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The Oscar-winning actress for Pollock and the star of TV’s Code Black Marcia Gay Harden, 62, co-stars in the bittersweet romantic comedy Uncoupled (July 29 on Netflix). She plays a New York socialite, Claire, navigating a recent breakup alongside her gay real estate broker, Michael (Neil Patrick Harris), who’s in a similar romantic situation.
How would you describe Claire and Michael?
We’re both uncoupling but in different ways. Neil’s character is coming up against all these new opportunities for freedom, but he isn’t quite ready to partake. Emotionally, Claire is going through the same thing; she’s not ready.
Is it fair to compare Uncoupled to Sex and the City?
[It is] sort of the gay Sex and the City. [Characters] wonderfully push sexual boundaries and sexual information in the show. Some of it I was like, “Really? People do that?” It’s always done with a laugh and a little tongue-in-cheek, but there’s an emotional heartbeat to it as well.
How would you describe Claire’s journey?
I think Claire’s journey is to love herself on her own. It sounds a little Hallmark-y and cliché, but for a woman in her 60s, who’s been in a longtime marriage, they’ll first think, Who would want me? The statistic is so many women get divorced when they’re 50. We’re trained to think that our attractiveness has to do with our age, our ability to have children and our ability to be anthropologically viable in a tribe, let’s say.
But in this case, she’s past that. And so, she goes through that “Now, what’s out there for me?” panic. And through her new friendships, she gets to discover, “Oh, there’s a lot out there for me. I can do a lot and I can do it on my own.” She becomes a little Helen Reddy—a little bit “hear me roar” in her own Upper East Side way; she would never roar, but she would certainly trill loudly.
You went through a divorce after a 15-year marriage. Is that something you relate to about Claire?
I always will find a way to relate to whatever character I’m playing, whether my own personal experiences have been similar or not. In Claire’s case, first of all, there’s nothing more fun than playing slightly grand. And I think there’s nothing more fun than seeing slightly grand have a comeuppance, have a little hubris. Drop the ball and fumble to pick it back up and keep the smile on their face. I love that element of her character. She’s traveled in this upper-echelon society, being the wife of a philanthropist, being someone who chooses to part with him.
But we discovered early on that it would be fun to have her maybe come from a little bit of a rougher past. So we would break into some very Queens sound sometimes; you could say Brooklyn-Queens sounds at times. When she really gets angry, you would hear some of that past coming out. So I feel like she’s a self-made woman. I feel like she “married up.” And all of that made a really rich character—her dressing, her package…she’s wrapped in this beautiful package of cashmeres and designer glasses and purses that are a small mortgage to buy. And that’s the world that she lives in.
Which for a gal like me who does not live in that world, it’s kind of fun to put a toe in the water and go, “Oh, the water is warm, and it does feel good.” She travels in that world, and she has snubbed the other world. Why would anyone go below 57th Street or even 42nd Street? My God, 14th Street. She says it’s for eating, it’s not for living, down in SoHo.
So I love that she gets to become a more real person, closer to who she’s going to discover that she is. I think she didn’t quite know herself, and she gets to discover herself in this world. She can shed a little bit of her need for labels and even her need for Mrs. is a label. And so, she can shed the labels from Mrs. on down, and then choose to keep the ones she wants to. Like why would you give up a Gucci purse if she had one?
Uncoupled features New York City as a character because we get to see all the great real estate.
Yes, oh, my God. First of all, if you’re shooting in New York, New York should be a character. To allow it to be that and the love that [creators] Jeffrey Richman and Darren Star have for this city, I mean, it feels like it’s in that old Woody Allen world, right? But the new Jeffrey-Darren world where they get to pay homage to the ridiculousness of the city and the fun of the city. So it’s a little bit of a fairy tale. There’s certainly an archness to it. No one would say it’s 100 percent realism, and I also like that. It’s stylized, and I love that.
Can you tell us about your other new series, So Help Me Todd, coming out this fall on CBS?
It’s a mother-son story of oil and vinegar and how they come to work together. She’s a highfalutin lawyer; he’s a down-and-out private detective. Through circumstances, they work together and, hopefully, begin to recognize and respect each other. But there are a lot of kerfuffles in the process.
What attracted you to So Help Me Todd?
What we hang our star on in this case is the wonderful banter of [executive producer] Scott Prendergast. They’ll often say it’s like [the TV show] Moonlighting, but it’s not a love couple, it’s a mother-son. So that banter, there’s a theatricality to it. There’s a written theatricality to it that is really, really fun to play. And Skylar Astin, who plays my son, is just a doll to play with in this case, and that’s where the humor lives. He’s digital, she’s analog, she’s obviously old school, he’s new school, and therein lies the conflict.
So, you know when Zoom first came out, what do you do? How do you do it? Where do you go? How do you have two screens on the computer at the same time? This is not my world; I didn’t grow up with a computer. I remember when you had to go to the bank for money. My kids were appalled, like, “What did you do, Mom?” You went to the bank. You wrote a check. You stood in line. You handed the check to the teller. The teller gave you back money. You wrote it down in your checkbook exactly how much money you took out. They can’t conceive of that world with Venmo.
I still do cut and paste by moving the cursor up to cut and moving it down to paste. I know that there’s shortcuts. I should know those shortcuts. I’ve been told those shortcuts 100 times, “Do control, blah.” I don’t. I can’t. My brain went move the cursor up to cut, move the cursor over to paste. That’s what it did.
And so, I think in So Help Me Todd, there’s some of that history of teaching an old dog new tricks, but also teaching a young dog how to be responsible. We all have our issues with millennial mentality. So that would be the gold at the end of the rainbow there, that they get to exchange some of these viewpoints.
