Tonight’s episode of The Good Wife (CBS, 9:30 p.m. ET) marks series regular Josh Charles’ directorial debut. It’s an hour that, in addition to the show’s regular cast, features recurring guests Nathan Lane, Maura Tierney, Denis O’Hare, Kristin Chenoweth, and Amanda Peet, who makes her first appearance as Capt. Hellinger, a female military officer accusing a civilian contractor of attempting to rape her in Afghanistan. The case is brought to Lockhart Gardner through Judge Kuhn (Linda Emond). Brian Dennehy also appears as Alicia’s opposing counsel, the wonderfully named Bucky. We talked to Charles, who lost sleep and weight pulling double-duty, about his move behind-the-camera and what we can expect from “The Art of War.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I love the promo for this episode: “No other drama on television brings together stars like this all in one episode.” Was it just luck that you got this hour, or did you ask for it?
JOSH CHARLES: I was supposed to direct last year, and that didn’t happen. So this year, I thought the plan was I was going to fall in the middle of the schedule. But Robert and Michelle King [the show’s creators] called and said, “How you do feel about doing six? The way things are working, it could be kinda great.” The cast just became phenomenal. It was a little nerve-wracking going into it just thinking wow, this is a lot of talent that’s being assembled here for this 42 minutes of television. [Laughs] I’ve learned no matter how much you prepare, there’s always a moment of just like, “Okay, hope I don’t f— it up.” I’ve certainly experienced it as an actor, and I’ve experienced it for the first time as a director.
The promo also teases an election shocker and a scene between Peter and Maddie. Is this the episode that we’ll finally figure out Maddie’s story?
Yeah. There’s definitely some surprises in store. I think what’s great about this episode is what it combines: We’re in the court a lot, and the office. We’re dealing with the political realm and seeing Eli behind-the-scenes. There’s an Eli-Peter-Jackie story line about Jackie’s caretakers, and we’re introduced to Yul Vazquez’s character, Cristian. There are scenes between him, Mary Beth Peil, and Chris Noth that are so funny. I had Yul and Mary Beth do it as written a couple of times, and then had them do a couple of takes where they just went off. The idea was so Robert and Michelle, when they’re watching the dailies, could just see what Yul is capable of and what could happen from Yul and Mary Beth riffing off each other. He already did one more episode, and he may recur even more, I don’t know. So there’s humor in it, there’s drama in it, and there’s suspense in it. It’s kinda got everything. I love the fact that the show can balance that well, and I think this episode shows that.
What can you tease about Amanda Peet’s character?
You see a woman whose life is a little shattered at the moment. Something that she believed in and trusted has fallen apart on her, and she’s fighting it. She connects with Alicia, whose world had fallen apart in a very public way and has come out the other side. To see that relationship develop in the midst of that was pretty great.
And this is Kristin Chenoweth’s first episode back after her accident on the set.
I didn’t know Kristin that well. We had the first day, and we were doing our scene when the accident happened, so I was with her. To have her go through what she’s gone through and be able to come back, and that be the episode that I’m making my directorial debut on, just felt really right. That was a special day.
I’ve loved Nathan Lane on the show. Will we see him a lot this episode?
In this episode, he doesn’t have a ton. But he is inspiring to watch. His work is so deceptively simple. It’s incredible to work with him as an actor, and even more fun as a director. People were making fun of me when I was watching the monitor, because I would get really, really close to it. I would get eye level to the monitor, so I was almost in the scene with people. I didn’t realize I was doing it at first, and then people laughed at me. But that helped me, in a weird way. It felt like if nothing else, what I’m there for is to help the actors navigate the world of this script that they got three days earlier and that I, as the director, have been living with a little bit longer. Just let them remember where they’ve come from, where they’re going — the things I like directors to tell me.
So you’ve wanted to direct for some time.
It wasn’t just something on a whim, like, “Hey, I want to direct.” It sounds very cliché, and I’m sorta horrified at the idea of seeing it in print, but it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. Where I feel I was helped was that I know this show really well. I know all the actors well. So really it was just trying to get the performances to what I like. I think it could, in the long run, make me an even better actor — just being able to see from the other side the kind of acting that I like, that I aspire to do, and working with everybody to help tell the same story.
What made you the most nervous about directing?
I knew where to put the camera. I knew when I wanted it to move it’d be to help tell the story, not just to show off. It might sound bizarre because I am an actor, but I wondered if I’d be good at expressing what I want to my peers. I think I was so nervous about it because I wanted to not give result-oriented direction. But spending time working with them ended up being one of my favorite things to do.
Was there a moment when it clicked?
There’s a moment later in the show with Linda’s character, Judge Kuhn, Amanda Peet’s character, and Alicia. Robert King had said to me, “A lot of times, if there’s a scene that has some emotion in it, we tend to underwrite it a little bit because we know that the actors will bring some emotion to it.” That was really interesting to hear that from that perspective. So there’s this one key moment with Linda, and knowing the kind of actor that she is, I think an hour and a half before, I just said to her, “We’re gonna shoot that moment, and I love the elegant detachment that this character has being in the military and being in this other world, and you bring this beautiful quality to that, and we don’t want to lose that. But if there’s ever a moment that we want to see her humanity, it’s here in this moment.” That’s all I said, and Linda, just being so incredible, looked at me and said, “Got it.” You’ll see it when you see the episode. It’s one word. It’s a fantastic piece of acting that I was privileged to be a part of. That for me was the first time when I felt like I was really becoming a director, just knowing how to speak to different people. Maybe another actor you’d talk to in a different way. But her, I knew to say that an hour or so before, and that it was all I needed to say. And we got it in one take. That was a highlight for me definitely. Also, getting to work with Chris a lot. Chris gets to be vulnerable in this episode, he gets to be funny, he gets to be tough. You get to see a lot of different sides of Peter, which was fun to explore.
Obviously, you know most of the cast so well at this point. And then you have someone you’ve never worked with before like Brian Dennehy. What was that like?
Mr. Dennehy, I obviously knew his work and am a huge admirer. But that was one I was nervous about because I didn’t know him personally. I just made the decision that it didn’t serve me, him, or our work together to be completely intimidated by him, so I would just talk to him as respectfully and as specifically as I would any other actor. He was completely receptive to that and such a team player and a joy to work with. He’s so commanding and has such a presence. There’s a close-up of him in the episode looking at someone in court that’s pretty powerful. When you’re shooting, you’re moving so fast, and then you get into the editing room and you’re processing things, and you see what real subtle acting can do and how much the camera sees. Someone like him who’s so powerful, it really doesn’t take a lot and it registers.
How was directing yourself?
Directing yourself is not something I found to be particularly fun. Now that I’ve done it, I think I could be better at it next time. That was the weirdest part. We didn’t have playback, so you’re just going on your own instinct. Producer Brooke Kennedy was my eyes, telling me, “Maybe you want to try one this way,” and that was helpful. That day doing that was just an exhausting day. I think we finished at 2:30 or 3 in the morning. I got to the van, got home, and just collapsed on the bed with all my clothes on. [Laughs] I would say that was the day I’ll remember — I haven’t been that tired in quite some time. But I woke up the next day and got really excited again.
Are you hoping to direct more now?
I really want to direct a film. I’ve been working on something that I’d love to get off the ground. But right now, I would love to direct another episode. I don’t know what this year entails scheduling-wise. It may be that everybody’s already booked. And it’s also hard when one of your regulars directs, because you do have to adjust the schedule a little bit, otherwise you just run the risk of killing the person. [Laughs] But it’s something I definitely want to continue in my career, in movies or in television.