Christine Baranski On Putting Up A 'Good Fight' During 'This Dystopian Era'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Christine Baranski, stars in "The Good Fight," a legal drama streaming on CBS All Access that recently concluded its fourth season. We actually recorded this a few weeks ago, shortly before the police killing of George Floyd and the widespread protests. We postponed broadcasting several interviews, including this one, so that we could talk about the killing, the protests, policing and systemic racial inequality. But we really enjoyed this interview and hope that you do, too.
Christine Baranski's character in "The Good Fight" is Diane Lockhart, who was spun off from the series "The Good Wife." Both series were created by Robert and Michelle King. Diane is a progressive, smart litigator who's a partner in a law firm. The first episode of the first season of "The Good Fight" opened with Donald Trump being sworn in as president, a grave disappointment for Diane, who had planned on celebrating the election of the first woman president. The first episode of the latest season opened with Diane waking up in an alternate reality where Hillary Clinton was president.
"The Good Fight" frequently incorporates stories that have become part of the national conversation, like white supremacy, police assaults on Black men, the alleged Trump golden shower tape, powerful men who are accused of sexual assault and an attorney general who is criticized for bending the rules to benefit his allies.
Christine Baranski started her career in theater and went on to co-star in the TV series "Cybill" and "The Big Bang Theory" and films including "Reversal Of Fortune" and "The Birdcage." She's been in several stage and film musicals, including "Chicago," "Mame" and several by Sondheim, including "Into The Woods," "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd."
Let's start with a scene from "The Good Fight." When the series began, Diane announced her retirement from her position as a partner in a high-powered corporate law firm. But her retirement plans were ruined after she lost her savings, which were invested in what turned out to be a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. She winds up becoming a partner at a majority-African American firm. Later in the series, that firm is bought out by a much larger multinational firm. In this scene, she's talking with a senior partner of the larger firm, describing how powerful men are behaving like they're above the law in cases that she's arguing in court. John Larroquette plays the partner.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD FIGHT")
CHRISTINE BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) Is there some sort of Get Out of Jail Free card for rich and powerful clients?
JOHN LARROQUETTE: (As Gavin Firth) Not that I'm aware of. Why do you ask?
BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) Well, you assigned me to pro bono cases. And you want me to do my best?
LARROQUETTE: (As Gavin Firth) Yes, of course.
BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) Right. Well, there is something going on whereby certain people - rich and powerful people - don't have to comply with subpoenas or judicial rulings and can end a lawsuit if they think the ruling will go against them.
LARROQUETTE: (As Gavin Firth) You've experienced this?
BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) Yes. And Brian Kneef, one of your lawyers upstairs, seems to have benefited from one of those cases.
LARROQUETTE: (As Gavin Firth) And you're investigating this?
BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) Yes. Now, I'm sure you'll agree that we should all be subject to the same system of justice, but we're not. If I'm given a subpoena, I have to comply. I have to answer honestly. And if I don't, I should be prosecuted. That is the only way that the system works. And if it doesn't work that way, then the country breaks down. It's over. We're done. Now you've given me control of these pro bono cases, and this is essential to my involvement in these cases.
LARROQUETTE: (As Gavin Firth) OK. Just keep me in touch.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LARROQUETTE: (As Gavin Firth) Diane, I know that it seems like I am the enemy. But sometimes, I don't even know what's going on in my own law firm.
BARANSKI: (As Diane Lockhart) Understood.
GROSS: Christine Baranski, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here.
BARANSKI: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: You know, a lot of the shows you've done, you know, are comedies, and they're social comedies. But there's a lot of political material in this. Is the feedback that you get from viewers different because of all of the politically related storylines in it?
BARANSKI: Absolutely. The show was not conceived to be a show about life in the Trump era. It just so happened that on election night, we were shooting the pilot. And it's a well-known story by now that Robert and Michelle had to rewrite and reconfigure the pilot to accommodate that new reality. But it transmogrified into a show that is possibly the only show on television that is about people living through this dystopian era. And I get a lot of feedback from people who are just grateful to see a show that reflects their own sense of disorientation and confusion and how people - how they're coping with this, you know, crazy age.
