Edie Falco: I took "The Sopranos" home with me

Edie Falco's "Nurse Jackie" is as complicated as Carmela, but she tells Salon she's much easier to leave on the set

Published April 14, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Edie Falco    (Reuters/Adrees Latif)
Edie Falco (Reuters/Adrees Latif)

I am rarely starstruck, but on Monday, I was admittedly nervous at the prospect of meeting four-time Emmy winner Edie Falco, star of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie," in an ABC dressing room, following her appearance on "The View." But my nervousness melted away the moment Falco entered the room, her now-brunette hair swept in a ponytail, strolling over to a chair in bare feet, a pair of heels in her hands — for as you might expect, she is as approachable as the women she portrays. Minus the Carmela Soprano nails. And the Jackie Peyton tough reserve.

At 49, Falco is busier than ever: In addition to promoting the season 5 premiere of "Nurse Jackie," which airs on Sunday, she's currently starring onstage off-Broadway in a new play titled "The Madrid," written by Liz Flahive (incidentally, one of the writers of "Nurse Jackie"). Like Jackie, the mother she portrays in the play, Martha, wants to flee from her life. But unlike Jackie, who relies on drugs and an affair as an escape, Martha literally runs away from her family, and no one, except her daughter, knows where she is or has any sense of why she left.

In this new season of "Nurse Jackie," Jackie is trudging through her first year of sobriety, experiencing, for the first time in years, what it's like to be wholly present — which means having to face the repercussions of her betrayals without a shield. Falco, who has two adopted children, talked with me about the responsibilities of motherhood both on TV and in real life; the way her sobriety informs the portrait of Jackie's struggle this season; and why she felt like she wasn't worthy of an Emmy for best actress in a comedy.

I don’t typically begin an interview by embarrassing my subject, but I have to tell you: You are truly one of my favorite actresses. I’ve seen you onstage many times, and I’ve watched “The Sopranos” more than I care to admit publicly. 

Oh, thank you. I loved it, I loved everything about it. The ups and downs of being with a group of people for 10 years.

I am still haunted by that fight between Carmela and Tony, after his Russian mistress called the house. I’ve just never seen anything so real and raw on TV or film or onstage. I felt like I’d walked in on something I shouldn’t have. It was so painful, I can’t even imagine what it was like to film.

Gandolfini. Every actor should be so lucky to work with someone like that, who is just so completely present and real. It is really like when you’re a little kid and you’re playing, you’re as lost as you’ll ever be in something. Every time I was working with Jim it felt like that. It didn’t feel like work, it was easy. As easy as a breakup scene could be. [laughs]

I was going to say.

But it doesn’t seem like work, or like people put work into scenes. The way it would happen if it was really happening.

My wife and I rewatched the series two summers ago, as we were waiting for our son to be born. We were doing an open adoption, and we needed something to suck us in, and distract ourselves from that nagging question: “Is this going to happen”?

Oy, all that.

I know you’ve adopted your two children. Did you do open adoption?


So, you know that at any point the birth mother can change her mind.

Which can happen with closed as well. But, yeah, that’s a nightmare. For me, it was like, until you’re actually holding the baby, it feels like the rug could be pulled out at any minute. How old is your son?

He’s 19 months old.

Oh my God, congratulations!

And you’re a single working mom with two kids. That’s not easy.

No, it’s not easy.

You’re able to work exclusively in New York?

I have to. At another time in my life, I would have said, “Well, that’s where the work is.” But now I stay here. I will stay here. And if it’s not here, I won’t. It’s been a convergence of a lot of tremendously good luck that I’ve been able to do this. I mean, who knows? Things would have unfolded differently I’m sure if I couldn’t. I adopted the kids when I knew I could afford to take care of them, which is why they’re now in my life — they’re now 8 years old and 5 years old.

You doing a show right now off Broadway, starring in “The Madrid.” I know it’s such a vastly different experience from working on television. Do you have a preference?

