Edie Falco On Sobriety, The Sopranos, And Nurse Jackie's Self-Medication

Apr 9, 2014
Originally published on April 9, 2014 2:03 pm

This interview discusses the plotline of Nurse Jackie through the end of season five and beginning of season six.

In Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco plays an ER nurse who does a lot of self-medicating. Addicted to pills, she finally got sober last season and started going to 12-step meetings. But she saved one pill, and right before going to the party celebrating one year of sobriety, she took it. In the sixth season, which starts Sunday on Showtime, Jackie is back on pills and back to hiding her addiction.

Falco gave one of the great performances in TV history as Carmela Soprano on The Sopranos. She joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to talk about both of those roles, as well as her own experiences with sobriety, breast cancer and parenthood.


Interview Highlights

On what she was like as a kid — and how different she was from the characters she plays on TV

I was a really compliant sort of kid. I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes, which annoyed my siblings to no end. I was the one who would tattle if I smelled pot smoke coming from the other end of the hallway. Like, "Mom, I don't want to say anything but ..." But I did. I got a reputation. ...

I get to live it out now. It's one of the beauties of the thing I do for a living. ... It feels tremendously good to act out in anger and feel righteous about it and not have there be any real ramifications is exquisite, yes, I recommend it. ... And then they yell "cut," and I can give a big hug and kiss to whatever child I'm acting opposite, which I always do because it's mortifying.

On parenting, on-screen and off

The things that go on in parenting I have been shocked by — my own reactions to things, my children's reactions to my reactions — they kind of are otherworldly. There's very little that brings out more deep-seated stuff than the parent-child relationship, I've found. ... You don't even know what's going to come out of your mouth when you feel as helpless as you sometimes do in the face of a smart kid. ...

This is going to be terrible, but I'll tell you: My son had an issue with coming into my bed — this is some years ago now — and he kept coming ... in the middle of the night when I'm half asleep. I was working at the time, I was getting four or five hours of sleep, and he came into my bed and I think the words were, "If you don't get out of my bed I will throw you down the stairs." My son looked at me wide-eyed and went back to bed.

And then in the morning, he said, "Did you say last night that you were going to throw me down the stairs?" And I was like, blushing, I said, "Anderson, I said that to you, and I cannot believe I said that." It has become now something we joke about. Everyone once in a while he'll say, "What? Are you going to throw me down the stairs?"

I'm like, "Anderson, I'm sorry! I'm not responsible for what I say at 3:00 in the morning when I'm not getting sleep." It's really insane what happens under dire circumstances, lack of sleep, and you know, kids who want their way.

On her own struggle with addiction, and whether it draws her to certain characters

I have to say, I never really know what makes me want to do a role. It's some sort of wordless place, you know? I imagine that everything I've ever been through is contributing on some level to the decisions I make, but I'm not privy to them. ...

The addiction piece, I have to say, is a huge part of my life. Not just my own, but that of many people I love. The helplessness around that, and learning to deal with that, and all the various 12-step programs I've been a part of over the years, and how much they've helped me, and how hard it is to love somebody who is going through that and remain distant enough to not let it crush you each time. All that stuff is of tremendous interest to me. That keeps me very deeply involved in Jackie's journey.

On Carmela, the character she played on The Sopranos -- and specifically Carmela's outfits

Carmela's nails were a whole thing. ... She could never really touch anything. There was always this miniscule distance between her and everything in her environment. ... When I've looked at it, it seems like my hands were always up, bent at the elbows, almost like the nails would hit something if she went too close, or something. That was a big part of it. ... That she was somehow protected by armor from her whole environment in one way or another, internally and externally. ...

I would go into the trailer on Sopranos and I'd be in there for two hours between the hair curling and straightening and pinning and tons of make-up and the nails to put on and the jewelry, and the costume itself. There was a whole order in which I had to do these things.

On being diagnosed with breast cancer while filming The Sopranos

I found out in the morning, and then I had to go to work, and I told very few people, but I told the producer. ... I said, "I have an opportunity to meet this doctor in an hour, can I go and do that and then come back and shoot?" And that's what I did. I met this one doctor who talked me through the next step or whatever, and then I went and shot a couple of scenes after that, and that was pretty surreal.

I don't remember a whole lot of that day except that I was not there much at all. And it was OK because there were scenes where [James Gandolfini] and I were ... something about walking in a parking lot with a bag of groceries, and I had to drop the groceries or something.

It's funny; I have very weird memories of that day. But it helped me to just keep moving, to not have it be this huge comma in my life where everything waited. I was able to pretty much keep up my schedule and go through what I needed to go through. I wouldn't have done well if everybody had known.

On auditioning for The Sopranos

I went in, and I just did exactly what this character should be in my mind, from my estimation — also knowing that there was no way I'd get cast because I was not the stereotypical Italian-American-looking actress, and I knew who was. There's something very powerful about going in to just do it for the heck of it.

