Edie Falco on playing a good cop, resistance to change, and Giuliani's love for "Sopranos"

The Emmy winner appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss her new CBS police drama "Tommy" and the issues it tackles

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 5, 2020 5:59PM (EST)

Edie Falco ("Salon Talks")
Edie Falco ("Salon Talks")

"The Sopranos" and "Nurse Jackie" star Edie Falco is back on TV in the new CBS drama "Tommy," playing Abigail "Tommy" Thomas, a former high-ranking NYPD officer who becomes the first female chief of police for Los Angeles. Tommy's gender isn't the only thing that separates her from traditional police chiefs— she's kind, caring, interested in community building and working to change the stigma associated with policing. But can she?

Falco stopped by "Salon Talks" to discuss the role with me and why she wanted to try her hand at playing a character who might be intrinsically good. "It just feels like a time when we might need to believe in somebody," Falco said. 

While the show doesn't aim to be political, it is airing on the heels of America's peak frustration with police. Black people from predominately black cities and neighborhoods like myself have been talking about the racism within police departments for years. A string of police killings, sparked by Eric Garner's and Michael Brown's deaths in 2014, finally made the world pay attention.

Falco, who clearly understands these issues, has the difficult task of highlighting the good and bad, on a human level, around our national conversation on policing. "Tommy" shows the push and pull between not selling the "all cops are heroes" narrative and highlighting situations where cops are good and help people. Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Falco here, or read a transcript of our conversation below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length

We're in a time where being a police officer is not the most popular job, but at the same time, your character Tommy, who is the incoming Los Angeles police chief, is different. Where did the project start for you?

I really liked the script. I liked the character. I liked the world that she was living in, and the writing was really good.

The show tackles some serious issues: immigration, women in power, #MeToo, and different things going on in society at large right now. Was there something you wanted to tackle?

I'm living in the same world that everybody is, so there are so many issues and throughout the course of the 13 episodes that we have in the first season, we get to a great number of them. They're all of concern to me. I'm a citizen of this country, and I am a mother, and these are things that I think about in my real life. We started to get to sort of crack the surface of a good number of these things. So far, we haven't come anywhere near running out of stuff to attack.

Does Tommy personally resonate with you?

She kind of does, yeah. She's bossy, and so am I. She's good at what she does. She shows up, and she's prepared. She knows how to do what she does. I think she has a fair amount of confidence that she knows what she's doing. With some of that, she's ahead of me. These are things I aspire to, which might be one of the reasons I enjoy playing characters like her.

Sometimes having a ton of confidence can lead to you getting in over your head. Like the first episode, Tommy's almost ready to adopt a child who is in LAPD custody.

Like any new job, there's going to be a period of trial and error. She needs to find out what she can handle on her own, what she needs to kind of job out to someone else who she can trust to handle stuff, who she should stay away from. It's the kind of stuff you get to know when you've been working in a particular environment for a period of time. But she's brand new – brand new to the city and brand new to the job. So yeah, she's going to do a little bit of faltering.

The show also does a good job of highlighting the pressures that Tommy faces as a woman in her chief role. Nobody's going to expect a guy to say, "I'm going to take this kid home." But you expect Tommy to do something like that. Is she responding to that type of pressure, or is that just Tommy as a person?

I think that's Tommy. I think that's just who she is. Her dad was a cop, and she's been around cops. She may just look at that as the authority that a cop has. I don't think she plays a lot into that, you know, "I'm a woman in a man's world" thing. That may be more an outsider's viewpoint of what's happening here. She steps into a job she knows that she's capable of, that she knows she can do a good job at. And other people's perceptions of that, it's about them. You know what I mean? She's like, "This is odd. This is my job. I was hired to do this job. If you have a problem with it, you're probably going to have to spend some time dealing with it."

Police officers are getting hammered in the media right now for doing goofy, irresponsible things, and a lot of people have problems with them. On the other side of things, in one episode Tommy steps in and saves a young woman from ICE. Can you talk about the push and pull that exists within the show around the decisions officers make? Because I think it's a great way of showing that when it comes to policing, everything isn't black and white.

That's the thing. I am very glad that we are not presenting things from a political standpoint. I think we really are coming at them from a right and wrong place. Beyond those, we're not putting any labels on them. The thing I like about the character that I'm playing is, she really has a very strong, solid moral compass. She really is about doing the right thing, and she doesn't feel to me like she's even encouraged or tempted to move in a direction that isn't, according to her, her right and wrong meter.

