Ask any fan of “The Good Wife” or its spin-off “The Good Fight” who their favorite character is – and chances are they’ll answer without thinking twice: “Marissa Gold, of course.” Gold is a young, Jewish Israel-loving woman with a big mouth, depicted with captivating talent by Sarah Steele, who has not only charmed viewers and was named audience favorite by entertainment magazines, but has won the hearts of the series’ creators as well.
Originally, in 2011, Steele was invited to participate in only two episodes of “The Good Wife,” to play the daughter of the wily political adviser with the heart of gold, Eli Gold. In the sixth season the directors got in touch again, and when the filming of the spin-off began, “Marissa” morphed into a series regular and was upgraded to the job of sharp-witted investigator in the law firm of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart.
“I’m so lucky that I got to have this journey with Marissa’s character – a journey that is very unconventional,” says Steele in a conversation at the end of July, at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, to which she was invited by the Jerusalem Film and Television Initiative.
“I portrayed her at different moments in our life. It wasn’t linear. I entered her shoes when we were both 21 years old, 27 years old, and now when we’re both in our 30s,” Steele says, adding that Marissa is different from any character she has played before.
“Before Marissa Gold I didn’t get to portray women with self-confidence, I don’t quite know why,” she continues. “I was always invited to portray girls who keep apologizing and cry about the fact that they’re not pretty enough. I was somewhat frustrated by that narrative, because I’m not like that, and it was my first opportunity to play someone who’s just the opposite.”
One of the personality traits that makes Marissa so likeable, in Steele’s opinion, is her almost preternatural ability to never be embarrassed – even at moments when she is caught doing something very embarrassing: “It’s as though she’s totally incapable of that. It’s so refreshing to see a young woman like that.”
Although the character of Marissa loves Israel and even served in the Israel Defense Forces – it turns out that not only is this Steele’s first visit to the Holy Land, but she’s not even Jewish.
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“I feel somewhat guilty that I didn’t come earlier,” she says with a rueful smile when I accuse her of cultural appropriation. “I always thought that the time Marissa spent in the army turned her into what she is and made her so self-confident. And I’m happy that I had an opportunity to come here, because now I really understand how her characteristics – the chutzpah, the ability not to be embarrassed – are very Israeli.”
When I ask Steele if she has felt any backlash after portraying a character who is so pro-Israel, she says that people say all kinds of things about Israel, and that her left-wing friends in New York have often told her that the time has come for Marissa to sober up or develop a more nuanced attitude toward her army service in Israel. “It should be interesting to investigate that in depth,” she admits.
Steele, 30, started acting at an early age. She was born in Philadelphia, where both her parents were scientists, but she fell in love with the stage at 8, when she saw “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” When she came home after the musical, she begged her parents to send her to acting school; they initially complained that it would be a tremendous waste of money – but in the end, relented. The gamble paid off: Steele’s talent was soon recognized and she was invited to act in commercials and plays.
Her big chance came when she was 15 and cast for a role in the film “Spanglish,” alongside Adam Sandler. But just then, when she had presumably fulfilled the Hollywood dream of every beginning actress – she took a step back. “It’s a very difficult experience for a child to suddenly become a commercial asset. It was clear to me that had I stayed in L.A., I would have gone crazy,” she says.
“When the movie was released they sent me to so many interviews and press conferences, and they all only asked me about my body. The character in the film wears a fat suit, and people couldn’t deal with the fact that I’m actually thin. I felt that it was simply too much for me, that I was too young and too impressionable to sell myself in that way.”
Leaving Los Angeles wasn’t an easy decision. Steele’s agents pressured her to stay on and her friends couldn’t understand how she could give it all up, but she insisted, finished high school, went on to study English and creative writing at New York’s Columbia University, and started acting both on and off Broadway. “Humans,” one of the plays in which she appeared, won a Tony award in 2016.
“Only after college did I feel that I had acquired the tools to deal with all that, without my self esteem being determined by Hollywood,” Steele explains now.
Both “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” follow a clearly anti-Trump line. In effect, the first season of the former opens with Diane Lockhart watching the president’s inauguration ceremony, sipping whiskey, sighing with pathos – and turning off the TV set. There is almost no episode that doesn’t deal with the negative consequences and dangers presented by the Trump administration, from various and sundry angles, to the point where Haaretz’s television critic, Chen Hadad, described the show as “political porn with a fetish for Trump.”
