‘Absolutely Brutal’

‘The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski on Life After Will Gardner’s Death

Christine Baranski on shooting the heartbreaking Good Wife scene that left her sobbing—and then getting drunk and having a big laugh after his funeral.


After ping-ponging between stage, TV, and film roles for much of the past four decades, Christine Baranski thought she had seen it all. That is, until she started her fifth year as the elegant, masterful Diane Lockhart on The Good Wife. In just one season, her character was promised a state supreme court judgeship by Governor-to-be Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) only to have it cruelly snatched away from her, was almost forced out of her own firm after publicly throwing her co-managing partner Will Gardner (Josh Charles) under the bus, got married, watched her firm torn apart after high-profile defections from associates Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), and most tragically of all, in the March 23 episode, “Dramatics, Your Honor,” coped with the shocking death of Will, who was gunned down in court by his own client.

And it’s not over yet: there’s still a month to go before the CBS drama’s season finale. “It’s been a highly traumatic year!” says Baranski, 61, finally taking a breather just days after wrapping the fifth season. “But I found it breathtaking.”

Particularly the episodes centering around Will’s death, which were prompted after Charles decided he wanted to leave the show. Baranski first got wind of Charles’s plans when he spoke to her last spring as they finished up their fourth season, which found their firm Lockhart/Gardner trying to emerge from bankruptcy. “I know he was somewhat dissatisfied after the fourth season, that somehow the work hadn’t been challenging enough,” recalls Baranski. “We had a lot of guest stars who were coming on and doing dazzling work, but I think he was restless and had the option to leave. Up until the very end, I kept thinking he would change his mind.”

She was hopeful that Charles would be swayed by the enthusiastic reaction to the season’s thrilling first half, in which Alicia and Cary departed the firm and Will and Diane dealt with their betrayal. “Critics and the viewing public were suddenly paying major attention to the show again,” she says. “People were exhilarated by the whole thing. And Josh was doing just stellar work. I kept holding out hope that he would say, ‘You know, this is pretty swell here and the work is fulfilling.’ But he had made up his mind and stuck to it.”

While Baranski had heard early on from creators/showrunners Robert and Michelle King that Will would be killed off, that didn’t make it any easier for her to read the fateful script when it arrived in December. “I had trouble getting through it,” she says. “I had it over Christmas and I kept trying to read it, and then I’d stop, knowing that this was the episode where it was gonna happen. I was almost in denial. And then there was one morning where I was well-rested and it was quiet in the house, and I said, ‘I’m just gonna do this.’”

The first three-quarters of the episode were structured like a normal court case, but “suddenly the moment came and our stage directions indicated what was going on. And I just even couldn’t see the page, I was just awash in tears,” she recalls. “Then I put the script down and I didn’t even pick it up until after Christmas.”

When the day came in January to shoot the scene where Diane and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) discover Will’s lifeless body (until that point, most viewers assumed he would somehow pull through), Baranski made sure to keep her distance from Charles. “When you play scenes like that that are very dramatic, it has to happen to you. They’re reactive in nature, so you can lay a groundwork but you can’t plan how you’re going to react,” she explains. “Josh is on the set the whole time in his trailer but we did not even say hello. He was simply prepared behind the curtain, and then we did a few takes of walking in and seeing it. It was extremely challenging to do, so I’m glad it’s over.”

But her toughest work was still to come: the March 30 episode “The Last Call,” where a grieving Diane and the other characters try to process Will’s death and break the news to everyone else. “Christine had taken Diane Lockhart to such a strong place right now, we wanted to see how she would handle holding a business together in the face of her worst fears,” says Robert King.

“That was absolutely brutal, because I had two full days where I just had scene after scene of crying and sobbing,” says Baranski, including one draining moment that was dropped from the finished episode. “At the end of one shooting day, there was yet another scene I had to do where I was sitting alone in my office, sobbing. We did take after take and it didn’t make it into the final cut but that was a big, big, emotional day because, you know, crying take after take is like laughing: it only works if it’s real.”

But the Kings were most impressed by how Baranski deftly pulled off one of the lighter moments in the hour, when Diane dismissed one of Will’s clients who had immediately threatened to change firms after hearing of his death. “A lot of actors can cry, but we love that scene where Christine fires one of her clients,” says Michelle King. “She is such a great mix of strength and humor.”

Still, even a seasoned pro like Baranski wasn’t been prepared for what was required of her in those episodes. “I’ve done so much comedy and I’ve done drama now, but I’ve got to be honest, never in my career have I been called upon to do that kind of work in front of the camera,” she says. “It was hard, but what a privilege to be able to go to that place of deep, deep sorrow and pain and trauma.”

After all that crying, Baranski reveled in the April 13 episode, “A Material World,” which opened with a scene in which Diana and Alicia unwound and got drunk together after attending Will’s funeral. “I think the writers have done something quite brilliant, because you wouldn’t want to continue to watch everybody crying,” Baranski says. “Laughing hysterically or getting drunk is another way of processing extreme pain.”

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While Baranski loved the scene, she took issue with the time at which it was filmed. “I so often have to shoot very dramatic scenes at like 2 in the morning. And it’s like, you’ve got to be kidding, do we really have to shoot this scene so late? And yet that drunk scene is exactly the kind of scene you’d want to shoot as the last shot of the night on a Friday at 2 a.m. when you’re punchy with fatigue and you’re a little loosey-goosey,” says Baranski. “And instead, you know when we shot it? The first thing Monday, crack of dawn, in a restaurant that was a block from my house on the Upper East Side. It was like, really, on a Monday morning I’m sucking on olives and trying to pretend I’m drunk?”

