How The "Body Woman" On “The Good Wife” Grew Into The Role
Sarah Steele talks to BuzzFeed News about playing the fat girl as a teenager, making up lines with Lena Dunham, and why she’d love to work on the acclaimed CBS legal drama for years.
She may be playing the right-hand woman to Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) on The Good Wife, but Sarah Steele has no idea which way the heated state's attorney race is swaying. Marissa, the brash daughter of political fixer Eli Gold (Alan Cummings), made her last appearance in Season 2 for three episodes before moving to Israel. But when the sixth and current season started filming, Steele was asked to reprise her role and aid the show's protagonist in her political campaign. "I was like, 'OK, that sounds great!' But I really thought it would be like what it was in Season 2, just quick and easy or getting some information out of Eli," Steele told BuzzFeed News at a diner in Times Square. "I had no idea it would expand to the 'body woman.'"
The 'body woman,' a term brought to the critically adored CBS legal drama by creators Robert and Michelle King, is basically just a personal assistant to Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), who, among her many miscellaneous tasks, is often getting milk for the state's attorney candidate. "She's obsessed with milk. I think I offer someone milk every episode that I've been in. That's about all! Every episode, I am pushing milk on people. Not quite sure why," Steele said with a laugh. But the 26-year-old actor, who currently stars as Susie Keegan in The Country House on Broadway, is proving she can do much more than keep up calcium levels.
Steele's big break came at 15 when she was cast in 2004's Spanglish as Bernice Clasky, the overly kind daughter of John (Adam Sandler) and Deborah (Téa Leoni). Bernice's weight struggles create a strained relationship with her mother, whose attempts to "encourage" her to lose a few pounds come across as cruel. But while Steele was sympathetic in the part, one component of the character was quite unnatural for the petite actor: her size. With the help of her father, who is a doctor, she convinced director James L. Brooks to give her the role. "We basically convinced him that the fact that I'm not fat is not a problem," Steele said. "We can find a way around this and we did." She gained around 20 pounds and then wore a fat suit that she described as a tank top that stretched down her whole body.
But after a successful blockbuster — and diet — Steele did something uncommon: She left Hollywood. "[Spanglish] was a wonderful experience," Steele said. "I'm so grateful for it but after that I went home and didn't act for a while." She returned to her hometown of Philadelphia, finished high school, and enrolled at Columbia University, where she graduated in 2011 with an English degree. "I was 17 years old and had no idea who I was. Hollywood will eat you up if you go into it that way. I was like, 'I need to build up who I am.'"
Steele got her theater fix during college by taking playwriting classes and acting in plays. But when a three-episode character arc for Season 2 of The Good Wife crossed her desk, she went for it. "That was during a time when I was taking college very seriously and I said, 'I don't want to go in on a lot, certainly no series that would take me out of college,'" Steele said. "But I saw that and I was like, 'I think I could do this.'"
The role was a natural one for Steele to slip in and out of. "I'm kind of ball-busting. I don't take anything that seriously. When people take themselves really seriously, I find it silly and amusing," Steele said about herself. Marissa, who has become notorious for being blunt when everyone else is trying to beat around a bush, could easily be described the same way. When Marissa first appears on The Good Wife, she shows up practically unannounced at her father's office at the campaign headquarters for Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) — as he makes a bid to return to the state's attorney office — and immediately starts questioning everyone and everything. "She's a little braver than me," Steele said. "I'm not quite as quick as she is, I don't have both the Kings in my brain all the time, but I like to give people shit."
When Season 2 wrapped, Steele had spent a few scenes sitting on Eli's couch and thought her run on the show was over. She returned to the stage, picking up one- or two-episode guest appearances here and there — she played Hannah Cohen on Nurse Jackie, Sela Vinson on Harry's Law, and Rebecca on Blue Bloods — and a couple of indie film parts, before another script crossed her desk and caught her eye: the role of Flo on HBO's Girls. Though Steele hadn't seen any of the show prior to the audition — she has since caught up — she went after the part. Though only appearing in one episode, the character of Flo, Hannah's (Lena Dunham) cousin, was a memorable addition to the series. When their grandmother is dying, Flo and Hannah head to the suburbs to say good-bye and keep their respective mothers sane.
Though the episode had an overarching story to tell, the specifics were all improvised during shooting by Dunham and Steele. "Lena is unbelievable. She sits down and she's just saying totally different words. So I'm like, OK, I can't say my normal words in the script because that's not what she's saying. So I just sort of rolled with her. Everything I did on that show was improvised. There was an arc of the scene but she'll just say whatever and we'll go and go and go. I asked Lena after we filmed that first scene, 'How do you cut this together?' because it was different every time and she was like, 'I don't know; it works out.'"
A few months after her HBO debut, CBS was calling — well, emailing. "I got an email that was like, 'The Good Wife plans to bring you back this season,' Steele said about stepping back into Marissa's shoes. Steele returned to the show's New York set for the show's sixth season and made quite a statement from the get-go, asking an intern in Governor Florrick's office if she was wearing underwear when everyone else was too nervous to do so. Despite that, it's the environment of the governor's office that gets Marissa intrigued in her father's work, landing her a spot on Alicia's campaign team.
For now, Steele is set to appear in five episodes this season, and is in talks for a sixth and seventh. But she said she'd love to stay on the show as long as possible. At this point, it seems that as long as Alicia's campaign storyline continues — and the Kings love to have election night results toward the end of the season, if not in the finale — Marissa will likely become a more integral part of Alicia's team. This season, Alicia is spending most of her time with campaign manager Johnny Elfman (Steven Pasquale) and Marissa discussing strategy and, particularly, whether to go negative with her campaign — and Marissa seems to be the only one on Alicia's team who supports the candidate's mindset.
"They might be building a character they're not going to be able to get rid of until the state's attorney race is over," Steele said. "They might be, I'm not sure if they are, I hope that they are. I don't know! We'll see."