GROSS: You know, the show has tried so hard to be in the moment and topical, but it could not have foreseen the pandemic. And the season had to end early, right? Didn't you have to stop production because of the pandemic?
BARANSKI: Indeed, we did. And as I'm listening to this scene that you just played between myself and John Larroquette, it's chilling to hear those words because those words were written before the Michael Flynn news story of, you know, the attorney general dropping that case. And for my money, it's our best season ever because it does go to the heart of who's enabling powerful people to get away with corruption.
GROSS: So many of your roles in the past on TV and on Broadway were kind of wise-cracking, cynical, slightly alcoholic women.
GROSS: And, you know, there's comedic elements in "The Good Fight." But your role - I mean, your character - she's got biting sarcasm when she needs it, but she's not a kind of snarky, cynical, comic character. There's a lot of just, you know, real drama there. Do you think that your voice changes when you're doing a comedic role versus a more dramatic role?
BARANSKI: What an interesting question. I think I had to find the voice of Diane during my years of "The Good Wife" because I was - I had done so much comedy. And my real challenge with playing Diane was assuming that I was that powerful woman, you know, the senior partner in a law firm that she created, that she had a kind of authority and gravitas. And I needed not to work at it because people who are serious-minded and authoritative really don't work at it. They just are that.
So I've learned to calibrate the sound and the tone and the manner of that character to be just much more understated as the years have gone by, which is why I've loved an opportunity to be on the air for all of those seasons because I keep refining the character and refining the performance. My comedic roles were always much more flamboyant and physical in nature, certainly my stage work. So, yes, I've - you know, I've loved the opportunity to vary my performance style and have people see another aspect of me.
GROSS: Audra McDonald co-stars on "The Good Fight." And, of course, she's done a lot of music theater. You and Audra McDonald and Meryl Streep did a song together for the Stephen Sondheim 90th birthday tribute, which was streamed on TV because this was during the pandemic, so everybody basically recorded in their homes. Was this your idea to bring the three of you together? You'd work with Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia?"
BARANSKI: It was. Audra and Meryl and I have all worked with Steve. We adore him. And a year ago, we took him out to dinner, and we vowed that we would do it again. When he turned 90, I emailed him to say, Steve, the three of us want to get together with you and have dinner, but alas we're stuck, and maybe we'll do it, you know, in virtual reality somehow. And a week later, I got the call from Raul Esparza about the fundraiser. He asked if I would sing something, and of course, I thought, well, yes, of course. How could I not?
And he said Meryl was a part of it, and I'd always wanted to sing "Ladies Who Lunch." So the song popped into my head, but then it popped into my head almost at the same time that, wouldn't it be fun if Meryl and Audra and I shared the song as a way of "getting together," quote-unquote, with Steve to sing this for his birthday, instead of having dinner with him? So it was an idea, and Meryl went along with it, and then we got Audra involved.
So we each did our part. I had to do my stanza and my, you know, phrases at the end of the day, when my grandchildren were asleep. Meryl had to do hers, you know, in California. And Audra was in her country home. And so we all recorded. We had the same track. And then it was edited and sent out there. But I was delighted with the reception 'cause it was sort of my idea. And I thought, oh, my God. The night before it streamed, I apologize to them, and I said, sorry for getting you into this, but, you know, it's for Steve, and he'll get the joke, and at best, it'll be fun.
So the fact that it went viral and people were really talking about it and that I'm talking about it now is a really happy ending. But, mostly, it raised money for artists striving to end poverty, and I think Steve was utterly delighted with it. So, you know, mission accomplished.
GROSS: (Laughter) Well, let's hear how it came out. We'll hear the stanza that you opened with, and then we'll hear a little bit of Meryl Streep coming in right after. So this is - my guest Christine Baranski starts off the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADIES WHO LUNCH")
BARANSKI: I'd like to propose a toast.
