The Good Wife's Christine Baranski: "I am literally growing old in front of the camera"
In the moments before she arrives, I realise I am unable to picture Christine Baranski without a Martini in hand.
I’m thinking, of course, of Maryann Thorpe, the cocktail-swilling, dry-witted, ex-husband-maligning sidekick to Cybill Shepherd’s heroine in the mid-Nineties sitcom Cybill.
More recently, Baranski lit up 2008’s Abba film spectacular, Mamma Mia!, and her big number (wearing a red swimsuit, jiving and having the time of her life with a crowd of semi-naked young men) also featured something fruity in a Martini glass.
Today, though, on a rare day off from shooting the legal drama The Good Wife, she’s in errand-running rather than cocktail-quaffing mode.
“Forgive me,” she says, patting her perfectly coiffed hair as she arrives. “This is the working me.”
We’re in a small French cafe on New York’s Upper East Side, a few blocks from her apartment. Baranski is in a grey jumper and huge, ovoid sunglasses, which she tilts down, little finger raised, to reassure me “there is a person under here”.
In a few weeks she’ll fly to London to appear in two performances of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Royal Albert Hall.
Baranski will play Phyllis, the former showgirl, and even though she is 62, a double-Tony winner and a seasoned performer of Sondheim, Baranski is as daunted as a person could be. She met the man himself after a production of Company in the late Seventies – the very first Sondheim show she did.
“He came backstage and said something nice and I thought I was actually going to faint. I felt as though I’d met God,” she says.
Baranski has had a healthy career on stage and screen for the past 35 years, but sometimes it is the less conventional accolades that really illustrate a person’s cultural standing.
Earlier this month, the comedian Sarah Silverman revealed that her boyfriend, the actor Michael Sheen, had named his penis The Great Christine Baranski. When I broach this, Baranski begins shaking with silent laughter.
“I’m choosing to be flattered,” she says, catching her breath. “I’m choosing. I, of course, was – the English have that great word, ‘gobsmacked’. If ever there was a moment you could be gobsmacked . . .”
When she first heard the story, Baranski asked herself what such a thing could mean.
She counts out the possibilities on her fingers: “Hard worker? Versatile performer?” She exhales. “Yes. Michael Sheen. I’ll never be able to look at him the same way again.”
Her delivery is pure Maryann Thorpe, a character who, as Baranski puts it, “spawned a lot of sisters”, among them Sex and the City’s fabulously droll Samantha (Kim Cattrall) and Will & Grace’s one-liner queen Karen Walker (Megan Mullally).
“At that time in American culture, in the mid-Nineties, it really popped.
“To this day I can walk on an aeroplane and they’ll say, ‘Would you like a Martini?’”
A decade or so after Cybill ended, Baranski found another TV role that proved to be just as rewarding.
Diane Lockhart is the compassionate powerhouse at the heart of The Good Wife: senior partner at her Chicago law firm and a mentor to the show’s heroine (played by Julianna Margulies), the wife of a disgraced politician.
“There is a moral authority to the character,” says Baranski. “I love her intelligence, I love that she’s in command of the facts. I think it’s great to see a woman who’s not just an emotional self or, at times, not an emotional being at all – she’s an intellectual being.”
So often, Baranski says, powerful and successful woman are instead portrayed as damaged.
“They’ve got to be crippled, they’ve got to be handicapped. Diane clearly isn’t any of those things,” she says.
And just to be superficial for a moment . . .
“Oh, yes!” she says gleefully, and we talk about Diane’s fabulous, First Lady-worthy wardrobe: a vast collection of power suits and impeccably tailored shift dresses that are pored over and fetishised on Tumblr and beyond.
“I can borrow them whenever I want. When I go to the opera I can always go looking like Diane Lockhart,” she says.
Outfits aside, the show’s female characters – Baranski and Margulies, and Archie Panjabi, who plays the firm’s private investigator – are consistently more interesting than their male counterparts. Baranski agrees, diplomatically.
“The women do show a particular kind of strength and resilience,” she says.
That resilience was especially impressive in the fifth series, when Baranski’s character had to weather the death of her friend and business partner.
Baranski herself lost her husband last May. She and fellow actor Matthew Cowles had been together for 31 years, a union that produced two daughters. Remarkably, Baranski returned to the set two months after his death.
“You know, I didn’t really have a choice, because Good Wife is my job,” she says.
“I was still pretty frail and shaky, but I just went back to my family of colleagues and crew, all of whom were so wonderful, and having to work focused my energy and gave me a reason to get up.”
Cowles was diabetic, and by the time he reached the age of 69 he was “fighting great odds”, she says.
“I’m just glad that when he passed away he wasn’t hooked up to a load of machines,” she says. “Matthew died rather quietly, at home in the next room.
“He was a marvellous, most original, most wonderful man and I didn’t want to see him suffer indefinitely, but I certainly miss him.”
There exists the stereotype of the ageing actress horrified by the loss of her youth, but Baranski’s head is screwed on far too firmly for all that.
“We’re obsessed with a kind of beauty now that I think is really getting in the way of us seeing people. It certainly gets in the way of us seeing actresses,” she says.
“You see actresses who are beautiful and holding on for dear life, doing all kinds of menacing things with their faces.
“As Diane, I am literally growing old in front of the camera, but, you know, Julianna and I often say it’s great for the public to see what women look like.
“God help us if we reach a point in our industry where nobody even knows what a 50 or 60-year-old woman looks like.”
Some might argue that Baranski has had decades of typecasting. But then, what a type it is. I ask her how she feels about forever being thought of as grand and fabulous.
“I could do worse! To be known as this kind of sophisticated character who’s witty as sin? Matthew always said, ‘It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye’.”
She tilts her sunglasses at me, and, with a self-ironising twitch of a smile, says: “Grand and fabulous? That’ll do.”