Emmys 2018: Why Sara Gilbert Was Really the Heart of ‘Roseanne’ Revival (Exclusive)
Sara Gilbert delivered one of ET's Standout Performances of the 2017-18 season.
Darlene Conner is all grown up.
Well, to be fair, it’s Sara Gilbert who’s all grown up. In the 21 years between seasons nine and 10 of Roseanne, the 43-year-old actress earned a graduate degree from Yale; created and continues to co-host The Talk, for which she has earned three Daytime Emmys; married singer-songwriter Linda Perry; and became a mother of three. She also initiated the revival of the sitcom that made her a household name, reprising her role as Darlene as well as co-executive producing the show’s nine new episodes.
“When I was a kid, it was just fun,” says Gilbert, who was 13 years old when Roseanne premiered in 1988 and 22 by the time the series initially ended in 1997. “I feel this responsibility for the character and I feel this responsibility to the show, so it's probably a lot more stressful now because it's not on me alone. I feel a big sense of responsibility to keep the show’s quality up.”
Roseanne’s return to prime time was historic, drawing 10 percent more viewers than the season nine finale and becoming the highest-rated comedy telecast since 2014. The record-breaking success earned the show a renewal for 13 episodes -- just three days after its premiere.
Speaking with ET as she headed to the Los Angeles set of The Talk in early May -- before Roseanne Barr’s controversial tweets and the show’s subsequent cancellation, which Gilbert has since addressed on her daytime series -- the actress recalls reviving the series and the “excitement” it gave to her co-stars when they first arrived on set. “It felt like I was giving something to them,” she says, adding that the revival came together within a few short months, going from getting everyone on board to setting up a writers’ room and returning to set. “You know, when something is meant to be, things just kind of go quickly.”
While the show is named after its star and creator, it was Darlene who was at the center of season 10, which, like the seasons before it, worked to capture the struggles of the working class -- this time in Trump’s America. In the premiere, viewers were reintroduced to Darlene as a single mom of two kids who had just lost her job and returned to her blue-collar Illinois hometown under the guise of taking care of her aging parents, Roseanne (Barr) and Dan (John Goodman). It was important to Gilbert to show the realities of a character who had dreams of success but started a long-term relationship and had a child very young.
“Darlene was always this rising star that you thought was going to go to a big city and have a writing career and break the poverty cycle, but even the people who seem destined to break the cycle can have a very difficult time in this country,” Gilbert explains. “How many people that come from her background and start a relationship that young and have kids that young get to stay married, have a happy relationship, have a hugely successful career? It's just not that realistic. It’s a tough road. People need to see real life, and real life is not easy.”
The tone was immediately set in the premiere episode, when a normally steadfast Darlene falls back onto the family couch, tearing up as she sits side-by-side with her mom, realizing the weight of losing everything she had worked so hard for in Chicago.
“My heart broke, too, because there's a part of me that believes Darlene is real -- even though that’s probably crazy -- because you get lost in the story,” Gilbert admits. “The idea that she has to admit to her mom that she was struggling is something that breaks your heart for a character that everybody thinks is so strong.”
Gilbert, who’s been acting since she was 6, has a quieter energy than her TV counterpart, genuine and thoughtful when answering questions and appreciative of how far she’s come. But dig past Darlene’s sarcasm and pounds of dark curls that she used to shield her from the world, and the two are actually quite similar. Gilbert has always seen Darlene as a little bit stronger and tougher than herself, clear in her opinion where Gilbert will tend to waiver, but “all of those things are inside of me or I couldn't play it” -- and, frankly, the tenacious actress is being hard on herself.
“I can feel where Darlene lives in my body,” Gilbert says. “It's almost like running a certain program on a computer. My stomach tightens when I say the lines and I just know what happens to my body when I'm her. And remember, I still have anxiety around doing a good job.” There were internal fears about what Darlene had become, the hardships she’s experienced and the vulnerability that was harder to hide. “I was a little nervous people wouldn't think it was authentic to how Darlene was then, but there's no way to play a woman that's aged the exact same way you play a teenager. I had to put some wear on the wheels, basically.”
Those initial fears, however, were calmed by Johnny Galecki, who showed up to the first table read just to listen. “He said, ‘Wow, you really fell right back into that character,’ and that gave me such a sense of relief,” Gilbert recalls. One of the most beloved episodes of season 10 was episode five, when Galecki returns as David Healy, the guy audiences have seen Darlene with since high school and the father of her two kids, daughter Harris (Emma Kenney) and son Mark (Ames McNamara). Gilbert and Galecki remained friends long after Roseanne last wrapped, a relationship fans have seen cheeky nods to on other shows: Gilbert guest-starred on The Big Bang Theory, which stars Galecki; she also acted on Living Biblically, which he produced.
Gilbert spoke to all of the actors before the writers started to figure out where the characters would be now, and it was Galecki who suggested that David should be traveling around the world, as the character shouldn’t be fully present -- plus, the actor’s schedule meant he couldn’t be in every episode. Many of his thoughts on David made it onto the screen, which Gilbert says was a cool process to work out with her longtime friend. “I love my time onscreen with Johnny and then also I felt a little insecure because I didn't want to let him down,” she said of acting together on Roseanne again. “When he's talking to me, I want it to feel familiar and feel how it felt in that relationship.”
In the 21 years since Roseanne first went off the air, Gilbert has proven to be such a force in front of and behind the screen. In just nine episodes of the short-lived revival, she proved how much she was the heart and driving force of the series, not only corralling everyone together and serving as executive producer, but also playing Darlene with a deft mix of relatability and responsibility.
“I don't feel like Darlene is just mine,” Gilbert says. “She's become part of the cultural conversation, and she's such an important face for a lot of girls who [have] come up to me and told me they hadn't seen anyone like themselves on television and they were so happy to connect with somebody. I feel a responsibility for their stories.”
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