For the first three tense seasons of Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco’s Jackie Peyton was a woman on a high wire. The supremely capable ER nurse spent her life snorting painkillers, subverting hospital rules, and saving lives. She lied to just about everyone—her husband and their two daughters; her lover, the hospital pharmacist; the other nurses and the doctors at All Saints’ Hospital. She reserved the truth for the patients she helped, doling out information—and sometimes drugs and treatment—the hospital didn’t want them to have. Still, she always seemed to be on the verge of being busted as a drug addict, a cheating spouse, and a breaker of hospital rules.
When the Showtime series returns on Sunday, April 8, Jackie’s fallen off that high wire. She’s headed for rehab; the struggling Catholic hospital where she works is being taken over by a for-profit company; and her family’s collapsing. For the first time in many years, Jackie Peyton has to face life and work stone-cold sober. (For a limited time, you can watch a bowdlerized version of the Season 4 premiere here.)
Slate talked with Edie Falco about acting, addiction, and who would win a fight between Carmela Soprano and Jackie Peyton.
Slate: At the New Yorker Festival last October, you said you felt bad about how much Jackie had gotten away with so far, because you’re a mom. That surprised me, given your previous TV roles on Oz and The Sopranos—Diane Wittlesey and Carmela Soprano weren’t exactly role models. What was it about Jackie that made you want her to get her comeuppance for the sake of your kids?
Edie Falco: Not just for my kids; for the sake of people in general. Addiction has had such an impact on my life and the people I love, and there really is not a lot about it that is funny. So the last thing I wanted was to give the impression that it’s all fun and games, and isn’t it funny what she gets away with. It’s important that we are accurate as far as showing the ramifications of this kind of behavior.
Slate: You’ve mentioned in interviews over the years that you’ve been sober for 20 years. I know Nurse Jackie’s two showrunners, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem, are also in recovery. Was that what attracted you to the show?
Falco: I think it was the woman rather than her behavior. She’s a bit of a vigilante. She’s always working around the rules to get whatever she needs. She wants to be a good nurse. That was what attracted me to the role.
Slate: She’s addicted to work in a way.
Falco: For sure.
Slate: That’s interesting, because although there are lots of portrayals of addiction—of varying degrees of realism—on television, there’s not much else that talks about being addicted to working. Do you consider yourself a work addict?
Falco: An addict is an addict. If they’re not acting out in one area, it tends to come out in another. I think there was a time when I considered myself a work addict, but that’s no longer accurate. My life has changed so dramatically over the last number of years, especially having a family now. My priorities have shifted. But I think in her case, work is how she manages her inner life. It’s how she identifies herself, and she has delusions of grandeur in terms of her capabilities. To walk away from that is probably scary.
Slate: Change is the big theme of this new season. After rehab, when Jackie gets in touch with her feelings, she’s crying, she’s hurt. In the past, your acting style has always been very subtle. This season, you’re moving from very slight facial gestures to a much more open style of acting. Was that a different kind of challenge?
Falco: It was different for this show. I wanted to get to show that what’s underneath a lot of the hardness in everybody is tremendous softness and a fear that they’ll be hurt and taken advantage of. I think it’s important to show that there’s a person under there—a woman, and a vulnerable one. I was pleased that we get to see more of that this year.
Slate: As an actor, how do you convey a shell like the one Jackie Peyton has constructed?
Falco: Well, it’s actually fun, because it’s so far from who I really am. Jackie’s kind of a hard-ass. She believes that, and the people around her believe it. She talks to people in a way that I would never talk to people. She conducts her life in a way that I never would. She doesn’t care how she’s perceived. She’s not interested in being liked, and that’s very freeing for someone who is not like that.
Slate: Back in your Sopranos days, you said that putting on the fingernails was what allowed you to become Carmela—once they were on, you knew what to do. Is there an equivalent for Jackie?
Falco: With everything that you do, once the costume is on, and you’re in the pretend hospital, and you’re there with your co-workers, it all sort of snaps into place: Who you are, what it feels like, who these people are to you. If I had to dress up as Nurse Jackie and show up at the Soprano house, I imagine that I would be deeply confused.
Slate: Who do you think would win a fight between Jackie and Carmela?
Falco: Carmela, because Nurse Jackie’s traveling as a lone soldier. Carmela’s got some serious firepower behind her. If Jackie’s smart, she’ll just stay away from Carmela.
Slate: The bulk of your TV career has been on premium cable, which has the obvious advantage of giving you these roles that I can’t imagine existing on network television, but it does mean that you’re seen by a lot fewer people. Are you aware of that? Are you concerned by it?
Falco: I haven’t thought about that much. I have kind of liked the idea that people have to choose to see the stuff that I do. Especially if a kid is looking through the channels and comes to something that I’ve done—which oftentimes means bad language or subject matter that’s not for kids—that would upset me, so I like the idea that people have to make the choice to see this particular show.
It’s a very complicated issue, this fame thing—I was not really cut out for it. There are some really fantastic things about it, but it’s difficult for a private person like myself. If it helps that fewer people see me, then I’m exactly where I want to be.
Slate: You won an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for Nurse Jackie. Do you think the show is a comedy?
Falco: No, not really. Like so many shows, it’s got a bit of everything. I don’t really understand why things are characterized the way they are. I suppose from a business point of view, it has to be done. Will and Grace was a comedy. I Love Lucy was a comedy. I don’t know what you call this particular genre.
Slate: What’s your favorite TV show? Do you watch much TV?
Falco: No, I watch the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden. I don’t watch a lot of television. Right now I’m watching House Hunters and House Hunters International, which is the most traveling I’ve done in a long time.
Slate: That show makes everyone want to be a therapist. “Dude, you do not need six bathrooms.”
Falco: Right. It’s like The Newlywed Game. You think, “The way these people talk to each other—I give that marriage 10 minutes.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.