Edie Falco Knows How to Let Go

A recent story in the Times Magazine proclaimed that “every young person in America” is watching “The Sopranos,” and there might be something to it. Since the advent of the pandemic, my social-media feeds have been full of commentary from people newly discovering the gabagool-scented world of Tony and the gang. Perhaps it has to do with the show’s portrait of American decay, as the piece’s author, Willy Staley, theorized, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that there are eighty-six episodes and we’ve all had a lot of time to kill. Whatever it is, a lamentably low number of the “Sopranos” memes clogging up the Internet feature Carmela Soprano, the show’s manicured, maneuvering matriarch. This is an oversight: in a show stacked with stellar acting, Edie Falco’s performance as the long-suffering Jersey mob wife remains unparalleled in its brashness and surprising fragility.

More than two decades since the show’s première, however, Falco cannot bring herself to watch “The Sopranos,” let alone read about it. She’s moved on to other things—seven seasons as the star of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie”; guest runs on shows like “30 Rock”; “House of Blue Leaves,” on Broadway; and, most recently, a turn as Hillary Clinton in Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story: Impeachment.” It might look like Falco is always working—and she is—but that was not always the case. For much of her twenties and thirties, she waited tables and landed few roles. Coming to stardom late has given Falco, who has lived in the West Village for decades, a pragmatic sense of Zen about her career. (She is a devout Buddhist, after all.) She is glad just to keep booking the next gig. We spoke recently on Zoom about ambition, sobriety, the legacy of “The Sopranos,” the Lewinsky scandal, and why, despite her sense of gratitude, she finds herself jealous of Kate Winslet. This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Where are you? You look like you’re in a woodshed.

I am in the West Village, in my office, which is also my little craft room and my hardware drawer. This is after years of having collected lots of tools and stuff. All my sewing stuff is over here. It’s what I do in my spare time.

Why the West Village? I know you’ve been there for decades.

I got out of college and this is where all my friends moved. There were little rooms you could get at a manageable rent. It never occurred to me to go anywhere else. It’s where the artists go.

You were born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. Do you have an attachment to those places?

Well, Long Island. I go down the expressway and I’m, like, Oh, I’m going home. I had a lot of family in Greenpoint, and my dad grew up there with his siblings. It’s a big part of my family, but not a part of my actual memory. When I was a kid, my father, being an Italian Brooklyn kid, would talk about “the city.” He was a drummer for a while and he was in the pit at a play at Provincetown Playhouse, in the Village. And so he would go over the Brooklyn Bridge each night and he’d made it, whatever that meant. To a large degree, I think that’s why I’m here. I’m living my dad’s dream. I do find myself wondering every once in a while, “So was any of this mine?”

What were you like as a kid?

I was very shy and very awkward. I wanted to be with the popular kids and I never felt like I had the right clothes. I definitely was not part of the cool crowd. And I knew who those people were, but I could never quite finagle my way in. I always felt like an outsider. Like a weirdo.

And acting was a vacation from being a weirdo? Or was it a deepening of that?

It started in high school. I had done some teeny plays in community theatre, where my mother was an actress. In school, I remember just having to get up the gumption to audition and, God, it was mortifying. It’s almost like you’re looking at the other side of a ravine or something. And I wanted to get to the other side, but the fear of jumping over it was almost more than I could manage.

Do you remember the first part you ever got?

At Arena Players in East Farmingdale, on Long Island, my mother was doing “The House of Bernarda Alba.” And I was at the rehearsals all the time, and I think they needed a beggar girl to come around or something. So, that was the first time I remember actually having a schedule. Boy, that’s so funny, I just got a very specific memory of that theatre. Gosh, it was so frickin’ magical. To the little Edie hanging out with my mom, who I thought was the coolest thing in the world, going to that theatre was really a big deal. I just thought it was the most preposterous thing that grownups would get together and say these words and put on costumes.

Was your mother excited when you decided to study theatre?

Hard to say. Mothers and daughters are complicated, under the best of circumstances. We weren’t really very involved in each other’s lives during that time. I was going to study psychotherapy. I thought I would be a shrink. And it was one of my teachers who said, “Aren’t you in all the plays here in the high school? Why won’t you be an actress?” I was, like, “What do you mean, ‘be an actress’?”

Why did you think you wanted to be a therapist?

Well, I’ve been in therapy for a gazillion years. I had a turbulent family situation. Originally, I was in crisis mode. It’s not about crisis anymore. It’s more about endless fascination with how our minds work.

Do you think therapy is a good tool for acting?

Whatever happens when I’m acting is not an intellectual part of the brain. I don’t go in there and try to maneuver it and manipulate it. It does whatever it does. But I do know that, without therapy, I would not have had the structure of a life that could have this kind of a career. You kind of have to have your wits about you to have a career like this. Especially early on, it’s rough on a person’s ego. The majority of people are unemployed, and even the ones who work a lot are not making enough money to live. So you kind of have to have your feet on the ground, and I don’t think I could have lasted this long without an internal scaffolding.

Let’s go back to those early years. You went to SUNY Purchase to study acting, but then you came back to New York City. Because you thought that was where the action was?

Right. There were the things called the League auditions, where you audition in front of a lot of directors and producers; I think it was students from places like Juilliard, Yale, Purchase, and the North Carolina School of the Arts. So I did that and I got an agent and a job, right out of there, and I was naïve enough to think, Oh, I’m set. I did this movie called “Sweet Lorraine.” We shot in 1986, when I graduated. And it would be many, many years before I would work again. It was a very scary time.

How did you stay afloat?

I was waitressing at this place that is long gone called West 4th Street Saloon. A friend of a friend said to me, “Go down to West 4th Street Saloon and say you’re a friend of Annie Schulman.” I remember I got there and I said, “Hi, I’d like to apply for a job.” And the person said, “Well, do you know anybody here?” I said, “Well, I’m a friend of Annie Schulman.” And she said, “I am Annie Schulman.”

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