Six years ago, Julianna Margulies left the cast of ER, the television show that turned her into a star. But despite all that time since and projects as varied as a horror film set at sea (Ghost Ship) and an edge-of-the-seat miniseries (The Grid), Margulies still felt she hadn't sufficiently distanced herself from her role as nurse Carol Hathaway, love interest for George Clooney's Doug Ross. All that finally changed earlier this year, with a recurring role on The Sopranos. Margulies plays a savvy real estate agent entranced by mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). She comes across as smart and self-possessed - until it's discovered that she has a drug problem. The character is impeccably played, reaffirming Margulies' reputation as a substantial actress. The 40-year-old says that she finally realised she had disassociated herself from ER when she walked down the red carpet at the Tony awards. 'And then it hit me, that there wasn't one question about George Clooney or ER,' Margulies says. 'It was all about The Sopranos - all of it. I finally broke out of the nurse role. Now, it's amazing, because of all of the scripts I get, I'm like, I should have played her sooner.' Margulies, who was born in Spring Valley near New York and now spends most of her time in Manhattan, says she had been busy 'trying right, left and centre' to find other characters since she left ER. 'Not to get away from her - I appreciate what that role did for me,' Margulies says. 'But I'm made of different colours, too. I left that show for a reason.' A lack of financial reward wasn't one of them. Margulies was offered US$27 million to renew her contract. She became one of the major characters in the show - the only primary character who wasn't a doctor. Having signed on as an extra, the audience response was so overwhelming that she was written in. The role certainly stretched her acting abilities. During her time at ER, her character attempted suicide, faced financial ruin, was left at the altar, walked out of a relationship with a psychotic depressive and, finally, found comfort - and twin baby girls - with Clooney's character. It was an ongoing saga that gripped viewers worldwide for years. After Margulies left ER, she worked constantly. But she says that few experiences have come close to The Sopranos. 'It was heaven,' she says. 'I called [series' creator] David Chase after I read the script and the arc of my character, and thanked him because no one had written for me this complicated, complex character. I didn't want to make her a victim. I didn't want to make her too sympathetic. I wanted to make her as real and as understanding of what she was going through as possible, without hitting it on the head too hard. I was thrilled, and to work with those actors and to be home in New York and do it. It was one of the best experiences of my life.' That the programme aired on cable and not network added to the experience. 'The truth is, the TV I'm used to doing had certain rules, and with The Sopranos there are no executives anywhere. They left them to do their art and their craft and they let them do it well.' The series had its season finale in the US a few months ago, and will return again next year. '[The people behind The Sopranos] are so good at what they do that I never questioned anything,' Margulies says. 'I just had to worry about the acting. To be able to just let go and do your art and let them worry about everything else and trust that - I just feel like it was a blessing.' Margulies brings a thought-fulness to her work that comes from a cultured upbringing. Her mother was a dancer with the American Ballet, and her father was an advertising writer. She went to high school in New Hampshire, but before that lived in England and Paris with her family. She graduated with a degree in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College, where she appeared in several campus productions, and later worked in regional theatre productions. She has just finished a stint on Broadway in Festen, and stars with Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane. 'I feel incredibly blessed because I really love all three mediums,' Margulies says. 'I love television because I think it celebrates women in a beautiful way. I love independent films for the most part because those are the more challenging roles written for women. Mini-series are the best for me because I go in for three months - that's where I get paid well - and it's right for you and they find great actors and they have greater respect for the actresses they can get.' She says she's open to returning to television, but says ER and The Sopranos set the bar so high it would be hard to match. And she says she's probably better off with cable, given network television's requirements of 22 episodes per season, versus cable's 10 or 12. 'The opportunity has come up a lot lately [to return to a television series] and I would never say never. But I love my freedom so much. I love the freedom of saying, 'I don't know what I'm doing in December, let me see the script'.'