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Role lures former ‘ER’ star back to TV

Margulies decided miniseries character was a fresh challenge

SHARE Role lures former ‘ER’ star back to TV

The last time Julianna Margulies appeared on television, she was just leaving her role as nurse Hathaway on the hit series "ER." And appearing in a TV miniseries wasn't exactly in her plans.

But the first role she took on after "ER" turned out to be a starring spot in the TNT production of "The Mists of Avalon" — she plays Morgaine, the sister of King Arthur in this decidedly different take on that legend.

"I didn't consciously pick it, but it's as far away from pink scrubs as you can get, so I think it was a good choice in the end," Margulies said in a recent telephone interview with TV critics. "I actually, consciously, tried not to read the script, because I thought, 'I'm leaving television. I shouldn't go do television right away.'

"And I got snowed in at O'Hare Airport one day while I was doing 'ER' there, and it was in my bag, and I read the script and I couldn't put it down. And then I met (director) Uli (Edel), and within, I think, the first 10 minutes, I knew I had to do the film with him. So it sort of came my way, but, in thinking about it, it probably was a good opposite from six years in scrubs."

Opposite indeed. Margulies' plays a woman who's both priestess and action hero. "Mists" tells the story of King Arthur (Edward Atterton) from the point of view of the women behind the throne — Morgaine; her mother, Igraine (Caroline Goodall); her aunt Viviane (Anjelica Huston), who's the Lady of the Lake; her evil aunt, Morgause (Joan Allen); and her rival, Gwenhwyfar (Samantha Mathis). And underlying the tale is the growing schism between Christianity and paganism.

"It's the quintessential female role. I get to do everything — warrior, mother, lover, sister, goddess," Margulies said with a laugh. "You can't ask for a better role, so it was something I couldn't say no to."

Margulies hadn't read the book on which "Mists" is based — Marion Zimmer Bradley's best-seller — before filming started, but she did finish it while the miniseries was in production. And she was taken by the contrast between the pagan world of Morgaine and the Christian world of Gwenhwyfar, as well as the differences between the two women. "And it was really fascinating to me how those two worlds mixed and where we are today. . . For me, that was so much of what the book was — sort of two different worlds and seeing the end of one and the beginning of the other."

And, after six years spent mostly on a hospital set in California, it was a major change to be roaming and riding through the countryside in the Czech Republic, where "The Mists of Avalon" was filmed. "I actually didn't realize how physical it was going to be until I got there," Margulies said. "But once Uli saw that I could ride a horse, basically every scene that was on foot turned into a riding scene."

Well, not quite, but she did end up doing a lot more of her own stunts than the producers and director anticipated. "We had one of the most renowned horse trainer/rider/fighters in all of Europe there and brought this expert stuntwoman from France to do a lot of scenes for us," said executive producer Mark Wolper. "And she did one run, and then we said, 'All right, let's get Julianna in there and just have her do some simple stuff.' We never put the stuntwoman on a horse again because Julianna was better."

Margulies said she was a competing horseback rider for nine years — until she was 15 or 16 — "and hadn't been on a horse since. And you get right back on and you learn.

"And, frankly, these were push-button horses. They were so well-trained, you could be in the middle of battle, you drop the reins and they stop. And then you pick them up and they go. I mean, they made me look very good."

Margulies said she was excited by the process of creating a new character very different from the one she's so identified with. "You don't have to go through the same kind of preparation for a character you play on television in a weekly series that you do for a character you're going to play once in a film or in a play, because you're doing her for so long. And that's where it gets tricky — to keep it fresh. And you pray for good writing.

"The problem you face is creating an interesting character every day and not getting lazy with it. My feeling was that I had to keep peeling layers off this character to make her fresh and interesting. And make sure that you don't get lazy and phone in a performance."

And after six years, she arrived at a place where she couldn't find any more layers to peel. "For me, I did. My mother always taught me — leave them wanting more. So I thought it was a good time to make an exit."

Even with the unexpected — and, frankly, unwarranted — criticism she received in some quarters for turning down a multi-million dollar offer to stay with the show. "I've been loving my life. I don't have any regrets," Margulies said. "I've been having these amazing jobs since I left the show. . . And I'm in heaven."

Would she consider doing another weekly TV series? "Not anytime soon!" she said with a laugh, adding that she can't even bring herself to watch the show that she left behind. "No, I don't watch the show, only because it's still too close to my heart, I think. I just need a little distance from it."

Not that she's in any way complaining about the time she spent on "ER" — just as she never complained while she was on the show. "It was a great six years, and I'm glad it afforded me (the chance) to be able to do what I want to do now," Margulies said.

The two-part TNT miniseries airs Sunday and Monday (6, 8 and 10 p.m.) on the cable channel. The telefilm also airs in four-hour blocks — Part 1 followed immediately by Part 2 — on Friday, July 20, at 6 p.m.; Saturday, July 21, at 10 a.m.; and Monday, July 30, at 6 p.m.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com