We also find out that it's not as easy as it looks to do the right thing. There are all kinds of other variables, other people you have to deal with. There are good cops and there are cops that are maybe not so good in the world and certainly in our country. I think we get ourselves into trouble if we try to paint them all as one way or another. I think she's there to make sure.

That's what we've been doing so long.

Of course. I think what she's there to do is to make sure that, on her watch, we're doing the right thing, because that's what the law enforcement is supposed to be doing. She knows that she's going into a precinct that has been in existence long before she got there. There's a way that they're used to doing things, like the old order. She's going to have to find out what exactly that entails, who's beholden to whom and who she's going to get pushback from. To some extent, a lot of the first season is about her trying to suss out who's doing what and who's going to give her a harder time when it comes to doing what she thinks is right.

Do you think there's potential for Tommy to change how people look at the department?

I think she's different. She's different on a lot of fronts and there is no way the department won't change as a result. She's either going to change it or she's going to move on, because she is who she is. She's not going to suddenly start taking bribes. I think she really is pretty committed to this line of work being about justice. The city of Los Angeles is going to fall in line with that type of policing or she'll probably move on.

People are going to be able to see how complex being a police officer really is.

I hope beyond hope. Anybody working on maybe any media or telling a story about something that people know about and they have preconceived notions about, all you can hope as an actor is that maybe it'll shift people's ideas a little bit. It doesn't always happen that way. I can only hope, especially at this point in our country, in our culture, that people can believe that the people in charge are really looking out for the populace. I, myself, have really been terribly disappointed that that does not seem to be the case right now. 

The people in charge, they really got to do the right thing, and you got to believe that no matter how hard it is, they will do the right thing, because that's what they have been entrusted to do. And I like this idea that Tommy is that person, and she can't help it. She does the right thing because it's who she is. Who doesn't want to feel that's the person who's got your back?

Artists are doing a better job at highlighting these issues and bringing about change than the people who we actually elect. 

There's something to that. There's something to, "if you imagine it, you can be it." You know what I mean? So, seeing a female police chief on television, people might be more like, "How come we don't have a female police chief?" Or whatever, you know what I mean? It's like, you kind of have to see it in your imagination or in someone else's imagination before you're able to enlist it in your real life. There might be something to that. Also, we're a very media-driven culture, so yes, I'm happy to take that charge and move us into a better day.

Some of the roles that you've played in the past have done a great job at just shining light on how complex people are, how everybody is just not one thing, and how we need to embrace those complexities that we all have if we want to move forward. For you, is that a responsibility of being an artist?

Cultures' appetites change. It seemed like when "Sopranos" started, you wouldn't think that a guy who was so bad would have so many people who cared about him. I think it's because they saw that he's complicated. He has good stuff and bad stuff, and not that I would promote anyone going out and killing someone for a living, but that people are complicated. They have all kinds of stuff in them, and that seemed to have kind of taken hold. All these sort of antihero types that are running shows now that are the title characters of shows had been complicated. I, for one, was pleased to take the mantle for a show about someone who might be intrinsically good. It just feels like a time when we might need to believe in somebody. She's complicated also, but they are less dangerous, her complications.

Look how many things had to go wrong for her to even get the position. The old police chief had to be caught up in a scandal. The mayor had to be forced to hire a woman. That was the language. This is where we're at right now.

That's right. Well, change is hard. People don't like to change in general, and some factions of people hate it beyond all other things; so sometimes you really kind of have to be pushed into it and then you realize, "Oh, all right, we're okay, we're good." It's just people, they'll go with the familiar because that's what feels safe. Change is hard to come by, and sometimes it's a little harder than others.

Tommy is so different from your roles on shows like "The Sopranos" and "Nurse Jackie." How did you prepare for the role? 

Well, I know the answer I'm supposed to give, but I've decided that honesty is the best policy, so I didn't prepare anything. I kind of did. I learned my lines and then I said them. 

No ride-along, no FaceTiming Giuliani?

Giuliani used to love "Sopranos," and he was like a part of our lives for a long time. It was a long time ago. That's all I'm going to say . . .  But no, acting is about the relationships, like – Who does she know in her precinct? And what's her love life like? And how is she with her kids and the general public? That, to me, is what takes more of my inner life when preparing a character. 

When I'm reading opposite another fantastic actor – and we have so many of them on this show – that's when the series comes to life. Like, who is this person? As far as the actual policing is concerned, we had consultants on set all the time to make sure that we knew how to salute, and the gun goes over here on the belt. All that stuff is very important. But I think we're talking more about who she is to the people around her.

