Edie Falco on Nurse Jackie’s Tragic Relapse
Jackie’s off the wagon.
The heartbreaking moment came at the end of Nurse Jackie’s season finale last year when, on her way to the party celebrating her first year of sobriety, Jackie Peyton popped another pill. It was a frustrating moment for viewers who keep rooting for TV’s toughest nurse to climb up from rock bottom and carve a life for herself that’s both sober and happy. Sunday night’s Season 6 premiere of Nurse Jackie reiterated that, at least at the moment, those two states of being can’t co-exist in Jackie’s life.
No one is as devastated over Jackie’s relapse as Edie Falco, who’s won an Emmy for her portrayal of the struggling addict, a role she connects to more than most might realize. Addiction is an issue “near and dear to my heart,” Falco, who has been sober for over two decades after a battle with alcoholism, tells me. It's a part of her life she's spoken at length about over the years, especially since being cast as an addict on Nurse Jackie, but one she speaks about with candor and without any hesitance. Sobriety, Falco stresses, is a journey that’s different for every addict, and Jackie’s, unfortunately, is a common one. “Very rarely do people get sober and then it’s clear sailing from that point on,” Falco says. “I think the rule, rather than the anomaly, is that people tend to struggle.”
And struggling Jackie is. Still presenting the front of sobriety to her friends, family, and co-workers, Jackie’s relegated to getting her pills from the towel girl at her gym. Her relationship with her daughters is the worst it’s been, especially her oldest, Grace, who has started using drugs herself. In other words, the stressful pieces in Jackie’s life are stacking up in one tall, precarious tower that she’s—once again—frantically trying to keep from falling down.
We chatted with Falco about how much more difficult it’s getting for Jackie to keep things from crumbling, how the show’s affected her own relationship with the issue of addiction, and, after six seasons, why she’s still confused that everyone insists her show is a comedy.
At the end of last season, we see Jackie relapse. Why did she start using again? Do you think it was necessary dramatically?
I don’t know if I can speak dramatically—I kind of stay away from storyline stuff. But as far as when we’re dealing with addiction stuff, since it’s something near and dear to my heart, it’s very important to me to be depicted as realistically as possible. Very rarely do people get sober and then it’s just clear sailing from that point on. I think the rule, rather than the anomaly, is that people tend to struggle. They gather a whole bunch of time together, and then the whole thing falls to pieces, especially if their life is like Jackie’s. She works, and her first priority is work. She’s not going to meetings. She’s not staying on top of things that are important to stay sober. And this is what happens. I don’t know if it was a dramatic decision, or if just an effort to keep things realistic.
You said that addiction is near and dear to your heart. Does that extend beyond your own history?
My own issues aside, I travel in a circle of people where addiction is a huge issue, both in my family and friends. In the world, it’s everywhere, but it’s especially in the arts. Many people I love are struggling, or have struggled, with it. It’s something that I’ve been fascinated and repulsed by my entire life. Oddly enough, this ends up being the character I’m playing. Which really is more a matter of coincidence than anything else. So it is something that I’ve always been fascinated by.
Given that you’ve always been fascinated by it, has playing Jackie changed your relationship to the issue?
I don’t know that it’s changed it, except that it has helped me gain even greater compassion for people who have struggled with it. I’ve had people respond to Jackie, and hearing them respond with their voices echoes feelings I’ve had. “Oh, she was doing so well…” You know what I mean? I’ve given an exterior voice to my own interior voice dealing with addiction, mostly in the people I love for my whole life. It’s amplified the whole thing for me, to see what work it really is, and how brave it is to really break free from it. And how seemingly irrational it is to people outside of its grips. More than anything else, it just sort of put it on the screen in front of me, literally and otherwise, where a lot of was just an internal experience for most of my life.
We’ve always seen how Jackie’s addiction affects her daughters. But now we’re seeing Grace go down her own rabbit hole. It’s devastating to watch her snorting lines, mirroring Jackie’s own behavior.
Well that’s another piece of it. Many kids see this in their families growing up and one thing they promise themselves is that they’ll never be like that. And lo and behold so many of them end up being just like that. Because it’s what they see and it’s what they know. A fair amount of it is biological, but a lot of it is also circumstantial. It’s what they grew up experiencing. It’s a really complicated issue, but it’s not unusual that it picks up exactly where the parent left off, or where the parent still is.
I’m loving the addition of Julie White this season.
Yes! She’s going to be around for…all of the season? Most of it. Most of the season, yeah.
I feel like we’ve really been missing Eve Best’s Dr. O’Hara as Jackie’s confidante, and I feel like Julie is stepping into that role a little bit.
That’s exactly right. That’s what it ended being. She needed a place to unload, for sure.
Jackie already has someone to bounce off with Merritt Wever’s Zoey. But how is her relationship with Zooey different from her relationship with someone like O’Hara or now Julie White’s character?
Well I think Jackie needs to keep on some level a professional distance from Zoey, to some extent. She is her elder in some ways, having been at the hospital longer and having been in nursing longer. I think maybe she feels some obligation to keep up the front of doing it all the right way with Zoey. I think she’s less likely to express vulnerability to her, because she’s supposed to be the one Zoey turns to, looks up to. I think with Julie’s character, they’re both struggling with addiction, so it’s something they can relate to in each other. And to discuss it is not quite so dangerous.
