Now star of The Good Fight, the CBS All Access spinoff of The Good Wife, Sarah Steele is finally playing her own age onscreen.
The actress, who made her film debut as Bernice, the awkward-but-cute preteen in 2004’s Spanglish, has had an extended onscreen life as a teenager, playing Jenny Humphrey’s rival on two episodes of Gossip Girl, the teenage daughter to Catherine Keener in the dark comedy Please Give and, in 2013, a recent high school graduate in The To Do List. In Speech & Debate, the film adaptation of Stephen Karam’s Off-Broadway play opening in select theaters and on demand April 7 and is available exclusively on iTunes April 2, she returns to high school as a Rachel Berry-like student with dreams of becoming a star.
The new film, which she dubs her “swan song” for teenage roles, comes as Steele has evolved into an adult both onscreen and onstage. “I had this year where I left the teenage parts behind and played people my own age,” Steele tells ET during a day off from shooting The Good Fight. In The Humans, Karam’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play about a family gathered around the dinner table in New York City to celebrate Thanksgiving, which opened Off-Broadway in 2015 and completed its Broadway run in January 2017, Steele played Brigid, a musician who hosts her family in her rundown Chinatown apartment. “It was really the first time someone had given me the opportunity to play my own age,” she says. And in the final three months of the play’s run, Steele found herself simultaneously reprising her role as Marissa Gold, who becomes Diane Lockhart’s (Christine Baranski) assistant and later shows an interest in investigating, on The Good Fight. Suddenly, the actress, now 28, found herself stretching beyond a plucky teen.
Speech & Debate, which Steele filmed in 2015, is admittedly the “last teenage thing” the actress plans to do. “And that's my choice more than it is people thinking that -- I think people do think I can still play [younger], but I think there comes a point, if you have a useful look, where you say, ‘Sorry, I'm just not doing that anymore,’” she says.
That’s not to say Steele’s dismissive of the new film -- she was grateful to work with Karam, with whom she’s close friends, and reprise the role she originated onstage -- but she says she was very aware of the age difference during filming. “I sort of felt like the haggard old person on set,” Steele jokes of being the 27-year-old among her co-stars -- including The Killing’s Liam James and When We Rise’s Austin P. McKenzie -- who were much closer in age to their onscreen counterparts.
In fact, director Dan Harris admits it took a while to bring Steele in for the film because she had grown beyond the part in the years since its 2007 stage production. “But she’s got a baby face and exceptional acting chops,” he says, adding: “She’s the kind of actress who is so watchable because she knows how to transform her entire being for the role. And when she came in to talk about Diwata, she just settled after a few minutes, relaxed, and we both basically time traveled.”
And for her part, Steele says that being surrounded by her younger co-stars allowed her to blend in. “Within hours on the first day she was giggling like she was back in high-school as an awkward teenager,” Harris adds. “She aged backward and went back to high school in her mind and on film.”
After making the film, Steele found herself back in New York City, where she continued to play Marissa, who was first introduced as Eli Gold’s (Alan Cumming) daughter during The Good Wife’s final season. But it wasn’t long before rumors were swirling about a potential spinoff focused on Diane. Steele says that during the wrap party, creators Michelle and Robert King approached her about the new show. “It was really strange and exciting,” she says of all the chatter, revealing that the duo later called her to pitch the concept: Marissa would play a pivotal role on The Good Fight and see her character expand beyond somebody’s daughter into budding investigator.
“She’s an anti-Kalinda,” Steele says, referring to Archie Panjabi’s Emmy-winning role as the lead investigator on The Good Wife. “Kalinda was very mysterious and you never knew what was going on with her. Marissa, I think, is eventually going to be an investigator, but instead of being mysterious and sneaky, she's very talkative and very open and people tell her things. They sort of underestimate how intelligent she is and what her motives are.”
Her only caveat for doing the show was to be able to keep performing in The Humans, which had three months left on Broadway. “We just had to figure out how to balance doing both,” Steele says of the play, which she carefully auditioned around, not seeking projects that would conflict with its run. Ultimately, she split her time, essentially working two full-time jobs while giving her all to both productions. “I had to show up for both … I am proud of myself. I do feel like I was able to do that.”
The filming of The Good Fight also coincided with the 2016 election, the results of which were written into the pilot and helped the actress process what happened on Nov. 8. “I would get the scripts in my inbox and it would make me feel less alone in dealing with it,” says Steele, who admits she could barely get up and dressed in the days following the election, let alone write anything intelligent about it.
“It’s just been really healing and wonderful to do something creative that is tackling living in Trump’s America,” she continues, adding that the show is providing a service to fans still reeling from the results. “That’s been really great because I feel like that’s a conversation that really needs to be had.”
In fact, Steele says the show feels freer -- not only free to tackle real issues head-on, but also with its dialogue and movement. “I feel like The Good Wife was a little more still,” she says, adding that it’s a relief to be able to curse on the CBS All Access show, which has fewer restrictions than a typical network broadcast. “All the good time on The Good Wife, it was like -- I don't know -- you would say ‘f**k’ in this situation but you can't.”
So, how will the show, which was recently renewed for a second season, continue to embrace its new freedom? And what will become of Marissa as she finds her footing as an investigator? Steele is not. sure just yet. While she was scheduled to sit down with the Kings to discuss her character just days after talking to ET, she didn’t have too many ideas -- except possibly one. “I don’t think I’ve said ‘f**k,’” Steele says. “I'm patiently waiting. Maybe that's something I'll bring up in my meeting.”