She talks a mile a minute, has an admirer in Tom Hanks and can cry at the drop of a hat. Meet television’s newest desperate housewife.
Ginnifer Goodwin could be one of several young women bustling around the Hollywood Boulevard restaurant Memphis: 5-feet, 6-inches tall, long brown hair, slender legs tucked into black ballet flats. But upon further scrutiny, the voice like a silver bell, the glowing skin and the high, wide cheekbones are a dead giveaway she’s the actress among the laypeople.
“I mean, can you stand it? It’s utterly, absolutely, amazing. So exciting. I am just … I mean … so excited!” She’s enthusing, of course, over her new HBO series, Big Love, in which she plays Margene Henrickson, the youngest of polygamist Bill Paxton’s three wives. The other two are played by Chloë Sevigny and Jeanne Tripplehorn.
“My heart was not at first in television because I like to know the beginning, middle and end of my character’s journey,” she says over a plate of hummus and pita bread. “Knowing when it’s ending makes me feel safer diving in. But someone literally handed me this script and said, ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO.’ Aside from the fact that Tom Hanks would be my boss [Hanks is an executive producer], I’m a great fan of Chloë Sevigny. And once I got past the shock that people live this lifestyle, I fell madly in love and wanted to be part of telling the story, however many years that entails.”
Clearly, the heavy roles aren’t something from which Goodwin, 27, shies away, literally or figuratively. In Big Love, whose pilot was shot two years ago, Goodwin packed on pounds to play a postpartum Margene. It was a long road to the deserts of Utah and California where the show is filmed. Goodwin underwent a three-month audition process, but in the end she nailed the part in one take.
Hanks, who calls Goodwin “Ginny,” says: “Well, she is pretty incredible. As soon as we saw her we knew she had it.”
While Tripplehorn plays Paxton’s self-controlled first wife and Sevigny plays the manipulative, spoiled second one, Goodwin takes on the emotional role of the struggling, insecure newest wife and mother. “I really like playing women who are acutely aware of their insecurities. I am more aware in today’s Us Weekly culture of my own insecurities than I ever was before. It’s so dangerously irresponsible, the examples that most of our celebrities are putting out there, and a lot of the weeklies encourage that mind-set,” she says.
Perhaps she’s remained more grounded because of her background: After growing up in Memphis, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the five-year acting program at Boston University, which included courses at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. She also did a program at the Stratford Institute in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a certificate program at the Royal Academy in Shakespeare. “I am sort of obsessed with education and I depend on it to help me step outside of myself and take on things outside my own frame of reference. I couldn’t work without the tools that I was given in school,” she says.
She secured an agent before graduating in 2001, and immediately landed a two-year stint on NBC’s Ed. “It was a blessing. I don’t know how people do it. This whole banging on doors thing, it breaks my heart because I feel like it’s so hard, and yet comparatively, I’ve had it easy.”
But there are still things that elude her. “I can’t really land the role of the girlfriend of the star and sometimes it’s frustrating,” although she admits she’s drawn more “to the emotionally exhausting, creatively fulfilling roles that aren’t usually the fun girlfriend roles.”
Nor will you see her playing the role of fun party girl in her off hours. “I have an incredibly tight circle and we spend every single day not partying,” she says. She is tight with fellow actors Topher Grace and Kate Bosworth, her co-stars in Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, but she says: “We only go to events when we have things we have to promote, but we are not people who are part of Hollywood culture in any way. We have interests that are very different than being around industry people.”
The other night, for example, she and her posse, including boyfriend Ryan Devlin, the host of ET on MTV, went to see the Eighties hair band musical Rock of Ages. “We sang, danced and went for burgers in the middle of the night. We’re dorks. I also just played the meanest game of Monopoly. We even read the instructions for the first time in 20 years.”
When she’s not competing at board games or singing to Journey covers, Goodwin is beginning to explore fashion. “I’m only now learning what it is that I’m comfortable in. I use red carpets as a way to see what works on my body and what makes me happy,” she says, adding, “I have a very rudimentary understanding of who the designers are and I’m just starting to sort of explore with stylists.”
She’s partial to Thirties and Forties dresses, an interest that Sevigny has encouraged. “Chloë just gave me a list of places she said I need to go, and she is a fashion icon, so I’ll take her word for it,” says Goodwin.
For now, she calls “a dress and flats and a funky sweater and lots of necklaces my uniform. I only wear heels when a stylist puts me in them.” Out of comfort, certainly, but there’s another reason.
“My boyfriend and I like exactly where the tip of my head hits his body. Heels throw off our dynamic.”
This article appeared in WWD Scoop, a special publication to WWD available to subscribers.