(Singing) Here's to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh. Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf. No. Off to the gym, then to a fitting. Claiming they're fat, then looking grim 'cause they've been sitting, choosing a hat.
Does anyone still wear a hat?
(Singing) I'll drink to that.
MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Here's to the girls who stay smart. Aren't they a gas? Rushing to their classes in optical art, wishing...
GROSS: So that was Christine Baranski with a little bit of Meryl Streep, and the percussion you hear with Meryl Streep is her - at least part of the percussion is her shaking the cocktail shaker?
GROSS: Because all the ladies in this are drinking (laughter).
BARANSKI: We each chose our choice of alcohol. So mine was red wine, and then it cuts to Meryl shaking a martini, and then Audra has a tumbler of whiskey.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christine Baranski. She stars in the series "The Good Fight." Season 4 just concluded. All four seasons are now streaming on CBS All Access. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Christine Baranski. She stars in the series "The Good Fight," playing a partner in a law firm. It's a spinoff of "The Good Wife." She's also known for comedic roles on stage and screen and for being in stage and screen musicals, including "Into The Woods," "Chicago" and "Mame."
Like, Stephen Sondheim is such a brilliant composer, but the intervals he writes in songs are sometimes, like, just - they're not typical. They are not the typical resolutions. They're not the typical melody lines. And it always strikes me as a nonsinger that they must be more complicated to learn because they're unusual. So what do you think? Are they...
BARANSKI: I think one approaches his work with terror and humility. And I've had the...
BARANSKI: And I think that's the best place to be as an artist. But I've had the pleasure and privilege of doing at least eight Sondheim musicals - unfortunately, never an original Broadway production. My first Sondheim musical was "Company," when I played April. That was shortly after I graduated from Juilliard. But yes, always - his music is challenging because he's just such a brilliant man that you try and live up to his level.
GROSS: When you're learning a new Sondheim song, what do you do to get it into your head so that you know exactly where to go, melodically?
BARANSKI: Well, I don't read music. I took a solfege class years ago, but I didn't study it long enough to really have it stick. So when I did "Sweeney Todd" at the Kennedy Center, that was a full production, and I started months in advance to learn it. And I learned it phrase by phrase, and I did it by repetition, repetition, repetition of those - as you said, those intervals. And Mrs. Lovett is cockney, so you have to sing with a Cockney accent, which is also very challenging to make yourself intelligible. I can only tell you that the work I did was so exacting and took months of very careful preparation. And I worked with my singing teacher every day to get those songs so into my voice, into my vocal - because also, Mrs. Lovett goes - you can - her range is very - at moments, she's almost singing in an operatic range with Sweeney. And then sometimes, it's a vaudeville belt.
So there's a high range, middle range and low range. So it's by far one of the most challenging, if not, the most challenging theatrical piece I ever did because, although people know I sing, I am not like Audra McDonald or Patti LuPone. I don't sing all the time. I'm not known primarily as a musical performer. So I found it really daunting. But I can only tell you when you pull it off, you get such a high. When I did do - perform Mrs. Lovett, it was just one of the great moments of my career, performing it?
GROSS: Would you illustrate for us the point that I was trying to make that Stephen Sondheim writes very wonderful but very unusual melodies, that the voice doesn't necessarily automatically know what to do because they're not typical, like, resolutions. Is there a - can you sing a line that you had trouble learning, it's so interesting but challenging?
BARANSKI: Let me see if I can - "Every Day A Little Death" is a really odd song from "A Little Night Music." Not odd song, but those intervals - (singing) every day, a little death in the parlor, in the bed, in the curtains, in the windows, in the buttons, in the bread. Every day, a little sting in the heart and in the head. Every move and every breath - and you hardly feel a thing - brings a perfect little death.
Now, those - all those minor tones, but they reflect the characters, that melancholy in her marriage, don't they? I mean, I think I may have gotten one little note wrong there because I haven't sung that song in ages. But can you hear the - it's not that easy to learn. (Humming). Yeah. But that's the joy of singing him is he's so - he's such a writer of the complexities of the human heart.