You know, there's a huge lesson in there. The pain in life is contingent upon one's expectations for the most part. ... So I was calm and relaxed. ... I think I got a call that day or the next day. ... It was a monstrous sum of money for me at the time, and all I thought was, "I cannot believe I can pay off my student loans with one check." ... I broke out in a sweat at the size of that relief.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "NURSE JACKIE")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Well not exactly sober. That was my guest Edie Falco in the final scene of last season's finale of "Nurse Jackie," in which she plays an ER nurse who's addicted to pills. Last season, Jackie got sober and started going to 12-step meetings, but she saved one pill, and right before going to the party celebrating one year of sobriety, she took it.

At the start of the sixth season, which begins Sunday on Showtime, Jackie is back on pills and back to hiding her addiction. Edie Falco gave one of the great performances in TV history as Carmella Soprano on "The Sopranos." We're going to talk about both of those roles, as well as her own experiences with sobriety, breast cancer and parenthood. Her characters have had tough times with their teenage children.

Let's start with a scene from this Sunday's season premiere of "Nurse Jackie." Although Jackie is back on drugs, she's still going to her 12-step meetings pretending to be sober. In this scene, she's at a restaurant with one of the women from the meeting who likes to speak her mind even if it means being rude to another member of the group. Here's Edie Falco and Julie White.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "NURSE JACKIE")

: (As Jackie) I know it's supposed to help, but I (beep) hate the program.

JULIE WHITE: (As character) Me, too. It's all of that 12-step God talk. It just drives me up a tree, which is why I kind of pick and choose: a little of the big book, some therapy, dash of Oprah. I mean, it's taken me a long time and a few slips to find my path. How about you?

: (As Jackie) Well, the day of my one-year anniversary, they got me a nice cake. I took a pill.

WHITE: (As character) Ooh. My first relapse I went on a three-month bender. It was so much work, all the lying and hiding.

: (As Jackie) Trying to catch the next high.

WHITE: (As character) Oh, explaining to my husband where the money went.

: (As Jackie) Trying to cover the high instead of just relaxing into it.

WHITE: (As character) That was the worst.

: (As Jackie) Do you want to tell these people just get away from me so I can enjoy this.

WHITE: (As character) I took a lot of bubble baths with a bottle of whiskey.

: (As Jackie) Sounds nice.

WHITE: (As character) It was so nice, which is why that was just my first relapse.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: (As character) Keep going to meetings, work the steps. You've got a sponsor.

: (As Jackie) I'm not very good with authority.

WHITE: (As character) OK, I am very good with people who are not good with authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: (As Jackie) OK.

GROSS: That's a scene from the new season of "Nurse Jackie." Edie Falco, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you back on the show.

: A pleasure to be here.

GROSS: So I'm kind of sorry that Jackie's back on drugs. It's like a nice plot twist, but I hate to see that happen to her. How do you feel about her relapse?

: Not unlike the way I feel about anybody's relapse, even though she's pretend. You know, it does, I think, pretty accurately mirror the experience in real life of when someone that you know is not able to stay onboard. It's heartbreaking and makes you feel helpless and all that stuff. So I think it's pretty accurate.

GROSS: But isn't there the actress part of you thinking great, more plot twists?

(LAUGHTER)

: Not really.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No?

: I don't know. I mean, there are quite - frankly, there are, from my vantage point, far more plot twists in an individual trying to stay clean. It's way harder. So, you know, whatever. I'm not the writer, and I'm thrilled to do whatever they put in front of me, but it's funny. The actress part of me is also somehow connected to the human part of me. And I don't know, you kind of want to put out there that it's possible to free oneself from this, but I'm not the writer, as I said, so I'm happy to do whatever is put in front of me.

GROSS: Do you feel like you understand why she would have chosen the first anniversary of her sobriety to start using again?

: Absolutely. The mind of an addict is so seemingly irrational to an outsider, but there are all kinds of things at play that are not easily understood. But, you know, she's about to hit a huge milestone, and if the interior work isn't done, like the why she uses drugs in the first place, it's kind of hard to just be OK with the way it looks on the outside.

So from my vantage point, she was not making her priority to remain sober, and so it will slip away.

GROSS: I want to get another scene in here, and this is from the previous season of "Nurse Jackie," toward the - it's like the next to the last episode of the previous season. And at this point her teenage daughter, who is going through a difficult phase, has started using pills.

So in this scene, Jackie's ex-husband has brought their teenage daughter to the hospital to, like, leave her with Jackie. And along with the daughter, he's brought the pills that he's found that his daughter is using, and he's, like, shocked to find this. And of course Jackie is outraged that her daughter has started using pills. But the daughter is acting all innocent and saying oh, no, these aren't my pills, these are my mother's pills, she's using again.

And at this point Jackie has not started using pills again. They're not hers. So she takes her daughter in the hospital for mother-daughter blood tests to prove who's really using, you know, who's really taking these pills. And they're having a fight as they're having these blood tests, and also in the room is Nurse Zoey and Jackie's ex-husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "NURSE JACKIE")

: (As Jackie) Where did you get the drugs?