I don’t have a preference. I think I’ve been doing them in conjunction with each other for so long now that they feel like of a piece. It all feels like what I do for a living, and this is the chapter where it’s like this, and I will go straight from there into this and they definitely play off of each other. If I go too long without doing a play I really start to get antsy and miss it. And now as I’m nearing-ish the end of a run of a play, I’m like, “Oh God, I can’t wait to put this behind me and get back to little snippets of shooting.” They each feed different things, and I’m lucky I get to have them.

I love the theater, and I admire anyone who can endure that brutal eight-show-a-week schedule, reliving a person’s narrative arc night after night, sometimes twice in one day. I think I realized how taxing it could be when I saw Cynthia Nixon in “Wit” — I thought, “Wow, she has to get stage-4 cancer and die eight times a week.”

See, that’s where we differ, she and I, because I couldn’t have done that. I need a fair amount of distance before I can really have any objectivity on it. I’ve often said, I’m on 10 years behind my cancer, or it’s behind me, and I don’t really need to play anyone with cancer, maybe ever, but certainly not now. I’m proud of her — it’s amazing that she felt like she was able, ready, interested in doing that.

“The Madrid” is written by one of the writers from “Nurse Jackie.” What was that like?

I know [Liz Flahive] personally, and I’m quite fond of her. And I’ve always liked her writing on the show. I’ve been looking for a new play, because I kept doing these revivals that were coming at me. So I was looking at something new and she was writing something new. But she would never approach me about it. My manager is also executive producer of the show and he was always supporting her, like, “So how’s the play going?” and he happened to read it. And he was like, “You have to read Liz’s play,” like under the radar and that’s how that happened. I loved it and I wanted to do it.

“Nurse Jackie’s” Jackie Peyton and Martha in “The Madrid” share a cynicism about motherhood — you portray mothers who are both checked out, and we don’t really know why. Maybe it’s not quite fair to say that Jackie is cynical about motherhood because she is very devoted to her daughters — except to say that because she’s an addict, she’s opted out of being wholly present.

I think they’re both ill-equipped to deal with motherhood, is really what it is, so they’re always behind the eight-ball where it might come more easily to other people. I think neither of them has the tools to handle it in a way that is satisfactory or satisfying in any way.

We are five seasons into “Nurse Jackie” and we’ve never really been told why Jackie checked out of her marriage to Kevin, with her affair with Eddie, the pharmacist, and her hookup to drugs, just as we don’t know what motivates Martha in “The Madrid” to flee her marriage and her suburban life. That leaves you a lot of leeway as an actor to make those decisions, even if you don’t reveal them. There must be a back story that you have imagined.

I don’t really do one. It’s way more amorphous than that. It’s more like a feeling. As far as specifics, the writer can come up with that. But the feeling, because I know these women, you know, I’ve come across them in my travels. There are women who are not meant to be mothers and I think that on a lot of levels they have fallen into it because it was what was expected of them and it was easier to do that than to figure out what you’d really like to do. And by that time, you have a child and someone who depends on you for everything and I think there are women who realize, “This was never what I was supposed to be doing. I don’t know how this happened, and I don’t know that I can get out.” And some women do get out, some women check out, some women actually do leave. I think it’s an attempt to try and find out what their heart is telling them they should be doing as opposed to what they are doing. Also, who knows, it could be some traumatic event. I tend to go with the first one. My sister is a fantastic woman, and she has no desire to have kids. She’s living at a time when that’s OK. She’s like, “I dunno, it just doesn’t do it for me.” I get it.

That’s true, although I must say, the moment you speak of the intent or even the desire to have kids — and this is an experience I had, and one I’ve witnessed among my friends — seems to be interpreted as an invitation into your personal business. You get barraged with questions: “You pregnant yet?” or “What’s going on with the adoption?” Basically, every question you don’t want to be asked. These are such private matters, and you just want everyone to back off. And if you decide not to have kids, if you’re married or in a relationship, everyone judges you.

Yeah, they’re like, really, “What’s wrong with you?”

Without giving away any spoilers, I do want to ask: Where is Eve Best (Dr. Eleanor O’Hara)? She sat out most of the season.

