Josh Charles is breaking through

Known for his thoughtful but smaller roles, the Baltimore native has a mainstream hit with 'The Good Wife'

  • Baltimore-native Josh Charles plays Will Gardner, an ambitious Chicago defense attorney, in the CBS drama series “The Good Wife.”
Baltimore-native Josh Charles plays Will Gardner, an ambitious… (Kathleen Prutting, CBS…)
September 24, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

It's not in the same league with "Who Shot J.R.?" or "Will they get off the island?" perhaps. But surely one of the hottest questions of this new fall TV season is whether Alicia Florrick ( Julianna Margulies) will go beyond the kiss-and-text she shared with fellow attorney Will Gardner ( Josh Charles) last year on "The Good Wife."

Publicity pictures for the second season of the CBS legal drama, which starts Tuesday night, feature Margulies seated on a couch between Charles and Chris Noth, who plays her philandering ex-con/lawyer husband (think Eliot Spitzer.) It's a high-class prime-time triangle, and it's nice to see the 39-year-old Charles in such big-name company.

It's hard to believe that the former Baltimore School for the Arts student has been in the public eye for 22 years already, since his debut in "Hairspray." But he has, and it's been a career highlighted by some quality productions, such as the feature film "Dead Poets Society," Aaron Sorkin's ABC series "Sports Night" and HBO's "In Treatment."

For all that, however, Charles had not enjoyed breakthrough mass success until "The Good Wife," last season's highest-rated new network drama and one of only two network productions nominated for an Emmy as outstanding drama.

"He's always been pretty selective in what he wanted to do," says Stan Charles, the actor's uncle, who is known locally to sports fans as magazine publisher and talk-radio host Stan The Fan. "Quality has always meant something to him, and that's why I'm so happy that he's finally at this point in his career where he's been able to match quality with hitting a mass audience in something that's smartly written and presented. I think he got a bit of mass audience with 'Sports Night,' but nowhere near the level of this."

The "level of this" now involves online write-ups like this one from the "Dude Diary" blog at

"Josh Charles is the most underrated dude in diary history. Beloved by rabid female fans everywhere, Josh was known for years for his role as Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society. … As defense attorney Will Gardner on the hit CBS legal drama The Good Wife, Josh might have the biggest role of his career. The actor — who previously dated Sheryl Crow and Jennifer Connelly — lives in New York and dates a ballerina named Sophie Flack. Anyone got any deets?"

For those who are not regular readers of "The Dude Diary," or don't have their Urban Dictionaries handy, "deets" are details.

While Charles will graciously talk acting all day in a highly analytic, cerebral way, during a phone interview he tried hard not to give away too many "deets" on the future of Will and Alicia in coming weeks.

He was already taping Episode 4 when we talked, and had seen scripts for several episodes beyond that. So he knew where the passion was or was not going to go this fall for his character, a partner in a prestigious Chicago law firm that employs Alicia Florrick after she's forced back into the workplace. His character and Florrick have a history that dates back to law school.

"When it comes to our relationship, Robert and Michelle [executive producers Robert and Michelle King] don't want us to repeat ourselves," Charles says. "And I think they did a really great job with that last year. And I think you'll see with the debut of the show that they do something, really, really, super — I'm trying to think of the right word here — fantastic in the way that they handle that situation. And it gives us a lot of different directions to explore this year with Will and Alicia."

Could he expand on what some of those "different directions" are? he's asked politely.

"I mean, I just don't think it's that easy," he says in an earnest tone that sounds just as polite right back at you. "People say, 'Is it this? Is it that?' Not to make too much of it, but you have two people here who have a really strong connection and have a history, a past — they have something intense. Sometimes those things go away, you never see those people again for the rest of your life. Other times, you maybe see them every now and then. And then sometimes, in this situation, they end up being back in each other's world — in each other's orbit."

Barely taking a breath, he continues: "And those things happen, and they are not always the easiest thing to articulate — human emotion and love and the past and unexpressed feelings. These are things that are very intense and very primal, and I think setting that in the workplace is very important, but I also think it's important that we deepen it and continue to improve on it and keep complicating it in a way that feels organic."

Talking to Charles is a little complicated in its own way. It feels like meeting someone really smart in, say, a humanities seminar and then going out for coffee with them and realizing they think more abstractly and are a lot more intense in expressing themselves than you are.

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