RUBY JERINS: (As Grace Peyton) It's not that hard to get Aderol.

MERRITT WEVER: (As Zoey Barkow) I think you need to make her feel like she can tell you the truth.

: (As Jackie) Zoey, please. Who got it for you?

JERINS: (As Grace) Nobody got them for me. I got them from a girl at school.

: (As Jackie) You were taking drugs at school?

JERINS: (As Grace) I was studying at Danny's, and we tried it, and I got an A on my test. That's it.

: (As Jackie) OK, so you were just studying and taking drugs with a boy you lied about not seeing anymore. Really, so that's it?

JERINS: (As Grace) Yeah, mom, I took something, and I still did everything I was supposed to do. You know what that's like, right?

: (As Jackie) OK, she's with me today, all day.

JERINS: (As Grace) Um, I have school.

: (As Jackie) Welcome to Scare the (Beep) Out of You High.

JERINS: (As Grace) I (beep) hate you.

: (As Jackie) Grace?

DOMINIC FUMUSA: (As Kevin Peyton) Whoa, we're just swearing at each other now? Enough.

: (As Jackie) All right, can you go over and talk to Danny and his parents? Make sure the message is loud and clear. He is to stay away from Grace. We are a zero-tolerance household.

FUMUSA: (As Kevin) Yeah, yeah that's a good idea.

JERINS: (As Grace) Oh, are you guys like friends now? Awesome. That's great timing.

GROSS: So that was a scene from the previous "Nurse Jackie" with my guest Edie Falco as Jackie, Dominic Fumusa as her ex-husband, Ruby Jerins as her teenage daughter and Merritt Wever as Nurse Zoey. So you and Carmella from "The Sopranos" had similar problems: teenage kids who were rebelling, talking back to you, which I suppose is pretty typical, yeah.

: I was going to say Jackie, Carmella and every mother I've ever heard of.

GROSS: Right, and you've both tried - you know, both characters have tried tough love in ways that aren't necessarily very effective.

: Right.

GROSS: So you have two children, age nine and six. Are you dreading their teenage years based on the series that you've starred in?

: You know, you can live in denial for a few more years in my case that somehow it'll be different for me. So I'm kind of hanging on for dear life to that at the moment. But, you know, if present behavior is any indication, you know, I'm in for a wallop.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's not what I thought you were going to say.

(LAUGHTER)

: So sorry. No, I have two very, very bright, very willful kids and with me as a mom. So, you know, it's a lot of energy and headstrong individualism in my household.

GROSS: Can you imagine saying any of the things that Jackie or Carmella have said to their teenagers?

: I would like to say no, but the things that go on in parenting, I have been shocked by my own reactions to things, my children's reactions to my reactions. They kind of are otherworldly. There is very little that brings out more deep-seated stuff than the parent-child relationship, I have found. You don't even know what's going to come out of your mouth when you feel as helpless as you sometimes do in the face of a, you know, a smart kid.

GROSS: What's an example of something that you've said that's really surprised you?

: Oh gosh, this is going to be terrible, but I'll tell you. My son was - issue with coming into my bed. This is some years ago now, and he kept coming in my bed in the middle of the night when I'm half-asleep. I was working at the time, so I was getting four or five hours of sleep. And he came into my bed, and I think the words if you don't get out of my bed, I will throw you down the stairs.

(LAUGHTER)

: My son looked at me wide-eyed and went back into bed, and then in the morning, he said did you say last night that you were going to throw me down the stairs? And I was like blushing. I said Anderson(ph), I said that to you, and I cannot believe I said - it has become now something we joke about, and every once in a while, he's like what, you're going to throw me down the stairs? I'm like Anderson, I'm sorry, I'm not responsible for what I say at 3 in the morning when I'm not getting sleep.

So anyway yes, it's really insane what happens under dire circumstances, lack of sleep and, you know, kids who want their way. So I'm not proud of that, and I'm deeply working on it, let's just say.

GROSS: Your parents divorced when you were 14. Were there big fights in your family?

: There - you know, there were, I guess. It's funny how it's like a big blur, a lot of what happened when I was younger, and it's funny I didn't even know that I was 14 when that happened, so...

GROSS: Well, I read that. I can't guarantee you that that was accurate, but that's what I read.

: I think it might - I think I might have been younger. And then they also remarried each other. So I'm not quite sure when these things happened.

GROSS: Oh gosh, really?

: Yeah, and then they, you know, they split up and got back together any number of times but without the paperwork. So it's a little complicated as to what happened when. But yeah, there were fights.

GROSS: Did you mouth off to them at, like, the teenagers'...

: You know, I didn't. You know, they may, if asked this question, they make think otherwise, but I don't think I did. I was a really compliant sort of kid. I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes, which annoyed my siblings no end. I was the one who would tattle if I smelled pot smoke coming from...

(LAUGHTER)

: It's like mom, I don't want to say anything, but...

(LAUGHTER)

: But I did. So yeah, I got a reputation.

GROSS: There's a long distance between the goody-two-shoes and the characters that you're most famous for, Nurse Jackie and Carmella.

