Merritt Wever on ‘Nurse Jackie,’ ‘New Girl,’ and More
Merritt Wever plays the funniest character on ‘Nurse Jackie’ and turned a stock girlfriend into a crowd favorite on ‘New Girl.’ She tells Jason Lynch about her comedic improvisations and her second Emmy nomination.
Put Merritt Wever in front of a camera, and she’s fearless. For five seasons, the actress has played one of TV’s most unique characters as Nurse Jackie’s peculiar, hilarious Zoey Barkow. From the moment her intern nurse—clad in scrubs dotted with bunnies and cats—arrived at All Saints Hospital in 2009, she routinely stole scenes from Edie Falco, whether gleefully dancing at the prospect of eating pancakes or asking a hospitalized film critic, “Why do you feel as though Hollywood has such disdain for cats?” Then, Wever’s guest stint last spring on New Girl turned a potential throwaway role—as Elizabeth, the former girlfriend of Schmidt (Max Greenfield), who seemingly was introduced only to springboard him back to Cece (Hannah Simone)—into one of the season’s comedic high points.
But put the actress in front of a reporter, and all that confidence evaporates. “I know, I’m not a great interview!” she keeps repeating apologetically over lunch at a midtown Manhattan diner. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything better for you. I hate this!”
“I know this kind of thing makes her uncomfortable, so the last thing I would want to do is contribute to that,” Falco says of Wever’s press phobia. “But at the same time, I want to shout from the rooftops!”
Emmy voters agree. For the second straight year, they nominated Wever for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (one of the Showtime series’s five, including Falco as Lead Actress). Wever, 32, might not be comfortable in the spotlight, but her dynamic performances simply cannot be ignored. “She is such a unique talent,” says Falco. “Every time she’s onscreen, she’s predictably unpredictable. She embodies everything that I love and that makes me proud to be working in this industry.”
Wever’s breakout Jackie performance is especially surprising given that the Zoey role as originally written “was a teeny bit stock,” says Falco. “You can turn on any channel and find that character, the young, motivated intern. From the moment Merritt said the first few lines, it morphed into something that nobody’s ever seen before and continues to amaze every one of us.”
For her part, Wever deflects the credit to Jackie co-creators Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem (who left the series after Season 4). “I never realized it was written as ‘stock’ until I heard the people who wrote it say that,” she says. “I never thought about what I was bringing to it. But Liz and Linda did a really good job of responding to things that I did that they liked and pushing me in that direction.”
Each year, playing Zoey “gets harder,” says Wever, citing the show’s compact three-month production schedule. “There’s something about going back to the same place with half the same people after you’ve had nine months away. It can be a strange sensation sometimes. It feels like it takes a while to get back in her shoes.”
Yet once she finds her way again, Wever takes Zoey to new heights each year. Two scenes from Jackie’s most recent season demonstrate her impressive range. In the first, during the seventh episode (“Teachable Moments”), Zoey is wearing headphones and transcribing dictation from Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli), until it slowly dawns on her that she is listening to a recording of him having sex with another doctor. In Wever’s funniest moments of the season, as the shock slowly registers, she blurts out dozens of variations on “Oh my God!” before finally flinging off her headset as if it’s infected.
“We laughed our fool heads off!” says Falco. “As soon as she would go off-script, I could barely keep it together until the second they yelled cut, and everybody would fall on the floor. It’s one of the greatest joys about working on the show. I’m thrilled when I look on the day’s schedule and see that I get to work with her. My whole mood lifts.”
“It’s nice to have people trust you so much on set. They just let me go,” says Wever, whose comic improvisations in the scene included a moment where she lathers her ears with hand sanitizer. “That’s the kind of stuff that only happens when you know you won’t be hated if you try something and it completely bombs. Which is really nice because the more I work away from Nurse Jackie, the more I appreciate it. It is not like that everywhere, it really isn’t. I really lucked out with this job.”
