Julianna Margulies: Working Mom, ALS Advocate

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 12, 2013
8 min read

Julianna Margulies has been blessed with an extraordinary career and a loving family. But like any other working mother, there is one gift she's not sure what to do with: unexpected time to herself.

"My son left the house this morning at 8:15, and then my husband went to work, and all of sudden I was alone," she says with a laugh. "I was so confused. Should I answer emails? Clean up? Working parents get so used to doing everything at once that if I'm not multitasking, I'm not effective. I get almost paralyzed with freedom."

This is not a problem the Emmy-winning star of CBS's The Good Wife -- now in its fifth season -- faces often. In her role as Alicia Florrick, an attorney putting her life back together after her husband is caught in a political scandal, Margulies, 47, logs 14-hour days at work before returning to the New York City apartment she shares with her husband, lawyer Keith Lieberthal, and their 5-year-old son, Kieran. "Making it all work is definitely a learning curve, but I'm getting better at it," says Margulies. "I'm learning to let go of the minutiae."

For instance? "I like an orderly home because my life is so chaotic, but I used to inwardly yell at myself for making my bed when I could be doing something else," she explains. "Now I say, 'I like making my bed, and I like getting into a made bed at the end of the day.' It's who I am, and if you can't find a balance between laughing at yourself and accepting yourself, what's the point?"

Margulies was raised by parents well versed in the art of going with the flow. Her father, an advertising copywriter, and her dance-teacher mother moved Margulies and her two older sisters between France, England, and the United States. "Some people looked at my life and said, 'Oh, you had the perfect childhood, with exotic, intellectual parents who traveled all over.' But I didn't feel at the time it was so great having divorced parents who lived in separate countries."

With an eye on stability, Margulies graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and gave herself until the age of 25 to make it as an actor before seeking another career. "The beauty of my childhood was that I knew I could pound the pavement and always be fine, because I know how to make something work," she says. "But I also knew I wasn't a person who could stand a life of rejection, or happily live a life on a futon with no air conditioning. And then I got lucky. After a year and a half, I was paying my rent and health insurance."

Over the next decade, Margulies garnered awards and attention as well as a healthy bank account, thanks to her Emmy-winning role as Carol Hathaway on NBC's medical drama series ER. But after 6 years, she turned down the producers' offer of a reported $27 million contract to return, deciding instead to move back to New York City and try her hand at theater and independent movies. There, she met her husband, with whom she had a whirlwind courtship, marrying him when she was 7 months pregnant.

"The gift of having Kieran when I was older is that I see things differently, and I love that," she says. "I know I'm in an industry where age suddenly seems to be a bad thing, but the older I get the more I embrace what it gives me and my family."

When Margulies agreed to star in The Good Wife, her son was 13 months old. "I was a wreck," she admits, "but Kyra Sedgwick sent me an email that said, 'My first day of work [on The Closer], my kids were still in school and my guilt was devastating. But the gift I gave my husband and kids was their own relationship.' It was one of the best things I have ever read," Margulies says. "When I'm home, I'm doing everything. When I'm not, my husband may not be doing it my way, but he's getting it done. You have to be willing to let children have their own relationships with their father when you're not around. Sure, the bath might not happen," she says with a laugh, "but the kids aren't working in a coal mine."

Sharing responsibility for parenting has been another important lesson in learning to let go. "As a younger person, I thought I had to do everything myself. But then why do we have friendships and family? You can't do it all by yourself, and it's silly to try."

To maintain her energy, Margulies takes care of her body. The need for a healthy diet was ingrained by her parents, who taught their children the importance of daily protein and leafy greens. "I'm not a believer in denying myself anything -- I think people who do that end up binging and not being happy," she says. "But I eat for energy."

That means Greek yogurt with berries or an egg-white omelet with tomato and spinach for breakfast, followed by a ginger/carrot/apple/beet drink when she arrives on set. Lunch and dinner consist of salad and a lean protein like salmon. Between meals, she snacks on almonds, vegetables, and fruit, avoiding bread and sugar.

She skips soda in favor of water, although she does indulge in a morning cup of coffee and the occasional glass of wine on a weeknight. "Saturday nights, my husband and I will go out and have steak and martinis and dessert. Nothing crazy, but I make sure I have a good time!"

