“I play sort of scary a lot, a little bit outside what’s accepted,” Edie Falco says. “I don’t know how it happened. I’m a nerdy little girl from Long Island. I sort of love the fact that people think I’m tough, because I’m really a bit of a pushover.”
We’re getting coffee downtown on a recent Friday morning, a short walk from the West Village, where Falco has lived for the past 30-something years. (“It went from $425 a month for my studio, to … more.”) In her three decades in the city, Falco’s gone from a struggling SUNY-Purchase grad rollerblading to auditions — she’s always hated the subway — to the heights of premium-cable stardom, spending six seasons as glammed-up Mob wife Carmela Soprano, and seven as the abrasive buzz saw Nurse Jackie, two icons of tri-state-area motherhood.
In person, Falco is more low-key than those larger-than-life characters. She’s a Buddhist who jokes that she’s been in therapy “for 600 years,” and the main drama in her life seems to be figuring out how to get her kids to stop watching so much YouTube. (“Jesus Christ, they’re into Logan Paul.”) Her latest role is quieter, too. She stars in Lynn Shelton’s Outside In, playing a high-school teacher in the Pacific Northwest who reconnects with an old student (Jay Duplass) after he gets out of prison. It’s the kind of small-scale drama she hasn’t done in a while. “You get married, you have a kid, you’re a teacher, and in theory, you’re done. But then, maybe you’re not,” she says of the role. I ask if she relates. Not quite. “I’ve always done whatever I want,” she says. “That’s kind of weird to say out loud, but I guess it’s true.”
Falco says that she doesn’t really think about acting from “an intellectual place,” so over the course of our two-hour conversation looking back on her career, she instead reminisced about her early years in New York, extolled the virtues of Buddhism, talked about why Louis C.K. deserves another chance, and explained why “this is the the last dying gasp of rich white men.”
Was this the first time you’ve worked outside New York in a while?
I was going to say, “ever.” I work in New York, I’m a bit of a stickler that way. I’m raising kids and that’s the excuse I use, but the truth of the matter is, I don’t like leaving home. Even before I had kids, I was never one of those people living out of a suitcase and never knowing what town I’m in when I wake up. I would shoot myself.
There’s a moment in the movie where Jay Duplass is talking about how all he wants is a normal life: come home, eat pizza, watch TV. Your character wants a little more. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I’m closer to sitting at home. I’m sober, and so a lot of my early years in New York, it was partying and mayhem. It served its purpose. If I did it any longer, I probably wouldn’t be here now.
When you say it served its purpose, what do you mean?
I started drinking late. And I caught up very quickly. There were things I was afraid of, things I didn’t think I could do, meeting certain people or behaving in outrageous ways. I’ve always been very shy, I think I still am. But you throw a little alcohol in the mix and that goes away.
I have a lot of fun memories from that time, before it got really bad. I remember a lot of drunken nights on the west side in the West Village. On the highway there were all these piers, but they were broken down. You could walk out onto a completely dilapidated wooden pier. And doing that drunk, not that smart. Thank god I wasn’t my own parent, because I would’ve wrung my own neck.
You went to college around the same time as Stanley Tucci.
He went to Purchase and then left, then I went there. There were posters everywhere: “Stanley Tucci!” Like the captain of the football team that they all still talk about.
It’s funny now that he’s become a meme. Everyone my age has a crush on him.
We all did in college, too. He was like the boy who made good. He started working on Broadway immediately out of school — the shining example of what we all wanted to be. I love that we’re all middle-aged now and we’re all still doing stuff that’s different and exciting.
Wesley Snipes and Parker Posey were also there, which is quite a trio.
You would never put them together under any other circumstances. Wesley was one of two black guys, and they never really knew what to do with him. I remember seeing plays and thinking, He’s gotta play the garage attendant? He got all these shitty parts. When he went out and blew up into this huge movie star, I was very pleased. Parker and I did Hal Hartley movies together, so we’ve known each other a long time.
If someone back then had asked you what kind of actor you wanted to be, what would you have told them?