Wever’s other spotlight moment from Season 5 came in the fifth episode (“Good Thing”), when a pregnant gunshot victim collapses on the ER floor. For the first time in the series, Zoey coolly and authoritatively takes command, gently keeping everyone calm and expertly delivering the baby as the ER waiting room applauds. “It’s always nice to be able to play different things,” says Wever, who initially was focused only on the scene’s technical demands. “I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. I didn’t have time to think about what it meant for Zoey, I was just trying to handle the fake, slimy baby. So I only remember being overwhelmed by that and then the director Randall coming over and having to point out what was happening really nicely, and me going ‘Oh, yeah!’ It went right over my head.”
While some Nurse Jackie fans and critics were campaigning for Wever to receive Emmy recognition from the get-go, it took until after Season 4 for the actress to land a nomination. But Emmy’s initial cold shoulder didn’t bother her: “I got the Untitled Edie Falco Project [the show’s working title before it became Nurse Jackie], I didn’t need much else.” Still, when she was finally nominated last summer, “it was a really big surprise,” says Wever. “I didn’t know they were coming out that morning. And this year, it was a really nice thing. But it’s intimidating and scary.”
Especially when it comes to attending the ceremony. “The whole problem is the dress and the hoopla,” she says. “That was unpleasant for me. I don’t tend to go to things where I have to wear something classified as a gown, you know? I don’t really know how to do that, and that was difficult. It’s not as easy as walking into a store and walking out with something. It’s just a different world. I don’t really know how to function in it. I wish it was easy and I could say, ‘Oh, it’s all ridiculous!’”
Immediately after the September 22 ceremony, Wever will fly home to start production on Jackie’s sixth season. Over the next month, she’ll squeeze in two more episodes of New Girl, to help wrap up the Season 2 cliffhanger in which Schmidt was asked to choose between Elizabeth and Cece. “She’s so funny,” says New Girl’s Max Greenfield. “She has this ability to go from zero to 60 in the scene, where she plays very level, and then all of a sudden will just ramp into something. She’s easily one of the best actresses we’ve had on the show and that I’ve ever worked with.”
While fans love her New Girl character, Wever says the show’s producers “always knew it was only going to last a certain amount of time.” Still, if they want her back after production wraps on Jackie, she’s game. “I think they have long seasons ahead of them, so whatever they’d need!”
Less certain is whether Wever will ever return to The Good Wife, where she appeared in March 2012 as Aubrey, the younger sister of Will (Josh Charles). The bigger tragedy is that she can no longer keep up with The Good Wife due to her inability to watch shows after she has appeared on them. “I noticed it first when I was younger with Law & Order, because I used to watch them all the time,” she says. “And then when I started doing them, not being able to watch it anymore. It’s not like a spell is broken, but I get nervous. I’ve seen how the sausage was made and I just can’t.”
“The moral of the story,” she says, laughing, “is that I should have a shitty career to maintain my television watching practices!”
It’s far too late for that. The lifelong New Yorker has been working steadily since she was 13, when her junior high school drama teacher asked if she wanted to audition for an NYU student film written and directed by Aiyana Elliot (who later directed the 2000 documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack). “I fell in love with doing it, and I thought these people were the coolest. I liked that I could help make something with other people. Then I kept getting jobs that I really liked,” including the 2001 indie drama Series 7, Michael Clayton, and a recurring role as Matthew Perry’s assistant on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. “All of a sudden, you’re doing it and you never stopped doing it.”
In hindsight, though, Wever wishes she’d had more of a normal adolescence. “I’m realizing that now. I knew it was stressful while I was doing it, but looking back I’m like, ‘Jesus, that was not fun at all!’ It’s really shitty to have to constantly go into rooms with strangers when you’re just trying to hold on to the self-esteem you had as a kid, that everyone’s trying to tear it away from you.”
That’s one reason that the actress is thinking about taking a breather during her next Nurse Jackie hiatus. “It’s a really stressful existence, and I’ve been doing it for so long, you’re just used to being on the hamster wheel. And then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, I could get off!’”
Just as long as the break isn’t permanent, Falco says. “As far as I’m concerned, if people like Merritt continue to work, then we have a very exciting, lively form of media in our future.”