Sara Gilbert Balances Her Lives on ‘The Conners’ and ‘The Talk’ | Modern Society of USA

Sara Gilbert Balances Her Lives on ‘The Conners’ and ‘The Talk’

Sara Gilbert Balances Her Lives on ‘The Conners’ and ‘The Talk’

LOS ANGELES — When Sara Gilbert started her working day here one rainy December morning, her dressing room at “The Talk” was dimly lit by a few scented candles. “I feel like I’m safe if it’s dark,” she said with a gentle laugh.

A short while earlier she’d kissed her three children goodbye and come to the Studio City offices of this CBS daytime show she developed, executive produces and co-hosts. Soon she and her fellow panelists, including Sharon Osbourne, Eve and Sheryl Underwood, would be trading thoughts and quips on issues of the day and interviewing celebrity guests like Dolly Parton and Keanu Reeves.

Then Gilbert would drive to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank and spend the evening playing Darlene, the middle sibling turned reluctant matriarch of “The Conners” — that’s the ABC sitcom previously known as “Roseanne,” until its former title star nearly brought it crashing down around her.

This show, where Gilbert is now an executive producer, is also where she grew up before viewers’ eyes, portraying the caustically sarcastic Darlene over the original run of “Roseanne” from 1988 to 1997.

Now 43, Gilbert has no interest in getting under people’s skin, and she tries to chart a conciliatory path at both “The Conners” and “The Talk.”

“My style in life is not very provocative,” she said. “It’s more like: What’s the reasonable way to look at this? Is there another side to things?”

“I’m an introvert who’s energized by work,” she said, knowing full well that this assessment would seem to contradict her dual career as a sitcom star and talk-show host.

But events have placed Gilbert, who considers herself reticent and undesirous of attention, at the heart of two of television’s most intensely examined recent controversies.

“The Talk,” where Gilbert is called on to express opinions and share herself personally on a daily basis, was clouded by the recent departure of co-host Julie Chen, whose husband, the ex-CBS network chief Leslie Moonves, faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.

“I’m like, ‘You don’t understand, I love you,’” Perry breathlessly recounted. “And I’m drunk, by the way.”

Gilbert softly interjected, “She means then, not today.”

Perry said, “I might be a little drunk right now,” adding, “I’m high because I got to see Keanu, my man crush.”

When Perry left the room, Gilbert deadpanned, “We’re so much alike, right?”

“I wish I had some of her strength,” she said. “I have more self-doubt than she has. I’m more careful, like, ‘Oh, did I do that right?’ And Darlene has always just been like, ‘No, you’re the idiot.’”

But making these distinctions apparent to others — even those who knew her intimately — was not always easy. “I dated somebody for years,” she said, “and years in, they were like, ‘Wait — you’re not Darlene.’” Gilbert added a wry laugh, as if to say: “Duh.”

Gilbert, as a producer on this project, worked closely with the “Roseanne” executive producer Tom Werner and showrunner Bruce Helford to secure the involvement of other cast members and envision the lives of their characters, two decades later.

What happened next is now a chapter of television history. “Roseanne” returned to astronomical ratings in March 2018, drawing more than 18 million viewers in its first new broadcast, and it was canceled that May after Barr’s online insult of Valerie Jarrett, the former presidential adviser. Gilbert has said she reached out to Barr in the tumult after the offensive tweet was posted, but never received a reply.

Even as the remaining cast and creative team were trying to make sense of this stunning turn, they were devising a plan to save the show in whatever form they could.

“It felt like people weren’t done watching the show and we didn’t want to take it away from them,” Gilbert said. “We just didn’t want to end on that note. We wanted to try to preserve the legacy.”

The solution to write Barr out of the show by having the Roseanne character die offscreen from an opioid overdose was not just expedient — it created a space for her colleagues to process the shock of her departure and the circumstances that required it.

“This was an opportunity to honestly deal with loss,” Gilbert said. “It allowed us, as actors, to process the loss we were going through. This isn’t the same anymore. Things have changed.”

(Barr herself had said in a statement that her character’s death “lent an unnecessary grim and morbid dimension to an otherwise happy family show.”)

The next step in refashioning “Roseanne” into “The Conners” was determining which character would fill that void left in the onscreen family, a process that kept leading its writers back to Darlene.

As Helford, its show runner, explained, “You knew that when Darlene said something, it went straight to the core of truth. And that was also very true of Roseanne.”

Taking on an even more expanded role at the sitcom was a task that Gilbert accepted dutifully but warily, Helford said.

On the set of “The Conners,” Gilbert spent a long evening of rehearsing and taping with Metcalf, Goodman and Goranson; when cut was called, she would stroll behind the camera, huddling with Helford and his fellow writers to dissect these scenes line by line.

Helford noted that, while actors are not always welcome in these writerly conversations — “They’re usually focused on their role and what their character’s going through,” he said — Gilbert was an exception.

“She isn’t saying, ‘Here’s what Darlene should do,’ even though she definitely has a point of view about what she wants her character to do,” Helford said. “It’s about, here’s what our show needs to say and what we need to accomplish.”

Metcalf said it can be striking to see Gilbert, whom she has known for more than 30 years, now assuming so much responsibility for “The Conners.”

When she sees Gilbert conferring with the writers, Metcalf said, “Part of me is thinking, ‘What the hell are they talking about? What did I do? How can I make it better?’ But part of me has relaxed into trusting her when she puts on her producing hat.”

“It’s going through the right channels,” Metcalf said. “If anybody can do it, Scuffy can.”

Though “The Conners” was not quite the ratings phenomenon that “Roseanne” was, the new series has drawn around 7 million viewers a night for debut broadcasts of new episodes — it is usually ABC’s highest-rated show on Tuesday nights and the network’s most-watched sitcom overall. (Werner, the executive producer, said that “there’s interest” in making another season of “The Conners” but that no deal had yet been made with the network.)

Whatever the outcome, Gilbert said she was continuing to look for new projects to produce, “with an eye towards socially relevant comedies that have a dramatic bent — I prefer my comedy with a slice of tragedy on the side.”

When she already lives a life where TV viewers can watch her for five or more hours in a week and hear her thoughts on myriad topics from Viola Davis’s personal standards of beauty to how she and her family spent their holidays, Gilbert wondered how much more audiences really wanted from her.

“I’ve certainly spent my currency of mystery,” she said. “If there’s any value in that, it’s mostly gone.”

But then again, Gilbert said, maybe that explains her inhibition, her restraint, or whatever you want to call it — she’s always keeping a supply of herself on hand for future use. “No matter how much I share, there’s still a shred of mystery left,” she said.

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