When Christine Baranski walks into a room as attorney Diane Lockhart from “The Good Fight” or as Dr. Beverly Hofstadter in “The Big Bang Theory,” or as gal-pal Tanya in the “Mama Mia!” films, attention must be paid.
Self-possessed, a little bit sly, a little bit cool, her eyes narrowing just a tad, her voice as precise as a surgical knife, she exudes the confidence and charisma of a dame who knows her stuff.
Walking into a cafe shop in Washington Depot, Baranski could be any one of the town’s tony types — or in Baranski’s case, the Tony Award-types — going for breakfast or a bagel. After all, she’s lived in the area since the ’80s and has been part of community functions ever since.
One such event brings her here for conversation: the annual “Auction for Our Environment” on behalf of the Housatonic Valley Association, where she is a board member.
Baranski, 66, first came to Litchfield County in on the back of a motorcycle named “Lucifer,” driven by her future husband, Matthew Cowles, who had a family home, an 18th Century farmhouse, sitting in a hill in Bethlehem.
Cowles, who died four years ago, was “a stunning combination of James Dean and Leonardo DiCaprio,” says Baranski. “He was so sexy and exotic and a real guy-guy. And he was a devout Catholic. He’d be in his black leather motorcycle jacket going to daily mass with the little old ladies.”
Baranski says she always romanticized living in “a New England landscape with old houses and barns and rolling hills.”
That’s a far cry from Baranski growing up in Buffalo, and not the privileged Buffalo of the plays of A.R. Gurney. “We lived on the other side of town, in the Polish section known as Cheektowalga. It means land of the crabapples.”
Baranski says she turned inward after her father died when she was 8, but support from family and performing on stage gave her confidence, poise and polish.
The arts, as it turned out, were in her family’s DNA. Her grandparents were actors in a Polish theater in Buffalo. Her parents sang. One grandmother had a comedy show on a local Polish radio station. Another grandmother had a Victrola and LPs of musicals and when her grandmother and mother went to play Bingo she’d play original cast albums from “South Pacific” and other Broadway shows.
Baranski remembers seeing Lauren Bacall accept a Tony Award for “Applause” in TV in 1970, looking like the epitome of glamour, and she yearned to be one of those people on stage. (And she was, too, 14 years later, accepting the featured actress award in a play for “The Real Thing.” She won another Tony five years later for the Neil Simon comedy “Rumors.”)
“No experience in the theater was ever so glamorous than being directed by Mike Nichols and being in a Tom Stoppard play with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, both who had just gotten off these great film roles — and they were such a sexy couple. Everyone was at the top of their game and we all won Tonys.”
One of her first jobs after graduating from Juilliard was at performing at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. “I was a lady’s maid in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ taking the mattress on and off stage. I was also in “Twelfth Night,” which starred Carole Shelley. I was another lady in waiting, waiting, waiting.”
But she didn’t have to wait too long and soon the roles in regional theater, Shakespeare in the Park, and eventually Broadway came. Television, too, where she earned 15 Emmy nominations, winning one for her break-out role as the acerbic, martini-friendly pal in “Cybill.”
When Cowles and Baranski’s two daughters were born they decided to relocate from Manhattan to Bethlehem, an area where Cowles’ family had deep roots. (She eventually moved to their lake house in Roxbury in 2000.)
Baranski became involved in community functions and became honorary chair of the annual auction, succeeding auction founder Diane von Furstenberg. Baranski says there has been an increase in energy and involvement in environmental issues as the news of climate change and the political situation has gotten worse.
Politics also affected the 2016 pilot for “The Good Fight,” which was filmed on the night of the presidential election. In the spin-off from CBS’s successful series “The Good Wife,” the expectation was that there would be the first woman president, but that didn’t happen. The opening scene for the pilot was rewritten showing a stunned Diane Lockhart who subsequently loses everything — job, money, husband — and has to start over.
Now the show’s title has an added dimension as it follows Diane’s struggle back as she deals with story lines that echo actions of the new administration.
“It’s a wonderful time to do this show,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing some vapid show now. It’s great to be portraying a woman dealing deeply with all of these issues with intelligence, humor and irony.”
Does playing strong characters make her strong, or is she strong anyway?
“I think it’s been symbiotic. I admire Diane. She headed a law firm and was in the room where it happened and they didn’t write this woman as a victim. They also write her as a woman who looks fabulous and has a boyfriend and then husband who is at a different end of the political spectrum, but obviously doesn’t stop them from having great sex, thank you. She’s a very grown up lady and they don’t often write roles like that.”