In an early season of The Sopranos, there’s a scene that changes everything. After years of watching her husband in therapy, Carmela has a session of her own. She’s thinking about divorce, she tells Dr. Krakower, and she spouts nervous psychobabble: She needs to “define her boundaries more clearly,” to prepare for child support. Krakower cuts her off.
She’s missing the point, he tells her. Her husband is a “depressed criminal” and she’s his accomplice. She needs to leave, take the children (“or what’s left of them”), and stop living off Tony’s “blood money.” Then he adds, “One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.”
It was a brief exchange that had nothing to do with the mob war, or Tony’s mother, or the FBI—and yet it felt like a skeleton key to the entire series. Through Krakower’s lens, Tony wasn’t a glamorous figure, a flawed but decent man with a grotesque job. He was an icy sociopath, smearing those around him with sin. The crisis was not psychological, it was moral. And Carmela was at the center of it all.
It is Edie Falco’s performance, of course, that has made Carmela Soprano such an iconic character, a figure of tremendous pathos and ambiguity. At the premiere of The Sopranos’ final season (the first episode airs April 8), at Radio City Music Hall, James Gandolfini gave a beautiful speech praising the show’s creator, David Chase. Then Falco took the mike to add five words: “I stand by my husband.” The audience screamed with laughter. Carmela may appear to be a loyal wife, but that’s just surface. At once a spiritual seeker and a spoiled parasite, she’s the woman who chose to walk back into the darkness and try to negotiate a better deal.
Falco herself is not interested in analyzing the character she plays—and certainly not in judging her. “I can’t be objective enough,” she tells me as we sit in a quiet back room at French Roast. “Having been in her shoes, literally, it really did make sense, the story line. However, if the writers had handed me a script where she went off as a restaurant entrepreneur, I would’ve said that made sense, too!” (She does acknowledge that Carmela’s standards differ from her own: “You don’t go back to that guy.”)
In a side-zipped sweater and clogs, her hair in a ponytail, the actress looks weary. She’s just finished posing for a photo shoot at Andres Serrano’s apartment, under the unnerving gaze of a naked wooden Christ hanging from the artist’s wall. And she’s been filming the show’s final episode, with each scene someone’s last. The mood on the set is “very heavy,” she says: “We are a surprisingly emotional bunch. Maybe we started that way, I don’t know.”
When she auditioned for Carmela, it was a long shot, she tells me. Back then, she was an unfamous actress in her thirties, with roles on TV shows like Oz and in the theater; she was making headway, but she was also typecast as “these hard-nosed attorneys, with the hair pulled back.” The Sopranos was a breakthrough, not least “because I knew how much I was going to make, which was, in my world, an astronomical sum.” Still, she’d done enough pilots—including a TV version of Fargo—to keep her hopes in check. She cashed the check and paid off her debts.
Then the show premiered. And almost immediately, Falco and her colleagues were press darlings. The show became HBO’s prize pig, with the Times practically devoting an entire beat to analyzing it. Falco’s colleagues—character actors, former wiseguys, and the subset where those categories overlap—began to populate the tabloids, their lives reflecting their characters. “Thank God, I was in my mid-thirties when this all started to happen,” Falco tells me. “Had this happened to me fifteen years ago, that would not be good. Bad, ugly things! Luckily, nobody cared. Nobody was taking pictures.”
She’s talking about the beginning of her career, those desperate days, when she was—from her rueful description—the world’s most bitter waitress. “I could handle a gazillion tables at once, but I was a monster. I was rude. They would ask about the specials, and I would say we didn’t have any.” Finally, she simply quit, determined to make her living acting. “I was living very meagerly. But there is something to be said for that leap of faith.”
Alcohol was the other major complicating factor. “Why did you get sober?” I ask. “I was drinking too much,” she deadpans and then elaborates, “I was drunk all the time! My life was an absolute mess, and I was hanging out with very scary and dangerous people and behaving in ways that I was horrified by. And after one particular night of debauchery, where I woke up—” she says, then pauses. “I won’t get into it. But I realized, Okay, I’m done. Next week, it will be fifteen years.”
I ask her if it’s been hard to be around such a hard-partying cast. “I don’t want to be everybody’s mother, but I’m worried that’s how I come across,” she says. “What it really does is, it makes me feel lonely. This cast in particular, they really love to hang out and party. They make it look like fun. And it was fun for me! They spend a lot more time without me than with me, by my own choice—I’m always invited, and I’m always there for two minutes and I leave, because I can’t live in that world anymore. It’s too dangerous.”
Her sober life has had its own dramas: She’s been treated for breast cancer and had a relationship with fellow SUNY–Purchase alumnus Stanley Tucci, who was married at the time. Two years ago, she adopted a son, Anderson—an experience she calls “nothing but spectacular.” And as The Sopranos bows, she hopes that she’ll be able to hover in that peaceful zone of celebrity: just famous enough to have real options. Not being Carmela may even have its advantages. “No more scary hands!” she says gleefully, meaning those shiny Jersey claws, which she used to wear 24 hours a day—until she found a way to detach herself when she needed to. “Now I just clip them off at the end of the day.”