“I’m proud to be in a series that comes out against Trump in that way,” Steele asserts. “But people don’t give enough credit to the fact that we do present a complex political picture. In the past season of ‘The Good Fight’ the Democrats break into the voting machines! They’re just as corrupt.”
Steele recalls that after the episode where one of the characters calls to beat up alt-right activists (“It’s time to punch a few Nazis!”) – bodyguards were hired for the actor because hard-right activists threatened his life.
And what about the #MeToo movement? Do you feel the difference on the set?
“There’s no question that we feel the effect. Suddenly people started to talk about it, and that was great. I’ve always felt very protected in our series, because it’s a feminist series.”
Steele says it was forbidden to show nudity on “The Good Wife,” because of the policy of broadcaster CBS. But “The Good Fight” was aired on the CBS streaming service, and during an episode in the first season Rose Leslie, who plays attorney Maia Rindell, was asked to remove her shirt and expose her breasts.
“Suddenly it felt creepy and unnecessary,” she recalls. “Robert King (one of the creators of the series) simply said: ‘Enough, we won’t do that again. At this point in time we don’t have to do it any more, and if there’s nudity in the series – it will be male nudity.’”
Says Steele: “That was great. But we can’t forget that there’s still a lot of work to be done – the studio heads are still straight white men who say things like ‘We already have a women’s series this season, we don’t need another one.’ Or ‘She looks too old to play this role, nobody wants to sleep with her.’ Until there are women and minority members in those jobs, there won’t be a change.”
Steele mentions proudly that in “The Good Fight” there are more black than white actors, because the law firm at the heart of the series is an all-black firm. “We have black characters in an academic role, and that’s something that isn’t done enough and I’m very proud of it,” she says.
Steele never studied acting in a truly professional way. “I developed an acting method for myself,” she explains. “I came from creative writing, I write a lot about my characters, I write their diaries, so I know what they’re thinking about.”
What’s the difference between acting in the theater and acting on television?
“I always used to say that I definitely prefer theater, but then I did the same play for a year and a half. It’s very challenging to do exactly the same thing hundreds of times, sometimes several times on the same day. It takes a lot out of you, but in a different way. You arrive in the evening, you do this difficult and intensive thing for an hour and a half – and then it’s over.
“The challenge in television is to keep this energy high for a long period of time, and to wait while the scenes are being staged. In both [types of acting] there are challenges, but at the end of the day there is no substitute for this direct connection with the audience that there is in theater. I’m grateful that I’m participating in something that far more people watch – for example, ‘The Good Fight.’ And in general, far more people watch television than theater, but I still prefer the stage.”
Steele also showed up in an episode of “Girls” in 2014, where she played the medical-student cousin of the main protagonist, Hannah.
“Acting in ‘Girls’ was really fun because it was real acting – something that happens less in the theater or in ‘The Good Fight,’ which is a series where you can’t deviate from the script,” she says. “In ‘Girls,’ they don’t want you to recite your lines; they want you to say what you feel at that moment, and the main objective is to catch that spontaneity. It’s a very fun way of working. They’re looking for actors who feel comfortable in their own skin, they turn on the camera – and simply let them be.”
A wayward curl
Marissa Gold is one of the few characters on TV these days who boasts a glorious mane of curly hair. Recently even Michel Obama brought back her curls, and a protest seems to be starting against excluding them from the screen. In Israel, too, it’s pretty rare to find women characters with curly hair on TV. When I ask Steele if she thinks that’s some sort of deliberate statement, she gives a surprising answer: “There’s no question, it sucks that there’s no curly hair on television, but I think that one of the reasons why that happens is that curly hair really makes continuity in film difficult; it can’t be left in place.
“I feel somewhat guilty, because Marissa used to have fun with her curls until it drove me crazy – we had to spray so many things on it that it looked greasy. So we decided to compromise. That’s one of the reasons it’s like that. A boring answer,” she says.
What are your plans for the future?
“The next thing I’m working on is something that I’m writing. I wrote in college, and then I was busy and I didn’t find time to write in recent years. What’s nice about ‘The Good Fight’ is that I don’t have to look for work all the time, so I have a little free time to devote to that. So, yes, I’m working on something related to a story I heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. I and my writing partner haven’t yet decided whether it will be a movie or a mini-series.”