There was a whole long period of time where I was doing things like Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s movies. Like goofy, naïve, not smart, but charming. I did a ton of that, and so when I got out of school, you start to wonder, is that who I am? But early on I did not have a lot of control. I just did whatever came my way.
Do you remember a moment where it started to click in that this was something you could actually do?
At a certain point I started to realize, I do know how to do this, and I love it. I started to get my confidence back. But as far as making a living, I wasn’t sure I could convince anybody else of that. I did have my friends from school: Hal Hartley, Nick Gomez, Bill Sage. We had a thing called The Shooting Gallery. I don’t know what the hell it was — a production office, a theater company, we’d do readings. I felt like a big fish in a small pond there. That made me realize, if this is all I ever did, I’m totally cool with that.
You made the choice to be a single mom and adopt. When did you decide you wanted kids?
Fifteen-something years ago. I had been in a couple of relationships in a row where we were looking at marriage and then we were looking at kids, and then the relationship fell apart. At first it wasn’t super anything I wanted, but in relationships with these two men in particular, I started to get it. If you’re with someone you love and the idea of raising kids together feels fantastic, it starts to take root. So once the relationships ended, that was still alive in me, especially with that second one. That was also when I had cancer. So once I got a clean bill of health and I realized I wasn’t gonna die, I was like, it’s time to have kids.
When the dust settled, time was of the essence. At 40, I’m gonna be an older parent, and I’m single. So what am I gonna do, like start dating? I was clearer about wanting kids than about wanting a partner at the time. I figured what comes after that, like everything else in my life, will reveal itself.
Would you want to get married?
I don’t know. My kids are a huge percentage of my life space, and then whatever’s left, I have my friends and my Buddhism and other things that are very important to me. It would have to be somebody who understood that. But I’ve always been surprised by what’s been dropped in front of me.
What’s been the biggest surprise?
Becoming a successful actress. Never in my wildest dreams. I waitressed for a gazillion years and then I’d get some little job, and either they would let me go or they would let me get my shifts back when I came back. My whole life was like that for the first 15 years in New York. I had done one movie, and when I came home, I had an awakening: I’m not gonna waitress anymore. I had a little bit of money from the movie to last me for a while, and I didn’t have a plan as to how that was gonna go. I was done. It was one of those divine interventions, and I can’t begin to tell you what happened, but here it is. And I’ve been able to make my way through with not much of a plan.
Your schedule is relatively free after Nurse Jackie. What sort of projects are you looking for?
Another series. It’s a real luxury, the closest thing to a regular job that you can get when you’re an actor. You don’t have to panic. Which never really goes away, that panic that it’s your last job.
Is there a type of character you haven’t played, but would like you?
I’ve become a little obsessed with wanting to play a politician. I’ve mentioned Borgen. I was obsessed with it. Sidse Babett Knudsen – holy mackerel. I love the idea of a series about someone like that.
Another thing that I’ve thought a lot about wanting to play is some kind of spiritual leader, either a guru or a pastor or something like that. Those are people who have definitely affected the trajectory of my life. I wasn’t brought up in any religion. I spent a lot of time searching around, going to lots of different churches and reading different studies of different religions.
How did you land on Buddhism?
It’s a funny story. Back in the day, something like 26 years ago, I was in New York and there was a sign on a telephone pole, which is how you got your information back then. It said, “Learn to Meditate.” I went to this class and it was this young man and he was very charismatic. I was a little scared because it felt a little cult-y. There were a lot of people up front that were smiling a little too much, and that scared me. But I did learn to meditate and I did love what he was talking about.
What does meditating help you with?
Remembering what’s important. Somebody asked me, “If you could tell your younger self one thing…” and all I keep coming back to is stop worrying. It all works out. It’s a weird thing, but if it doesn’t work out, that means something terrible happened and you die. Even under those circumstances, it works out, you know, on the larger scale.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
One of the strongest pieces of Buddhism is the idea of continuous consciousness, that we’ve all had countless lives. So you die in one form and you come back as another person or an animal or whatever, and I do very much believe in that. At first, I really struggled with it, and now it makes all the sense in the world to me. My life has been made immeasurably better by the fact that I have decided to believe in these ideas. So what difference does it make if it’s really true? Very few people can actually say, “Well, what happens is this.”