To stay on track, Margulies makes extra of whatever she cooks for dinner, stocking the fridge with leftover salmon and undressed salad. "And the second I buy fruit or vegetables I wash them, cut them up, and put them in the fridge so they are ready to eat," she says. "When you are hungry, you'll take what is in there, whether it's a premade salad or junk.''

Margulies also fits exercise into her schedule. "When I'm not working, I'll go to the gym 5, 6 days a week for 90 minutes," she says, adding that she counts on '80s playlists to power through 45 minutes of cardio using the treadmill and stair machines, followed by cable weights. "I prefer to be long and lean," she says. "So I work my arms with 4-pound weights, and I do a lot of holding push-ups, getting down on my elbows and counting to 30. It's incredible ab work!"

When The Good Wife is in production, Margulies works in whatever physical activity she can. "My dressing room is on the third floor, so I'll take the stairs two at a time," she says. "Or I'll bend backward over a medicine ball to get the blood rushing to my head. And if I have 10 minutes, I will close the door and do yoga. Whatever your form of quieting your mind, 10 minutes can save your life."

The busy actress and mother says she's committed to a healthy lifestyle by keeping it simple, fun, and consistent. For instance:

  • "I don't leave the house without sunblock. I put on L'Oréal's RevitaLift and then dermatologist Patricia Wexler's Intensive 3-in-1 Day Cream with SPF 30 and facialist Tracie Martyn's Firming Serum. On my lips I use an Australian product called Lucas' Papaw Ointment."
  • "I worked out with a trainer for a movie once and he said, 'Whatever it takes to get yourself to the gym, whether it is new sneakers or a playlist, do it.' For me, it's Pandora on my iPhone and its endless music lists, especially the '80s workout."
  • "It's a rare exception for me to have dessert or carbs since they don't give me energy, but I don't look at it as being on a diet -- I look at it as the way I live. And once a week, it's fine! You have to enjoy yourself."

One thing Margulies always makes time for is Project ALS. The nonprofit was launched in 1998 by theater and film producer Jenifer Estess and her sisters, Valerie and Meredith, after Jenifer was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at age 35. Also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS affects nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. People with the condition eventually lose the ability to move their muscles, which are controlled by these nerve cells or motor neurons, and over time become unable to move, eat, speak, and breathe.

"Jenifer used to say to me, 'My mind is sharp as a tack but my body is shutting down, and it's torture,' " Margulies remembers. "I watched her struggle to walk, and then 6 months later she couldn't brush her hair because she couldn't lift her arms. In the end, she had a breathing tube."

Her friend passed away in 2003, but Project ALS is now a leading force behind finding a cure. With a mission to fund top researchers and encourage them to collaborate, Project ALS opened the world's only privately funded stem cell research lab, named after Estess and housed at Columbia University.

Stem cells, found in the umbilical cord, placenta, and bone marrow, can be "taught" to become any cell in the body. At the Estess Laboratory, scientists have discovered how to make motor neurons from stem cells, an advance that may lead to a cure not only for ALS but for other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, Huntington's, and Alzheimer's.

For Margulies, standing up for a cause is a necessary part of feeling fulfilled, along with giving her all to her family and career. "At a certain point, you have to choose the life you want to have, take responsibility, and realize you create your own life by making choices," she says.

"Don't like what your body is saying to you? Get to the gym. Want to be an actor? Give it a shot. For me, it was a long road to understanding what I wanted. But I really do believe that hard work gets you to a place that, if you want something, you can have it."

Project ALS has raised close to $70 million to help find a cure for ALS. The condition affects about 30,000 Americans. Here are some of the ways scientists are working toward a better understanding of ALS.

Studying ALS's effect on nerve pathways: Scientists use stem cells to model ALS in a petri dish so they can study how the disease affects nerve pathways in the body. The hope is to understand the disease well enough to reverse its course.

Introducing replacement cells: "We can now get stem cells to live in the spinal cord, but getting them to grow out and reconnect with the target muscles is the challenge," says Valerie Estess, director of research at Project ALS. The long-term goal is to be able to replace dying motor neurons with healthy ones.

Identifying markers:  Scientists are also working on identifying biomarkers, such as a protein in the motor neurons that changes due to the disease. ALS is often diagnosed only after a person develops symptoms. Biomarkers specific to ALS would help doctors identify the condition earlier.

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