Margaret Wright, your character, is described as overbearing in the CBS synopsis. Would you agree with that? Or would you just say she’s a strong woman because you are known for playing strong women?
She is absolutely not overbearing, 100 percent not. I guarantee you a man wrote that description. This is Scott’s idea of his mother who always wanted to be right. Would I say I’m a fighter? Sure. But I think that’s an old-world term applied to powerful women in a way to cut them off at the knees. I don’t agree with it.
Is she selfish? Yes. Is she narcissistic at times? Yes, she is. Does she think she’s right all the time? Of course, she does. Because she had to be. Her husband left her at a young age, she raised a kid on her own, she got married again. She did it, she put the food on the table. So she has that sense of “I can do this. And if we’re going to do it, let’s do it the right way.”
She was the hunter and the gatherer then.
She certainly was. And so, for me that’s not overbearing. Someone might come in and move a chair for their own taste in a house. Or might say, “Really, that piece should hang over there.” Yes, she is that person, but that is maybe a person a little bit without a filter at times, or a person who just thinks that they’re right or that they know better. So more I would say she’s going to learn to listen. There’s a great line in the pilot that says, “Maybe I should just let you be who you need to be,” and that is a lesson that every single mother learns. Everyone.
So I’m not going to label all of us overbearing. We have to learn. I’m going to let my child be who they need to be, who they want to be, to love who they want to love, to choose the life that they want to live. I say to my kids, “Look, if you fall in love with a giraffe, just bring the giraffe home for Thanksgiving. That’s all.” That’s all we care about. Just bring it home for Thanksgiving.
I think she doesn’t know that yet. She’s controlling. Because she’s been through circumstances where life is taken out of her control, she panicked, she didn’t know she could make it and put her kids through school and college.
You talked about your cut-and-paste issues, but you’ve embraced social media. What do you enjoy about it?
Well, I really haven’t embraced social media. I don’t know how to TikTok, and there’s probably other ones now. I never did Snapchat. I don’t really do Twitter. I do Instagram because it’s easy and because it was a way of sharing with the family initially. But then with algorithms you lose all the people that you care about sharing with and suddenly everything you ever touched is pouring into your box, stuff that you don’t even really know about. And I hate that, so I post less and less and less on social media.
Because I feel like it’s not me. I don’t know. It actually makes me a little uncomfortable. You get your followers and you’re now an influencer. That doesn’t really translate without the voice. The wild enthusiasm to get followers isn’t going to elevate you in terms of the quality of your craft. It’s certainly not true, and people are cast now because of their following.
I think having a great Instagram is an art in and of itself, but I think it’s different than acting. It’s a different art, and somehow they conflate the two and it’s a bit confusing. We’re asked certainly to embrace social media as actors by the various shows that we do. It just feels like it’s out of the control of the person posting, and I’m not interested enough to try to figure out how to bring it back into my control.
Are you back for season three of The Morning Show?
I don’t know. She was such a fantastic character, [hard-hitting reporter] Maggie Brener; I would love for her to be back. But I don’t know. People really respond to her. She’s loosely based on the fabulous [New York Times reporter] Maureen Dowd.
You’ve done so many different types of roles. What do you consider the high point? Is it your Oscar win for Pollock? Or maybe it’s something else that’s smaller but that means something special to you?
The Oscar win did not make me mad. That was fairly awesome. It’s a pretty high point. Angels in America was perhaps one of the most meaningful things I ever did. It was a moment when the need for Tony Kushner’s message and the death rate from AIDS were all meeting, and the need for that message of potential love and healing and that the souls of the people who were suffering could heal the universe. I think that moment the mission of his play and the need in the world met and it was quite beautiful.
It was several years after that I got to do Pollock, which was another beautiful moment to work with such a gorgeous actor as Ed Harris, who wore all those different hats. And to be shooting that in New York, it was truly a gift to have him stretch me as an actor.
I’ve had a super-blessed career with different highs and different lows. And I’ve been able to mix having my amazing kids in my life. When you talk about it in retrospect, I don’t want to get to a certain point in my life and look back and go, “The high was in high school. I was the best I’ll ever be in high school.” And that’s how it feels a little bit looking back and going, “That was a high point.” Because in that same period of time was Pollock, and Angels was before that. They were all awesome experiences, and you reach for those kinds of experiences, you reach for those beautiful things. And then you go through other valleys that are extremely fulfilling as well. They’re just maybe not as public.
A lot of people like me were surprised that you were in the Fifty Shades of Grey movies.
You know what? It was a commercial choice to do that. It was a choice to be a part of something that had the potential to be big. I think they wanted me in that to ground the family in a way. And I’d never done anything like that. Maybe I was even a little surprised I was doing it.
But I felt like part of the message was also talking about women and sexuality. And I think the appeal of that book was for women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who had been perceived to be no longer sexual and they were finding through this commercial writing a kind of eroticism. Personally, if you ask me, I like Anaïs Nin if I’m looking at eroticism; I think she’s one of the greater writers.
But in this case, that was intriguing to me in that sexual freedom. Especially for me, I’m more of a conservative person, so it was just intriguing. But at the end of the day, I can say as much as I want, but it was a commercial choice.
What are your plans for the summer?
I’m starting a film, a short little comedy in New Jersey. Then I get to pop up to the Catskills, pick some blueberries and make some jam. That’s what I love. My nephew’s getting married on my property and then I’m off to Vancouver to start So Help Me Todd. Busy!