Julianne Nicholson thought at first she wouldn’t be able to score a part in August: Osage County as the sister of Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis, because of her name. “I thought they would see my name and say, ‘Forget it. We already have two Julies. We can’t get a third in there,’” she laughs now. But J.N. — as they nicknamed her — ended up with one of the meatiest roles, that of overlooked sister Ivy, who stayed behind to take care of their mother (Meryl Streep) and developed a clandestine relationship with a relative (Benedict Cumberbatch). A major spoiler ahead for those who have not seen the original play or the film adaptation — Ivy thinks Little Charles is her cousin, but comes to discover that her boyfriend is actually her brother, and Nicholson’s absorption of that information is devastating. Nicholson chatted with Vulture about accidental incest, and her TV roles on Sundance’s The Red Road (premiering in February) and Masters of Sex.
Were you struggling to not reveal your character’s secrets before the film’s release?
Yes! In fact, I blew it once at a press conference. Somebody asked, “What did you learn from your character?” and I said, “Don’t fall in love with your brother.” [Laughs.] Uh-oh! It was all these people in the room who had seen the film the night before, and I forgot that people who hadn’t seen the film read those things. But you would think that’s a lesson we all learn pretty early on.
There are a lot of stories lately about accidental incest, or in some cases, not so accidental …
Yeah, from the recent Spike Lee remake of Oldboy to the Mortal Instruments series, where they think it’s incest, even though it’s not. Even Flowers in the Attic is getting a remake.
[Gasps.] Oh my God, I loved that series growing up, those books! Wow, that’s bold. [Laughs.] So okay, yes, it’s out there. How bizarre. I don’t even remember the incest aspect of Oldboy from the original. I got stuck at the guy eating a live octopus, and I’m still reeling from that. But I love that movie. Comparatively, ours is rather benign. It’s the nice incest.
Before you know it’s her brother, when we think it’s just her cousin, you almost root for it. You wonder, Is it really so bad? Especially if they can’t breed together, since she had a hysterectomy …
Yeah. There’s definitely no babies coming, for sure. That’s a tricky one! You really do wrap your mind around the cousin aspect. I think brother does push it over the edge. [Laughs.] We think cousin is okay in the story line, but if I think about it in real life, I’m not a fan. Why not be with someone you’re not related to? How’s that for a bold statement? [Laughs.] I do think it’s interesting that it’s being addressed in all these different ways. Is it because we need to push the boundaries further because we’ve seen every version of man and woman, and man and man, and woman and woman, that aren’t related? Is that the next step? I don’t know. But I think things happen in waves. Whatever’s happening in the Zeitgeist, people just pick up on it. I’m not saying incest is a trend right now, but it’s something maybe people are thinking of.
In Ivy’s relationship with Little Charles, you get a glimpse of what kind of person he might have been, had his mother [Margo Martindale] not picked on him his whole life. If she didn’t treat him as a disappointment, he probably wouldn’t have been so disappointing.
You’re right — he’s the person he should have been, could have been, when he’s with Ivy.
And Ivy becomes the person she would have been, had she not stayed behind to take care of a mother who doesn’t appreciate her.
I know. And that’s maybe the people they will be. We don’t know what happens to them after the movie! Who’s to say? When she drives away, it’s just to get out of that place. I would like her to find happiness, of course. In the movie, I kind of want her and Charles to stay together [laughs], but I don’t think they can.
Besides the massive dinner fight scene that’s the focal point of the movie, you have another big moment, when Ivy tries to tell her mother about Little Charles, only to find out he’s her brother, not her cousin.
That was definitely the hardest scene to film, for me. Between the language, which is so specific, and those lines are quite similar, each of our lines, especially when Julia [Roberts] is saying, “Eat the fish. Eat the fucking fish. Eat the fish, bitch,” and I would have, “Barb. Barb, please. Please, Barb.” But if you mess up the order in which you say it, there’s a trickle-down effect with the lines that follow. And I was trying to not let on at the beginning that I know what’s coming at the end. And then when Meryl tells me, it’s like, Oof!
Both your characters in August: Osage County and Masters of Sex have had cervical cancer and hysterectomies …
I know! I was in a changing room yesterday, trying on a dress, and the woman in the room next to me came up to me, and she had been watching Masters of Sex, and she told me how much my character meant to her, with that revelation, because she was now three years free from cancer. I find it very moving when you do something people can connect to from personal experience. And I like in both instances, how they’re both revealed. It’s not who the person is, but it’s something that has happened to them, do you know what I mean? It’s not everything that they are. You don’t want to be defined by that one thing. You’re still a person with a history and a life. But I love how with Dr. DePaul, how amazing it is that it fueled her Pap smear work, and how crazy it is women at that point didn’t even want women doctors to look up their skirts. We’ve come a long way, baby.
Nowadays, if you’re looking for a gynecologist referral, you usually prefer a woman doctor.
Me, too! Same with my obstetrician. “Lady, please!” [Laughs.] It only makes sense to me. And that’s why I’m happy to see it on the show, because young women now, it wouldn’t even cross their minds, the many things we now take for granted.
On your new show, The Red Road, your character gets to have a rich history with Jason Momoa — Khal Drogo.
I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan, but he doesn’t have nearly as much eyeliner in this! I didn’t read the books, and I had no plan to watch the series at first — in fact, I thought the name was silly. But then I watched the first episode to see what it was, and I was a fan from five minutes in. When the series ends each season, I’m freaking out. But I totally played it cool with Jason when I met him. He doesn’t know. And he totally delivers. Him entering a room is a powerful thing.