That’s not the last time we’ll see Diane’s comedic side this season, Baranski says. In the May 18 season finale, titled “A Weird Year,” “I had a scene where it’s scripted that Diane laughs. I took the laughter way further, and started literally guffawing,” she says. “It just felt so real because I thought, with everything Diane’s been through, how great to end the season with her letting out deep belly laughs over the absurdity of what has been one thing after another. And so I found myself heaving with laughter. They just kept the cameras rolling, and I hope they use it.”

On set, Charles’s—and Will’s—absence “is a terrible loss for me,” says Baranski. “He was my main acting partner and I also think we had a great on-camera relationship because it was one of those wonderful male-female relationships that was never gonna be romantic, and yet curiously they were really good together. Robert King always said that was the happy marriage in the show. So that was like losing a spouse, because he was truly my partner. Also, Josh and I both have this great, wicked sense of humor. We would razz each other mercilessly on the set. We loved talking sports and we’d laugh a lot. He was a person that was just so easy on the set and so fun, and it would translate on- and off-camera. That’s the kind of colleague you want.”

Baranski did get to reunite with Charles when he returned to direct the April 27 episode (he’d previously directed twice). “It was comforting. I think we all needed some kind of closure,” says Baranski. “And I think for him it was very important to reconnect with his colleagues. Because I think it’s a very difficult thing to do to walk away from a show where it’s a family.”

She also continued her annual ritual with Margulies and Charles, toasting the season’s end at a West Village burger joint. “I was just with him at the Minetta Tavern, having a martini and a burger,” she says. “We always do that at the end of the season. Julianna and her husband and Josh and I, we just have a well-deserved, big, fat, old meal and a few drinks.”

As the season barrels towards its conclusion, Diane will continue clashing with Lockhart/Gardner partner David Lee (Zach Grenier) over their firm’s future. The big question in the remaining episodes, says Robert King, is “How does Diane deal with a firm that is on the brink of falling apart? And how does she do it alone? She used to rely on Will to be the cunning one. Now she has to become more Will-like. It’s incredible to see this transition in Christine.”

Baranski was also tickled by Elisabeth Moss’s recent interview in which the actress said she saw Diane Lockhart as the kind of woman that Mad Men’s Peggy Olson would grow up to become. “It’s so cool!” says Baranski. “First of all, I think she’s so great on the show, but the point is just so well taken that in that era a woman couldn’t do what a Diane Lockhart does now. And now the world is filled with Diane Lockharts in all walks of life. Women are still fighting for equal pay—go figure!—but there’s been progress and I think the strength of the Diane character is seeing someone who actually got to the top. She works for it, she sacrificed and she’s successful, and she has enough money to spend it on her clothes and her quality of life. It matters to her.”

As chaotic as the season’s second half was, its first part was a different kind of whirlwind for Baranski, who spent all fall shuttling between The Good Wife’s New York City sets and London, where she filmed the big-screen musical version of Into the Woods. She plays Cinderella’s stepmother in the film, due out Dec. 25, which reunited Baranski with both her Chicago director Rob Marshall and her Mamma Mia! co-star Meryl Streep, who plays The Witch. “How many actors can say they’ve done not one but two movie musicals with Meryl Streep?!?” says a giddy Baranski. “She and I were so thrilled. Meryl could not be more fun to hang out with.”

Into the Woods is the adaptation of the 1987 Steven Sondheim musical, which mashes together several of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. “Somehow my producers on both ends worked it out that I literally commuted back and forth,” says Baranski. One time, in fact, she made the trip to deliver a single line. “It was a carriage scene where we were on our way to the ball and the Baker asks for help and he climbs on our carriage. And I push him off and say, ‘Mongrel!’ And it was such a joke on the set that I flew all the way to London to say one word. But it was a pleasure and a privilege.”

Baranski feels the same way about her Good Wife job. “Over the course of many years you get to tell a lot of stories and show a lot of different aspects of your talent as an actor, so I think it’s the greatest gig,” she says. Especially considering The Good Wife is the rare—many would say, only—network show that holds its own with high-quality cable dramas. “It’s a miracle that Wife is a CBS show and it can compete with any of those cable shows,” she says. “And it’s a very different tone because it’s subtle, it’s intelligent, it doesn’t rely on a lot of grandiosity. It doesn’t rely on violence. It doesn’t rely on sex scenes and women being abused or used as sex objects. It’s a sophisticated show and I hope that it’s recognized for its tremendous worth. I’m just really proud to be on it.”

That said, she’s also happy to spend her hiatus decompressing after a grueling season. “I love my family deeply. I have this beautiful grandson now, and I also have a home on a lake,” she says. “I’m actually looking forward to reading books. I love to read poetry and try to memorize poetry on my hiatus so that I keep my memorization skills going. So I go out in a canoe and repeat verses over and over and try and learn poems. We have a beautiful house where in the morning you can sit on the dock and see the sun rise and at night you watch the sun set. It’s just as good as it gets.”

Plus, she’s already looking forward to whatever is in store for Diane next year. “When I talk to our head writers, they seem more jazzed than ever,” she says. “I think this thing that happened this year fueled them creatively. It changed the creative topography of the show and it rocked our world and it rocked the viewers. But I don’t see a downside to it so far—except that we miss Josh!”