Christine Baranski (center) with co-stars Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard
When audiences see Christine Baranski as Cinderella's Stepmother in Into the Woods on Christmas Day, most of her fans may not recognize her through the cackles and layers of lace. Rather than serious lawyer Diane dressed in power suits from The Good Wife, Baranski is topped with a confectionary blond wig, cinched in a corseted gown, and dripping with bows. But the comedic part is perfect for an actress who has been adored by gay audiences for decades for her caustic wit and perfect timing, as well as surprises people in her many roles on stage and screen.
"The Stepmother is a peripheral character," Baranski admits. "But frankly, those little musical entrances are very tricky. That's how she's introduced: She breezes down the staircase, and you have to hit your mark. I often say playing small roles is more challenging than a large role because you have very little time, especially onscreen, to say, "This is exactly who that character is--so it has to be cut and crystal. If there's a laugh, a funny moment, you have to score it."
Although we could imagine Baranski as a phenomenal Witch belting out the big numbers (sorry, Meryl), and in fact she has a long association with Sondheim's work, Baranski says she was happy to have any part in Into the Woods, partly due to her long friendship with director Rob Marshall. They first met during a workshop for Hal Prince's theater project, Petrified Prince (Marshall was the choreographer), in the early '90s. After she decided to leave the show and take her career-changing role on Cybil. But the two stayed in touch. She later worked with him on Chicago, and they've done a play reading of Mame. "He and I adore each other," she says. "He told me, 'I want you in everything I do. You're my lucky charm.' And I told him I'd do anything. I'll walk over broken glass for you. I'll be in any project."
It proved difficult with her TV schedule, and Baranski wasn't able to participate in much of the rehearsal in London that the rest of the cast experienced. But she managed to finagle a way. "I'd never asked Good Wife for anything big," she explains. "But they bent the schedule so I could fly back and forth to London. Luckily I was enough a part of it to feel how fantastic everyone was. It's going to be refreshing [having fans] see me in this blond wig."
The other deep connection she had to a great director was Mike Nichols, who had passed away during the week she was speaking to press about the film. Nichols directed her in the original Broadway production of The Real Thing (currently in a Broadway revival from Roundabout Theatre), for which she won a Tony. He also cast her in The Birdcage. When asked about the news of Nichols' death, Baranski was visibly shaken. "It's such a deep loss. I'm not even sure I'm ready to provide a soundbite," she says. "I deeply loved that man, he was a part of my life for three decades. I did three plays and a big movie with him. Beyond that, he was one of the three great people I've ever met. The others being Sondheim and Stoppard. That's all I'll say. Huge loss."
The cloud passes, however, when prompted concerning her musical moments in Into the Woods. Baranski is game, and she breaks into song -- "You wish to go to the festival? You, Cinderella, the festival? The festival?" -- and her bright presence lights up the room.
Into the Woods opens Dec. 25. Watch the trailer below: