'The Good Wife': Julianna Margulies explains how she negotiated Josh Charles' season 5 contract

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Image Credit: John Paul Filo/CBS

Julianna Margulies has no desire to direct, but she definitely earns her producer credit on The Good Wife.

CBS hosted a screening of the drama’s March 30 episode Wednesday night in New York, followed by a discussion with Margulies, co-creators Robert King and Michelle King, and Josh Charles, who makes his final appearance in the hour. By now, fans know his departure has been a year in the making. His contract expired at the end of the show’s fourth season, and the decision of whether or not to renew it coincided with when he was proposing to his wife and doing some soul-searching about his future. “Look, it’s a very long season doing a network television show, and somewhere in year 4, I kinda felt burnt out. Michelle and I had a long conversation about it, and I just felt a little fried and that I was ready for something different for me. That’s no reflection on how I feel about the show, it’s just more about what I want to do in my life,” he told moderator Charlie Rose. (“How much I’ve learned from working with Robert and Michelle about storytelling, the quality and depth of the writing — I mean, I’m afraid going out into the world,” he later admitted. “You don’t see that every day. That’s not something that I take lightly.”)

Margulies first learned Charles was thinking of not renewing his contract in March of 2013. “I got a call from Michelle and Robert, and they said, ‘We need to tell you something. Josh is gonna be leaving the show.’ And I said, ‘Why?‘ And they said, ‘Well, his contract is up, and he doesn’t want to renew.’ My head just started spinning. I said, ‘Well, well, well, wait. Did you see if he could do less episodes? Maybe offer him more directing gigs,” she recalled to much laughter. “I just became the Alicia lawyer trying to figure out how to negotiate this contract. And [the Kings] were both incredibly open about it. They said, ‘We’re open for anything. We don’t have enough time to say goodbye to his character properly in this short amount of episodes.’ Because we shoot so in advance, and they’ve written episodes and have a storyline planned. So it kinda meant his character was gonna just disappear, or someone was just gonna talk about him leaving, and I couldn’t accept that. I thought he’s been such an integral part of the show, such an integral part of my character, and I felt like if this is gonna happen, let’s do it right. And they said, ‘Good luck.'”

Once everyone finished laughing again, she continued. “I called Josh, and I gave him terrible Jew guilt. I knew he was about to get married. I’m good friends with his wife, and they’re dear friends of ours. I said, ‘Josh, how about this: 15. Think about it. Wait. Think about it. Money in the bank for 15 episodes. Do you know how expensive it is to have a baby in New York City?’ I went right to the kid thing, and it was disgusting, honestly,” she said. “We were looking at kindergarten for our son at the time, and I was like, ‘Do you know how much private school is in New York?’ I went on this whole thing about kids and family, and he was like, ‘Well, 15? Let me think about that.’ And I said, ‘And two directing slots!’ And then I hung up and called [the Kings], and I was like, ‘How about 15?’ And immediately they both said, ‘If we have an arc, and we know we can write starting next season and finish up this season as planned, we can do this.’ And so I said [to Josh], ‘They’re gonna write amazing stuff!’ And the next thing I knew, it happened.”

“No baby, yet,” she added, looking at Charles, “but that will happen, too.”

 

Michelle reiterated what the Kings explained in their statement following the March 23 episode, which shocked viewers by having Charles’ character, Will Gardner, shot in a courtroom: anything less than death would’ve been a little too easy. “We all would’ve wanted Alicia to have Will had he been only across the country or disbarred,” she explained. (“She would’ve wanted him more,” Margulies cracked.) They also knew his death would fuel a new chapter for Alicia. As Margulies said, “Of course there’s gonna be this hole in [Alicia's] life, but how she fills it and how she starts to question her choices — why am I doing this? Why am I representing these a–holes? — suddenly it’s black and white. There’s no gray area. I think a death — anything important that happens in someone’s life — is a game-changer, and it makes you hopefully a better person for it. You’ll see this tremendous loss for her, but the choices she makes from them on are incredibly careful, and they’re mostly about her.”

The road ahead will be painful, Robert acknowledged. “But hopefully painful in a way that our audience can go, ‘Yeah, I don’t see TV deal with things like this. I’ll watch it.’ Or there’s Resurrection on ABC, and he’ll come back to life,” he joked. Cue Charles pretending to walk like a zombie in his chair.

As for how they managed to keep Will’s tragic end a secret, Charles remembered something the Kings pointed to when they first discussed it. “Robert and Michelle were saying, ‘Well, you know, the reports out there have put that you have signed up for a whole year, and we can kinda use that to our advantage.'” In other words: If fans were savvy enough to keep up with the contract negotiations, they’d be savvy enough to expect a dramatic exit in the season finale, where characters as big as his usually close out their arcs.

Other fun tidbits:

• Charles feels like reading fan reaction on Twitter — and phoning more than one of the devastated to console them — is sort of like getting to know what kind things people say at your funeral. On a funny note, he added, “There’s a realtor that sold an apartment in my building…. I get [an] email that’s just, ‘So sorry to hear this news. I was so devastated by the episode. Does this mean that you’re moving back to LA? Because I’d love to sell your apartment.’ True story! That was some chutzpah! I wrote her back, like, ‘Maybe not the best time.'”

• Speaking to the chemistry between Margulies and Charles, and the show’s cast in general, Robert said that when he and Michelle watch dailies, they’re not just watching the takes. They also watch what happens after “Cut!” is called. They’ve been known to use those candid moments between actors in the show itself. Charles said it happened in the March 23 episode, in fact, when Will and the prosecutor (Matthew Goode) were at the bench and appeared to share a laugh right before Jeffrey Grant (Hunter Parrish) grabbed the sheriff’s gun. “I was like, we never laughed with the judge,” Charles said. “But when you think about it, [seeing it from] Jeffrey’s POV, he thinks they’re laughing. He’s in such a different state of mind.”

• Charles isn’t the only one who likes the idea of doing less than 22 episodes a season. Charles asked Robert what he thinks the ideal number of episodes is story structure-wise, and Robert flat-out answered 15. “Fifteen gives you the freedom to tell independent stories,” he said. So for example, if you see something like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin having a “conscious uncoupling,” you can use that as an episode. (“Can me and the governor have a conscious uncoupling?” Margulies quipped.) “If you did fewer [episodes],” Robert continued, “it would be like, ‘Oh, that’s one of the rejects.’ So what’s great is that you can do anything.” And at 15 episodes, you can do “anything” bigger. “What’s tricky when you’re doing 22 episodes a year is not turning into melodrama,” Michelle said. “You can’t keep upping the stakes without it leaving reality. But that’s what gave Will Gardner’s death its impact is that we haven’t tried to do that. So if you very much try to keep yourself within the drama of what’s real, then occasionally you get to indulge that. But cable, if they’re doing fewer episodes, they can do those bigger moments.”

• The question from Rose that got the biggest laugh of the night: “What does Ridley Scott do?” The executive producer may be off directing films, but he still watches all the rough cuts, Robert said: “And sometimes we’ll get strange messages from wherever he’s editing in the south of France.” Scott helped hook the show up with Archie Panjabi and Matthew Goode, having worked with them both before. And Margulies remembered an early meeting with the exec producers during which she expressed her fear that Alicia would become boring if the character were to be at the mercy of what the network wants as opposed to what the producers want — which has never happened, she noted. “Ridley stood up, and he said, ‘That happens, you call me.’ I remember feeling this sense of security,” she said. “I really think having Ridley Scott at the top of our little home is a security blanket for all of us.”

 

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