“Now you've got your story!” Carla Gugino yells over the thunder, her hotel-issue umbrella bending under bucketfuls of water that whip her black trench coat, pink scarf, necklace with its gold lightning bolt, and impervious smile. Gugino even shelters a passerby stranded on our corner as we ready ourselves for the final crossing—which, granted, is just a one-way Philadelphia street that separates us from a restaurant called Village Whiskey.
Having been forced to forgo a chatty stroll around Rittenhouse Square, her weekday home turf for the past three months, Gugino is attuned to the need for a good scene. And her instinct is dead-on: I’d already planned to use a quote from Karen Sisco—a 2003 show that was supposed to make her a breakout star but was canceled after ten episodes. Someone had described his boat to her tough U.S. marshal character in the pilot: “Not that big, but she’s good in a storm.”
Gugino has been reading up on reporters in a collection of interviews called The New New Journalism because she’s playing one on TV. A half-hour ago, she wrapped a scene in episode five of Political Animals, a six-part “limited series” that debuts July 15 on USA. In this deft piece of Hillary Clinton fan fiction, Sigourney Weaver plays a former First Lady who lost in the presidential primaries to a newcomer for whom she now serves as secretary of State. She’s divorced the sleazy ex-president but still has to contend with the Maureen Dowd–ish muckraker—Gugino’s Susan Berg—who first broke the story of his tawdry affairs. Spoiler alert: They develop a grudging respect for each other while reeling off lines like “Never call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that.”
Gugino owns an apartment in Chelsea, where she usually lives with her boyfriend of fifteen years, indie filmmaker Sebastian Gutierrez. Maybe it’s homesickness that led her to suggest Village Whiskey, because every New York trend is represented here: a menu that looks like a “wanted” poster; assorted pickles; foie gras burgers—and, oh, yes, a no-reservations policy. In spite of which Gugino has been wrangled onto a list. But it’s starting to hail outside, no one is leaving, and the line is lengthening. The hostess has the list but lacks the urgency she might display if, say, Sigourney Weaver were to walk in. “I hope we don’t have to go back out there,” Gugino says.
Luckily a table opens at the bar after ten minutes, during which Gugino—perhaps still in character—gives as many questions as she gets. (“Who’s Bobby Burns?” “Where do you live, exactly?” “Where are you from originally?”) Which isn’t to say she’s completely reconciled to the dictates of journalism. “I’m fiercely protective of my privacy,” Gugino says. “I liked our profession when it ran on a lot more mystery. It’s okay now to have a margarita brand and monetize yourself as an actor, whereas before you wanted to remain absolutely mysterious so that people could believe you in your roles.”
Nonetheless, Gugino gives freely of her past. Her father was an orthodontist and her mother was a hippie; their divorce led to a “gypsy” childhood spent alternately in a Florida mansion and a van in Big Sur. She was valedictorian of her class and modeled with Elite Petite (she’s not only shorter in person but leaner and more delicate). Gugino had already made tours of Brown, Yale, and Sarah Lawrence when she got a season-long arc on Falcon Crest, and the rest is the history of a highly versatile actress—intelligent, hot, ass-kicking, but never quite what she calls “bankable.”
She played small parts as the classy love interest on everything from ALF to The Wonder Years and, later, Spin City. Her movie roles have swung wildly among genres. Not many actresses could follow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez from the Spy Kids franchise, in which she played a mother ten years her senior, to his pitch-black Sin City, as a topless, be-thonged lesbian parole officer.
This is where Gugino really parts company with the censorious feminist Susan Berg. “Sexuality is one of the biggest parts of who we are,” she says, citing all of those European actresses who have aged gracefully without the benefit of either modest clothing or plastic surgery. When Gutierrez asked Gugino to play a retired porn star in his oddball comedy Elektra Luxx, she thought it was a great idea. “And I will trust you as a journalist not to take this out of context,” she adds, “but Sin City is exploitative by nature. It was about this iconic graphic-novel woman who is oozing sexuality while kicking your ass.”
The combination of sex and sadism explains Gugino’s hungry Comic-Con fan base. It also appealed to the creators of Political Animals. “She can be a pro at her job and also really sexy,” says Animals executive producer Larry Mark, “and that’s not so easy.” Her co-star Sigourney Weaver speaks from personal experience: “I think it’s appropriate to use all one’s arsenal of gifts.”
Gugino shrugs off turning 40 last year without denying that it matters. “IMDb is the worst offender,” she says. “It used to be if you were right for the part, you got it.” Lately, she’s been hanging around with some older ladies—Jane Fonda; Rosemary Harris, her co-star this year in Broadway’s The Road to Mecca; and Angela Lansbury, whom she met on the set of Mr. Popper’s Penguins. She remembers telling Lansbury she wasn’t “interested in doing something to my face—putting anything in it or taking anything out of it or pulling anything up. I’d just rather act in film until they think I look too old and then produce and act in theater until I’m a really cool-looking older woman.” Lansbury responded, “But you’re such a baby!” Gugino adds, “I feel like I’m in the beginning of my career in a lot of ways. Most of the great theater roles are yet to come.”
Gugino took her first Broadway part in 2004 in After the Fall; Mecca was her third. “Sophie’s Choice and Silkwood and Frances, those were the movies I set out to do,” she says. “If I could do roles as amazing as what I’ve done onstage in films that people would actually see—that’s really what I want to do.”
Having acquired just enough fame to score a table at a hot restaurant on a cataclysmically stormy Friday, Gugino is ambivalent about wanting more of it. “One of the most important things for an actor is to observe humanity,” she says, “and if you can’t come to a place like this and sit here, your acting suffers for it.” But then, “I wouldn’t mind being more bankable,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of directors want to hire me and not be able to hire me,” because they couldn’t swing the financing a true A-lister could command.
In the meantime, Political Animals offers a complex, well-written role and just maybe another shot at bankability—especially if it gets picked up for another season. “It’s very cool for both of us to have characters to play who are not just sort of one thing,” says Weaver, “and that’s the answer to any sort of pigeonholing, is to play roles like these.”
One show that curvy, dark Gugino feels just right for is Mad Men. Alas, Matthew Weiner’s already turned her down: “We were espousing our mutual fandom, and I said, ‘I am perfect for Mad Men.’ And he said, ‘You’re too famous.’ ” Weiner said he didn’t hire anyone whose renown might detract from her ability to disappear into the role—in other words, to do what Gugino has been doing her whole life, at the cost of developing a brand name. “So I couldn’t win,” says Gugino, laughing. Susan Berg would appreciate the irony.