Edie Falco Comes Clean

The Sopranos star's new theatrical role as an ex-con already feels legendary. She talks to Kevin Sessums about why she's never married, her struggles with addiction, and why she misses Carmela.

Carol Rosegg; Charles Sykes / AP Photo

Edie Falco is that rarest of rarae aves: a down-to-earth diva. She will hate the latter part of that designation, but after all the awards she won for her portrayal of Carmela Soprano for six seasons on HBO, and now all the accolades she has received in her two seasons as Nurse Jackie on Showtime, she should just accept it with the undaunted grace with which she greets everything else that comes her way.

As for her down-to-earthiness, it is the result of two of the things that came her way—things she survived with the kind of grace that was not only undaunted, but, in the most literal sense, undying: addiction and breast cancer. Falco has now been sober for 18 years. And, in 2003, she went through a tough bout of chemotherapy. It was then she decided, as a single woman, to live her life to its fullest, which, to her, meant adopting her children, Anderson, now 5, and Mary, now 2.

“I’m not sad about any of my life. It’s so unconventional. It doesn’t look anything like I thought it would.”

For the first time in five years, Falco has returned to the New York stage. She opened last night at the tiny upstairs Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons in a Naked Angels production of This Wide Night, a two-hander by Chloe Moss directed by Anne Kauffman and co-starring the extraordinary Alison Pill, about a couple of ex-convicts who seek each other out once they are released from a British women’s prison. Falco is giving a performance that, even when I saw it in her third preview, had the feel of legend about it. In my 35 years of theater-going in New York, I have seldom seen a performance of such nuance and artistry. It will be the talk of the town in the weeks—and maybe even the years—to come for those lucky enough to see it. Move over, Laurette Taylor, theatrical lore’s lush of a laureate for her portrayal of Amanda Wingfield in the original production of The Glass Menagerie, and make room for your sober version in the form of Edie Falco. I know that all sounds hyperbolical, but that’s the kind of talk divas—even those most down-to-earth ones like the late Laurette and the lively Edie—tend to inspire.

Culture Feast: This Week’s Best PicksWhy did you choose this play as a vehicle to return to the stage? Was it the maternal issues it touches on, now that you’re a mother yourself?

That is the core of everybody’s shit when you come right down to it. But I never really know why I choose a play. I had been looking for a play to do for a long time and Geoffrey (Nauffts, the artistic director of Naked Angels) said he might have found a play for me. So when it comes from someone you know it’s a real gift. And I read it and thought, yeah, he’s right. There was something about the relationship between the two women that was so ambiguous.

One is never sure if it is a substitute mother/daughter relationship for them or if they were lovers in jail.

I think it’s meant to be unclear.

But you do play it a bit butch.

Yeah, it’s begun to get more like that. And the words lend themselves to that. I mean, she’s been around the block a few times.

You do have a whole lesbian fanbase. You are aware of that.

I know. I’ve been told about that. It’s thrilling. Maybe it’s because my character on Nurse Jackie doesn’t take a lot of shit. Not that that means that’s a lesbian thing.

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But they were your fans back during your Carmela days, too.

Really! Wow! Then I don’t friggin’ know why.

Have you ever buttered that side of your toast?

I beg your pardon! I am so not going there. Wow. I’ve never heard it put that way either. But no. I’m afraid I like boys.

OK, let’s get back to the play and why you chose it.

Thank you. Well, it’s funny, but it’s also about the complications involved with people trying to connect and how perversely people go about it sometimes. At the core it’s about how people just want to love somebody and be loved by somebody. And when there’s slim pickins—like when you’re in jail—you try to find affection wherever you can. But that is true even in the world. This play really put a focus on that for me—how complicated relationships are, how hard we try, how often we fail, how poorly we do oftentimes in our ability to connect.

Does it make you sad, Edie, that you’ve never been married?

No. No. I’m not sad about any of my life. It’s so unconventional. It doesn’t look anything like I thought it would. I really am just making it up as I go along. And it took me a long time to realize that’s OK. But if the main centerpiece of all of this is supposed to be love then I am living in a deluge of it—the friendships that I have that are, on the average, 30 years old, my family, my children. In my household there is an insane amount of laughter and celebration. My kids have never seen me scream at anybody. They’ve never seen an argument. There’s never been even a cold silence. And those are things that I grew up with because my parents did end up divorcing.

They married and divorced twice. That must have affected you in some marriage-less way.

Twice or three times? Twice, I guess. It’s funny. It’s a big blur, all those years. I’m sure my parents' divorces did affect me in some way, but also in my life in general I don’t see a lot of marriages that look appealing to me. Because I’m not married I tend to get a lot of eye-rolling conversations with people about their marriages. Why would I want to head there? I want love in my life, no question about that. But I have a ton of it. My own kids have seen nothing but love and compassion and friendships that have been worked on diligently because friendships are like marriages in a lot of ways.

But with young kids in your life now, doesn’t that cut down on the kind of freedom you can have in your love life?

