BRONXVILLE, N.Y. — It was a sultry summer afternoon on the wooded campus of Sarah Lawrence College, where Julianna Margulies got her start onstage as an undergraduate in the late 1980s, and the actress was reminiscing about what she used to hear from casting directors.
"They would always say, 'Well, you'll never do TV,' " she recalled. "I was either too Jewish-looking, too European-looking, too Greek-looking. Ethnic. But yet I wasn't ethnic, so no one knew what to do with me. . . . I just thought, 'OK, so I won't do that.' "
So much for that plan. Within five years of graduating, Margulies had broken into TV with parts on "Philly Heat" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," then landed the star-making role of Carol Hathaway on "ER."
Now, after spending nearly a decade doing an eclectic mix of projects that have included Broadway plays, "The Sopranos," and the movie thriller "Snakes on a Plane," Margulies is returning in a new network series poised to be her most prominent television platform since NBC's blockbuster hospital drama.
She was back at Sarah Lawrence to shoot a scene for "The Good Wife," in which Margulies plays the spouse of a disgraced Chicago state's attorney brought down by a prostitution and corruption scandal. The drama, which premieres Tuesday on CBS, explores the crosscurrents of betrayal and panic felt by the wives of adulterous politicians and what happens behind the brittle public facade.
The husband-and-wife writing team of Robert and Michelle King (creators of ABC's "In Justice") hit on the idea after the string of sex scandals involving former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. As they watched the men address the allegations in awkward news conferences, they were struck by the role played by their wives.
"All had this interesting component of the wife standing by her man, being pulled through the mud, and also being used as a prop," said Robert King. "We found that image poignant and kind of fascinating, and thought there was no more interesting character in modern politics."
"What was so interesting to us was that so very many of the women did choose to stay in the marriage, and how many of them were extremely accomplished women," Michelle King added.
Alicia Florrick, the character at the center of "The Good Wife," is a defense attorney who put aside her career for 13 years for her husband, an ambitious politician played by Chris Noth. When he is incarcerated, she is forced to return to work to support her two children.
Robert King said they immediately thought of Margulies for the role. "We knew we wanted someone who could do comedy, who had a light touch," he said. "We didn't want this to be Ibsen. Julianna has the ability to communicate in facial expressions 100 times more than what we can in words."
It wasn't a hard sell for Margulies, who was drawn to the complexity of the character.
"We're all so quick to jump at judgment of another human being without knowing the full circumstances," she said, wearing a sleek gray suit as she perched on the edge of a couch in a well-appointed home near the campus being used in the afternoon shoot. "So it was a great thing to be able to step into her shoes and see it from inside out, rather than outside in. And I really have tremendous respect for these women. I think they're incredibly brave."
That said, the actress said she still has trouble comprehending Alicia's decision to remain loyal to her husband. "In my mind, had that happened to me, I would have left," Margulies said. "My instincts would be to punish him. . . . I have to remember to keep her soft and a little bit more vulnerable."
The character is a sharp departure from her last television role, playing an adulterous, hard-drinking defense attorney on last season's short-lived Fox series "Canterbury's Law." Its failure stills pricks. When a reporter mentioned that the show didn't get the best reviews, Margulies quickly countered.
"Your newspaper was the only one that was mean and quite attacking, which I was quite surprised about," she said. "Your reviewer didn't like my eyebrows, and they went on and on, which was quite shocking to me."
(In her review, which dubbed the show "just terrible," Times television critic Mary McNamara referred to Margulies' "impossibly arched eyebrows.")
Margulies had signed on to "Canterbury's Law" with some reluctance, wary about committing to the punishing schedule of another broadcast series. She felt less ambivalence about "The Good Wife," in part because the show's New York location allows her to remain at home with her husband, lawyer Keith Lieberthal, and their 20-month-old son.
"Even though it is grueling hours, it keeps you in one place," she said. "And no matter what, I know on weekends my family is together."
The CBS drama is already garnering strong buzz, in part because it's debuting on the heels on a new rash of political sex scandals, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's much-publicized affair. "The Sanford one was the one we were like, 'Wow, maybe I don't have to do press,' " Margulies joked.
She's optimistic about the show's prospects, noting that it's airing at 10 p.m., when "all the people that actually want to see a drama . . . can sit and eat some ice cream and disappear into someone else's life." And early reviews have dubbed the program one of the most promising of the fall season.
"Well, I guess everyone except the L.A. Times will like it, because obviously, your reviewer doesn't like my eyebrows," Margulies added. "So we might have a problem."