The funny side of Edie Falco
When Edie Falco got word last month that she had been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” the actress assumed her competition included other dramatic actresses such as Glenn Close.
So when her manager, Richie Jackson, told her that she was up for best comedic television actress, Falco was dumbfounded.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” she said. “I was just like: ‘In the same category as Tina Fey?’ That’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.”
The Globe nomination, followed two days later by a Screen Actors Guild nod for best comedic actress, marks new territory for Falco. If she wins Sunday, it will be her third Globe -- she won two for her performance as Carmela Soprano in the iconic HBO series -- but her first accolade for her work in comedy.
Praised by critics for her uncompromising performances in dramatic plays such as “Side Man,” “ ‘night, Mother” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” Falco still hasn’t quite accepted that she is working in a different genre. While she leavened the “The Sopranos” with comedic moments, Falco never thought funny was her strong suit.
“I tried comedy,” said the 46-year-old actress, referring to guest stints on “30 Rock” and “Will & Grace.” “I have never been further out of my comfort zone. I fall to the ground in reverence to the people who do that stuff, because I can’t. I couldn’t find the muscles.”
In fact, when Falco read the first draft of the series about a harried emergency room nurse with a secret addiction to prescription pain medicine, the intense script (then called “Nurse Mona”) had few laughs. Even after executive producers Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius refashioned “Nurse Jackie” as a dark comedy, Falco said she didn’t think of the program as far afield from series she had done like “The Sopranos” or “Oz,” which lace their grimness with humor.
“The idea that it’s a comedy? I still struggle with that,” she said over coffee at a Tribeca cafe on a recent morning.
But there’s no question that Falco has hit on a potent mix of wry cynicism in her portrayal of Jackie Peyton, who copes with the bleakness she encounters in the hospital by skirting the rules, whether by forging the signature of doctors or sneaking pills. Her equanimity in absurd situations drives much of the show’s humor. “OK, who in here is in so much pain they can’t raise their arm?,” she asks a crowded waiting room in one scene, prompting several patients to tentatively raise their hands. “Put them at the bottom of the list,” she murmurs to Merritt Wever’s wide-eyed nurse Zoey Barkow.
The series debuted as Showtime’s strongest new show ever, averaging 1.22 million viewers for its Monday premieres and drawing a cumulative audience of 3.8 million viewers on average each week. The second season begins March 22.
For Falco, the role is a dream job, in part because the producers have welcomed her input. “I feel like a real grown-up among grown-ups,” she said delightedly. “I’m not even wanting to say this out loud in a way, because I get such joy out of portraying this woman and the world she lives in and working with these actors. And then the fact that people are actually watching it and responding to her -- I’m rolling my eyes in embarrassment a little bit about how lucky I am.”
One-on-one, Falco has the dry, deadpan manner of a New Yorker. She arrived for an interview in an oversized taupe sweater and long gray scarf to ward off the 26-degree temperature, her short blond hair pushed back in a headband.
“Manischewitz, I’m over it!” she said of the chilly weather, reverting temporarily to her native Long Island accent.
When she’s acting, however, Falco said she can’t consciously be funny. She has occasionally asked the “Nurse Jackie” writers to take out humorous lines because they didn’t feel organic: “I can’t betray the truth of the scene,” she said. “I don’t want to sound overly actory about it, but I just don’t know how to play it otherwise. I don’t know how to say a funny line just for its own sake, because I don’t do it in my real life.”
As a young acting student in New York, Falco said she was always drawn to drama, moved by performances such as Meryl Streep’s in “Sophie’s Choice.”
“That’s what you want to be able to dig your teeth into,” she said. “There were the funny people in class, and I never really thought of myself as that. I always thought of myself as kind of dark, actually. I was a complicated kid.”
Falco can relate to Jackie’s addiction: She struggled with alcohol when she was first trying to make it as an actor. For years, she did yeoman’s work, piecing together small roles in off-Broadway plays and such shows as “Law & Order” to get by until HBO picked up a pilot she had been cast in about a New Jersey mobster and his fractious family.
“The Sopranos” made Falco famous, but “Nurse Jackie” has been an even more consuming experience, she said.
“I’m just on set constantly, and I never have been before -- and I love it,” she said, trilling the last words. “In the past, I always felt like a part-time worker, like the real people are there all the time. Nobody feels nerdier than an actor who is on set when they’re not working. So I’m actually on set because I’m needed on set.”
It’s helped that she and the producers sought to create a lighthearted atmosphere that is unusual by industry standards. When a reporter visited the show’s Queens soundstage last year, the cast and crew spent much of the afternoon cracking jokes.
“All of us have been doing this a long time, and it’s just not worth it if you’re not going to have fun,” Falco said.
The most laughter comes when she plays opposite Wever, whose portrayal of Zoey keeps the cast in stitches.
“If this whole acting thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to be her agent,” Falco said of her costar. “She’s the greatest thing ever. She comes up with line readings where I’m literally mouth agape: What was that?”
The hospital scenes she’s had to do with children have been more sobering. Falco is the mother to two adopted children, a 5-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter. “Seeing a kid on a stretcher, I can’t bear it,” she said.
Becoming a mom “changes everything,” Falco said. “Nothing is as important as it used to be. Or at least it’s as important as it should be in the scheme of things.”
Since production on Season 2 wrapped in December, the actress has had a lot more time to spend with her children. Showtime executives won’t announce whether “Nurse Jackie” gets picked up for a third season until late March.
“Everyone is very careful not to say anything until it’s set one way or another,” Falco said. “I’m looking for a job, like everybody.”
In the unlikely case that the show isn’t renewed, the actress said she’d love to do another play but bemoaned the difficulty in finding one “that’s good and challenging and worthy of the kind of commitment you need to make to do a show eight times a week.”
Now that she’s considered a bona-fide comedy actress, would she consider another humorous project?
Falco paused, considering the question.
“The comedy has genuinely been fun,” she said finally. “But the truth is that if some crazy, meaty thing came up that was not very funny, I’d be there too. I don’t always know what’s going to appeal to me next. I just know that when I’m reading it, I’m there.”