: Well, it's because I didn't go through it then. So I get to live it out now. It's one of the beauties of the thing I do for a living.

GROSS: Does it feel good to...?

: It feels tremendously good, yeah. To act out in anger and to feel righteous about it and to not have there be any real ramifications is exquisite. I recommend it to anyone who might be interested.

GROSS: The ramifications are all good, I mean for you. It's great acting performances.

: Yeah, exactly. And then, you know, they yell cut, and I can give a big hug and kiss to whatever child I'm acting opposite, which I always do.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Really?

: Because it's mortifying. I'll say, you know I'm not really mean.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So did you - what's the name of the actor who played Anthony, Jr.

: Oh, Robert Iler.

GROSS: Robert Iler, yeah. You had these incredible fights with him because he was the child left at home when Meadow, your daughter, was already on her own and in college.

: Right.

GROSS: And he was just so lost, you know, just so very lost. And he would have these, like, terrible fights with you. Would you give him a big hug afterwards?

: Oh my gosh, yes. I just adore that boy so much. It's weird, you bring him up, and he comes to my mind, and it feels like a long, involved dream that I had, you know, where he was my son. And it's such a crazy thing that I do for a living because they are all dreams, sometimes as real as my real life, with an emotional content almost as dimensional, you know.

But yes, I loved him very much, and he was such a sweet kid, and so yes, I was constantly apologizing for the work I had to do.

GROSS: Your role in "Nurse Jackie" connects with two major things that have happened in your life. You had breast cancer. I'm sure you spent a lot of time in hospitals. And also you had an alcohol problem. So you understand the difficulties of sobriety. Did that figure in to your wanting to do the role?

: I have to say I never really know exactly what makes me want to a role. It's some sort of wordless place, you know. And I imagine that everything I've ever been through is contributing on some level to the decisions I make. But I'm not privy to them on some level. But the addiction piece, I have to say, is a huge part of my life, not just my own but that of many people I love.

And the helplessness around that and learning to deal with that and all the various 12-step programs I've been a part of over the years and how much they've helped me, and how hard it is to love somebody who's going through that and remain distant enough to not let it crush you each time, all that stuff is of tremendous interest to me. So that keeps me very deeply involved in Jackie's journey, you know, that part.

And the whole nurse piece, I mean, the breast cancer aside, just all my dealings with nurses, it is such a tremendously selfless way to spend one's life, one that I know I couldn't do. I have a tremendous amount of respect for these people, who really are - they take mounds of crap from people, literally and otherwise, just to help them. It's as close to sainthood as I've seen people get, you know.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Edie Falco, who is now starring in "Nurse Jackie," and the new season is about to begin. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Edie Falco, who stars on the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie," and the series is about to start its new season on Sunday. She also starred, of course, as Carmella in "The Sopranos." So does playing somebody, Nurse Jackie, who's always struggling not to use and has just succumbed and is taking pills again, does that amplify your own difficulties as somebody who, you know, is sober and has to work to stay that way?

: No, no, it makes me more firmly grounded. I don't know that everybody has this reaction, but it's been a very rough year. I've lost a lot of friends this year to various things, but a number of them have been drug and alcohol related. And like I'm not an old person, and these people are my age and younger. And each time this happened, I, you know, there are no words for the waves of gratitude that came over me that I am clear, that for the moment, you know, as they say AA, a day at a time, but that I'm safe, and I'm doing the work involved to stay this way and that another person was just taken down. You know?

And no, it does not shake me. For some reason it makes me stronger. And I do not want this to continue so that I remain stronger, but I think I'm also in a place where I can take most things and translate it into something that makes me stronger, which is a testament to the fact that I've put a lot of work into this stuff because it's important.

GROSS: Was Philip Seymour Hoffman one of the people who you knew?

: Yeah, yeah he was. You know, what's there to say that hasn't been said about that? It's beyond my comprehension that he's gone.

GROSS: Since the previous season of "Nurse Jackie" ends on her first anniversary of sobriety. Do you remember what your first anniversary was like?

: I do. I was shooting a movie in Italy on my first anniversary, and I was very nervous about that. You know, it was Italy, so there was wine with every meal, and I wasn't getting to meetings, and the thing is I felt pretty firm. I was not feeling shaky at all at the time. I was on, you know, what they sometimes call a pink cloud, where you can't believe how exquisite being sober is.

But nonetheless, I happened to - I don't know if I mentioned it to somebody or what, but there was somebody there with me who had four years. I must have told him. And we sat around and had, like, a two-person AA meeting on the day of my one-year anniversary. It made a world of difference. If you are open to it, you'll see everywhere you are you can find stability in one form or another. If you are open to it, it is pretty much anywhere you might be.

GROSS: Jackie and Carmella are both very tough, and they have a real mouth when they need it. But Jackie lives in the world of work. You know, she's a nurse, and she's a very excellent one. And Carmella lived in the world of suburban mobster wives.

(LAUGHTER)

: Right.