GROSS: You know, you said that learning Sondheim songs, there's an element of terror. Is part of the terror knowing that he's going to hear you?
BARANSKI: Absolutely. Absolutely.
BARANSKI: Yes. Yes. And you know he'll hear every note that's wrong. But I will say this because people are so terrified of his, you know, showing up and watching a dress rehearsal, whatever. I have come to know Steve long enough. He is nothing if not a great colleague. And he's not there to criticize or make arch or b****y remarks or, you know, eviscerate you. He is there to just get the work right.
GROSS: Did he give you any good advice on singing his songs?
BARANSKI: Yes, he did. He wants the truth of the character. Steve is really not into beautiful sounds. He says, don't make it beautiful. Don't feel you have to sing the song beautifully. Yes, he cares about the notes being sung properly. But what he cares about is - because he's such a great lyricist - is the communication of the lyrics, as though people are thinking and feeling on pitch. It's not about how beautiful you sound.
GROSS: That must've been good for you to hear because you're known...
GROSS: ...As an actor, not as a singer even though you've been in a whole bunch of musicals. So it meant that...
GROSS: ...Like, acting the part was what was really important, not just having, like, a gorgeous voice.
BARANSKI: Absolutely. Well, I think all of the great Sondheim performers - Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou - name them, they're all great actors as well.
BARANSKI: He wants actors who can sing. He doesn't want strictly singers. He doesn't want just to hear, you know, "Losing My Mind" beautifully sung. When you hear Barbara Cook sing "Losing My Mind," it's so filled with emotion. I mean, her sound is gorgeous. But it's the purity of feeling and what she brings to his words that matters. And I also - I don't know if I can articulate this properly. But there's an elegance to his writing. You don't need to embellish it. His lyrics are the communicators. You don't have to be clever with them. He is already so clever in the best sense and smart that the best thing you can do is take a direct route to his work and not try to, you know, embellish Steve Sondheim.
GROSS: My guest is Christine Baranski. She's now starring in "The Good Fight." Season 4 recently concluded. All four seasons are now streaming on CBS All Access. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S "LOSING MY MIND")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Christine Baranski. She stars in "The Good Fight," which recently ended its fourth season. All four seasons are now streaming on CBS All Access. She got her start in theater, won an Emmy for her first big TV role in the series "Cybill" as Cybill Shepherd's best friend and was nominated for her recurring role in "The Big Bang Theory." She's also performed in stage and movie musicals, including "Into The Woods," "Chicago," "Mamma Mia!" and "Follies."
So you mentioned you took singing lessons to prepare for musicals. What did you learn about your voice through singing lessons? And I don't even mean just your singing voice, but just your voice in general.
BARANSKI: Ah, my voice. You know, I went to - I studied acting at the Juilliard School, and we didn't have a single class for musical comedy. So I never trained my voice at Juilliard. And then I was always extremely shy of singing. So singing, to me, when I finally began studying in my mid-20s, it was an emotional journey, as it is for a lot of people. One feels very vulnerable singing, but I did in particular.
I remember a nun - I think it was in eighth grade - who humiliated me when I sang a song. She made fun of me. And I still think that moment had a real traumatic effect on me because I couldn't sing publicly unless I was sort of doing a jokey voice. I couldn't just sing in an audition and feel comfortable.
So my journey as a performing artist, a musical performing artist, it was a very slow, slow journey, and the teachers who helped me were helping me past a place of fear. And I learned that I had a very wide range, is what I learned. And that's what I've learned, I think, as an actor, is how wide my emotional range can be 'cause I've played a lot of different kinds of roles, and I've played a lot of different styles. So...
GROSS: Isn't it interesting that you didn't know that you had that vocal range until...
BARANSKI: I did not.
GROSS: ... A teacher showed you that you had it?
BARANSKI: Exactly. I started studying in my mid-20s, and by my late 20s, I was working with someone who started me singing lieder and art songs and said, you have a very wide range, over three-octave range. And then I got really turned on, and I started studying opera arias.
