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.
And “The Conners,” which on Tuesday, Jan. 22 will wrap up either its first or 11th season, depending on how you count, is still finding its way in the months since Roseanne Barr’s namesake series was canceled and restarted without her after she posted a racist tweet.
While neither of these crises were of Gilbert’s making, she was forced to deal with the fallout from both of them. These disruptions were troubling and unwelcome to her, pulling her further into a limelight that already makes her uneasy, and requiring her to take on further responsibilities at both shows. But they are challenges that Gilbert embraces as opportunities for her to figure out who she is along the way.
If there is anything that “The Conners” and “The Talk” have in common, Gilbert said, it’s that both shows “require us to be authentic.”
“I feel like I try to be authentic to myself, whatever that is,” she said.
Then she was sent to hair and makeup, transplanted from jeans and a Black Sabbath T-shirt into a tidy pantsuit and ushered onto the stage of “The Talk.” Over two hourlong episodes, she and her co-stars held forth on viral news stories (an Ohio father shaming his disobedient daughter in an online video) and celebrity scuttlebutt (the breakup of the hip-hop stars Cardi B and Offset).
In these on-air conversations, Gilbert usually prefers to play moderator to her more outspoken colleagues — “Sharon can say outrageous truths and then I can react to that,” she explained.
Osbourne described Gilbert as “a very caring person” who “has a million different reasons why she doesn’t want to offend people.”
“Me, I’ll just mouth off about any [expletive],” Osbourne said. “She’s like, ‘Oh, but they could have children. They could have a husband. What would their mother think?’”
But behind her quiet facade, Osbourne said, Gilbert is often sizing up the right moment to make herself heard.
“She’s a real watcher,” Osbourne said. “She’s not one of these people who will come in a room and go, ‘Hi, I’m here!’ She will suss the room out herself. She thinks about things before she says something.”
For Gilbert, getting even this comfortable with herself is a process that’s taken nearly the nine-season run of the show.
As she said over a lunch break in her dressing room, “Unless you’re super, super close to me, people can think there’s something aloof about me. But they don’t quite understand the whole package.”
As if to prove her claims of impassivity, the conversation was interrupted by a sudden visit from Gilbert’s wife, Linda Perry, the loquacious, excitable singer-songwriter and music producer, who burst into the room to tell her tale of a past encounter with Keanu Reeves at a restaurant 12 years ago.
“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?”
Gilbert was raised in Encino by a showbiz family — her grandfather Harry Crane helped create the characters of “The Honeymooners” and the actress Melissa Gilbert is her sister — and as a child she acted in TV movies and commercials.
Around the set of “Roseanne,” where she was hired at age 13, Gilbert earned the nickname Scuffy. “She would just sort of scuffle along,” said Laurie Metcalf, who plays Roseanne’s sister, Jackie. “She’s superintelligent with a wicked sense of humor. But very shy and very soft-spoken.”
Gilbert earned an art degree from Yale University during her time on “Roseanne,” and when the show ended, she appeared on series like “ER,” “24” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
After a decade of playing Darlene, Gilbert said she felt clear about the boundaries between herself and her headstrong alter ego, even as she yearned to be more like her in some ways.
“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 created “The Talk” inspired, in part, by the mothers’ groups she joined after the birth of her daughter, Sawyer, and by her desire to preserve the sense of community they provided.
But she also pursued a talk show, she said, because nobody expected her to, and because she wasn’t sure she could do it.
“I did this because I was scared to do this,” Gilbert said. “I felt like I wasn’t equipped for it and I needed to expand my growth.”
But, Goranson added, “The Talk” also brought out a less examined side of Gilbert. “She does like to delve deep,” she said of Gilbert. “She is curious about humanity and she’s very sensitive.”
Goranson added, “I think it really says something about her wanting to be a well-rounded person — to take a deficient muscle and make it really strong.”
“The Talk” also provided an unexpected launching pad when a short comedy sketch on the program, in which Gilbert and John Goodman reprised their “Roseanne” characters, became so popular that it led to a serious discussion to revive the sitcom.
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.
“There was a sense of loyalty and bonding, and nobody wanted to step forward and be accused of trying to steal the throne,” he said. “She didn’t want that perception, and I think it was hard for her on a lot of levels.”
Gilbert said the move ultimately made sense narratively, reinforcing Darlene’s often frustrated desires to transcend her family and her working-class roots.
“You have this person who’s bright and talented, and seems like a rising star, and gets caught back in the same cycle,” she said. “We went through this seismic shift at the show, and then our roles got redefined, just like they were in the family.”
Gilbert was much more reluctant to discuss transitions at “The Talk,” where Julie Chen, one of its founding co-hosts, announced her exit from the show in a pretaped message this past September.
“It was difficult,” Gilbert said of Chen’s departure. “All of it, the circumstances around it, were something that none of us wanted to have happen or to find out about. I know that she felt it was time to go be with her family.” (CBS announced earlier this month that Chen would be replaced by Carrie Ann Inaba.)
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.