GROSS: How did you talk differently in each of those roles and walk differently? Carmella was almost always wearing heels, and she had that little high-heeled mincing walk that she'd use, you know.

: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And Jackie is, like, she is busy at the hospital, and she is like striding around, you know. So it's a really different walk.

: Yeah, well any woman knows when you put sneakers on, you walk one way; you put heels on, you walk another way. And also Carmella's nails were a whole thing, too, that she could never really touch anything. There was always this, you know, miniscule distance between her and everything in her environment. So there was something...

GROSS: So those really long nails?

: Yeah, and so I always - that somehow had something - like when I've looked at it, it seems like my hands were always up, like bent at the elbows, almost like the nails would hit something if she went too close or something. And that was a big part of it, too, being her, that she was somehow protected by armor from her whole environment in one way or another, internally and externally.

GROSS: Is it a relief not to be dressing in Carmella's clothes but rather to just be wearing a blue nursing uniform a lot of the time?

(LAUGHTER)

: Yes, well that was another reason for choosing this show, to be honest with you, was the low-maintenance version of it because the whole Carmella getup was very time-consuming, and in the beginning it was very exciting. And then, you know, whatever, nine years in, I thought I was going to, you know, rip my hair out at the roots.

But it was a big part of who she was, but when I - when it came to choosing another, you know, another character to be for a while, that was a big part. It was also why I cut my hair. I just thought I just want to get rid of all this stuff. But everything comes in waves. You know, a good number of years into "Nurse Jackie," I thought I want my hair back. So yeah...

GROSS: It's much longer now.

: Yes, it is, it is.

GROSS: Why did it take so long to become, to physically become Carmella before the shoot each day?

: Well I'm, as far as - I was going to say personal style, but that's, there actually is none, of Jackie's...

(LAUGHTER)

: It's - I'm closer to her than Carmella. I'm a very low-maintenance individual myself. So I would go into the trailer on "Sopranos," and I'd be in there for two hours between the hair curling and straightening and pinning and the tons of makeup and the nails to put on and the jewelry. Yeah, it was a whole - and the costume itself. There was a whole way, an order in which I had to do these things. I had to put my jewelry on before the nails because then I couldn't put it on without the nails.

I had a dog at the time who was in my trailer while I was playing - while I was on "Sopranos," and she started to choke on a chicken bone. And I panicked, and I stuck my finger in her mouth and realized I can't reach it because of the nails. I ripped my fingernails off to get my finger down the dog's throat and pull the chicken bone off. It was just many of the - and she was fine. But it was one of the many issues about having to be this other person.

GROSS: So were they fake nails?

: They were fake nails. I glued them on every day.

GROSS: Oh right. Edie Falco will be back in the second half of the show. She stars in the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Edie Falco. She stars in the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie," which begins its sixth season Sunday. She starred in "The Sopranos" as Carmela, Tony Soprano's wife.

I feel like "The Sopranos," although it ended years ago, is still so fresh for me. Because even though I watched it the first time around, I had been watching reruns of it over the past couple of months because it played on HBO Signature, which is one of the HBO channels. But anyways, the series just ended, you know, like a couple of weeks ago. You were telling me before there's episodes you have never seen.

: Yeah. Well, we made a lot of them. We made - I don't know the number, but pretty close to 100. And also watching them is a different experience, of course, for me than for someone who wasn't involved in it. There's a lot of judgment, like oh, that didn't work or that, or I hate the way that outfit looks or you know what I mean, and so sometimes I would avoid the experience altogether because the episodes just kept coming. So I will eventually. I keep thinking I'll be ready sooner than I am to sit down and watch the series in its entirety. I would love to, see if I could get a little bit of the experience that people seem to have gotten from watching this and maybe from a further vantage point I would enjoy that.

GROSS: You know what I was wondering? One of the defining traits of Carmela, Tony Soprano's wife, is that she is in such denial. I mean she knows what she wants to know when she needs to know it. And when she doesn't need to know it and wants to deny it, she doesn't know it.

: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So she really knows that Tony is, you know, the head of the mob in his part of Jersey.

: Right.

GROSS: But she doesn't know the specific details of like who's he's beaten up or who he's ordered killed or who...

: Right.

GROSS: ...he's extorting. But, you know, she gets the gist of it.

: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But, you know, she acts very innocent about it...

: Right.

GROSS: ...unless she wants to intimidate somebody, and in that case, like her husband's Tony Soprano, do you know who he is?

: Right.

GROSS: But anyways, I was wondering if you almost protected yourself from watching some episodes so that you wouldn't know or Carmela wouldn't know...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...about the actual acts of brutality...

: Wow.

GROSS: ...that Tony was responsible for or, you know, the person himself who was doing the killing or the brutalizing.

: Right. I never thought of that. That's actually highly possible. I was aware more about I didn't want to see him with other women.

GROSS: Really?