So when I actually sang with The New York Pops back in the '90s, I think I was still doing "Cybill" or it was just after "Cybill," I chose to sing the seguidilla from "Carmen." And (laughter) that's a great - it was pretty gutsy of me to do it. But I had The New York Pops orchestra, and Skitch Henderson was the conductor, and he let me do it. And I sang a Debussy song called "Beau Soir," which is a beautiful, beautiful art song.
And that was thrilling for me because I am a mezzo soprano. And I think in another life, if I were to do it over again, I might have gone into, serious, a musical career. I love opera. I love music. I think one of the reasons I'm a good comedian is I'm musical in nature. And when I have had an opportunity to just sing, it's the greatest high for me. It's the greatest form of expression.
GROSS: You know how you were saying that singing made you feel very vulnerable? And I think that's true for a lot of people.
BARANSKI: So many people.
GROSS: There's something about singing. What is it about singing? I know you were mocked by the nun. Not a good idea (laughter) for...
BARANSKI: No. No, it really...
GROSS: To mock a child for singing.
GROSS: But why do we feel so vulnerable when we sing when we're not real singers?
BARANSKI: It might have to do with the fact that...
GROSS: Though you are a real singer, so I should take you out of that. But still...
BARANSKI: Well, I would - thank you. I wish I did more singing so I could consider myself a real singer. But whenever I do have to sing, I take it very seriously and start training. And it's a very good question because when we did "Mamma Mia!" - but people were cast because of their acting and their personalities and their movie - you know, you had Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth. And they're not - they weren't hired because of their singing. And I can't tell you how vulnerable they all felt, all of us, just having to sing. And I don't know the answer to that.
It's a fear of looking foolish. And you have to sort of abandon yourself to the musicality, and so you're kind of letting go - having to let go. And there's something where you feel you're not - you can't hide when you're just singing a song. You have to expose yourself, and people are uncomfortable doing that. It's a kind of emotional nakedness, I think.
GROSS: You were in the film "Mamma Mia!" and its sequel. And in addition to singing in that and, you know, of course, doing comedic acting, you have a dance scene on the beach, where you're not only dancing, but, like, you're getting lifted by men (laughter) by male dancers.
GROSS: And I don't know how much, like, dance you've studied over the years. But I always wonder what it feels like to, you know, be lifted, like, in one of those dance lifts. And then, you know, like, you're, like, moving your legs in, like, a graceful way. And it always feels like - I hate being picked up.
GROSS: So, like, tell me what it feels like to do that...
BARANSKI: You know what? If you were on...
GROSS: ...And to learn how to be, like, graceful when somebody's, like, you know, holding you up in the air like that.
BARANSKI: Well, I think if you were on a beach in Greece and there were a lot of really hot young men, you might get used to it. You might find yourself enjoying being lifted up. Let me just say this. I started - I was sent to ballet school at an early age, and I thought I would be a dancer, rather than an actor. So my primary training as a performing person, young person, was in ballet. And then I studied modern dance. And I was part of a workshop in Buffalo, where we were doing African American dance and modern dance.
Anyway, when I applied to Juilliard for acting, I also wanted to study dance. And they told me, you can't possibly do both disciplines. So I had a lot of dance training. And when I did "Mamma Mia!," I, of course, started studying, went back to it. When I played Mame, I had to do a lot of dance training as well, you know, in preparation for anything you're going to do. So by the time guys are lifting you up and spinning you around and you're having to move your arms and legs around, you - you know, I did enough preparation for it.
But the funny story there is that we had rehearsed that musical number months in advance while we were still in London, and then we were filming all these other scenes at the soundstage in London at Pinewood, and then we went on location in Greece. So this was months later. We're finally on location when the director says to me, you know, the weather is perfect, and I think tomorrow we're going to do "Does Your Mother Know." And they had just flown in the guys the night before. And I hadn't reviewed that number. We hadn't had enough re-rehearsal.
