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Josh Charles on The Good Wife’s Second Season

CBS's The Good Wife ended its first season with a romantic cliffhanger. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) stood just off-stage at a press conference, her formerly disgraced husband (Chris Noth) beckoning her to join him in front of the cameras, with her cell phone ringing. Will (Josh Charles), her old friend and boss, who had called minutes earlier imploring Alicia to give their romance a shot, was on the line. Would she answer, or take her husband's hand? On the eve of The Good Wife's second-season premiere, we spoke with Josh Charles about the cliffhanger, what to expect from season two, Will's character developing outside of the aforementioned love triangle, and his uncanny ability to make other actors laugh at inappropriate times.

Over the course of its first season, The Good Wife turned into this rare thing: a show for grown-ups. Was there a point when you thought, Wow, this show is really working?
I was not really interested in doing a TV show. It just wasn’t on my radar. Julianna’s a friend and she called me and was like, “Hey, we’re shooting this pilot and there’s a cool role in it and it shoots in New York. It could be really fun.” And I read the pilot and liked it, but I really didn’t have a lot to do in it. I was intrigued about what was going to happen to the character, because it was clear that Will was going to be a part of the show in a substantial way. So I talked to Michelle and Robert King [the show’s creators] and got a sense of what they wanted to do. But as we began, it was like with any TV show: You never really know. You kind of all jump in, like “Hey, everybody seems cool. The scripts are good.” You just go on this journey and it evolves like no other medium. But, yeah, somewhere in the middle of last season I started to really feel like it was really good, when we could take a little bit of the procedural element out, and really start to get into the characters. This show’s trying to do this hybrid thing, where it has procedural elements, but there’s a darkness that they’re reaching for, a not shying away from ambiguity, a wanting to not oversimplify things. I started to see that in the scripts, see that in where the characters were going, and I just became crazy about our creators, that they’re really aiming for something higher.

You’ve worked with other show-runners before, like Aaron Sorkin on Sports Night. How do the Kings compare?
I’ve worked with some great writers in television, and I’ve worked on some projects that I’m proud of, but the way Robert and Michelle interact and the collaborative relationship that I have with them, the e-mailing and conversations, and how deeply Robert thinks about these things … I’ll send him an e-mail and say, “Hey, there’s a scene coming up where Diane and I are having a fight and I mention my father and it seems random. I never really say anything about my father before.” And back comes these two or three paragraphs of backstory that Robert had thought about. And we don’t even meet the dad character! But this is what he was thinking about, about how Will feels about his father. I didn’t need any direction when we shot the scene. That was all in my mind. And whether an audience knows it or not, it helped me tremendously to make more specific choices in the scene, and that’s just a gift. Also, they do things like, they talked to all of us at the end of the year and asked, “How do you guys feel? What do you feel we did well? What do you feel we can do better?”

What did you say? Did you talk about what you wanted to see happen this season?
I said de facto what they already knew, which was a sense of staying on top and not repeating ourselves and not getting into a situation where we’re just playing awkward moments. I like where they’re going with my character this year. They’re really kind of digging into every character’s backstory. Will’s sort of an ethical, moral kind of mess of a guy, but then there’s also this very loyal, caring person there too and it’s fun to play both. I also like the fact that this year it’s starting to feel a bit more like the character can start to live on his own without being part of a triangle. You have to have some other stuff going on, and I think they’ve really acknowledged that and they’ve been making an effort.

Is the "other stuff" Elizabeth Reaser, who just got cast on the show as Will's love interest? Does that mean we know how last season’s cliffhanger gets resolved?
Ah, not necessarily! Don’t assume. We have a lot of surprises for you guys. Just because you’ve heard that doesn’t mean that it’s heading in one direction. You’re going to be in for a treat with the cliffhanger I think. They handled something very cleverly. I read it and just had such a big smile on my face because it was so smart, and seemingly so simple. What it does is create a level of subtext for all of us. The audience is aware of things the characters won’t be aware of, and that’s incredibly fun to play.

This show seems like it could run for years and years. Does that prospect freak you out at all?
That’s the scary part about TV, how you’ll feel about it in six years. But right now, I don’t really think about it in that way. Right now, I feel really blessed to be working on a show with such talented people in my home city. And the fact that people are digging it and responding to it is exciting.

Sports Night only ran for two years, right?
Two years to me was plenty though. We went in and we obviously made something that resonated, that people still talk about it. It obviously has a following, and I’m flattered by that. I’m proud of the work. I made really good friends on the show. I think it was just the wrong network at the wrong time. If that show had been on another network at another time, who knows. But, I don’t sit there and wish it had gone on longer. It was actually plenty. It was a really hard thing to do. Long hours. We’d shoot a show in five days I think. That was the first TV show I’d ever done.

Do you miss doing comedy?
I like to be silly, too, and I like comedy, but it’s fun to do so much dramatic stuff in this. [Christine] Baranski and I always joke with each other that the two of us are such goofballs and we get to do all these serious scenes together. We keep making each other laugh in between takes, and we just sort of giggle with each other like, “Can you believe that we’re cast in these roles that are serious, like the partners of a law firm?” It’s pretty great.

Are you silliest when the show is at its most serious?
I have been accused of making people laugh, maybe when it’s not appropriate, during scenes. Apparently I do something, the way I look at you, and I have a sort of uncanny ability to look at someone while they’re acting and make them laugh. And sometimes that has bit me in the ass, because even when I’m not doing it and the other people laugh, the first person everyone blames is me. The reality is, sometimes breaking happens at the worst moments. It’s a sixteen-hour day and it’s not like you’re trying to do it. It’s just certain people that I get the giggles with. Juliana and I sometimes just get giggling together and it’s rough. Archie and I have that in a big way. It’s really hard for us to keep a straight face in a scene together. It’s a release sometimes.

Do you walk it out or what?
Sometimes you just cry it off. Literally, through, like, tears of laughter you’re just like, “What is happening?”

Photo: Patrick McMullan