.” I always thought I had to muscle through and grin and bear it. In the end, it was a disservice to my wellbeing [and] to the people around me… Now that I’m out of it and I’m not pulling those hours and trying to make every plate spin at the same time, I see that I could have said to my husband, “I know you want to go up to the house this weekend. I’m so exhausted. I just worked a 70-hour workweek. I need sleep and order in food.” Instead, I wanted to make sure he knew I was also there to be his wife and cook and shop and make a beautiful home and make sure my son tastes mamma’s cooking. I just kept going. I ran myself ragged and got so sick at the end. I would never do that again. Next time I’ll say, “Mom’s too tired. Let’s order in and watch a movie.”
There are a couple of moments from your memoir worth noting. In one moment, you detail the night you met Steven Seagal. I know that you have spoken about it before, but why was it important to really revisit it again for your memoir? I’d imagine that’s not necessarily the easiest thing to do.
I had spoken up about it when the whole #MeToo movement was happening because people were asking and I wasn’t going to lie. I wasn’t going to hide anything. And I wanted people to understand that the women coming forward had absolute reason to come forward and that it had happened to me too. I just didn’t get hurt in it. I managed to get out of the room. I know this is going to sound strange, maybe, but it was kind of comical that I stank of rotten eggs (laughs). I had put mayonnaise in my hair, and it really was a funny story even though it was frightening to be in a room with this man toting a gun and feeling very vulnerable. The process up to it, I wanted to also bring in the humor on the moment and bring in the desperation of the moment and having people understand why back then a girl like me who was waitressing and pretty strong-headed and pretty confident in herself would end up in a hotel room by herself with a movie star. Too often these stories are “well, she went” and it’s like “yeah and?” That means she deserved it? Yes, I went. I was told that there would be a casting director there. I went because I needed the job. I went because, God, I couldn’t waitress anymore and I wanted to act. I wanted my SAG card. I wanted to make money acting. I wanted to begin my life as an actress, and this is a chance. I wanted to include that story to sort of put a punctuation on all these stories that have come out to say, don’t even ask a question about why she was in the room. That is not an appropriate question. The appropriate question is, “How dare you?” That’s the appropriate question.
You also write about while being a waitress, you waited on Russell Simmons and he snapped at you and eventually demanded a new waiter. Why did you open up about that experience?
My original draft did not have his name in it and then all the stories started coming out about him and I thought, I knew at 22 when I waited on him that this guy was an asshole. There he was sitting with all these, young girls trying to impress them, and by doing that trying to degrade me and speak in a horrible way to the servant at his table. I thought you know what? You deserved that. You put out bad energy when I met you. You’ve got called out on your shit and I’m going to write it because I was there to witness it firsthand as your waitress. If anything, I hope all the women who have spoken out about him, it was for them when I wrote that and I wrote his name and included it. I’ve known Jenny Lumet and I just thought, “Here you go, honey. You are absolutely right. I could see it a mile away.” For whatever my word is worth, I don’t mind including that name. I really don’t throw anyone under a bus in my book and it’s not a tell-all in that way. But I just thought, “You deserve it” (laughs)
Now that everyone will be able to read your memoir, what do you hope readers take away from the stories that you share?
I hope in some way it can reach people who are suffering the way I did with this idea that I was always supposed to just grin and bear it. Another big thing is I really hope that anyone with a fraught relationship with their parents can change their narrative as adults and decide who they want to be to their parents and to themselves. A big part of this journey was to see the human side of what it is to be an actor. The humanness, not the glamor and the glitz, but the human behind who I am before I act, because all of the experiences and to see that everything does, if you can find it, hopefully, has a silver lining. That tough choices might not seem brave in the moment but when you look back, you’ll be so proud of those brave moments. And not to listen to anyone else except your true heart, to believe that you’re worth something.
I just really do hope that people take away from this book that we all go through these journeys and hopefully change and grow along the way and not to be afraid to change and to walk away if you have to, because you never know what’s on the other side of the door.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Below, THR shares an audiobook excerpt of Sunshine Girl.
Audio excerpted courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio from Sunshine Girl by Julianna Margulies, read by the author.
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