And suddenly, we were on the beach, and in order to create a platform for the guys to dance on, they cleared the sand, laid a concrete slab and then covered it with sand. And these young men had to dance basically on concrete that was covered in sand. And it was just punitive. And we were filming it with - you know, we had to get the shot in. The sun was directly in our eyes. And anybody who's done movie musicals knows, especially if you're on location, how many challenges there are there. And there were wasps at that time of year. We had to stop filming because the wasps go mad and people were being stung.
So when I look at that number, I don't think, oh, how - what fun to be on the beach with those guys. Wasn't that fabulously sexy? It was like, oh, I remember the wasps and the sun in my eyes and I was squinting and they were grinding their knees into the concrete and, you know, all of the obstacles. But anyway, I guess we pulled it off. It's a fun number. It's the only number that's sort of a rock 'n' roll number with the guys. And I absolutely loved it.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christine Baranski. She stars in the series "The Good Fight." Season Four recently concluded. All four seasons are now streaming on CBS All Access. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTEFIORI COCKTAIL'S "GNE GNE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Christine Baranski, who now stars in "The Good Fight" playing a partner in a law firm. It's a spinoff of "The Good Wife." She's also known for her comedic roles on stage and screen and for being in movies and for being in stage and screen musicals, including "Into The Woods," "Sweeney Todd," "Chicago" and "Mame." Your grandmother, if I have this right, was an actress or just a devotee of music theater?
BARANSKI: No. My grandparents - both of my paternal grandparents were actors in the Polish theater. I grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, Cheektowaga, but they - there was a very active Polish community and theater. And so they did plays and musicals in Polish as well as English. And my grandmother - I never knew - my grandfather died before I knew him, but my grandmother lived with me when I was a child up to the time my father died when I was 8. And then we moved away from my grandmother. But we shared a bedroom, and I always say she was a Auntie Mame influence in my life. She loved music. She loved dance. She had a vivacious personality. And she even had her own radio show on the Polish radio station, and she wrote a comedy hour with her friend. This is where I guess my love of theater and perhaps my talent comes from.
GROSS: Well - and also the idea that you could actually become an actress because you shared a bedroom with one.
BARANSKI: Yes, I did (laughter). And she was very theatrical, and she had very theatrical friends. They would come over and just - I could hear them. You know, we would be put to bed, my brother and I, but Nana (ph) was in the living room with her Polish friends. And they'd get drunk and they'd sing and they'd dance. And, you know, as I said, she was really rather an Auntie Mame type and - but she had a great effect on my life, and when my dad died when I was 8 years old, we moved away from Nana. And it's only years later that I realized what a profound effect that had on me, my early years with her, and also the loss of her, how traumatic that must've been for me to have lost someone who was so loving and physically affectionate and fun to be around because my own mother was not that kind of person at all. My mom was raised during the Depression and wasn't terribly physically affectionate. And I have no memory of my mom reading to me or sitting on my mom's lap. It wasn't that she was really cold. It's just she wasn't like my Nana.
GROSS: Do you know what brought your grandparents to America?
BARANSKI: My grandmother was born in America. My grandfather who came over from Poland after World War I, but Nana was already here, I think. And my other grandparents were born in America. So it was several generations already in this country.
GROSS: So your grandmother spoke Polish even though...
BARANSKI: Yeah, I was raised in a bilingual household. I heard Polish spoken. In fact, my brother only spoke Polish until the time he went to school. And then he had to sort of catch up. So then my parents didn't want to make the same mistake with me, so they only spoke English. But it's a pity because my grandmother spoke beautiful Polish and as did my other grandparents and I could have easily been a bilingual child.
GROSS: So you grew up in Cheektowaga, which is a suburb of Buffalo. Is it fair to say it was a kind of industrial suburb of Buffalo?
