Last October, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in The New York Times, Julianna Margulies was in a wardrobe fitting for her new, 10-episode AMC series Dietland.
Talk about fitting. Dietland, created by Marti Noxon (UnREAL, To the Bone), and based on the 2015 novel by Sarai Walker, is set in a parallel present where women have had it. Its heroine, Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), who answers letters at a teen magazine called Daisy Chain, is sick of being fat-shamed, especially by herself. She’s recruited by an underground female-empowerment group, Calliope House, while at the same time, a vigilante collective known as Jennifer is exacting revenge on abusive men. (One, a fashion photographer who drugged and sexually assaulted 31 women and girls, bears a striking resemblance to real-life alleged abuser Terry Richardson.)
AMC, a network that knows a thing or two about the zeitgeist, almost immediately bumped up Dietland’s premiere from September to June 4. And Margulies, who plays Plum’s boss/nemesis Kitty, Daisy Chain’s nasty, narcissistic, bone-thin editor-in-chief, couldn’t be happier about it all.
“Everything this show is saying are the things we’ve all been wanting to say for so long,” Margulies, who turns 52 on June 8, said in a phone interview this week from her home office in Manhattan. “For decades, women were told they were lying. Look what they put Anita Hill through. Look how brave she had to be. Now that we’re finally being heard, we’re starting to roar. Rightfully so...Let us roar. And the people who are running scared? They should be running scared. Shame on all of them.”
Strong words from an actress who’s famous for playing (and being) nice, as nurse Carol Hathaway on ER, and as attorney Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife. Margulies is the first to acknowledge how lucky she’s been, but she’s also suffered some of the inevitable consequences of living on Earth as a woman: Harassed while wearing a skirt on the New York subway in her youth, she switched to pants for her commutes. (“I thought, ‘Okay, that’s the way it is,’” she recalls. “You get immune to your place.”) As a fledgling actress taking meetings with powerful men, she barely flinched when producers or agents would say, “You’ll be alone in the room with him; wear something sexy.”
She admits that, 20 years ago, a boyfriend would back her into a corner and yell at her. (She never names names.) At their one couples’ therapy session, the therapist told him, “’When you take a step toward her, that is a threat, because you’re so much stronger than she is,’” Margulies recalls. “She said, ‘A threat is abuse.’ That stayed with me for 20 years.”
Even on the set of The Good Wife, where she was the co-producer and three-time Emmy winning star, doing her job meant that certain crew members would label her “a bitch,” she says. “I don’t want someone to think of me as bitchy. I want them to think of me as smart, strong and caring. But I really had to move past that and say, ‘I am going to continue what I’m doing, and call it strong leadership.’”
Age 50 was a turning point. “I love not caring anymore what other people think,” Margulies says. “I know my value to my family and friends. Those opinions I value. Whereas when I was younger, I spent so many years sweating what other people thought of me that I wasn’t being present with myself. When I got to 50, I felt I’d earned the right not to care.”
A lifelong perfectionist, Margulies spent seven seasons on The Good Wife working 14-hour days, then cooking, doing housework and schoolwork with her husband, the attorney Keith Lieberthal, and their son, now 10. When the series ended, she collapsed. “I spent three weeks in bed, unable to move,” she says. “I had to learn that it’s okay to ask for help, and okay to say, ‘I can’t.’” A friend once said to her, “If I was as hard on you as you are on you, you wouldn’t be my friend.” She wrote that down and pinned it to her bulletin board; she’s looking at it now as we talk.
“I’m quoting Oprah here, but I really have found that not giving any power to negativity makes my life richer,” Margulies says. “Especially in the toxic waste bin of politics in the United States right now.” As an actress, she throws her weight behind projects that mean something to her. She’s executive producing and starring in an as-yet-unannounced television series about truth in journalism centered on two Pulitzer Prize winners; and she’s developing a miniseries based on the book War Torn, about female journalists on the front lines of the Vietnam War. “This stuff about fake news is so upsetting, I thought, ‘How can I help?’” she says.
As a citizen, she supports organizations that make “a positive difference,” including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and Erin’s Law, a public school initiative that teaches kids the difference between good and bad touching, good and bad secrets. “Maybe if this law was around 50 years ago, #MeToo wouldn’t have had to happen,” she says.
Dietland points out how women also mistreat themselves, which Margulies applauds. “There’s no difference between Plum saying, ‘When I get to be a size six, I’ll start living my life,’ and women who are size six saying, ’When I meet the right guy…,’” Margulies says. “When this, when that – this is a great moment for us to ask, ‘Why aren’t we happy now? What are we waiting for?’”
She found a lot of freedom in playing a villain. “What made Kitty tick for me was that she sees her meanness as a right she earned,” she says. “She asks Plum, ‘Do you have any idea what it took to get me here? The sexual favours were nothing compared to all the placating and humouring and ego stroking I had to do to men, the whole time knowing I was better at the job.’ We also see her in a board meeting full of white men over 60, telling her what she can and can’t do to her magazine. I don’t think there’s one woman in any kind of business who can’t relate to that.”
And when the producers gently asked if, to enhance Kitty’s preternatural smoothness, they could do a little postproduction tinkering to erase some of Margulies’s wrinkles, Margulies laughed – she has a great, raucous laugh – acknowledged the irony, and said yes.
Dietland premieres June 4 at 9 p.m. on AMC