I know you didn’t watch The Sopranos when you were on it. Have you tried to watch it since?
Oddly enough, a couple summers ago Aida Turturro and I decided to sit down and watch it all in order. We got through the first four of the first season and we stopped. We found ourselves sort of making excuses about it. I think it was too hard, even 20 years later. It’s too evocative, the memories of that time still are so fresh. And also seeing Jimmy so young and vibrant. We would watch them at night, and we’d go home and be in a funk after.
I’ve heard you and James Gandolfini didn’t interact very much out of character.
I was sort of shy, I guess, and I didn’t quite know how to interact with him as Edie. I don’t think I did it on purpose. I found whenever we were alone someplace, we didn’t chat — “Oh, how was your weekend?” We just didn’t. He had a very full life outside of the job and so did I, and they didn’t necessarily intertwine. But they’d yell “Action!” and I’d look at him and then, there’s my husband. On some level that helped keep the experience very pure for me. Like, if I looked at him and thought, Oh, he told me about those glasses that he got… This is not coming from an intellectual place. It’s only in retrospect I realize I’ve done that. Maybe there’s part of me that is doing that to keep the experience very real.
Of all your characters, who’s had the hardest mind-set to get into?
Nurse Jackie was a dark one. Addiction is something I know too much about and it’s something I’ve lived in the cloud of my whole life. To know what it feels like to live your life with that as a constant … It’s like having tinnitus. You can’t ever pretend it’s not there. I spent a lot of years as a drug addict in that, and that was not always fun.
What was it like to revisit that?
I’m sober 25 years, so I have a quite a bit of distance. There was something beautiful about revisiting it without feeling like it was dangerous. I couldn’t have done that show with ten years sobriety. It would not have been pleasant. I’m also a cancer survivor, and I got offered a bunch of scripts about women who had cancer, and I was like, I absolutely can’t do this. When I’m too close to the material, it’s almost like a kryptonite thing. I just get static and I can’t inhabit a different person, maybe because it feels too much like my person.
Your character had cancer in Horace and Pete, right?
That was fine. I’m one of the very lucky people who live to tell about it in a world where I’ve lost so many friends, so many women. But the further it recedes into the background, the safer I feel to portray it.
After Horace and Pete, you were also in Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy. How did you feel when you found out it wouldn’t be released?
I was sad. I know that he worked very hard on it. He shoots that thing and two minutes later he’s ready to release it, which is incredible when you see all the bullshit that goes on between the end of a movie and when it’s released. Louis makes his own stuff and puts it out, and I love that chutzpah.
I’ve been trying to think about why he made the movie in the first place. Did you get a sense of what he was trying to achieve?
I haven’t gone there. The overriding feeling I got about it is, just like I thought The Sopranos was about a family and then I had to be reminded it was about the Mob, from my standpoint, it seemed like it was a movie about a father realizing that all kinds of shit goes on in your life, but ultimately, your kids are most important and you have no control over them. And everything you do is wrong. If you do too much, it’s wrong. If you do too little, it’s wrong. All that shit.
I know it’s not your decision, but do you think Louis should get another chance?
I certainly hope so. He’s someone who admitted that he did what he was accused of doing and admitted that it wasn’t right. If I was not given another chance a couple of times, there is no way we’d be having this interview right now. People who are committed to becoming aware of what they’ve done and changing, they can be our strongest proponents in an issue like this.
But it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Harvey Weinstein wants to make a comeback, too.
I just don’t see it. But then again, I also still believe Trump’s gonna be impeached, so I have no idea. I can’t be shocked anymore by the stuff that happens. It’s almost like a great novel, I can’t wait to get to the end of it. I can’t wait to see how we emerge from this. There’s no way around the changes that need to be made. I think this is the last dying gasp of rich white men.
This interview has been edited and condensed.