Where were you when you found out that Josh Charles would no longer be on The Good Wife?
If you watch the sensational CBS drama—and if you watch it then you are obsessed with it—then you remember every brutal pang of the heart-stopping, world-rocking, grief-stricken despair you felt when you watched Charles’s shocking last scene as Will Gardner on The Good Wife.
(We won’t spoil what happens, though you probably have figured it out. And also if you have a taste for excellent television you would have watched it already and grieved alongside the rest of us. Just saying.)
In the time since Charles’s mid-season exit from the show, his departure has become an obsession of sorts amongst TV fans. The story of how it was orchestrated—by co-star Julianna Margulies, no less—has been endearingly documented. Awards have been campaigned for and won to honor the way the show’s writers and actors dealt with Will leaving the show. And Charles has had to face a firing squad of questions demanding to know why he left, how he could do this to us. Even Margulies in her Emmy acceptance speech for Best Actress this year said it: “What were you thinking?”
The answer that Charles, mostly known for his superb TV work on shows like Sports Night and In Treatment, has given when being constantly implored to explain himself, is that he, basically, was ready for a new creative challenge. And we’re getting a glimpse at what that might mean with his first movie released since his Good Wife exit hitting theaters this weekend.
It’s called Bird People. And it’s really strange.
“It’s not a film that’s easy to explain,” he tells me, fresh from showing off the movie, directed by French auteur Pascale Ferran, at the Toronto Film Festival. “You can explain what it’s about, but it’s not easy to put into a logline. It’s definitely a film that you have to experience. You have to go into a cinema and let the lights go down. The less you know the better.”
All of this is true. Very true. This is an aggressively difficult movie to explain without making it sound batshit crazy—because as weird and polarizing as it is it is also kind of spectacularly beautiful and adventurous. And the less you know about the elements that make it so batshit crazy, the more likely you are to be engrossed by its strangeness.
The first half of Bird People follows a Silicon Valley businessman named Gary Newman (Charles) who, while wandering Paris’s Charles De Gaulle Airport and its clinical adjacent hotels on a work trip, has an existential crisis of sorts: he quits his job, tells his wife he’s leaving his family via Skype, and spirals down the rabbit hole. The second half follows a French maid in her early twenties whose curiosities about the personal lives of her guests literally takes flight one night (which should give you a hint about what the title means, and why this isn’t your typical indie drama).
“It’s quite beautiful,” Charles says. “But narratively it’s so unusual.”
And as is the case when indie films are “so unusual,” the response to Bird People, which premiered at Cannes before screening in Toronto, has been extremely passionate and extremely divided.
The New York Times ran an all-out rave of the film when it debuted at Cannes, calling it “delightful, and delightfully eccentric…a blast of pure cinema.” The Playlist, on the other hand, called it “too oblique, too delighted with itself, and frankly, too dull to admire…much.” Their critical colleagues concurred in equally, wildly disparate fashion.
“I knew going in that this was a really challenging script,” Charles says. “It has its share of people who really love and some people who really don’t get it, and that’s OK with me. More than that is the people that do respond to it have been really supportive and vocal. That’s meant a lot to the film because it really is, to me, unlike anything I’ve ever done or ever seen.”
And doing something he’s never done and never seen is that very thing we’ve all been hearing about as we search for answers from Charles regarding our despondence over his Good Wife exit.
“Having done just five years doing work on The Good Wife—that I was proud of with an incredible group of people—I want to do stuff that’s completely different,” Charles says. Specifically, the choice quote that Charles has given when asked what he wants to be doing outside of The Good Wife was things that “scare the shit out of” him. With that regard, there’s plenty that meets that requirement in Bird People.
“I knew it was going to require me going to some darker places,” he says. “That’s always scary. I was working in a foreign country with Pascale, who doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much French. That sounded scary. It has this one part grounded in reality and this other part where the film goes in a completely different direction. All of those things sounded risky, but also exhilarating.”
After years of rooting for Charles as Will Gardner, Alicia’s true love, on The Good Wife, it’s almost unsettling to see him play a character that does something as jarring and cruel as abandon his family on a seeming whim. But then again, there may be a handful of grief-stricken Good Wife fans who might find being blindsided by the departure of Will Gardner just as cruel.
“I feel a lot for those people,” Charles says. “I love the show as well. So I get it.”
And while our tears over no-more-Will are a catharsis to us, they’re also a bit of a comfort to him. “It’s a very warm feeling to feel that kind of love from people and that kind of grief people felt from missing that character. I get it and sympathize with them and try to be there for the fans. And I try to let them know that I’m still a fan of the show and love the show. Will Gardner [SPOILER-ing] is a hit for some people. But the show will be just fine. In fact, it will continue to be fantastic.”
It’s honestly, however, a little mislabeling to call the gloriously peculiar Bird People Charles’s first post-Good Wife gig, as he actually shot it two years ago on hiatus from the show and before he had even decided to make his exit. The next film he has coming up is a bit lighter—Adult Beginners, with Nick Kroll and Rose Byrne—and purposefully
“Coming along with the idea of doing the things that frighten you a little bit is something that makes you piss your pants laughing,” he says. To that end, you should be sure to watch Charles spoof Aaron Sorkin, who wrote Sports Night, on Inside Amy Schumer.
Plus he’ll actually be back on The Good Wife set—albeit as a director. He’ll direct his fourth episode for the series this upcoming season, the second that he’s done since leaving the show as an actor. “It’s good for me to focus solely on the directing,” he says about returning to the set without having to don Will Gardner’s debonair suits. “It’s hard enough as it is, to just wear that hat.”
Throughout our interview, Charles is extremely passionate while talking about Bird People, and not the fake kind you can sometimes sniff out when an actor is promoting a performance or a film he may not be entirely proud of or believe in. And he’s consistently good-natured in humoring questions about The Good Wife, which he’s been fielding ad nauseam since his last episode aired on the show. It’s to that last point that Charles is acutely self-aware and wise about his decision to leave the series, and what it means.
“People are consistently seeing the last thing you’ve done,” he says. “I’ve seen it time and time again in my own short career. It’s a constant battle to just remind people that you do other things. That you’re capable of more.”
With Bird People, the first battle, at least, is won.