Well, it was her choice. She lives in England and she was terribly homesick. She missed being in the theater, she missed her family and for a lot of personal reasons she really needed to be home. Which was not unlike what happened with Liz (Brixius) and Linda (Wallem), our two showrunners, who are from L.A. Their families are there, and it’s giant chunks of time you’re being asked every year to spend away from home. I don’t know, I couldn’t do it. I guess nobody expects a show to run for a while. They’re like, “Oh, I’ll do a couple of years, it’ll be fine,” and we’re into year six, and they’re like, “You know what? I can’t.”

So this is the first season with new showrunner Clyde Phillips, who had been the showrunner from “Dexter.” I was half-expecting more grisly E.R. scenes. Now that would have made for some interesting crossover drama — Dexter chasing a few victims from Miami to New York, and sends a few victims over to All Saints Hospital.

[Laughs] That’s right. That’s hysterical. I’m sure we’ll get there in time.

What was it like for you to have a new showrunner?

You know what? Clyde spent a lot of time with the writers upstairs so it felt no different to me except missing the personalities of Liz and Linda, who were always around. But every year — you know, I’ve been doing series for a long time — you come back and it’s the same overall amoeba shape: The little teeny pieces have changed, but overall the feeling stays the same, and that’s what I had.

It’s been interesting to watch the dissolution of the marriage between Jackie and Kevin — and the increasingly complicated relationship with Eddie, too. Paul Schulze (who plays Eddie) was on “The Sopranos” with you and played a kind of love interest, the flirty priest that Carmela has a crush on. At least Jackie finishes what Carmela started!

[Laughs] Paul’s one of my oldest friends in the world. We went to college together [at SUNY-Purchase]. So we were friends long before we worked together and we worked together far more than just “Sopranos” and “Jackie.” We worked onstage and we did “Homicide” together and “Oz” and tons of stuff.

Now Kevin — it’s been fascinating to see his whole persona change, from even-tempered, to all temper, all the time. Of course, that’s what happens when we discover betrayals as great as the ones Jackie’s committed and you realize you don’t know the person you’ve been married to all these years. The level of hurt is unparalleled. It’s changed the tone of the show.

It’s unfortunate. It’s as real as divorce is. Ugly and contentious and ultimately sad, I think.

Some years ago, I wrote a book about “Weeds,” and interviewed the actor Martin Donovan, who is close friends with Mary-Louise Parker. On the series, he played her husband, and their TV marriage takes a dark turn. And I remember he told me that it was incredibly challenging to be so mean to her, that it was really taxing, emotionally. What’s it like for you?

I don’t know, a very large percentage of me really is the character at the time, so I kind of fill that up pretty extensively with the behavior of the character, or maybe I’ve just been doing it a long time. I have such a hard time. [laughs]

You’ve been Jackie almost as long as you’ve been Carmela — it must feel like living with someone. Who’s easier to live with?

You know, I’m 10 years older — or more than that, way more than that — than when I played Carmela. So I’m a very different person and I don’t take it home so much. It has so much to do with my experience of being on the set, like being in the hospital and seeing all the people I work with and seeing the blue outfits. The experience is very much of a part, of being in the surroundings. And the same goes for “The Sopranos.” I’m in the kitchen and there’s my husband, and my kid comes down in her bathrobe, and so, when I go home, I’m in an apartment in New York City, and here are my real children. So I very much leave it behind. And there are fun things about being both of them — and less than fun things about being both of them, too.

Jackie’s daughter Grace is starting to enter a dark, rebellious period. As a TV mom, you’ve experienced some of these scenes with Meadow and AJ, that kind of acting out. Grace’s rebellion is more of a direct reaction to what her mother has put the family through.

Yes, I think it’s also puberty. I think it’s a combination of the things. She would be going through some version of this, regardless, but she has had a particular set of circumstances to deal with that maybe other kids don’t. It’s complicated and it’s easy for Jackie to take on a lot of guilt about that that maybe a regular parent might say, “I’m told this happens and I’ll deal with it like any parent,” so it’s another piece of the puzzle there.

Honestly, you couldn’t pay me to be 14 again.

No. They just seem awful. It’s good to remember that it's chemicals, for the most part it is about chemical reactions going on in the body and that whatever that is it is normal and part of growing up, but it’s hard not to take the words to heart.