That freedom I had in the past was great fun but it’s also like drinking—it’s over. I don’t need that anymore. It was really fun. Really great fun. Affairs. Never being totally committed to one person. But then it all ended right about the same time my kids came into my life. And I don’t miss any of that. Not any of it. The truth is it became lonely and a burden after a while.

But you wouldn’t say no to marriage if the right person came along.

Uhh... well.... it has to be the really right person at this point. It’s like, I guess, when a really great play comes along.

On some level you are attracted to plays as if they are relationships. For example, you are obviously attracted to two-handers. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and ‘night, Mother—two previous Broadway productions you starred in—were both two-character studies.

I don’t like waiting backstage for my entrances. Maybe that’s all there is to it. I get so fucking nervous. And if I’m going to be dedicating this period of time to work, I’d rather be on the stage.

There’s another aspect of this particular play that made me think of you and that is the adoption thread in the story of your character, except you are playing the woman whose child is adopted and not the adoptive parent as you are in real life. Was there a kind of empathy you were trying to mine that cut close to the bone for you?

I’m sure that’s part of what drew me to the play. You’re right. The difference is that her son was taken from her in this play and ideally the parent of a child who is adopted makes that decision on her own, to give the child up for adoption. But, you know, in some cosmic sense I think we all are of-a-piece, in a way. If you have any belief in reincarnation in any way—which I am still on the fence about—then we’ve all lived many lives. We’ve all been adopted. We’ve all adopted others. We’ve all been men and women. So on some level I feel I completely understand what it must feel like to have given up a child and then try to regain contact with that child. It must be awful and yet all so deeply moving.

Is it too personal to ask if your adoptions were open?

No, they were closed. I know names of the parents but I don’t know much about them. They don’t know who I am.

Do your children ask questions yet?

They are still so young. To them it’s just a word right now. Maybe they don’t know that not everyone is adopted. There is just so much of it around them really. They go to school in Tribeca. A large number of the kids they go to school with are adopted. And the races are often different from the parents. It’s a fantastic place and time for my kids to be raised.

Your own upbringing was a bit bohemian. Your mother was an aspiring actress and would put on children’s plays with you starring in them in your backyard on Long Island. Your dad was a jazz musician. They were artsy-fartsy.

They sure were. And I loved it. I loved feeling that my family was a little different.

When you took your curtain call the other night there was such a look of innocence and gratitude on your face. It made me think of that little Long Island girl doing plays in her backyard.

The truth is that has got to be an AA thing. It started there. But also I’ve had a thousand years of therapy. I really am profoundly grateful just in general in my life. I’ve had an embarrassing amount of good fortune.

But you’ve had bad fortune also—your cancer and the deep, deep darkness of your addiction years.

But I’ve recovered from them and I’ve come out better and stronger each time. There are other people who have been afflicted with those two things who have either died or are still in them. The thing for which I am most grateful is that I was besotted with those two things yet was also given the strength to get through them. I am standing on the other side of them with an absolutely spectacular life far beyond my wildest dreams. At a certain point I realized I didn’t want to change anything about my life. For a long time I did. Going through that addiction stuff in my 20s, I was always moaning about wanting things to change. But now I realize I don’t want anything different. I just want to handle what’s in front of me. That’s the greatest gift—to be able to handle things.

And you’re never tempted to use again even after 18 years? Do you ever have that voice inside your head still?

No. No. Well, the same way I think about Christmas when I was a little kid. You know, you wake up and you get excited. You have those memories but they’re over. Those days are long gone. The truth is I had great fun with drugs and alcohol for a lot of years—and then I didn’t. You want to wake up in the morning and not feel sick and wincing at what happened the night before. Thank God, that doesn’t happen anymore. Now I’m woken up by my kid’s foot in my face.

Your addiction years must help with your portrayal of Nurse Jackie, who is addicted to painkillers.

When they first started the series, I told the creators I didn’t feel like she should be addicted because I have such strong feelings about addiction and you start to feel a sense of responsibility if you’re on television and if you’re lucky and people are watching you feel it even more so. You feel it begins to matter what you’re putting out there. But the two women who write the show are sober people as well so they said it might be great to watch Jackie struggle with it and the people in the world who are watching and also struggling with their own addictions might find some solace in it. And we might one day see her break free of it. But the best thing is that I am not responsible for making the show interesting. It’s their job to write it. I certainly have the option of finding out what’s going to happen next in our upcoming third season but I don’t want to know. I don’t know anything until a script is in front of me and I prefer it that way. I have no idea what the story arc is for next year. They do. They are brimming over with story ideas.

Unlike many actors who become so identified with their television characters that they have trouble finding other avenues in their careers, you were able to move on from The Sopranos rather quickly with this new hit show.

Yeah, I was out with my kids the other day at a carnival and someone yelled at me, “Hey, Nurse Jackie!” I have to admit it made me feel kind of sad not hearing “Carmela!”

So Carmela’s finally dead.

Yeah. I guess maybe she is.

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Kevin Sessums is the author of The New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain, will be published by St. Martins Press.