There seems little doubt that former E.R. star Julianna Margulies loves working in Australia. Last there for the Bruce Beresford-directed Paradise Road, the beautiful 36-year old returned to Queensland’s Gold Coast in the starring role as the leader of a salvage crew that stumbles on an abandoned Italian ocean liner that has been lost for more than 45 years, in the often spooky Ghost Ship, which opens Friday. When her crew begins repairing the leaks to tow the ship to shore to claim its riches, the vessel seems to come to life.
Talking lovingly of Australia, Margulies says that “there’s an incredible friendliness that Australians have. I grew up in England, in Sussex, where Americans weren’t really welcome, but there’s a real camaraderie between Americans and Australians, especially these days, and I really appreciate their generosity of heart. Also it’s a vast, huge, wide country, so there is sort of this bigness and excitement about it when you get there and film there. It was really fun and we had a good time.” Despite being so far from home, it helped that her long-time live in boyfriend Ron Eldard, who plays one of her salvage mates in Ghost Ship, was with her during shooting. “Well, in this film it was such a blessing, for us to be in Australia, we had such a good time. I mean, come on, we’re doing this movie and then on weekends we’re off to Sydney, Melbourne or Byron Bay; and going everywhere,” says Margulies, laughingly and with a real sense of enthusiasm.
Marking the actress’s first foray into the cinematic horror world, she concedes that ordinarily she is not a fan of the genre. “As a general rule, no, never had done it, never had see this kind of a film before. After doing it and after seeing it recently, I thought this is just a fun way to eat a bowl of popcorn, get into it and try and make it as believable as you can.” Despite her not being a horror fan, it was the character that attracted her to what is essentially a genre film. “I’ve never seen a female lead role written like this with the opportunity for me to do it. It was a nice way to make her real, and she doesn’t start out as some hero, but rather as a working girl that ends up being a hero, and I loved that idea. I’ve never done a physical role like this which was very different than Mists of Avalon on the horse, but, you know, I always love a challenge.”
Part of that challenge was immersing herself knee deep in water on a regular basis, despite her being a licensed scuba diver. “I thought it would be nothing to me, and it ended up being a lot more than I’ve bargained for. It’s hard and you don’t realize how easy it is when you are on land where can hear and people cut action. Then suddenly you’re down there and you hear nothing, so it’s kind of surreal working underwater.” Yet she insists that trying to remain physical while in character at the same time, was less of an adjustment “because the physicality is so much a part of the character that it actually helped. I mean, you know, the movie is not about the lines, so you have to make it what it is, and you can’t make it more than that and you can’t make it less than that. So I felt that my job was to make embrace that physicality and hope that you believed that this character would actually do what she does in this situation.”
Margulies found fame, and a little fortune, as a result of E.R, for which she won an Emmy Award in 1995 for Best Supporting Actress. Hugely popular, the actress turned down a vast sum of money to continue the series beyond 2000. While some at the time thought she turned down an offer too good to refuse, Julianna has no regrets. “I’m so glad I had the courage to do it then because I don’t know if I’ve have the courage now in all honesty. I knew it was the only thing I could do at the time because I felt that character was so rich and I had played every gamut of emotions you could possibly play and I really wanted to leave people wanting more. I grew up on that. My mother always said to me: Leave people wanting more and go with your gut.” That gut instinct paid off. “What made it much less scary for me to leave was that I had a whole year of work lined up after ER. The day after I left, I was on the way to Prague to do Mists of Avalon.”
She looks back on her days with the top-rating series with a genuine sense of affection. “The thing that I loved about ER was that these people are your family and you feel very free to do anything. You’re not as vulnerable with them because you know them and you know they love you no matter what you do, because the crew is very important to me.” Margulies still remains close to George Clooney “Who taught me that if I don’t feel comfortable in front of my crew, I’m not going to give you my best work. So on ER I always felt like I was giving my best work every day because I felt so comfortable with these guys and I knew this character so well. What I love about doing film now is getting to know new people, making sure my first day on the set is going around the crew members and making eye contact, learning names, getting the confidence up to go in front of a whole new situation and start a whole new character. I’m finding it incredibly liberating because you only have three months and then you get to stop.”
Her film career is certainly a divergent one. On the one hand, she is confronted by ghosts and things that go bump in the night in the mainstream Ghost Ship, while at the same time winning raves for her portrayal of a novelist’s wife in the low-budget Man from Elysian Fields, starring opposite Andy Garcia. She remarks on how fortunate she has become despite a shortage of really great roles for women in Hollywood. “There are about five actresses that get the choice of those roles that are out there so, basically, something like Man from Elysian Fields comes along which is such a beautiful piece, and you go: What can I do with this character and can this character stand up by herself without everyone around her? Can I make her interesting? Those are the things that excite me. I just want to do as many different things as possible with the opportunities that are out there.”
Elysian Fields, which is still doing respectable business in the art house circuit, is one of those films that excited her, though initially she wanted to play the role that Olivia Williams plays. “Because I thought it was juicier and I wanted to do my British accent and just show off. But Andy looked at me and said I need a wife, I really need a wife and he said it with those Andy Garcia puppy dog brown eyes and you got it, whatever you want. I knew it was going to be a good experience after meeting him. My feeling is that I never know how a movie is going to be, but I want to have a good working experience with people who genuinely are talented and have something to say about their work.”
That was the same feeling she had when she met Pierce Brosnan and Bruce Beresford for the upcoming Evelyn. “I want to be around these people even though I don’t know what the movie is going to be, but with that story of Evelyn, I think you have to be incredibly cold-hearted not to be moved by it because it really is a true story and moving.” In Evelyn, Margulies plays Pierce Brosnan’s love interest, a barmaid, who in real life ends up living with Brosnan’s Desmond Doyle, whose children are taken away after his wife deserts them in 1950s Dublin. ” She said to him: You’re sitting here crying about your kids, why don’t you do something about it? So she got him to meet her brother who was a lawyer.” She remained close to director Beresford following their partnership on Paradise Road, and though her role in Evelyn is relatively small, she still jumped at the chance to be a part of the film. “All of a sudden he called me and said look, there’s not a lot of money, I need a good, strong cast because I have to work with kids, and do you have any interest? And I said my God I would read the phone book for you, send it over.”
Busy dividing her time between film and television, the actress won’t rule out a return to series TV, she says. “Oh, never say never as I’ve never bite the hand that feeds me. But I think it would have to be really under the right circumstances and my gut feeling is it would have to be HBO or Showtime or something where I could have a little bit more creative control. Just in terms of being able to get as dark as you can get. I mean it’s hard with network television, there are great shows, but you have a network saying what you can and can’t say most of the time. And when you look at a show like The Sopranos and I always say of course, they should win the Emmy but they don’t have the restriction that ER has. And it would get frustrating as an actor because you want to be able to get as gritty and do what they are.”
Margulies is taking a break from acting but still keeps creatively busy. “I’m producing a couple of things two of which have just been green-lighted and they’re going to be just for television. They’re fantastic projects that I’m very excited about because I’m finding obviously material for women. I’m so sick of hearing there’s no parts out there. You know why, because we have to do it ourselves and just do it. I have such respect for Selma Hayek because she took seven years for her to do Frida. I was attached to a Frida script years ago when I had a unibrow and these scripts have been floating around forever and I think it just paves the way. Every project I choose I think will help the next person and we can stop saying there’s no parts for women. After all, the world is made up of many more women than men by the way.”