Julianna Margulies plays favorites

Julianna Margulies is the first to admit -- her career has been full of drama.

The actress, who has found a niche playing tough beautiful women who suffer just enough, recently pulled off one of the rarest coups in the entertainment industry for an actress in her 40s: the comeback. In January, Margulies carried home a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award for her role on CBS’ “The Good Wife.” And now she’s returning to the big screen, starring opposite Andy Garcia in " City Island,” which opens in theaters Friday.

Though many fans know Margulies as Alicia Florrick, hard-working attorney and spouse of a cheating politician in “The Good Wife,” others remember her best as nurse Carol Hathaway from “E.R.,” a show that she walked away from in 2000 after six years despite a reported offer of $27 million for two more seasons because, as she explains matter-of-factly on a recent afternoon in Manhattan, “it was time to go.”

At the time, many thought Margulies would transition into a full-time movie star, but that never quite happened. To be fair, over the years she found ample work in film and television but still seemed to recede from the spotlight. Until now.

Her résumé since leaving “E.R.” -- a smorgasbord of independent films (“The Man From Elysian Fields”), miniseries (“The Mists of Avalon,” which earned her a Golden Globe nomination), guest-starring roles ( “Scrubs” and “The Sopranos”), kitschy genre movies (“Snakes on a Plane”) and stage work in New York -- reads like it belongs to someone who is either feckless or fearless. Margulies hopes that people will see it as more of the latter, but, insists the 43-year-old, it’s much more planned out than it might initially appear.

“I love making money, but you can’t live your life waiting to get rich in a job that no longer feeds you artistically,” she says about her decision to leave the “E.R.” role that earned her five Emmy nominations and one win, as well as the backlash of an industry incensed that she would turn down such a payday. “I wanted to get home to New York and my family, and to be professionally fulfilled again. I’ve done so many independent movies I’m sure no one will ever see, but I’ve loved the work. Then I will go and make a miniseries and pay my mortgage, and then I’ll go and do a play, and then I’ll go and do ‘The Sopranos’ and pay my mortgage.

“Because that,” she says, “is how I want to live my life.”

If anything, Margulies is as self aware as she is determined. This is, after all, a woman who, after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, decided she would give acting a shot but just until she turned 25. If she didn’t hit it big by then, she was out of the game.

“I would have gone to law school, or gotten a psychology degree. I wasn’t interested in sleeping on a futon forever,” she says. “And what happened is I walked into auditions, and I had nothing to lose, because I had a backup plan.”

But there was no need for one. She landed a role in Steven Seagal’s 1991 movie “Out for Justice,” and not too long after that, was sharing the screen opposite George Clooney in “E.R.” And now, more than a decade later, she’s still a household name.

In the family drama “City Island,” Garcia plays Vinnie Rizzo, a prison guard who secretly yearns to be an actor, and Margulies is his mercurial wife, Joyce. The actress -- who, dressed in jeans and a sweater with her hair blown straight, is surprisingly delicate-looking in person -- was in no hurry to work when she first met with the film’s writer-director Raymond De Felitta. Four months earlier, she had given birth to her son, now 2, with attorney Keith Lieberthal, and had decided to take a yearlong hiatus.

But then Garcia, who played Margulies’ husband in “Elysian Fields” and is a producer on “Island,” called and said he was sending the script her way. “He said, ‘I need a wife again,’ ” Margulies remembers.

And fast. At a lunch with De Felitta, Margulies asked when filming started. De Felitta, who admits to being “panicked,” informed Margulies that another actress had dropped out, and filming was scheduled to begin only two days later. “Still, I sat across the table from her and thought, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ ” De Felitta says. “She is fierce and charming and confident and sexual, everything I wanted Joyce to be.”

By dessert, they had struck a deal. “I can tend to over-think things,” Margulies says. “So it was wonderful just to jump in.” It was exactly the kind of shoot that Margulies has reveled in since leaving “E.R.”: No time or money to speak of, and “everyone there simply because they loved the script,” she says of the cast, which includes Emily Mortimer, Alan Arkin, and Steven Strait: Ezra Miller and Dominik Garcia-Lorida (Garcia’s daughter) play her children.

“Our dressing rooms were in this little house . . . and it became a joke because we all shared one bathroom. It was like, ‘Andy, please don’t eat the beans,’ ” Margulies says. “It was so fulfilling that it didn’t matter that I would come home from night shoots just as my baby was getting up. My feeling is, so I’ll be tired for a while.”

Make that a good long while. With “The Good Wife” picked up for another season by CBS, Margulies finds herself regularly putting in 15 hours days on the Brooklyn set as Florrick, an attorney attempting to earn a living and negotiate her marriage.

“My mom is great though,” says Margulies, who led a peripatetic life living in France, England, and New York, thanks to what she affectionately deems “hippy” parents with wanderlust. “She’ll say, ‘Honey, how long can this go on for? If you’re lucky, three to four years. Then suddenly you won’t have a job and your kid will be sleeping until 10 am. Enjoy it now.’ ”

Judging from her smile, she is doing just that.

“I try to learn my lines for the next day on my lunch hour, because at night I’m generally too tired to focus. But I love playing Alicia, and I love being a mom, so I wouldn’t change any of that,” she says. “In the past, I’ve always been horribly competitive with myself, a real perfectionist. But these days, I’m not. I just feel . . . " she says, her voice trailing off for a moment, “I just feel that I’ve already won.”