This Thing of Hers

Photo: Rennio Maifredi

After bounding into Tribeca’s Peace & Love café on the kind of raw, misty May morning that has come to be classifiable as spring in New York City, Edie Falco drops down into a banquette seat and yanks off a rain hat to reveal a shock of close-shorn blonde locks wrangled into a black bandeau. Apparently, she’s decided to keep the tomboy cut of her latest show, Nurse Jackie, which debuts on Showtime June 8. Or maybe not.

“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!” she says. “I had been beholden to that other show for ten years—with all that pushing and pulling and spraying and teasing. It’s nice to do whatever I wanted.”

Ah, yes, That Other Show. A full two years after The Sopranos checked out, you can no more avoid reflecting on it with Falco than you can debating torture with Dick Cheney. For a lot of people, she will always be Carmela Soprano. Indeed, while some women have to contend with catcalls as they pass construction sites, Falco, 45, continues to be bombarded with gripes about David Chase’s confounding fade-to-black ending to the series. “‘Do you know what that last episode was about?!’” she says, mimicking a hard-hat patois. “They’re still not done with that!”

Then again, she isn’t either. She attended the opening night of God of Carnage, the Broadway Tony-magnet starring the erstwhile Ralph to her Alice, James Gandolfini, and admits to some uneasiness watching him with stage spouse Marcia Gay Harden. “It will never feel normal to see him hugging and kissing and all that,” she says. “And he’s got a real-life wife, who is a beautiful woman! But it’s still, ‘Hmm, look at that;…’”

Moving on professionally has been harder than she’d expected. Considering The Sopranos’ outsize impact—and the three Emmys, two Golden Globes, and five SAG Awards she earned—Falco was taken aback by the slim pickings offered after the show’s final wrap. “I found out that whatever clout I have in the TV world did not translate to film,” she says. Most of the parts on offer were “a lot of wives or the quirky friend. I was like, ‘Really?’”

She continues to be bombarded with gripes about the ending of ‘The Sopranos.’ “They’re still not done with it!”

“She once called The Sopranos ‘eight years of a confidence IV drip,’” notes Falco’s longtime friend, Eric Mendelsohn (they met in college at SUNY Purchase, and he directed her in the 1999 indie film Judy Berlin). At the same time, he believes she was “unnerved” by the show’s success and that its conclusion left her in a place that was truer to who she is. “She told me, ‘I’m better at being an underdog … I’ve got to struggle, I’ve got to prove myself.’”

She got her wish late in 2007, when she took the sitcom plunge in a four-episode arc of 30 Rock as the squeeze of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). Early on, she recalls, “Alec said to me, ‘Everything you’ve always taught yourself not to do as an actor because it’s bad acting, do it here.’” And though the sight of Baldwin, a fellow film vet, going through the form’s setup–punch line–mugging paces was “like watching someone play a Stradivarius,” Falco found herself at sea. “It’s not a muscle I have,” she admits.

She realized she prefers her humor black and situational, her parts weighty enough to resonate with her after she leaves the set. By that standard, Nurse Jackie splits the difference between pay-cable drama and network yukfest. And, clout-related disappointments aside, she says, “I’m a very ritualistic, routine-oriented person, and I discovered over the years that I love working Monday through Friday. It’s almost like having a real job, which is kind of more what I’m cut out for. Unfortunately, I happen to love this acting thing.”

Falco in the first episode of Nurse Jackie.Photo: Ken Regan/Courtesy of Showtime

It’s a no-frills, working-class aesthetic that informs her best parts—like her three-season stint as a corrections officer in HBO’s Oz, or her current role as Jackie Peyton, a committed if weary nurse in a New York City hospital. Falco passed on the original Nurse Jackie pilot, when it had a supernatural bent. Her manager, Richie Jackson, liked the hospital idea, so Showtime recruited writer-producer Liz Brixius and sitcom vet Linda Wallem (The Comeback, Cybill) to rework the script. Brixius and Wallem resolved to make Jackie less M. Night Shyamalan and more Paddy Chayefsky, specifically aspiring to the latter’s poison-penned institutional satires The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976). “In both films, there’s a crumbling, monolithic business and a wise, slightly unhinged character at its center,” says Brixius. “And that’s Edie, at the center of a crumbling health-care system, where poignancy, humor, and absurdity live.”

Not to mention good old premium-cable anti-heroism. If Falco’s new gig has her leaving behind Carmela Soprano’s capo di tutti capi and Roche-Bobois furnishings to portray an overworked cog in the medical-industrial complex, it also keeps (a)morality at the center of things and her character in the grip of something larger—where once it was the family (and the Family), now it’s an addiction to prescription painkillers.

That dark master leaves Jackie just corrupt enough not only to break hospital protocol—and, occasionally, the law—in the name of helping a patient but also to engage in daily adulterous hookups with the in-house pharmacist (Sopranos alum Paul Schulze). Falco, Brixius, and Wallem are all 12-steppers with double-digit years in recovery. The three tapped into the memory of their “active” years, which is why Jackie’s experience mirrors Falco’s own—in “how a teeny part of your brain is telling you ‘I’m going to have to deal with this one day,’ but not even enough to form that sentence. It just sort of looms.” Falco loved the process of creating her character. “There was something about the energy of three sober women sitting in a room together,” she says, “like, Holy shit, look at us, all these years later.

In late 2004, she adopted her first child as a single mother: Anderson, now age 4. Last year, she adopted Macy, who is 1. “I don’t know if it comes across,” says Mendelsohn, “but Edie is an intensely rigorous person. She sets very strict demands for herself. But she’s so unbelievably carefree and playful when it comes to the children, and even luxuriates in giving them allowances she doesn’t give herself.”

The word Falco uses to describe her new life is surprise. She recounts a scene from that morning. “I can’t get Anderson to sleep in his bed,” she says. “So I put a mattress on the floor in my room. Then I got Macy up and gave her a bottle, and I sat there looking out my window at the trees and thought, This is me and my family. I don’t know; I’ve never been this happy.”

This Thing of Hers