Not Your Ordinary Mafia Wife

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's always dangerous to confuse actors with their roles, but Edie Falco does share certain qualities with Carmela Soprano, the suburban Mafia wife she plays so expertly on HBO's "The Sopranos." Like Carmela, Falco is forthright and unimpressed. Especially about her newfound semi-celebrity.

"In the last year the amount of notoriety I've been getting is quite a transition to make," Falco says over pasta in a West Village dive. "I'm not as afraid of it as I once was, but it's still a little alarming."

Apparently she prefers anonymity, even among her colleagues.

"There is something very mysterious about Edie," says "Sopranos" creator David Chase. "She wasn't the greatest mixer last year of all the cast people. She was a little private, a little reserved. And because her talent is so huge, it becomes even more mysterious, because you're wondering where it all comes from. What is going on in that head that lets her do this stuff?"

The stuff that Falco does is integral to "The Sopranos," a startlingly black, brazenand subversive look at the American family and culture as viewed through the prism of the mob, which also takes a few hits. The textured performance she gives has just earned her an Emmy nomination for best actress in a drama. It is not an easy cast to get noticed in given the vivid performances of Carmela's loutish but sensitive mob boss husband, Tony (James Gandolfini); his studiously affectless shrink, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco); his psychotic mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand)--all of whom received Emmy nominations too--and assorted members of his "families" and social circle. In all, the drama landed 16 Emmy nominations.

As Falco draws her, Carmela is not as flashy, yet there is a razor-sharp incisiveness that makes it clear she is no less complicated. Her marriage to Tony is a Faustian bargain made for the sake of the children (Meadow and Tony Jr.) and, well, for her own sake. In moments of remorse Carmela beats herself up about this and then buys a new sofa.

It would have been easy for Falco to let the character drift into a shallow and grasping wife and mother, but she hasn't. Each week Carmela strips through layers of artifice to get at the often harsh reality underneath whether it's with her husband, her mother-in-law, her kids, even the priest she turns to for solace.

"She claims to be bitter about her relationship with her husband," Falco says. "But there's something very workable about it. If he were suddenly to become this devoted husband and father, I think she'd have to make this adjustment. She's gotten very used to this sort of pedestal, holier-than-thou position she has in the family. There's a reason she stays in it. That's a very comfortable place for her."

"There's a certain been-there-done-that quality to her way of playing it," Chase says, summing up Falco's economy of delivery, which verges on comedy. Chase was ready to scrap what he'd written for the character until Falco auditioned and made it work.

Falco claims that she doesn't do much to play Carmela, just dons the vulgar get-ups and says her lines. Marchand, a big admirer, finds this assertion incredulous.

"How could she just say the lines?" Marchand says. "She's not married, she doesn't have children. What is that? Everything that comes out of her mouth has to do with her family."

In fact, it was her unfamiliarity with being a mom that caused Falco the most anxiety. This became acute when she met Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who plays Meadow, her 16-year-old daughter.

"She's a well-spoken, beautiful, bright kid, and I was so intimidated," Falco says. "She was exactly like all the girls I was scared of in high school. I was sort of an awkward and strange actor-y girl. And she was the cheerleader or the prom queen, which I was terrified of. I thought there's not a chance in hell I'm going to pull this off. But something kicks in, very innate, and it worked out beautifully."

Her Long-Awaited Financial Security

The success of "The Sopranos" means many things to Falco, a lot of them warm and fuzzy and professionally gratifying, but high up on that list is money--an interest she shares, ironically, with Carmela. The actress, 35, from Long Island, went to school at State University of New York in Purchase, and has spent the last 15 years living hand-to-mouth from independent films ("Laws of Gravity") and television ("Firehouse"), often playing cops, DAs, etc. Only recently, with "The Sopranos" and another HBO show, "Oz," in which she plays a prison guard, has she achieved financial security. (She was also on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning "Side Man.") She recently bought a West Village apartment with her boyfriend, an assistant director named John Devlin, an act that would have been unthinkable not too long ago.

One of the ironies of doing well, unfortunately, is that you can always do better. Gandolfini took advantage of the show's heat by negotiating a raise during the off-season (currently in reruns, "The Sopranos" starts its second season in January). Another actress might dodge the issue, but Falco meets it head-on.

"I found out at [a recent] interview," she says. " 'How do you feel knowing that Jim is getting six figures next year?' I ran home and got on the phone. I don't make a big deal about this stuff, so it often falls by the wayside, which is going to [anger] me if that happens this time. They don't need to know that I would do this show for nothing because I have so much fun. But at the same time I've got to learn how to take care of myself. I have people working for me, business managers and accountants and agents. So I got on the phone and said, 'You guys know all of this. This is what you do. I'm not going to make phone calls to make sure this happens.' They told me it's in the works. Nerve-racking."

Of course, this has nothing to do with Gandolfini and everything to do with parity. At the same time, Falco doesn't pretend to know Gandolfini well except to say that he has told her that he has intense feelings for her character.

"If I met a Carmela, it would be a nice thing," Gandolfini says. "I told her that one day. I said I could see myself being in love with Carmela." He also adds, laughing, "I'm deathly afraid of her. Her and the character."

This is almost as schizophrenic as it sounds. Falco doesn't know the actors who play her kids well either, but she was "livid" when she saw Robert Iler, who plays her son, holding a drink at the show's wrap party and appalled when she saw dailies of Meadow making out with a boy--even as a real mother might.

Which raises the issue of her own mother--mothers are a big topic on "The Sopranos"--who works for a printer. The show's creators approached her and Falco's father, a graphic designer, to see whether they could play Carmela's parents, who are going to be introduced next season.

"The thing is she's Swedish and she's supposed to be playing Italian, so she dyed her hair, had her nails done," says Falco, who's Italian on her father's side. "She's really just too cute." Then she stops to think about having her mother on the set. "If she starts yelling at me or pulling rank, I'm going to have her ejected."

In the end, her folks didn't make the casting cut. Which, given Falco's enigmatic presence on the set, may be for the best.

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* "The Sopranos" airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on HBO through Sept. 1. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).

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