For five seasons, Merritt Wever’s eager young nurse, Zoey Barkow — the teddy-bear-scrubs-wearing protégée of Edie Falco’s drug-addicted Robin Hood–like nurse at a struggling New York hospital — has provided nearly all of the comedy in Showtime’s “dramedy” Nurse Jackie. Last year, Wever was awarded for her comic gifts with an Emmy — which shocked her into near silence, as she delivered what was perhaps the shortest acceptance speech in TV history.
Nurse Jackie’s sixth season premiere aired last night and Vulture met with Wever in a Brooklyn café to discuss, among other things, Zoey’s surprising new romance with sexy but abrasive ER doctor Ike Prentiss (Morris Chestnut), an affair that might distract her from her usual self-imposed mission to keep watch over the tenuous sobriety of the freshly divorced Jackie. The New York City–born-and-bred actress told us right off that she’s nothing like Zoey: She’s shy and a terrible interview subject — protestations delivered like a nervous patient in her alter ego’s ER. But we’ve learned a few tricks from Zoey over the years, so we were able to administer the interview painlessly — and prove her wrong.
Your Emmy acceptance speech was a perfect follow-up to Edie Falco’s “I’m not funny!” speech. For a show about dishonesty, you two deliver pretty vulnerable, honest speeches.
I feel like I lucked out. It could have been an awful tongue-tied moment. People could have thought I was being ungracious or ungrateful. I’m lucky that it wasn’t construed as that. I hadn’t prepared anything. You hear of people being upset about not being thanked.
You bring the comedy to the “dramedy,” especially the way you’ve turned a rolling office chair into a comic prop. This season, there’s a point when your new boyfriend, Dr. Prentiss, struggles with delivering difficult news to a friend — and suddenly, an empty chair rolls up. Of course Zoey has pushed it over, but viewers see it as representing her as a gentle nudge, a moral conscience, pushing him to say what he needs to say.
[Laughs.] I didn’t come up with the chair being rolled in in that scene. I’m very grateful to [the show’s creators] Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius, who were there [as showrunners] for the first four seasons. They were really open to me playing around. I didn’t even realize how rare it was, and how much of a favor they were doing me. They let me try things and fail in an environment where I didn’t have to feel shame or embarrassment. It was okay if something didn’t work, and since it was okay, I could try something new the next time. It was a big deal. I practiced the hell out of rolling that chair, though. I was very happy when I got it just in the right spot. And then it’s nice when you see, five or six seasons later, that a writer notices something like the chair rolling, and writes it in.
I’m too nervous. I haven’t done an interview in a while. Not in person, either. Even after the Emmys, we went right back to work the next day. So I had the great excuse of not being available. I’m feeling a little bashful.
I promise I won’t embarrass you.
I didn’t think I was walking into “A-ha! Gotcha” journalism. [Laughs.]
So let’s talk about Zoey’s love life: She got to go from sweet, schlubby Lenny, the EMT worker, to hunky, stoic Dr. Ike Prentiss.
Oh, I would never put down Lenny.
No disrespect intended. I actually thought he was perfect for Zoey. Of course the writers were setting things up to look like something was going to happen between Prentiss and the ER seductress, Dr. Roman, at the end of season five.
I don’t think I realized when it was happening that they were making it such a bit of, not a fake-out, but a thing. A surprise.
Zoey is used to managing difficult people, like Jackie. She finds herself being an apologist for Prentiss, a war vet, because he can be uptight and even rude to their colleagues. But he is very sweet and respectful to her. People we love sometimes come with a lot of disclaimers.
Yeah, it’s like every time they open their mouth, you don’t know what’s gonna come out. It’s interesting, because I don’t know how much the show or the audience sees that side of him.
To his credit, and without giving too much away, he is the one who fesses up to Akalitus about their relationship. But Zoey does have to push him in his interpersonal relationships.
Yeah, she pushes him. She pushes people.
But she’s right, usually. Maybe I’m just being Jewy here, but I come from a very confrontational family — we don’t let things fester.
I like that as an adjective. You can’t use that with people who don’t know you, or what you’re talking about. Let’s just be more “Jewish.” Everyone could use a bigger dose of it.
I think of all the characters on Nurse Jackie, Zoey has probably evolved the most over these past five seasons, as we look out onto the sixth.
A lot of times when I’m doing a scene with Edie, I miss the Zoey of the early seasons because she could get away with getting up in people’s faces a lot more. And the fact is, she’s been around longer, she’s got to change, and it’s been a hard balance finding how someone like her evolves without losing the fun of it all.
Zoey’s menschliness, her realness, is what makes people love her so much. And I’m sure people assume you and Zoey share a lot in common.
It came out of me, so I’m sure I’m in there somewhere. But it’s not like I know a Zoey.
Do fans come up to you a lot? New Yorkers can be variously ballsy and coy when it comes to celebrities. They see you and then do that thing where they pretend they don’t.
Yeah, and then I think I’m the crazy one, like, who do I think I am? It causes such awful mind-fucks actually, trying to anticipate and then deflect — and then you’re wrong. Actively ignoring someone, like, I’m going to respect your space so much that I’m almost going to be rude to you. [Laughs.] I get it, I totally know it. I see people, and I know from the bottom of my heart I love their work. But because you do, you don’t want to bother them. I’ve put up energetic porcupine bristles sometimes. Like if I think it’s gonna happen and I’m on a train car and I feel a little claustrophobic, and I feel like the social contract of the subway isn’t being honored. But it’s not something that happens all that often — maybe because of the kind of character that Zoey is, people are always nice. They’re not not saying something because they hate you.