It’s easy to understand they can relate to each other, since they’ve both been through this. But is it a struggle at all to find ways to make Jackie and her actions and her misdeeds relatable to an audience, many of who haven’t “been there”?
I don’t find it difficult at all. Every bit of it makes sense to me, because it makes sense to Jackie in the moment. All under the guise of addiction, where it doesn’t follow rationale, often times. It just follows the mind of the person who is at the mercy of whatever it is they’re struggling to free themselves from. So it doesn’t feel harder than any other character. But she’s good at her job. People can understand that she’s good at her job. She loves her kids, people can understand that. And she’s an addict, so she doesn’t do this stuff for fun anymore. She really can’t get free. That’s the big heartbreak. I think most people can relate to on some level to doing things they don’t want to be doing because they can’t seem to not do it.
I remember when you won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy after the first season and you said in your speech that you didn’t think the show was a comedy. As more seasons have passed, do you still feel that way?
I do. And I get in trouble all the time for saying it. You know, from the people who pay for the show. “Stop saying it’s not a comedy!” (Laughs) I’m sorry, it’s not a comedy.
Why do you think it’s not even though they keep telling you it is?
I don’t know! I think it’s like every other TV show. You know, it’s a dramedy. It’s a little funny, it’s a little sad, you know? I think my idea of a comedy is Modern Family and Veep and Will and Grace and 30 Rock. Straight up funny stuff. Things that are played entirely differently because they are funny. I don’t know. I have a whole different flavor in my mind as far as what should be considered comedy, and this never seemed to fall into that category. But, you know, people are welcome to disagree with me. Like my bosses… (laughs)
It was just announced that Nurse Jackie’s been picked up for another season, which means now it will have more full seasons than The Sopranos!
I know, right!? Half a season more than The Sopranos. It had six and a couple more of those “bonus episodes,” they called them.
I’m sure when you sign on for a show you have no expectations of that.
None! You sign on for a pilot. Which means you get a nice check and you work for usually 11 or 12 days, and that’s how far as you can usually take it. You can’t hold on to it as anything more than just that, when it happens at all. So I’m a little in shock with my good fortune with these shows.
Is there a character that was harder to shake when you went home, either Carmela from The Sopranos or Jackie?
I don’t know. I didn’t take Carmela home that much, I don’t think. Carmela was so much about the hair, the nails, the makeup, the jewelry, all that. So when all that came off, she really looked kind of gone. When I leave work, they both stay. In early days, even before Sopranos, when I was doing a movie and stuff it was a little harder to shake it at the end of the day. But one of the things you have to learn to do to stay sane is go back to your real life and then connect to your pretend life fresh every day. Also, though, Jackie and I have much more in common, in so far as the way we look. Just maintenance wise. She’s not a glam girl.
I still love every time the opening credits roll and we flash back to your short-short-short haircut from the first season.
(Laughs) I know. It’s crazy. One of the things I wanted was to not have any time in a makeup and hair trailer. You know? And then I missed my hair. (Laughs.) I asked, “Can I grow my hair more?” So that’s why it’s where it is now. That’s the other thing about a series that’s so great is that it covers a lot of years. So the hair changes!
What did you learn about being on the top of the call sheet, like you are on Nurse Jackie, from being on The Sopranos for all those years before?
When The Sopranos ended, I was looking to have more to do. On The Sopranos, I so deeply loved being on the show, but I would show up every third day and hear “oh my gosh, it’s so funny, Jim did this, or Jimmy did that,” stories about what went on when I wasn’t around. It always made me mad. I feel like I was a part of it, but not enough a part of it to satisfy me on some level. So when I was looking, I thought, “I want to be the one who’s there all the time.” Because, first of all, I work hard. I’m a good employee. I’m able to memorize lines quickly. I’d like to be the one depended on to make the day go smoothly. Because I’m capable of that. So that was a big part of it. I trust my work ethic. I’ve been at this a long time. So I love it, is what I’m saying. Long story short: I’m so happy.
It’s been 15 years since The Sopranos premiered. What do you remember from that time, when it was all starting and wasn’t yet the best TV drama that’s ever been?
I remember the excitement around learning the attention it was going. But even at that point I knew more than to let it really get to me, because I had already had my heart broken by TV shows falling apart or movies that almost came to be and then didn’t at the last minute. So I listened to it and allowed it to get in, but only a little bit. It took a good number of years in before I realized that we were actually being noticed in such a way. But other than Lorraine Bracco, none of us really had that much of a name. So to be a part of something that was getting attention not just because of the fact that there were famous people, but because we were doing something good—it really doesn’t get much more exciting than that in one’s career. To be stopped on the street and realize the look in people’s eyes when they’d talk about the show, you never know that will happen. It’s a tremendous gift to be a part of something like that. So I remember just being giddy with excitement in those early years about the awards and feeling sort of omnipotent. People really loved what we were doing. It was a really exciting place to be.