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Julianne Nicholson Didn’t Know Who the Killer Was, Either


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Voting is underway for the 73rd Primetime Emmys, and this week we’re talking to several first-time Emmy nominees. The awards will be presented Sept. 19 on CBS.

A few years ago, the actress Julianne Nicholson noticed that a lot of her recent roles, on shows like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Masters of Sex,” shared the same description: stern, middle-aged lady.

“I’m not a stern, middle-aged lady,” Nicholson said. “Or I’m not just a stern, middle-aged lady.”

On “Mare of Easttown,” the crime drama that obsessed HBO subscribers and anyone who could borrow their passwords this spring, Nicholson, 50, played Lori, another middle-aged lady. Lori isn’t stern, exactly, but Nicholson lends her a rueful stoicism, as well as an enthusiasm for Dave Matthews Band T-shirts and Rolling Rock. A stabilizing presence beneath a thatch of auburn hair and a constellation of freckles, she steadies Kate Winslet’s volatile Mare, Lori’s best friend.

Of course, like everyone else in Easttown, Lori holds some devastating secrets beneath her sensible parka.

When those emerge, in the shattering final episode, Nicholson allows the burden of Lori’s fear, grief and pain to saturate the screen. The performance earned her an Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actress in a limited or anthology series or movie, Nicholson’s first nomination for a major award. (Though engineered as a limited series, a second season of “Mare” is now rumored.)

Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, which she shares with her husband, the actor Jonathan Cake, and their two children, Nicholson discussed the popularity of “Mare,” Lori’s style and mastering that Delco accent.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What can you tell me about Lori? What did you learn about her through playing her?

I knew she was Mare’s best friend. I knew where she had been born and grown up and that she was a mom and a wife. I felt like, in contrast to Mare, she was maybe more calm, stoic, steady. She’s very loyal. She’s very loving. She’s smart. I felt the strength of her, around the secrets that she had to hide, and the cost.

You’ve known Kate Winslet for years. She campaigned for you to play this role. Did your real-life friendship deepen what we saw onscreen?

You can’t fake history. She’s such an amazing actress that I’m sure we would have found something else. But to have that shorthand, to know each other’s families, to have been in each other’s lives over the course of 15, 16, 17 years, that goes a long way.

Why are Mare and Lori friends?

They grew up together; they went to kindergarten holding hands. They’ve just been there for each other through thick and thin. And they both make each other laugh.

Lori seems quite steady and Mare is more —-

Of a fly-off-the-handle, in-your-face kind of gal. Lori gets a kick out of Mare. I often see versions of what it means to be 40 or 50, these forgotten women who have put their dreams aside. That’s not my experience. That’s not my friends’ experience. We’re still vibrant, curious people who don’t know what’s going to happen next.

People were very excited to see you and Kate without makeup and in sweatpants.

I felt very happy to represent those women — I include myself as one on any given day — where it’s just about practicality and comfort and taking care of family. It’s not about the value of how beautiful that person is or brands of clothing. These people are hard-working. And I love that. It’s honest, too. I wouldn’t want to wear sweatpants every day, though, because that would get depressing.

That Delco accent, how hard was it to master?

I was intimidated by it. It just seemed like such a hodgepodge — a little bit New York, a little bit Philly, a little bit Southern. I wanted my accent to be not so much in the forefront. When you go to these places, everyone sounds different, there’s no, like, single way that an accent sounds.

Who struggled with the accent the most?

Joe Tippett, who played my husband — he’s from not too far from there. So he just slipped in very easily. And most of my stuff was with him and with Kate, who’s a wizard. So it was just me, trying to claw my way toward that accent.

You shot for four months, then you were shut down by the pandemic for six months, then you shot for three or four more. What was it like returning?

The first time I had to go back was terrible. I had been living with my husband and two kids 24/7. It felt like leaving a couple of arms and a leg behind when I got on the plane. And even though all the precautions were in place with testing and quarantining, the first thing I had to go back to was the scene in the bar with 20, 25 background actors. And I just felt like: “What is this? Like, I’ve only seen three people for the last six months. And now I’m in a room with 25 strangers, unmasked?” But we all trusted each other and knew each other and felt safe with each other. To go back and feel and be reunited with everybody was very moving.

Did you have people in your life trying to make you spill who the killer was?

People would ask, like: “Don’t tell me! But tell me.” I didn’t tell anyone. Because people don’t want to be told. They want to watch it unfold. They would say: “It’s not you, is it? Is it you?”

Would you have guessed it?

No! I was reading Episode 7, like, “Did Lori do it?” I was right there with everybody else.

There are rumors of a second season of “Mare.” Would you like to come back?

Brad Ingelsby is such a genius writer. I know how much he cares about that first series of “Mare.” For him to want to make another season, it would have to be that he came upon something really special to explore. Everybody who was a part of the show cared about it too much to lessen its value by just continuing for the sake of continuing.

“Mare” is a another show in a long tradition of Dead Girl shows, dramas predicated on the violent deaths of young women. Why does our culture love shows like these?

I don’t know. I feel like, let’s not throw away those pretty young girls and then base a story around it. I don’t like that. I don’t know what the attraction is. I have wondered myself.

You have worked steadily for more than two decades, often in prestige series. Why is this the role that is being recognized?

You can’t predict it. You can’t make it happen. But everything just landed in the right way for this to be the role that caught people’s imagination. I couldn’t be happier. There have been times along the way where I’m like: “What the [expletive]? Can’t I catch a break?” But it’s OK. It’s a career. It’s a path. You have highs and lows. And I love Lori. I love her complexity. I love the way people got behind her and really allowed themselves to go through that experience with her.

Are there roles along the way that you wish had been recognized?

There’s a movie called “Who We Are Now” that my friend Matt Newton wrote for me and directed, and I love it. It’s about a woman who’s just gotten out of jail after 10 years. It’s a beautiful story about redemption. “Monos” that I did in Colombia a couple of years ago.

In the past, have you had access to the roles that you wanted, roles where you could show the world what you can do?

No! No. A little bit. I’ve had tastes of it. But to have a thriving happy family and to be able to support them doing the work that I love, I feel so lucky every day. I’ve been able to work with amazing people telling really interesting stories. My career has been great.

But I have not necessarily been given access to roles that would allow me to do the work that I did on “Mare” on a more regular basis. There was a moment of existential angst in my early 40s, where I felt like, “What if I got this all wrong?” But it didn’t last too long.

Has the nomination changed anything for you?

No. But it’s OK. It will.

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