BARANSKI: Well, there were some factories, but it wasn't - it was very much on the outskirts of Buffalo but, no, not that far in the suburbs. I was within walking distance of my church and my schools. And I, you know, walk to Mass every day. We had to hear Mass every morning. And it was a Polish-Catholic upbringing. And my mother worked in this air-conditioning factory called Hoodi (ph) that made parts for air conditioners. And she was something of an engineer. My dad worked at a Polish newspaper in Buffalo until the time he died. And he died of an aortic aneurysm when he was 49 years old.
GROSS: So you got a scholarship at Juilliard. And the way I've read it reported in the press is that you got a thousand-dollar scholarship because you were the most hardworking, economically needy student. Did they literally say that?
BARANSKI: They certainly told me when I got the scholarship that they knew I was in need financially and that I was to use the money to live on the following year. And I think the next day, I was in the passport office getting a passport to Europe and spent all the money traveling around Europe alone for two months (laughter).
GROSS: Did you feel just a little bit guilty taking the money that was meant for you - to enable you to attend Juilliard and, instead, traveling to - what? - France?
BARANSKI: I traveled to London. Then I went and took the ferry to Paris. And then I traveled through the Alps to Switzerland, and then to Italy, and then to Greece. And I didn't feel any guilt whatsoever...
BARANSKI: ...Because it was one of the greatest things I've ever done. To this day, I will tell you that it was one of the greatest things I've ever done and one of the gutsiest because I was a young woman alone. I was 19. I was staying in the cheapest hotels, you know, walking the streets of Paris and Rome and just discovering all of these extraordinary - I would spend hours in museums and sitting in the cheapest cafe and just thinking it was the most romantic, incredible thing. And it informed me as a human being. And so, no, I have no guilt.
GROSS: I read that you were assaulted as a student when you were living with a family in New York attending Juilliard. How did that inform - I think, goes by a man, a young man, I don't know. But how did that affect you in terms...
BARANSKI: No, it was a...
BARANSKI: It was a live-in situation. I was living with a family. And in exchange for room and board, I watched the young child. I slept in the baby's bedroom. And I had to be home every night at 11. And then the lady came home from her all-night nursing job. And then at 8 o'clock, I was able to go to school. And I had my weekends off. But I've never really shared the story or gotten into names or anything because of people still who, you know, the wife and the son are out in the world.
And I never shared the story with anybody. And I wasn't physically - you know, I got out of the situation by struggling and by crying and screaming. And I got out of it. But the really interesting thing about that story is that I had no choice but to continue to live there under, you know, feeling very afraid and threatened. But I - that was my situation. That was, you know, and my mother couldn't afford to get me an apartment. So I, like a lot of women, you know, just didn't say anything and continued living fearfully until finally I was able to move. And it did...
GROSS: Did you have a lock on your bedroom door?
BARANSKI: No, I didn't. But there was a wooden screen. And I remember putting a wooden screen in front of the door. And I did live in fear. I did live in fear that it would happen again. It never did, though.
GROSS: Was it traumatizing?
BARANSKI: I guess it was, Terry. But I don't remember it affecting my life in an adverse way. I was a passionate acting student, and nothing was going to stop me. And if anything, it just made me more wary, more careful.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christine Baranski. And she stars in the series "The Good Fight." Season 4 recently concluded. All four seasons are now streaming on CBS All Access. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Christine Baranski, who now stars in "The Good Fight," playing a partner in a law firm. It's, of course, a spinoff of "The Good Wife." She's also known for her comedic roles onstage and screen and for being in stage and screen musicals, including "Into The Woods," "Sweeney Todd," "Chicago" and "Mame."
When you started doing TV work on the show "Cybill" starring Cybill Shepherd - and you were her, like, best friend, cynical, wise-cracking - your family was still on the East Coast. And you were basically, like, commuting to Hollywood to shoot it. You were already a mother, right?
BARANSKI: Yes. I had resisted doing television for years, which is why I spent so so many years in the theater. I was already in my 40s when I was offered "Cybill." And then, it was a question of, you know, it's really time to make a career move. And this would be good for your career and also good for your finances because it was clear that my theater - our theater salaries, my late-husband and I weren't probably going to earn enough working in the theater to pay for private schools or college education. So it was a very, very tortured, very big decision. They weren't - really weren't shooting a lot of television in New York in the '90s, certainly not sitcoms. So for 3 1/2 years, I commuted. It certainly wasn't easy. I hated being away from my children.
