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From comedy to drama, 'Gilded Age' co-star Christine Baranski always finds her voice

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Christine Baranski, is co-starring in the new HBO series "The Gilded Age," which is set in the 1880s in New York City. She plays Ada (ph), a society matron who despises the newly wealthy people moving into her Fifth Avenue neighborhood. In this scene, she and her sister Agnes (ph), played by Cynthia Nixon, receive a letter from their niece, who's recently discovered she's penniless after her father died.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GILDED AGE")

CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Ada Brook) What does she say?

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) She thanks you for the letter that you did not show me and for the tickets that you purchased without my knowledge. She means to join us here just as soon as she has closed the house and sold her furniture.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) What a relief.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) A relief - and who is to support her? Exactly - me with the Van Rhijn money, which was not achieved at no cost to myself. You were allowed the pure and tranquil life of a spinster. I was not.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) I'm very grateful.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) So you should be.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) Well, I'm glad she's coming. And if my letter played a part in her decision, then I'm glad I sent it.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) I doubt it was your letter. More likely, she has discovered her father left her without a penny to her name. Henry couldn't provide for a dog in a ditch. He never kept a dollar in his pocket if there were women or drink within 500 miles.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) Agnes, our brother, has died.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) Our brother, with whom we have had no connection these many years.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) We should have gone for the funeral anyway.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes Van Rhijn) It wasn't worth an uncomfortable day of travel to make sure Henry was dead.

DAVIES: 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 Stephen Sondheim, including "Into The Woods," "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd."

Today we're going to listen to Terry's 2020 interview with Christine Baranski. They spoke when Baranski was starring in the legal drama series "The Good Fight," playing the smart, progressive litigator Diane Lockhart, a character spun off from the series "The Good Wife." They began with a scene from "The Good Fight." Baranski's character has become a partner at a majority African American firm, which is eventually acquired 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 she's arguing in court. John Larroquette plays the partner.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD FIGHT")

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 will 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 have 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: So many of your roles in the past on TV and on Broadway were kind of wisecracking, cynical, slightly alcoholic women.

(LAUGHTER)

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: 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: Oh, 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-twenties - 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 - as I've played a lot of different kind 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 leader in 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.

GROSS: Stephen Sondheim is such a brilliant composer. But the intervals he writes bits in songs that are sometimes, like, just - they're not typical. They're not the typical resolutions. They're not the typical melody lines. And it always strikes me as a non-singer that they must be more complicated to learn because they're unusual. So what do you think?

BARANSKI: I think one approaches his work with terror and humility.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BARANSKI: And I've had the - 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, you know, 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, 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 high. 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 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? (Vocalizing). 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: 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 have been good for you to hear because you're known as an actor, not as a singer, even though you've been in a whole bunch of musicals. So it meant that, like, acting the part was what was really important, not just having, like, a gorgeous voice.

BARANSKI: Absolutely. I think all of the great Sondheim performers - Angela Lansbury - name them - they're all great actors as well. He wants actors who can sing. He doesn't want strictly singers. 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 not try to, you know, embellish Steve Sondheim.

DAVIES: Christine Baranski speaking with Terry Gross in 2020. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM BEARD'S "HOLODECK WALTZ")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Christine Baranski, who starred in the series "The Good Wife" and its spinoff, "The Good Fight." She began working in TV in the 1990s, playing a comedic role in the sitcom Cybill. Now she's co-starring in the HBO series "The Gilded Age."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: 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 - my - I never knew my grandfather. He 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 my - perhaps my talent comes from.

GROSS: Well, and also the idea that you could actually become an actress 'cause 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 was in the living room with her Polish friends, and they'd get drunk, and they'd sing, and they dance. And, you know, as I said, she was really rather a 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.

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, walked 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 Hudai (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...

GROSS: (Laughter).

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 'cause 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: When you started doing TV work on the show "Cybill," starring Cybill Shepherd, and you were her, like, best friend - cynical, wisecracking - 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 educations. So it was a very, very tortured, very big decision. They 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, but it opened up my career. It really opened up my career.

GROSS: Yeah, it sure did.

DAVIES: Christine Baranski, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2020. Baranski currently stars in the HBO series "The Gilded Age," and she'll return in another season of "The Good Fight." After a break, we'll remember actor Howard Hesseman, best known for playing a DJ in the series "WKRP In Cincinnati." And Justin Chang reviews the new Norwegian film "The Worst Person In The World." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BUCKLEY'S "THE GOOD FIGHT THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.