Edie Falco has a cold. Actually, it's more like a sinus infection, one that's been plaguing her for weeks now, and so she enters the roof-top restaurant at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills apologizing if the medication has made her a little dingy.
It hasn't, of course, or at least not in a way that's noticeable. "Dingy" is certainly not a word associated with Falco, who has famously taken on roles often dismissed into caricature. Fifteen years ago, it was Carmela Soprano, who, between David Chase's scripts and Falco's radiant humanity, blew apart the conventional image of the mobster's wife. More recently, it's been Jackie Peyton, super nurse and basket case, whose work-family juggling act is fueled by all manner of pharmaceuticals.
Falco's in Los Angeles doing press for Showtime's "Nurse Jackie," now midway through its sixth season, so she knows her way around posh hotel interviews and photo shoots. She had to miss Mother's Day with her two children, who are back in New York, but it's all part of the job, and as she says, she's a good employee. Which is quite telling for a multiple-Emmy winner who has been such a big part of the increasingly mythologized prestige drama. From the moment she sits down, she radiates a personal comfort level that recognizes the line between frank conversation and intimacy but is not cowed by it. At 50, Falco is, as my grandmother would say, a good kitchen-table talker.
She is also a remarkable actor. For five years Falco has taken the unlikely, and easily unlikable, character created by Liz Brixius, Linda Wallem and Evan Dunsky and turned her into a fascinating portrait of human contradiction: loving but self-obsessed, competent but deluded, nurturing but ultimately destructive. In this case, a classic drug addict.
Television is riddled with drunks and druggies in various stages of secrecy and sobriety; Jackie may be high-functioning in that she remains thus far a very good nurse, but "House" had a similar conceit. What "House" didn't have was a drug-addict lead character who was also a wife and mother.
Although strong female characters have increased in recent years, prestige television still leans heavily on certain hard-boiled characteristics — violence, promiscuity, mendacity — that are far less acceptable in a female lead. But from "Weeds" to "Orange Is the New Black," a new form of dark comedy has emerged to explore the female version of the broken hero.
None do it better than "Nurse Jackie," which is so unrelentingly honest that it can be difficult to watch. While the first couple of seasons played like a tense black satire of the multitasking mom — how does she do it? By snorting uppers! — last season saw Jackie go through rehab, only to blow it in the finale. This season, she appears to be closer to facing her problems, but if viewers want some pink-cloud recovery for Jackie, they'll have to go through Falco first.
"I was so glad she slipped," Falco says, referring to Jackie's return to drugs. "She doesn't go to enough meetings, and I don't want it to end pretty for her unless she does the ... work. Addiction lasts a lifetime, and I know a lot of people who do not get it," she adds, referring to recovery, "the first, second or third time around."
As a recovering alcoholic herself, Falco feels a sense of responsibility in portraying Jackie's journey toward sobriety, but that isn't why she took the role. "Addiction wasn't a big part of [the character] at first," she says. "I had some resistance to the idea. Addiction has been such a big part of my life, and the lives of people I know. I didn't want it treated in a lighthearted way."
She signed onto "Nurse Jackie" because it was the first thing she saw that was truly different from "The Sopranos." "I really did think for a while there that I was done," she says. "I kept getting sent a lot of Italian wives — people are not terribly creative sometimes — and what I liked about Jackie was that her struggle was so internal."
Also, she was the main character. "This was a story with a woman at the center. It was about her, as a person, not necessarily as a wife or a mother or even a nurse."
Indeed, in its early years, "Nurse Jackie" was one of the few shows on television that revolved around a woman. That observation seems to take Falco by surprise. "I don't have a plan," she says, laughing. "I'm not a champion. I do see a lot more women writing in television, especially on 'Nurse Jackie,' and yes, 'The Sopranos' was a bit of a boys club.
"But I've always been hard to cast, I've never been an ingenue, I've never been the romantic lead. I'm an actor; give me the script and I do what I do and hope it's good."
Just as no one could accuse Falco of being "dingy," no one would characterize "Nurse Jackie" as being lighthearted. Certainly, there are hilarious moments, many suppled by the outstanding supporting cast that includes Merritt Wever and Anna Deavere Smith, but many, including Falco, have had a hard time with the "comedy" label; her acceptance speech for her 2010 Emmy for lead actress in a comedy included the perplexed admission that "I'm not funny."
Comedy, drama or dramedy, "Nurse Jackie" is essentially a clear-eyed exploration of dishonesty. Jackie may be a good nurse, but she's an even better liar. And with her big, blue eyes and quick, frank tone, Falco makes her one of the most convincing, infuriating and sympathetic liars on television. Yes, Jackie's many acts of real kindness in the emergency room go a long way toward balancing the destruction of her marriage and her flawed-to-terrible parenting, but it's difficult to imagine another performer who could create such a sturdy axle of self-delusion and remorse to turn the spinning madness of addiction.
"That I learned from Jim," she says simply, Jim being her former "Sopranos" costar James Gandolfini. "He would do these scenes in which Tony would just lie and lie and still be so human. And that's the thing here. Addicts are such wonderful liars."
Offered condolences on the death of her friend, Falco matter-of-factly acknowledges how terrible the loss was and still is.
"It's still not quite real, you know?" she says. "It's a year, but we had such long hiatuses on the show; we would go a year in between seasons and not see each other. I still keep thinking he'll just walk up to me somewhere, like here." She gestures to the patio entrance. "Just there he'll be."
It's odd, though it shouldn't be, to hear Falco talk about "Jim" and those years on such a fabled show without some sort of dramatic pause, possibly filled with soaring strings. But just as Falco rejects any attempts to make her an emblem of women's return to television, she also laughs at any attempts to lift a conversation about "The Sopranos" into the ether of artistic evolution.
"Oh, we had no idea," she says. "I mean, we knew the show was good, the scripts were good, but it was such a roller coaster, and you don't have a bird's-eye view. We never knew if we were going to get picked up or come back. All I knew was I kept playing my part and getting my checks. Jim was the same. We'd come back for the next season and he'd say, 'I don't know what I did. Let's just keep doing what we're doing and hope it still works.'"
She's glad "The Sopranos" ended when it did, with people wanting more, though she says that she cried "like a baby" at the final table read. And she hopes "Nurse Jackie" ends under similar circumstances. "I don't think it has a built-in ending," she says. "Addiction is something that goes on for a lifetime. The story just needs to stay honest."
The schedule has also worked out well in her personal life. "Nurse Jackie" is shot in New York, not far from where "The Sopranos" was made. Twelve episodes take about 31/2 months to shoot, and though her children are often on set, she recently decided to actually take a hiatus, which she very much enjoyed. "I've always done something," she says. "But this past year, I didn't. I read books, I went to plays. I live in New York, and I never go to the theater.
"I am obsessed with 'Downton Abbey,'" she says. "And it's terrible because over the years, I've met all these people at events and I had no idea who they were, and now I'm like 'Oh, my God, that was Lady Mary!'"
The suggestion that she is probably in the position to guest on some of her favorite shows takes her aback. "Well, I did have a thought about 'Downton,'" she admits, sheepishly. "But who would I play? Maybe Shirley MacLaine's niece? I don't know. I like having them separate, somehow, in their period clothes, in another world."
Her phone chirps to remind her to take her sinus medication. She ignores it. It might make her dingy, and Edie Falco still has work to do.