Julianne Nicholson remembers working on one of her first drama series, the 2002 medical drama Presidio Med. “The first time I had to do the emergency room ‘get her 75 ccs of whatever!’ it was insane and a totally other language,” she says. Still, she had watched TV before. She thought she had nailed it.
“The director at the time was like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” she laughs. “I realized I was doing the thing where I was regurgitating it as I had seen it before on ER or whatever, and that didn’t work anymore. That was really revelatory for me.”
It’s a lesson she keeps in mind more than a decade later, this time starring as a small-town police detective on the USA crime drama Eyewitness, a new entry in the burgeoning subset of the genre—the slow-burn, season-long mystery (The Killing, True Detective, Fargo).
As Helen Torrance, a wife and foster mother whose dedication to the job sometimes distracts from her family responsibilities, Nicholson finds herself not only combatting jargon clichés, but the increasingly mocked “tough lady cop” stereotype—a trope that’s become so common that NBC tried (and ultimately, failed) the tricky feat of spoofing it with The Mysteries of Laura.
“It’s about trying to be honest without worrying about putting on a cop voice or a cop attitude because—you know what?—that’s not how it is in real life,” she says. “You don’t play a cop. You play a person who happens to be a cop.”
That’s kind of Julianne Nicholson’s thing, though. She tends to find a quiet intensity—be it a stoic strength or an intensely brittle vulnerability—that draws you to her, like she’s keeping a secret and if you get close enough to her she might let you in on it.
In any of her 50-odd credits, she’s mastered playing the person who happens to be a detective (Law & Order: Criminal Intent), an obstetrician (Masters of Sex), an attorney (Boardwalk Empire), a FBI agent’s wife (Black Mass), or a put-upon younger sister (August: Osage County).
“I like not knowing everything about someone right away,” she says. “I like having to dig deeper. I can’t speak for everyone, but there are times you that in your own life, when you’re not straight up lying, but not revealing everything you can. I think that’s a very human condition.”
It’s exactly that human condition that attracted her to Helen Torrance and Eyewitness, which is as much a crime drama as a character study of a woman harboring a secret, who throws herself into a gruesome murder investigation to help mask the toll keeping the secret takes on her.
The series is a tangled one. Based on the Norwegian drama Øyevitne, it begins when two teenage boys secretly hooking up with each other in a cabin witness a quadruple murder but, worried that their relationship might become public, keep quiet while trying to avoid the killer.
Complicating things is that one of those boys is Helen’s foster son, and she is investigating the case with the expertise befitting a big-city detective—because that’s what she used to be before a traumatic case forced her and her husband (Gil Bellows) to move to what was supposed to be a sleepy town.
What happened in that case—Helen’s secret—is revealed in this Sunday’s episode, explaining why she needed to start anew. Nicholson won’t spoil too much, only explaining that Helen used to work closely with children “and something happened in one of these cases that she can’t come back from.”
It explains why she’s so broken up about the death of two teenagers who are collateral damage in the murder spree. It explains why she’s so resistant to welcoming her foster son into her home. “Hopefully it will give you an idea of why she is how she is,” Nicholson says. “Maybe a little hard at first and not easy to get to know. Hopefully there will be some empathy around that. Or at least understanding.”
There’s a moodiness to Eyewitness that certainly befits the subject matter, but also has become a trademark of the genre. The spectacular lakes and mountains of the Perry Sound area in Ontario are filtered through drab greys and blues to telegraph an air of bleakness. And for Nicholson, it’s another dark and intense, or as she says, “hard,” character, all of which is in contrast to the warm and bubbly person giving this interview.
She’s quite funny, whether joking about working with Meryl Streep on August: Osage County (“Awful. Phoning it in every day. A nightmare. If only people knew”) or talking about barely being able to conceal her childhood Johnny Depp crush while working with him on Black Mass: “I don’t know what sort of PSA was happening, but his face was everywhere at my school. I might have kissed it.” She even mocks herself for being so attracted to the super-serious parts that create the impression of her as a person who prefers miring in all of life’s doom and gloom.
“What did you think?” she laughs, admitting that people probably have a false impression of her because of her work. “Did you think I was going to be very serious?”
“We have such ideas of who we are,” she explains. “Sometimes I don’t think I’m hard or stern. But I remember auditioning once and they were like, ‘Could you be a little…warmer?’ I thought I was!”
Thinking about it a bit more, she sighs: “I would kill to do a comedy.”
She brings up one of her favorite film roles, the indie romantic comedy Seeing Other People in 2004 with Jay Mohr—one of those movies that not many have seen but those who have are obsessed with. And two years prior she had a regular role in the final season of Ally McBeal, “where I laughed my ass off every day.”
She supposes that she’d have to make a conscious decision to pursue more roles like that, since at this point in her career, that’s clearly not where she’s drawn. “I would love to not cry at work,” she laughs. “Sounds really nice.”
Where she is drawn, though, is to a certain kind of woman. In a 2013 interview with Elle at a time when her raved-about performance in August: Osage County coincided with her first appearances on Masters of Sex and her return to Boardwalk Empire, Nicholson joked that she had found her niche playing stern, middle-aged women finding their way in the world: “I guess that’s sort of my thing?”
Asked how she found her way into that niche, which Eyewitness’s Helen Torrance certainly falls into, she laughs again. “Maybe I am a stern middle-aged woman?”
She actually goes quiet for a bit while she searches for an answer. “I think it’s really interesting to me, what women have to carry in the world. Family or no family? How do you take care of your family if you also have a job? How do you do everything? Taking things seriously while also having a sense of humor. Being ambitious and not necessarily having the opportunities a man would have.”
It’s not something she intentionally carved out, but after some self-analysis it make sense that, since she prefers characters who have “a lot going on,” these are the ones that appeal to her. “Especially in Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire, it was very exciting to me to play a woman in those time periods in a man’s world.”
We’re actually talking the day after Nicholson returned from a six-week jungle shoot in South America, where she was shooting a film called Monos, about teen soldiers babysitting a kidnapped American woman. “Me!” she laughs. “It was intense!”
That word again—“intense”—is also indicative of the kind of career Nicholson has had, jumping back and forth between teeny-tiny indie projects (a personal fave: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) and star-studded ensemble films, and guest spots on some of the most famous TV shows ever (like ER) to top-lining her own cable drama series.
“Like, three weeks ago I was in the jungle literally in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “No cell reception no internet, literally in a tent. And towards the end I started losing my mind and more than once I started telling people I was going back to my trailer. Like, honey, there’s no trailer here. You’re going back to your tent is what you’re doing. Every time it’s like, OK, I wonder what this is going to be like.”
“Certainly,” she laughs, “there’s no ‘ugh, this again…’”