When Olivia Colman needs to demonstrate Queen Elizabeth II’s authority on “The Crown,” there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance that producers can turn to, not to mention having her wear the titular headgear. But most female characters in contemporary drama series don’t have a crown handy when they need to project power in business or politics on screen. Just as in real life for women in the workplace, female actors often wrestle with the question of how to show — rather than tell — that their fictional alter egos have the ability to flex serious muscle when the situation calls for it.
Christine Baranski, star of CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight,” has been honing the power dynamic projected by fierce attorney Diane Lockhart for 11 years, starting on “The Good Wife” back in 2009. Lockhart is known for looking as if she has always stepped out of a Vogue photo shoot for legal partners. And that’s not by accident.
“Her wardrobe is her armor,” Baranski says. “It tells everyone ‘I took the time to really get it together this morning, including picking out this large brooch, so don’t mess with me.’”
For others, such as Maggie Siff, who plays psychiatrist and performance coach Wendy Rhoades on Showtime’s “Billions,” armor isn’t just about what one wears but also how one carries herself. Siff kept Hillary Rodham Clinton in mind as she thought about how her character would hold her own with the hedge fund alpha males that dominate the world of her show.
“Hillary Clinton has a great forthright quality about her,” Siff says. “But Wendy wasn’t about one role model per se. Her behavior is typically masculine and she’s in this super-macho world. She has to go toe-to-toe with these men. She does it in a pretty macho way herself, but she’s also a therapist and so she also has to have softer, more empathetic modalities.”
Meanwhile, Rhea Seehorn, who plays attorney Kim Wexler on AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” had her mother and aunt in mind when she crafted the Wexler aesthetic.
“I grew up with a lot of single moms around me. There’s no time to change your purses. You don’t change your hairdo every day. You have two jackets — navy blue and black — and a couple of skirts and you switch them out,” she says.
J. Smith-Cameron, who plays corporate legal counsel Gerri Kellman on HBO’s “Succession,” had few examples in her own life of top corporate executives to study, too: the high-powered women that she befriended through encounters at her children’s schools.
“I’d always think of a couple of friends of mine who I’d see at the preschool drop off and then you knew they were going off into the business world,” Smith-Cameron says. “Or I’d go to a [parent] meeting and see how they would hold the floor with a PowerPoint presentation. I remember thinking about how they were so articulate and that Gerri would have to use her time wisely when she spoke.”
The character was initially conceived as a man until Smith-Cameron came in and impressed creator/showrunner Jesse Armstrong. Now, the actor informs the character in everything from attitude and physicality, to her style. Gerri’s trademark cat-eye glasses came from Smith-Cameron’s own collection of specs, for example.
Siff notes that wardrobe choices telegraph so much about characters. She recalls that in the first two seasons of “Billions,” Wendy often wore suits and blazers affixed with a lot of zippers and clasps to subtly indicate the character’s secret indulgence in S&M activities with her husband, even while she was in professional settings.
Wendy also favors pencil skirts and form-fitting dresses, although that has loosened up — literally and figuratively — in the fifth season, as the character goes through numerous life changes including a marital separation.
“Her clothes tend to have a structure that help me feel confident and in power,” Siff says. “Finding that balance in something that is modest but still sexy allows her to feel like the clothes support her stance” in the workplace.”
Seehorn observes that in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” Wexler’s outfits were often mismatched, on purpose. “She always struck me as someone who was fighting to get a foot into the middle class,” Seehorn says.
The nuances of how a woman handles herself as she addresses a roomful of mostly men in a workplace setting is another common issue that these actors face.
For Baranski’s Lockhart, there’s a certain lawyerly tone that comes out and a mixture of cunning and deep preparation that makes the character such an ace in the courtroom and the boardroom, while Seehorn’s Wexler had a few big confrontation moments in Season 5 that drew on the foundation built up since her first appearance in the “Better Call Saul” pilot.
“Kim chooses not to speak very much. She’s extremely observant and collects information, to the detriment of her prey,” Seehorn says. “She never uses her sexuality or her looks as a weapon. In those moments when she does choose to speak, people now expect great things from her.”
Having the opportunity to fine-tune these roles and deliver portraits of working women who are anything but a steel magnolia stereotype is a privilege that is not lost on the women who inhabit them.
“It’s great to play a professional woman who has authority and dignity and to be in a great drama series,” Baranski says. “The last thing I wanted to face in my later years was to get stuck playing some kooky grandma or bitter divorcee.”