: That was the part that I found harder to - that Edie found harder to see. There was no way I couldn't let it get into my system in a way that would bother me. It gets very complicated, this stuff - you know, this whole acting stuff. And not just, it's not just a play or movie; this went on for 10 years, so there is this alter ego thing about what actually goes on that the character-slash-me - that I don't know about. So, yeah, I think on some level to protect myself from the other women, I didn't watch it so much. But I had less of a hard time about the people he was killing, which I'm sure is more for me and my shrink to talk about, but we'll get to that.

GROSS: I think Carmela might have been that way.

: Yeah. Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: But you couldn't watch any of it because Tony was with a woman in just about every episode.

(LAUGHTER)

: Hey, I still haven't watched them, so don't tell me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, you're in - you're in for some heartbreak.

(LAUGHTER)

: I'm still in, you know, whatever, 10 years later I'm still in denial.

GROSS: Well, your characters used to fight a lot. And I thought I'd play an example of one of the fights. And this is a session, your first session, with Tony's therapist, Dr. Melfi, who's played by Lorraine Brocco. And you're there with Tony to, you know, talk about his anxiety attacks. And, of course, it ends up in a big fight. So here's the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

GROSS: That's a scene from "The Sopranos"...

: Holy mackerel. Wow.

GROSS: ...with my guest Edie Falco and with James Gandolfini and Lorraine Brocco. What was it like for you to listen to that?

: Oh my gosh. So bizarre. It's like another life, another lifetime. A lifetime ago. I have a million thoughts. But I forgot how good the writing is and how funny it is and how much to mention each of the characters have. And, you know, the sound of each voice is so familiar and so kind of - not forgotten, but certainly far away. So it's a big deal.

GROSS: You were saying earlier that when you would have a fight with one - a fight in character with one of your children on "The Sopranos," when the scene was over you'd give him a big hug just so that they knew the difference between your real feelings about them and Carmela's anger at their character.

: Right.

GROSS: So when you would have a big fight with Tony - which you would do frequently on "The Sopranos" - would you and James Gandolfini express your genuine appreciation and respect for each other afterwards?

(LAUGHTER)

: No.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Not necessary because you're adults?

: Not at all. We're adults. Yeah, we're adults. And also I said before, also that Jim and I, we didn't know each other all that well, really. We didn't socialize much and it was not on purpose, I don't think, or at least not consciously so. But, and I can only speak for myself, but I think because of that or maybe because I wanted that to be the case, he really existed only as Tony to me because there wasn't really a lot of information about Jim, the guy who showed up to play Tony. So, you know, a lot of it felt pretty real and to sort of jump back to our real people at the end of the scene would have felt less satisfying for me, you know. We pretty much were husband and wife when we were on that set and it made an exquisitely satisfying acting experience, for sure, and you know, world experience, but, yeah, the fact that we were very much Tony and Carmela.

GROSS: Were you particularly sad when he died that you never got to know him as a man?

: You know, that's a complicated question. Gosh. I don't know. I mean I love Jim very much but we both had very, very full lives on different sides of the country. And the nature of this business that I'm in is so bizarre that you can have that kind of close, however pretend relationship with an actor and then not really have them in your life much at all afterwards. I think it's more the rule than not that, you know, you move on to another project and those people become your family. It's sort of an odd - it's definitely an odd - career choice for someone who, you know, like anybody who wants connection.

GROSS: Were people worried about his health in the final years of "The Sopranos"?

: Again, I can't speak for anybody else but, you know, I was certainly. He, you know, he was putting on weight and he wasn't being careful about what he was eating. And he had all kinds of problems with his knees. I guess he had knee surgery and then for periods of time he'd have, in between scenes, he'd have like ice packs on his knees and he was trying to get physical therapy. There was always something that he was struggling with and at the same time trying to learn, you know, five pages of dialogue for the next day's work and still having two scenes to shoot and having a little boy at home or, you know, it's a lot. It was a lot. He had a lot of things on his plate. But, you know, you ask yourself, oh, what's the worst that could happen? And it happened, you know, which is it makes you realize, oh, they're not kidding. You really have no choice but to take care of yourself 'cause it otherwise won't end well, you know?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Edie Falco, who stars now in "Nurse Jackie" on Showtime. The new season begins on Sunday. She also, of course, played Carmela on "The Sopranos."

Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Edie Falco. She stars now in the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie," which begins its new season on Sunday. She also starred in "The Sopranos" as Carmela.

You had a lot on your plate during the making of "Sopranos." During "The Sopranos" you were diagnosed with breast cancer.

: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: And from what I've read, like the day you were diagnosed you went to the set and shot a scene.

: Yeah. Yeah. I found out in the morning, and then I had to go to work, and I said - I told very few people, but I told the producer - one of the producers. And I said, I have an opportunity to meet this doctor in an hour, can I go and do that and then come back and shoot? And that's what I did. I met this one doctor, who talked me through the next step or whatever, and then I went and shot a couple of scenes after that, and that was pretty surreal.

I, you know, I don't remember a whole lot of that day except that I was not there much at all. And it was OK because I think they were scenes where he and I were, something about walking in a parking lot with a bag of groceries, and I had to drop the groceries or something.

