Christine Baranski has specialized in playing a certain class of characters: sophisticated (such as Maryann Thorpe in the sitcom “Cybill”), very smart (her Diane Lockhart in “The Good Fight”), and sage (the moneyed Agnes Van Rhijn in “The Gilded Age”).
Correspondent Mo Rocca asked Baranski, “Why do you think so often you’ve been cast as intellectual, sophisticated, high-status characters?”
“Because I’m sophisticated and intellectual!” she laughed. “I don’t know! It makes me laugh, because when, you know, people really look up, you know, Buffalo and the Buffalo Bills, and where I come from?”
Yes, Baranski is a proud Buffalonian, the daughter of Virginia and Lucien Baranski, who grew up steeped in her family’s Polish culture.
“My first memory of going to see live performers was when my father took me to see a Polish singing and dancing troupe. And they were named Shlonsk. I must’ve been seven. And at the curtain call, I suddenly heard my father shouting, ‘Bravo!’ And he actually was crying and shouting. It’s my fondest memory of my father.
“And I think it may have been the beginning of my feeling for, wow, the performing arts, performers. Like, that’s a really special thing, to be a performer.”
When Baranski was eight years old, her father died abruptly from an aortic aneurysm. She found comfort on Friday night visits to her grandparents’ home: “While they were playing Bingo, I was upstairs in my grandmother’s bedroom playing every single role in ‘South Pacific.’ I can do any role and any song,” she said. “I can do Ezio Pinza as well as Mary Martin! I can do Juanita Hall! ‘Bali Ha’i.’ I can do it all. ‘One dream in my heart.’ ‘I’m as corny as Kansas.’ I know them all.
“Sometimes my grandfather would come upstairs and say, ‘The chandelier is shaking. Can you, you know, stop?'”
“‘Cause you were putting on a Broadway show and you were just one person!” said Rocca.
“No, not one person. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary, ’cause my grandmother was very religious. So, I kind of played to the Virgin Mary.”
A very forgiving audience!
Life centered around family and faith. Baranski said, “I went to Catholic school for 12 years – eight years of grammar school, and then four years to an all-girls Catholic high school.”
“What did going to an all-girls school do for you?”
“I look back on it and I think it was great that I did it. I was actually president of my class for four years in a row. I did things that I might’ve been shy doing it if I was in a school with guys. And then, of course, once I started doing plays, I was the lead in these plays. And then my senior class play was ‘Mame.’ You can imagine!”
“And you played?”
“I played Mame!”
WEB EXTRA: “Break a leg” – Christine Baranski on starring in “Mame” post-surgery:
And in 1970, Baranski applied to New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School to study drama.
Rocca asked, “I’m curious, what did the teenage, pre-Juilliard Christine Baranski sound like?”
“I sounded kind of like a girl from the Midwest,” she replied. “I had hard Rs, which they said I had to get rid of my hard Rs. I had a sibilant S, which is why they wait-listed me. Because, see, these teeth? I had a space between my teeth.”
“A Lauren Hutton?”
“Yeah, I had a Lauren Hutton gap. But didn’t look as beautiful as Lauren Hutton, but I had this gap!”
To get rid of her sibilant S (and trust us, it’s not that easy), Baranski capped her teeth and worked with a speech therapist before re-auditioning.
The first person Baranski told that she’d gotten into Juilliard was her mother: “I still remember meeting my mother and telling her the news. And we went to the Algonquin Hotel and had Southern Comfort Manhattans, with cherries. We each had two Manhattans. And it was the only time I got drunk with my mother. That was really an extraordinary moment.
“And I was so happy that she shared in that moment,” Baranski said. “Yeah, sorry, It still makes me so emotional.”
Before she even graduated, Baranski was getting cast in theater and earning rave reviews. But her hopes and dreams weren’t confined to the stage: “I remember coming back home, I was visiting my mother and Nana. And I remember going to my high school, and there was a grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary. And I remember saying a prayer; my prayer was that I would meet someone with whom to have children and get married.”
Within a day, she got a call about an Off-Broadway role opposite actor Matthew Cowles, known for playing pimp Billy Clyde Tuggle on the soap opera “All My Children.”
“One night he asked me if I wanted a ride home on his motorcycle,” Baranski said. “And I’m not even comfortable in cars. But he was such an exotic character. He was unlike anybody I’d ever met, with the shaggy blond hair and the unfiltered Mexican cigarette and the odd way he had of talking. And anyway, I got on the back of that bike.”
“Were you scared?” asked Rocca.
“Yes, I was scared. And I remember saying to him, ‘Matthew, I’m scared.’ And he said, ‘So am I!'”
That motorcycle, named Lucifer, was in attendance when the two wed in 1983. “He drove me away from the little church where we got married, and I was sidesaddle on Lucifer in my long wedding gown. And there was a little bit of motorcycle – there was a black stain, so I never had the gown cleaned, ’cause I wanted to keep that black stain.”
The next year proved George Orwell had it wrong; 1984 was a great year for Baranski. She was expecting her first of two daughters with Cowles, and won her first of two Tony Awards (for “The Real Thing”). “That whole year was just … oh, who has a year like that? It was James Lapine, it was Mike Nichols, it was Tom Stoppard, it was Stephen Sondheim. What an embarrassment of riches, huh?”
And almost 40 years later, the great parts haven’t stopped coming. Baranski will next appear as Agnes Van Rhijn in “The Gilded Age,” created by Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame.
“I was so happy to get that role,” she said. “I thought, ‘Corsets, wigs, dialect coaching sessions.’ And the role, of course, she’s quite regal. There’s nothing playing a snob as written by Julian Fellowes. What could be better at this point?”
“You’re bigger than you’ve ever been – ” said Rocca.
“Did you say bigger?”
“Yeah. Not physically!”
“I don’t know if I’m bigger, but I’m busier,” said Baranski. “That’s amazing. It’s just amazing. I wanna give hope. I didn’t get to be a leading lady in a musical until I was in my 50s. Then in my mid-50s I was offered ‘The Good Wife.’ And now to my amazement I’m on ‘The Good Fight’ and ‘The Gilded Age.’ And I’m about to turn 70!”
She’s also a grandmother of three boys, the first born shortly before the death of Matthew Cowles in 2014.
It continues to be a rich life for Christine Baranski, on and off the stage. “There’s a lot to be said for just being clear about what you want, perhaps,” she said. “Not that I have any formula. I don’t wanna preach and say I know how to do it; I don’t. But I did have a lot of answered prayers in my life.”
To watch a trailer for “The Gilded Age” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Steven Tyler.