Character Study

‘The Good Wife’: Mary Beth Peil on Jackie, ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ and More

71-year-old Mary Beth Peil is stealing scenes for her work on CBS’ The Good Wife. Jace Lacob talks to the former opera singer and Dawson’s Creek star about playing Jackie Florrick.

04.16.12 8:45 AM ET

While The Good Wife’s title refers, rather cheekily, to Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick—who found herself embroiled in a political and sexual scandal at the start of the series’ run—the show explores both individuals’ and society’s definitions and expectations of wives, mothers, and career women.

Margulies’ Alicia juggles work, children, and romance, often without much regard for her own well being, perhaps outside of a solitary glass of red wine at the end of a day in court. Yet Alicia’s outlook, behavior, and mores are constantly commented on or outwardly attacked by her mother-in-law Jackie Florrick, played by 71-year-old Mary Beth Peil, who began the series as a babysitter for Alicia’s teenage children but who has recently emerged as the show’s de facto villain.

Peil is perhaps best known for her role as religious-minded Evelyn “Grams” Ryan on six seasons of teen-centric soap Dawson’s Creek, but the Tony Award-nominated actress began her career as a soprano, performing with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, and Boris Goldovsky’s company. Peil will once again display her singing skills as Solange LaFitte in a limited five-week revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in Los Angeles beginning next month, and she is currently starring Off-Broadway as real-life virtuoso violinist Erika Morini in The Morini Strad.

In Sunday’s episode of The Good Wife (“Pants on Fire”), Peil’s Jackie found herself confronted by both her son Peter (Chris Noth) and Alicia over her plans to purchase the separated couple’s old home, suffered a stroke, was revealed to have stolen from her grandchildren’s trust fund, and emerged as the heir apparent to Livia Soprano’s mantle of manipulative and controlling motherhood. The Daily Beast spoke with Peil about playing Jackie Florrick, her relationship with Alicia, Dawson’s Creek, what lies ahead, and more.

What is your take on Jackie and do you see her as being a villain of the story?

Mary Beth Peil: I think she’s misunderstood. In order to play someone who is arguably the villain, you have to find reasons for why she does what she does. I totally understand and have good reasons to defend every choice she makes and everything that comes out of her mouth, partly because that’s my job and partly because that’s who Jackie is. She thinks she’s doing everything for the right reasons. Now, if I was Mary Beth watching the show and not playing Jackie, I’d think she’s up to no good.

When Jackie was introduced, she was a nagging influence in the Florrick household. Are you surprised by where show creators Robert and Michelle King have taken Jackie over the last three seasons?

Peil: I’m grateful for the fact that it isn’t a one-note thing. To be the nagging, always lurking around the corner, sniffing around kind of person is interesting, but it’s been really fun to see all the other possibilities, to get to see her getting knocked down and see how she comes back for air. I have ongoing fantasy conversations with friends who say, “What do you think Jackie’s doing this week? Off to a lunch with her friends or sitting at home over a glass red wine and crying her eyes out?” I love the fact that she’s not actually in the [Florrick] house. In some ways, she becomes more threatening or more like the little black cloud than she would if she was actually there all the time.

Why does Jackie purchase the house? Is Jackie, as Alicia suggests, looking to “replace” Alicia?

Peil: She’s the very typical mother-in-law in the sense that no woman is ever going to be good enough for her son. That’s probably been there from day one, but as long as Alicia was playing by the rules and was being—in Jackie’s eyes—the good wife, it was okay. She didn’t feel the need to replace her, but I think she always felt the need to be sure that she was doing things properly.

Once the shit hit the fan and it became clear that Alicia was going to go her own way, then Jackie had to not exactly replace her, but fill in that missing piece of the puzzle, which was to be sure the home fires are taken care of and be sure that Peter’s reputation and character is defended and the family name is upheld and that the kids are raised properly. That they know the do’s and don’t from a world that Jackie, being born and raised and bred to be part of that Chicago political world, where ethics are fungible…  She’s a survivor and to survive, you have to be sure that your kids, your grandchildren, survive. You have to play by the rules.

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Do you think that Jackie then represents a return to an old-school mentality, in terms of both politics and family? That she was perhaps a different sort of good wife to her own husband?

Peil: Absolutely. For Jackie, that’s where her inner conflict comes from. She knows that, in her heart of hearts, the world is a different place and the world that her grandchildren are growing up in, the world of professional women, is totally different than the world in which she made her marriage work. What Jackie will never know and in the dark night of the soul entertains, is if she was living during these days rather than 40 or 50 years ago, what she would have done during this time. Her husband was a philanderer—one could say was the worst kind of philanderer because he had a long-time, ongoing affair with one of her friends—and she put up the good faith, fought the good fight, and kept her mouth shut.

Those were the sacrifices she made as a political wife.

Peil: That had to harden her, to toughen her up, but there’s a part of her that can’t help but wonder what she would have done had she been in Alicia’s place today.

What do you think is meant by the scene between the two of them, after Jackie’s stroke, in the hospital room, where Jackie says to Alicia, “I forgive you”?

Peil: She wants to play it both ways. That’s that Chicago political thing: with a smile on her face, she can do something that might hurt you because she has to. She’s still thinking, the best thing that I can do for this family is to get Alicia and Peter back together again, get that house back, get the kids back into their private school, get things back the way they were, whatever I have to do.

Yet she does illegally borrow from Zach and Grace’s trust fund to pay for that.

Peil: I’m not sure she considers it illegal. In her own mind, she considers that family money.

Is that perhaps then her fatal flaw, her love for both her son and grandchildren?

Peil: Absolutely. Her fatal flaw is too much love, and it’s unconditional love. She’s a mama grizzly. If you’re in my way, look out.

I see her perhaps as being the next Livia Soprano—

Peil: I love that! She’s very controlling but she will never—if she can help it—let you catch her at it. That’s the thing that is so hard with Alicia, because Alicia sees it so clearly.

Given the close bond between Jackie and Peter, what was it like filming that confrontation between Jackie and her son?

Peil: Oh, that was hard. What’s shocking for her that he’s finally talking back. I don’t think he’s ever [grabbed her before]. Maybe as a child, but he would have been disciplined and she would always win. I don’t think he’s ever spoken to her like that as an adult.

What can you tease about what’s coming up in the final two episodes for Jackie?

Peil: Let’s just say, she hasn’t given up and she’ll never give up.

Do people tend to recognize you more as Jackie or as Grams from Dawson’s Creek these days?

Peil: It depends on whether I’m wearing my headband or not. I know that sounds silly, but I figured it out. If I wear my hair up and have no makeup on, depending on the demographics around—although it’s amazing to me how many people in their 40’s and 50’s watch Dawson’s Creek, either they’re watching it now in reruns or they watched it with their kids—I’m liable to be spotted as Grams. But if I have my hair down and a headband on, it’s Jackie.

What do you think Grams would have made of Jackie Florrick?

Peil: I think Grams would have said to Jackie, “You have to lighten up.” Grams actually learned how to lighten up in the years that she spent with those kids. She was still a feel highly religious, highly moral, upright citizen, but those kids taught her a lot about the real world, the bigger picture, and about what love can mean and how much bigger love can be and how much more open your heart can be. It really opened her up and I think she ran with it. I don’t know if that’s possible for Jackie.

You have an amazing singing voice, but unfortunately, I doubt we’ll get to see Jackie burst into song in The Good Wife.

Peil: (Laughs.) I don’t think so. Although Julianna still keeps prodding Robert and Michelle [King] to write a dream sequence for me and Christine Baranski and Alan [Cumming] to do, a musical theater number. That would be great!