It's funny - I have very weird memories of that day, but yeah. Yeah. But it helped me to just keep moving, to not have it be this huge, you know, comma in my life where everything waited. I was able to pretty much keep up my schedule and go through what I needed to go through. I wouldn't have done well if everybody had known and been - it's so funny; I watch people who are diagnosed now and how differently they deal with it than I did. I also know I think I would do with the differently today than I did back then. Hopefully I won't have to but, you know, you are who you are at that time and I needed to keep it very private and that helped me get through it.

GROSS: So was the producer the only person who knew on the set?

: The producer and I think she told David Chase at some point and that was it.

GROSS: So nobody knew the whole time?

: No. No. It was - that was very important to me. I had, you know, I have my own hair for the whole show, all these big crazy blonde getups were actually my own hair until I lost my hair and they made a wig. But nobody, you know, nobody noticed the difference at all. It all looked exactly the same and I believe...

GROSS: So the makeup people probably knew, right?

: Yes. That's right. My hair and makeup people knew. That's - is that right? That's right.

GROSS: And they kept your secret?

: Yes. That's right. And they, well, they started doing my hair and makeup a little more privately because normally we all sit in there and we chat and stuff. But when I had to go put my hair on, you know, they would bring me to another room. Until then I had been wearing a hat or something. Also, it was towards the end of the season so we were doing crazy hours and everybody was exhausted. People were wiped out. So the truth is I looked better than anybody on the set so nobody noticed that anything was going on with me.

You know, we were all going through it at the time.

GROSS: So let me ask you. Like one of the side effects of chemo, a common side effect is mouth sores.

: Ha.

GROSS: You didn't have that?

: No.

GROSS: Oh, because I was thinking it might've been hard to do your lines with...

: Yeah. No, I didn't have that.

GROSS: Good.

: I've - yeah. I've talked to a number of women who have been diagnosed since me just to kind of talk them through what my experience was. And I, I think because I'm just made up of strong stuff and I also, by that point I was already taking care of myself very well, so I fared tremendously well during the chemo. I, you know, actually it sounds psychotic but I kind of loved the day or two after chemo because you get a steroid and I was a runner at the time and I kept running through the whole thing as my hair was falling out. But I could run my butt off. Like the day after chemo I was running, like, five miles in, like, 40 minutes or some crazy thing. I remember thinking this is great. So anyway, the one thing I remember is that smells were really rough.

Because I would run along the West Side Highway and suddenly the smells of gasoline and just the city smells were way harder to take when I was on chemo for whatever reason.

GROSS: What was your audition like for "The Sopranos"?

: It was at the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West, which I think is gone now, I guess. And I was very busy at the time and I was told that it was an audition for a thing called "Sopranos" and I figured it was about singers but I would just go in and do it anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

: I went in there and it was David Chase and, oh gosh, a couple other people. Johnny Ventimiglia, who ended up playing Artie Bucco, was reading the part of Tony Soprano.

GROSS: Artie Bucco has the Italian restaurant...

: That's right.

GROSS: ...that they hang out in. Yeah.

: Exactly. And he was reading the part of Tony in the audition and a couple other people were there but I don't remember quite so well. And I went in and I just did exactly what I knew this character should be in my mind, from my estimation, also knowing that there's no way I would get cast because I was not the stereotypical Italian-American looking actress and I knew who was.

And I thought - there's something very powerful about going in to just do it for the heck of it. You know, and there's of course a huge lesson in there. You know, life is - the pain in life is contingent upon one's expectations, for the most part. So if I went in there just to sort of enjoy the day, which is what I did, you tend to show your best self.

So anyway, what I was, was calm and relaxed. And so I did this audition and then he asked me to read some other scene and I left and that was the end of that. And I got a call, I think, like that day or the next day from Meg Mortimer, my agent at the time, who said, yeah, they want you to do this thing. I thought, oh, wow.

And it was a monstrous sum of money for me at the time. And all I thought was I cannot believe I can pay off my student loan with one check, with this one check that I'm going to get. It was, like, I broke out in a sweat at the size of that relief because, you know, money - a constant source of anguish in my life. A huge piece of it was just eaten up by this check I was going to get, which was - of course there was this great job which was just a pilot at the time but, you know, money, for a struggling actor is a very, very big deal. Not news to anybody, I'm sure.

GROSS: What was the audition scene?

: One of them was sitting opposite Tony when he tells me he's going to start seeing a therapist. Oh, he said I want to tell you something. And I think he's going to tell me something about an affair or something so I hold my glass of wine in a position so I can splash it in his face or something. From the very first episode, that was one of the scenes. Gosh, I don't know what else. I think there were, like, three or four scenes.

I was lucky also in that I memorize quickly. So I remember I was shooting "Oz" and memorizing these scenes from "Sopranos" and wondering why they even bothered to call me in.

GROSS: So you memorize easily? That's great. You're lucky.

: I do. Yeah. Yeah. Much to the chagrin of many of my acting friends. I just - it comes easily to me. You know.