Tommy's constantly being tested and pushed and pulled in different situations where you get to see how she responds. That makes her pop, too.

That's right. I think she's used to confrontation to some extent. It's a part of her job. But again, I think it comes from a pretty solid confidence in her ability to do her job. I think she knows what she's doing, and people are going to push. And the question is, how do you react to it? What is your response to that? And I think that has a lot to do with how things move forward. I don't think she lets a lot of that stuff shake her, within her line of work. I personally think she's probably more shaken by dealing with her daughter. Some of her more personal relationships, she seems to falter a little more. But as far as the push and pull from the cop stuff, she's all right.

It's so timely, especially with the climate that we're living in right now. It made me think back to how much I enjoyed "Nurse Jackie," which I think was ahead of its time when you look at the opioid crisis today. You guys were ahead of the curve in just showing how a person could easily be caught up in that type of addiction.

It's so easy. It's so easily accessible, and it's the people sometimes that you least expect that are caught up in this addiction thing. These things are prescribed like candy often times. I think we're finally, hopefully, one can pray, it's reached its peak and there's enough awareness now that people are being more careful about it. But it's everywhere. It's legal. You don't have to go to any dark place to get oxycodone. You could tell somebody, "I have a backache." So yes, it's a real scary thing. And here she was, a woman with a very, very important job dealing with other people's life and death circumstances, and oftentimes on drugs herself. She had become somewhat of a functional addict, which are sometimes the scariest types.

Do you feel like that show is being worked into the conversation in your travels? Do people talk about that?

I don't know. They talk about it just in terms of it being the last thing a lot of people saw me do, so sometimes in interviews like this, people will bring it up. But as far as part of the national conversation, I don't know. I would love to think that it is.

Because it humanizes it. It's easy to say, "Oh, this many people died, and this many people did this, and this many people did that." It's easy, but when you see Jackie trying to hold together her job and her family and her personal life and trying to heal, and how a person can be so delicate and fragile. It makes it real.

Of course. Like they say in these 12-step programs, anything you put in front of dealing with your addiction, you're going to lose. If you don't make it the first and foremost thing in your life, if you're an addict, then you will go back out, you will end up back on drugs or alcohol. It's something that has always got to be your center of attention. And you see, Jackie was juggling all kinds of craziness. She'd try to go to a meeting if she could, but it certainly was not the center of her brain. It doesn't always turn out well when that's the case.

It changed the conversation. Thank you for that.

Oh, thank you for that. I appreciate it.

In terms of being able to see a character's full arc, as an actor, do you prefer to live in a role for a long time on a TV series, and how does staying with a role shape your craft?

Interesting. Interesting question. I happen to love series, but I love it for a more mundane reason. I like to work, I like to be busy and I like to know I have a job for a while, like a steady work thing, Monday to Friday. Weekends, I'm home. It feels almost like what I imagine a real person would feel like. So, from an outside point of view, I do like series television. But there are definitely advantages from an acting standpoint about playing the same character over and over again, that you're not having to rediscover her every week. You kind of know who she is in certain circumstances, but they can throw different stuff at you.

Like who is she when this kind of thing happens, or how would she handle this crisis? The challenges are really fun, but you have a boundary within which to play. It's sort of the idea of who this woman is and who these people are in her life. And again, from a more nuts and bolts point of view, you work with a crew that you know and love. So, I go to work every day, "Hi, good morning." You know people's names. That matters to me. It's a weird line of work for someone like me to have chosen, because I like the continuity of getting to know a group of people and who you can trust and who you like, who you have jokes with.

It seems like it gives your character a chance to grow as well.

For sure.

You get a chance to see her fully fleshed out.

That's right. And certainly, Tommy starts out and she's new to LA, and as time goes on, she's starting to find out where her coffee place is and where's the dry cleaners, and all that stuff, which is how you find your way in a new city.

Who is Tommy going to vote for in the presidential election? Not Edie, but Tommy. 

Listen, I won't speak for her unless you pay me . . . [Laughs] No, I think what I liked about this show is that it wasn't a political thing, that they showed these issues with all its different colors without labeling it blue or red. Because as soon as you do that, half the country is out. They're out the door. If you can keep people able to kind of stretch their ideas of how they feel about things without having to label them a certain way, I think that may be our way out of this crisis that we're in as a country right now.

I hope we can move past that point.

We have no choice. Where else can we go?

It's not productive.

It's not at all. It's not at all, and it hurts physically. Yeah. Anyway, don't get me started.

"Tommy," starring Edie Falco, premieres Thursday, Feb. 6 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS and CBS All Access.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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