Girls are —

They’re mean. I have a 5-year-old daughter. She scares the shit out of me because she’s so bright and she knows just how to get in there and get the attention she needs in the moment.

That terrifies me. I have to say, I was relieved when we had a boy.

[Whispers] So different. It’s just different. It’s not quite as personal, you know.

Jackie has two perfect comic foils in Zoey (Merritt Wever) and Thor (Stephen Wallem). Merritt Wever is really a comic genius. And you have to keep a straight face through it all, while she’s hugging Jackie, getting in her face. What’s it like to work with her?

I have to be so quiet about my fan-ness of her. I’m like the president of her fan club. You can hear the crew cracking up and I’m the only one who has to keep it together. There’s a lot of crap involved in being in this business but moments like getting to do scenes with Merritt, where all the rest of that shit just falls away and it’s completely worth it because she just brings a whole other thing. She’s not just funny. She really is as transformed as a person can ever be when she’s working. She’s responding with a whole other set of facial expressions that you don’t see on her when she’s just being Merritt. I can’t say enough good things about her.

And she rocks a kimono!

That fucking kimono!

Now, when you got the Emmy for best actress for comedy, you looked almost distressed. But the show is dramedy — it mines gallows humor, and Jackie is the very definition of droll.

“Nurse Jackie” is not a comedy the way “Will and Grace” was a comedy, or “30 Rock.” It’s the way it’s marketed, it’s the way it was sold. And I will get in a lot of trouble for saying this, and I always do get in trouble for saying this. Nonetheless, it is my truth. I’m thrilled. Thrilled, to have been awarded this, but we’re not in the same category, it’s just not fair. With someone like Tina Fey? What these people can do is stunning and it’s a whole different brand of work, of genre, and be that as it may, I think “The Sopranos” was also very funny, but it was a whole different type of show.

So this season, without getting too specific, I think I can say that Jackie has a lot of romantic possibilities, some more promising than others. As a breast cancer survivor, has it changed your comfort level doing sex scenes?

Nah. I don’t know why. I have pretty laid-back attitude about that stuff. There’s very little, across the board, there’s very little I’ve gone through that a lot of people haven’t gone through and I can hold onto it as like a secret and for some reason I don’t. There are a lot of things I do feel that way about, but that’s not one of them. Especially because so many women get cancer, you know, it’s a big club now, and so I don’t plan on being self-conscious about it if I can help it, in my private life as well. It’s just part of, the chapters keep changing and this is part of one I’m in now.

I find myself wondering about Jackie and Kevin: Can this marriage be saved? What do you think?

They never ask me for suggestions, nor do I have any. So I would not be surprised. I suppose anything could happen. As I read the script, I think, “Oh, look at that!” [Laughs]

Do you ever have a desire to weigh in on the writing?

My only thought was, as a sober person, I want all of that stuff to be portrayed accurately. The first year of sobriety is really fucking hard. And if you are staying on top of it — going to meetings, staying away from bars, whatever you have to do to make sure that you stay sober — if you aren’t doing those things, you do not get to keep it, end of story. It’s not a magic bullet, like all of a sudden I’m sober. You’ve got to stay on top of it. And I didn’t want this to be a TV show where, because there are people, real people, trying to get sober and they’re like six months in, and they’re like, “How come it’s not this easy for me? She’s got it so quick.” So I said my one requirement is, “Let’s be accurate about this. Do whatever you want within the realm of that,” but that’s the one requirement.

Before we wrap this up, I have to tell you this story: I went to see “’Night Mother,” which you starred in with Brenda Blethyn — brilliant production. And just before curtain, this guy sitting in front of me leaps up from his seat in a panic, and yelps, “This isn’t ‘Avenue Q’!” He realized he was in the wrong theater.

[Claps hands] Oh my God, that’s fucking hilarious. [Laughs] That is as wrong as you can get there, mister.  That is pretty fucking funny, pardon the expression.

It’s like discovering you’re on the wrong plane.

It’s like discovering you’re on the wrong planet.

By Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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