GROSS: How old were they?
BARANSKI: They were - let's see - 6 or 7, 8 and 9. They were going into middle school. So they weren't really little, and they weren't teenagers because, by the time they get to their teen years, you also need to sort of really be around. But those were challenging years, yeah.
BARANSKI: But it opened up my career.
GROSS: Yeah, it sure did.
BARANSKI: It really opened up my career.
GROSS: Yeah. And you won an Emmy, too. Were your children angry with you for not being there all the time?
BARANSKI: Yeah. I think we coped very well, but even now I feel like I try to make it up to my kids that I wasn't there. It's a source of pain for me that I wasn't there. And they missed me, and I missed them. But, you know, my daughter's raising three kids now, and she now sees, you know, doing the math, how expensive it is, how challenging it is to raise kids.
And, you know, the fact is, while I did the "Cybill" show, I had a certain amount of money taken out of my salary every single episode and it was just put aside for their college education. And both my daughters went to school, and one went to Oxford afterwards, and the other got a law degree. And it was all paid for in tax-exempt bonds. So, you know, those years were - that was my gift to them. They have no college debt, and they got a great education. And now they're wonderful young women.
And I think they now get it. They get that you do what you have to do. But it's - Audra McDonald, I think, did the same thing. And - although I wasn't pals with her back then. Meryl was raising four kids and doing all that movie work and, you know, having to be away from her kids. And it's really a crucifixion. I had to go into therapy to deal with it. I just felt so guilty being away from them. But that was - you know, you play the hand you're dealt.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, right now you're living with one of your daughters during the pandemic...
GROSS: ...And your three grandchildren, her three children.
BARANSKI: Yes, I'm making up for all the lost years now.
GROSS: Yeah, exactly (laughter) Exactly.
BARANSKI: I'm just right in the trenches here.
GROSS: Yeah. So how are you dealing with pandemic anxiety now? I know the home that you're in, your daughter's home, is in the country. So I don't know how many people you're actually being exposed to.
BARANSKI: I'm here in my home, and they're with me. They live in...
GROSS: Oh, they're with - oh, I didn't realize they're with you in your home.
BARANSKI: Yeah, they live in New York.
BARANSKI: And I have an apartment in New York. But my permanent residence is in Connecticut, and I have a home that's large enough, enough bedrooms for the three little grandsons. And so we've been here since mid-March. I would say that, for the most part, life with little children is all about being present with them.
And so even though it's exhausting and, you know, I spend a lot of time picking up Legos or dealing with noise - and we also got a puppy - and it's raucous, it's been - I think it's made it easier to deal with this really disorienting time. It feels like we're all in freefall. But for the most part, I would say I live with these beautiful little young beings, and I try and give them the best of what I have as a person, in terms of my wisdom, my joy. And so I think I've had it easier than most, even though people say to me, how can you stand it? You have no privacy. Isn't it loud? (Laughter) And I think I've been curiously blessed to be with them.
GROSS: Well, Christine Baranski, it's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much. I wish you and your family good health and sanity during this crazy time.
BARANSKI: I wish you the same. And thank you for your questions. They were very deep, and I was glad to rethink about a lot of what you brought up.
GROSS: Christine Baranski spoke to us from her home in Connecticut. She stars in the series "The Good Fight." Season 4 recently concluded. All four seasons are now streaming on CBS All Access. Our interview was recorded May 27.
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who created The New York Times' 1619 Project about the history and legacy of slavery and has a new article in The Times magazine about why it's time for a national conversation about reparations; or our interview with psychiatrist Julie Holland about the use of hallucinogenics (ph) in therapeutic settings to treat mental health issues; or our interview with Susan Burton, whose new memoir is about her eating disorder - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.