Julianne Nicholson’s moment is finally here. She hasn’t been waiting around for it

A dark-haired woman in a dark top rests her chin on her hand.
Actor Julianne Nicholson, photographed at the New York offices of A24 in June.
(Justin Jun Lee / For The Times)
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When she was 18, Julianne Nicholson came to New York City to model but quickly grew tired of that — she knew she wanted to act. “I was waitressing and just living my best life,” she says over Zoom, smiling, from A24’s Manhattan offices. “I was basically being a young person in New York without a care in the world. It was wildly different from ‘Janet Planet.’”

She’s referring to the wonderful new film set during summer 1991 in which she stars — a film that, like Nicholson, doesn’t put on airs but is capable of small miracles. Since its premiere at Telluride, “Janet Planet,” the debut feature of acclaimed playwright Annie Baker, has been the sort of understated indie revelation that discriminating viewers excitedly share with their friends like a gift.

We came, we saw, we watched some more: Here are the movies that impressed us most at Telluride, from world premieres to show-stoppers out of Cannes and Berlin.

Sept. 5, 2023

Now finally opening in New York on Friday, with the Los Angeles release planned for June 28, “Janet Planet” is ready for its grand unveiling — and, in a sense, so is the marvelous Nicholson, an Emmy winner who has read the same stories about her that you have.


“Normally, the first thing that’s said about me is ‘underused,’ ‘underappreciated,’ ‘overlooked,’” says Nicholson, with a heard-it-all grin, At age 52, she tries to ignore other people’s perception of her fame and how much more massive they think it ought to be. “Normally, I’m fine with it because I continue to work. But every once in a while, I feel like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m so tired — am I still trying to get people’s attention?’”

Those who have worked with Nicholson need not be reminded of her greatness or the way she makes her artistry invisible. Just don’t expect them to explain why Nicholson isn’t a huge star. When I ask Baker in a separate interview why she thinks the actor isn’t more renowned, she’s mystified that the industry can’t see what she and so many others do. “I find that really perverse,” Baker, 43, replies. “I’m outside of the Hollywood machine, and in my world, Julianne is a mega-celebrity.”

A mother and daughter watch an outdoor performance.
Julianne Nicholson, left, and Zoe Ziegler in the movie “Janet Planet.”

In “Janet Planet,” Nicholson plays the title character, a single, weary mom to the challenging 11-year-old Lacy, the two of them living in woodsy, hippie-ish western Massachusetts. As portrayed by newcomer Zoe Ziegler, Lacy is a peculiar hyper-anxious child whose insatiable neediness for her mother will be imperiled by three adults: Janet’s live-in boyfriend (on his way out), her old friend and a potential new suitor. To her daughter, Janet is a riddle: an acupuncturist who’s cycled through several professions, several men, several lives. We don’t learn her backstory but we grasp her ragged past through Nicholson’s exhausted eyes and resigned expression. She depicts Janet as a work in progress who radiates something true about small towns, like the one where Nicholson herself grew up.

Born in a Boston suburb, Nicholson moved to tiny Wendell, Mass., with her mom and stepdad when she was 7, quickly adjusting to living off the land — no electricity, an outhouse, pumping your own water.


“I moved out there in 1978, but it felt very similar to [the film’s time period],” says Nicholson, warm but direct in conversation. “There was an ‘alternative lifestyle’ community,” her finger quotes suggesting an unease with any negative connotations. “My mom was starting her practice as an herbalist, my stepfather was a woodworker, and they built their house. They didn’t smoke pot — they were functioning people in the world with businesses, raising families.”

Writer-director Baker, for her part, had no idea Nicholson had grown up 10 miles away from her until they started talking about the script.

“Julianne knows how to play five different things at the same time,” says Baker, who insists that Janet is nothing like her own mother. “She knows how to play someone who’s feeling a lot of passion and also disassociating. Someone who is in love with her daughter and alienated from her. Someone who’s paying attention and also distracted. All those contradictions were so important for the character — you have to find a person who can play contradictions, and she does that very naturally.”

An actor looks forthrightly into the lens.
“Julianne knows how to play five different things at the same time,” says her “Janet Planet” writer-director Annie Baker. “She knows how to play someone who’s feeling a lot of passion and also disassociating.”
(Justin Jun Lee / For The Times)

Janet struggles toward contentment. At one point, the character says she’s trying to shed the “desire to be liked.” Nicholson can relate. “It’s so funny, because sometimes I feel like a deep people-pleaser,” the actor confesses, “but in my work life, I think people feel like I’m pretty forthright and clear. I don’t know if it’s my Boston Irish Catholic upbringing, but sometimes I think it can be a little intimidating. Sometimes if I don’t sugarcoat something, it can feel harsh, even though that’s not my intention.”

She’s trying to instill the same directness in her two children: Ignatius, 16, and Phoebe, 15. “You can say no, you can hurt people’s feelings,” Nicholson says. “We can’t please everyone. We need to take care of ourselves because, ultimately, that’s where you get into trouble, if you’re not paying attention to yourself.”