GROSS: Did that help you in school? Did you do well on tests because you could memorize easily?

: Yeah. Yeah. I'm also at the age now where I can't remember my kids' names, like if you asked me right now.

(LAUGHTER)

: So it's a very odd dichotomy here. But for some reason memorizing lines is not an issue but, you know, what I had for breakfast or whatever is a whole other issue.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Edie Falco, who stars in the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie." And the new season begins this Sunday. And of course Edie Falco also played Carmela on "The Sopranos." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Edie Falco who stars as Nurse Jackie in the series "Nurse Jackie" on Showtime. It starts its new season on Sunday. She also starred as Carmela in "The Sopranos." So you grew up on Long Island in New York. Describe your neighborhood.

: Well, I grew up on the South Shore originally, down in West Islip. And the neighborhood was all kids my age and as I have said recently, I don't remember having shoes on for much of my childhood. I was a real tomboy. I was always beating up the neighborhood boys and riding my bike and trying to show off and climbing trees. And I was always cut up, had, you know, scabs on my knees. I was a real, real tough little girl, I guess.

But I remember it being like a big, giant safe place because at every home was one of my friends, a kid that I walked to school with or spent the summers building tree forts with or whatever we used to do. That was on - until high school, I guess. And after middle school I moved to Northport, New York, which was a stunning town on the water.

GROSS: So earlier you said you were a goody two-shoes when you were young.

: Yeah. Well, I was - I didn't do any bad stuff. I didn't - I wasn't...

GROSS: You were just beating up the boys in the neighborhood.

: Yeah. Well, they said, all right. They'd say - what was the expression? I call you out. It was like you want to call me out, you're going to get it. And I sent one kid to the hospital. I pushed him down really hard and gravel went into his knee. He never bothered me again, I'll tell you that much.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So...

: But, yeah. But I was goody two-shoes.

GROSS: So you do have some real, like, tough - a tough inner core.

: Yeah, I suppose I do. I suppose I do. Yeah. From my early, early days. But I also did my schoolwork and I, you know, was a good kid. I never - I wasn't particularly rebellious at all, actually.

GROSS: OK. Let me play one more scene and this is a scene from "30 Rock" in which you were a guest star. And you were playing C. C. Cunningham, a liberal congresswoman from Vermont.

: Right.

GROSS: Who meets Jack Donaghy, the Alec Baldwin character, at a party and you end up sleeping together but it's only the next day that he realizes that you're a liberal congresswoman and you realize he works for NBC. And you're actually helping to sue NBC for a company that it owns, a wig company, that released chemicals in Vermont that seeped into waters - I think actually released it into the waters and it turned the nearby children orange.

: Yes. Yes. It's all coming back to me now. Yes.

GROSS: So this is, like, the morning after, after, you know, you've both realized this. And you come to meet Jack in a back elevator to return his phone that you thought was your own, so you mistakenly took his phone.

: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Which of course, has a different ring than yours does.

: Right.

GROSS: So here's the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

: Oh, my heaven.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That was Alec Baldwin and my guest Edie Falco in a scene from "30 Rock." That's a different kind of comedy than I think you were used to playing.

: Oh, for sure. For sure. I felt deeply out of my realm. I mean, Alec and Tina Fey are just such masters at it. I would look at them like as if they were speaking Mandarin. The ease with which they're able to do a whole different type of acting was just - it floored me. Very impressive.

GROSS: Well, of course she's one of the writers of it, so. That comes naturally to her.

: Yes.

GROSS: So was that fun to do?

: It was tremendous fun but I did really feel out of my element. I mean, I sort of felt like, oh, I wish I could do this for a very long time and get better at it, you know? It was hard to just pop in and give it a try and then walk away from it. But it's even just fun to be with those people. They were just great.

GROSS: So you told us earlier that when "The Sopranos" was on you didn't watch all the episodes. There's a lot of episodes that you missed.

: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And that it really hurt you if you saw Tony with another woman.

: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Which happened on most episodes.

: Right. Right.

GROSS: So what about with "Nurse Jackie"? Do you watch it? Are there things you can't see in that because it's too upsetting?

: I do watch it. I watch it more because I have more of a hand in what goes on. Not because I wasn't offered it on "Sopranos," it was less interesting to me then. So I do watch it more. And scenes that I can't watch? Not so much. I'm trying to think. I mean, some of the gory stuff is not thrilling. And because the special effects people we work with, Vince is really tremendously talented.

But it's funny - I am such a Merritt Wever fan, the character Zoey, that, you know, I've wanted to be on set on days when she is shooting even if I'm not working just because I - she's really, unbeknownst to her, a master. And around her scenes I get the way people used to get around "Sopranos," or so they said. Everybody needs to be quiet. I don't want anybody stepping in front of the TV.

You know, I just want to see what she does. I just think she's magnificent.

GROSS: Well, Edie Falco, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

: Oh, thank you. It's such a pleasure.

GROSS: Edie Falco stars in the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie," which begins its sixth season Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.