''Hey, you're George Clooney's girlfriend!'' Even the guy helping fuel Julianna Margulies' double-espresso habit at a Manhattan Dean & Deluca is fixated on ER's Nurse Carol Hathaway. But Margulies just smiles and shrugs it off.
What else can she do? It's not as if the 39-year-old actress, who has now been off ER for as long as she was on it, can shake Carol Hathaway, a character who simply refuses to die. The nurse was killed off in the pilot, only to be resurrected thanks to her chemistry with Clooney's Dr. Doug Ross and live life in eternal syndication. But now, after being obscured by her screen alter ego for half a dozen years, Margulies is finally stepping out of Hathaway's shadow. In addition to appearing in a handful of indie films, the actress has been costarring on stage as an emotionally blocked academic in the Broadway drama Festen and is opening eyes as a seductive Realtor in HBO's The Sopranos. Then, in August, she'll take flight in the campy action thriller Snakes on a Plane, already a cult phenomenon. Call it a return in several acts, each somewhat surprising.
In fact, the newly energized Margulies seems willing to entertain any role—provided it's not another Hathaway. ''I was burnt-out,'' she explains of her decision to leave ER at the height of its success. ''I so loved that character, and I didn't want to leave hating her.'' So Margulies retreated to New York and a quieter life. ''I like taking the subway, I like going grocery shopping,'' she confesses. ''Fame was never the goal.''
If walking away from TV's No. 1 drama didn't prove that, her choices since certainly have. The few projects she's taken have ranged from TNT's The Mists of Avalon to...TNT's The Grid, with the forgettable Ghost Ship somewhere in between. ''I know it sounds corny, but I have no regrets,'' she maintains. The way Margulies sees it, she ''got paid to ride horses with Anjelica Huston and Joan Allen!'' in The Mists of Avalon, had a chance to give Mick Jagger acting lessons while filming The Man From Elysian Fields, and developed an addiction to hard news while making The Grid, a 2004 miniseries on counterterrorism (''I didn't really have much interest in reading The New York Times before that'').
Not surprisingly, then, Margulies says she picks her roles for the ''experience.'' In The Darwin Awards, which premiered at Sundance this year, she was excited to slip into a British persona. ''I wanted to be unrecognizable,'' Margulies says of her transformation and accent. ''My agent didn't even know it was me on screen until the end credits.'' Perhaps, but such performances have always been recognized by her peers. ''There's a side of Julianna that people don't know from ER, which is smoldering sexuality and comedy,'' says Chad Lowe, who guest-starred with Margulies on ER and directed her in the upcoming indie film Beautiful Ohio. ''She's every bit the presence that George is.''
That may just be starting to dawn on Margulies. Asked about joining the ensemble piece Festen, she says, ''I felt like I was ready to be on Broadway.'' Her performance as an anthropologist who doesn't understand the behavior of her own family received generally good notices after opening in April (its run ended May 20), and she was invigorated by performing eight times a week, walking to work each day from her home in SoHo.