Nicholson still remembers the time after her parents divorced, living with her mother, Kate, before her stepdad came along. “We were a little threesome, my mom and my sister and I,” she recalls. “She was only 20 years old when she had me, but she was also the oldest of 10 kids and has basically been parenting since she was 10. She is an incredible woman — she takes everyone’s breath away when they meet her, still to this day.”

Kate was a stabilizing force in her early career, albeit indirectly. After moving to New York, Nicholson spent years trying to find her footing as a performer. It took the right acting teacher, Sheila Gray, to help unlock things. “She worked with sense memory,” says Nicholson. “The first day [of her class], she put an empty chair in front of me: ‘Now, put someone in that chair.’ I could smell my mother’s hair and I could see her. Suddenly, it was like all this stuff was there. That felt meaningful to me.”

Sometimes, Nicholson still draws on sense memory when preparing for a role, and she’s certainly given her share of indelible mother (and mother-figure) performances in the likes of “I, Tonya” and “Blonde.” (Don’t forget her terrific comedic turn as the stereotypical supportive mom in the satirical biopic “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.”) But to play Janet, she went in a different direction.


A woman sits in thought on a couch.
Julianne Nicholson as Lori in 2021’s “Mare of Easttown,” a performance for which she won an Emmy.
(Michele K. Short / HBO)

“I actually think the human experience is pretty lonely,” Nicholson says, laughing, almost apologetically. “For me, it’s ultimately a pretty solitary experience — and I’m lucky, because I have a full, rich life with a family that I love deeply. But there’s a deep sense of loss somewhere in Janet. Not to say that I feel it, but I had an understanding of what that could feel like for her if she really dug down to experience it.”

Once Nicholson trained with Gray and garnered interest from a manager, she began landing film and television gigs, earning an Independent Spirit Award nomination for the 2000 drama “Tully.” She’d gotten the lead in a short-lived NBC sci-fi series, “The Others,” and was part of the ensembles of “Ally McBeal” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” But there was never the breakout role that might make her a household name. And then, around 2011, the parts started drying up. She was in her early 40s, fearful she’d been on the wrong path all along. She looked at her body of work and found it wanting.

“I totally messed up,” she remembers about that uncertain period and how she was thinking about it. “I gave all this time to something that’s not going to ultimately be the thing I hoped it might be.”

Eventually, though, momentum started to build. Nicholson was cast in a Sam Shepard play, the dark comedy “Heartless.” She was brought onto the 2013 film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County,” alongside powerhouses like Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.


“Part of me was terrified,” she says of the “August” experience, “but part of me also felt like I can meet these people when cameras are rolling. Another thing was just the confidence that I was given by being invited into that group.” It’s a complex memory for her. “So much of this work is how people perceive you,” says Nicholson. “Which is such a pile of bulls—, but I get it.”

An actor leans against a wall.
“So much of this work is how people perceive you,” says Nicholson. “Which is such a pile of bulls—, but I get it.”
(Justin Jun Lee / For The Times)

Since “August,” she’s been on a roll, winning her first Emmy as Lori, Kate Winslet’s tough-love best friend on “Mare of Easttown.” Craig Zobel, who directed the HBO series, had long wanted to collaborate with her.

“Julianne was one of those people that, if you were in New York in the early 2000s, she was in all of the good little New York movies,” he says. “It was always a good day on set — I felt a little bit more relaxed — if I knew that Julianne was going to be there.”

As for the question of Nicholson finally having her moment, Zobel is confident. “I think about her a lot like Sam Rockwell, where he’s now able to make whatever but he still feels like a New York actor.”

Technically, Nicholson is no longer a New York actor — two years ago, she moved to the countryside outside London with her children and husband of nearly 20 years, English actor Jonathan Cake. It’s a full-circle moment of sorts: As in her own childhood, she’s again living off the beaten path. (Presumably, she has power and running water this time.) Nicholson likes the solitude, and she’s relieved that her kids love their school. She’s not the same freewheeling young woman she was back in the early 1990s, dreaming what her career might look like.

“I think I’ve done my city life,” Nicholson says. “I’m in New York right now and, honestly, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. It’s loud here.’ I just find it draining to be here. I love it, but to live here all the time, I feel like that would be hard.”


In “Janet Planet,” Nicholson plays a woman desperate to remake her life after so many failed attempts, but her daughter loves her for who she is. Anyone who has spent these last decades following Nicholson’s career will understand that. Her singularity has been on display for years.

She remembers the night she won the Emmy, the love she felt in the room. The pandemic was waning and people were finally able to be back around each other. “Just feeling like a part of that community felt really lovely,” she says. “Day to day, I don’t have any sense of that. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I get to keep working and that’s the joy for me.”

Julianne Nicholson continues to live her best life, whether you noticed or not.