All about Edie: Nurse Jackie returns

As Ms Falco returns to the role of pill-popping Nurse Jackie, she tells Sarah Hughes that she knows all about addiction from her own life

Usually when journalists say that a celebrity is down-to-earth, what they mean is that the person they interviewed took their shades off for a few minutes or answered questions without getting approval from their PR first.

In Edie Falco's case, the description is genuine. Dressed in a blue tank-top, turquoise flip-flops and a pair of frayed burgundy Bermudas, sipping coffee in her neighbourhood café in Manhattan's Tribeca, her Long Island accent growing stronger as she grows more impassioned, the 47-year-old actress comes across as relaxed about her fame and thankful for her fortune. "I've never really had a plan," she admits. "I don't make plans, don't know how. I used to feel bad about it but now I realise it's just the way I am. I never thought I'd be able to support myself so all of this is surprising to me."

"All of this" includes a recent Tony nomination for her performance in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, and not one, but two iconic television roles – the fragile-yet-steely Carmela Soprano and Jackie Peyton, the pill-popping emergency room nurse in Nurse Jackie, which begins its third series on Sky Atlantic tomorrow.

It's an impressive CV and one that has made Falco that rare thing,– an actress in her late forties who is in demand. This summer she will play Artemis in an adaptation of Marie Phillips' comic novel Gods Behaving Badly before filming the fourth season of Nurse Jackie. Her only recent regret is that due to the latter she was unable to put her name forward for the upcoming Prime Suspect remake: "I had a pang when I heard about that and did think, 'Oh, wow – that would have been great'. But I have a great belief that life unfolds as it should."

It's all a long way from the years Falco spent grubbing around the edges of New York's theatre world, taking acting jobs for free and struggling to make ends meet. "In terms of finances, I know it's very uncouth to talk about this, but I used to live by the seat of my pants," she says. "I had enough money for cigarettes and was just barely making rent – and cigarettes were the priority. But that's how I defined myself, that's how my friends defined themselves; luckily one of us would usually have a job at a restaurant and would be able to take food home.

"Now I have money, a big apartment and kids going to great schools, and I don't know who I am. I don't know how to define myself in these terms. Also it's been odd because I still have the same friends and, I've gotta be honest, there are a lot of uncomfortable situations. You know, if it were up to me then I would pay for everything, but that starts to get weird for them and for me."

That she isn't just concerned about this but prepared to talk about it is unusual, but then Falco remains a very different sort of star. Fiercely attached to her home – she rarely moves far from New York, is openly dismissive of LA and admits "I don't make friends quickly or easily" – she has both a healthy appreciation for her success and a desire to play it down. "I always thought that I would be an actress the way my mother was an actress – while doing something else alongside," she says. "The fact that I am in the position I am, where I am supporting myself and my family with money that I make from acting is absolutely ridiculous."

That refusal to take success seriously stems in part from her upbringing. Falco grew up in a large family (she has two brothers and a sister) in what she describes as "an ordinary lower-middle-class suburban household" in West Islip, Long Island. Her mother acted in community theatre, while her father was a graphic artist and ex-jazz musician on New York's famous Borscht Belt circuit. "I didn't know any real actors," she says. "I thought only famous people became actors, people from my background don't do that sort of thing."

She was good enough to win a place on the respected acting programme at the State University of New York, where the last thing on her mind was television. "TV was the big no-no when I was at college," she admits, laughing. "It's the big sell-out, but all I ever went with from the get-go was the script. If the script is interesting, if it moves me and the character is interesting then that's where I'll go. It just so happens that a lot seems to be on television."

And not just any old television. When Nurse Jackie began in 2009 not everyone was convinced it would last. Acerbic Jackie was clearly a great role for Falco, but the rest of the show was a little disjointed, unsure whether it was comedy or drama. Two series down the line (three in America), it has transformed itself into a tautly written, compelling study of addiction, friendship and the lengths people will go to.

"I gotta say I just never saw it as a comedy," Falco says. "Some stuff is funny but it's dark. You're talking about a show set in an ER with an addict as its lead. I just don't see that as light-hearted subject matter."

It was, however, subject matter that Falco could relate to, even if she initially argued against giving the show's heroine an addiction, because "there's nothing funny or glamorous about being an addict". She gave up drinking at the age of 29, almost 20 years ago, after "one final bout of debauchery", and remains evangelical about Alcoholics Anonymous. "I woke up and the door to my apartment was open and everything about it was awful," she says. "A calm came over me and I just knew I was done. AA does work. The people aren't always perfect but AA, as designed, is about as perfect as anything I've ever come across."

In addition to tapping into her past, Jackie also gave her the chance to finally bury Carmela Soprano. "Playing Jackie is great – she plays by her own rules, she's a vigilante and a hardass, which I'm not. Plus, she's not concerned about the repercussions of her behaviour, which is again very unlike me, so I thought it would be really fun to do," she says. "But I don't mind when people still call me Carmela. I just smile, you know. It's hugely flattering."

There was a time, however, when she was less relaxed. When The Sopranos was at its height Falco gave several interviews in which she admitted to struggling with fame, telling The Observer in 2000 that "[When you have] a billboard, the size of this room, in Times Square with my face on it, [it's] very weird. Very, very weird."

That, Falco says now, was a long time ago. "I feel more relaxed," she says. "My priorities have shifted... all the stuff that scared me about being well-known, all the stuff that was exciting about my career, all that has disappeared. It still wavers around my consciousness but the biggest thing going on in my life right now is that my son is about to lose his first tooth and that's great."

Falco, who has two children, Anderson, 6, and Macy, 3, clearly adores being a mother. "The decision to adopt wasn't entirely out of the blue," she says. "The truth is that I had never thought of myself as having kids. I had this crazy career idea and my parents were divorced. I just didn't seem like a mum. But then I was in a number of relationships where the idea of kids came up and I began to think, 'Hmm,' and, little by little, it grows roots inside of you and that longing became far stronger than any of the relationships. I thought, 'I have to be a mum, this is of dire importance to me'."

She appears to have been superbly undaunted that by that point she was no longer in a relationship. "I never really thought, 'Oh, I want to be a single mum' but I've learnt to listen to the voice that tells me what to do and when to do it. When I finished my cancer treatment [Falco was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 and is now in remission] and knew I wasn't going to die, I thought this is the time for kids," she says. "I was single and, at that time (post-chemotherapy), biologically incapable of having kids so I thought, 'I'll adopt, and I'll do it by myself'. Like most things in my life I had no grand plan."

Yet for all that she constantly refers to her desire to go with the flow, there is a steely core beneath Falco's good cheer. She admits to preferring being the only one making decisions with her children – "I'm not good at compromise. I don't want to talk to anybody about discipline. I'm the boss. My kids know when I come in the house that I'm the one in charge and I'm frigging happy about that" – while one of her most revealing answers explains why she prefers theatre. "In film or TV you make tiny pieces of a puzzle, then someone else puts them together. In theatre I put the puzzle together. It's a completely different feeling."

Yet alongside that Edie Falco, the one who relishes control, who says firmly of her career choices, "I'm afraid casting people tend not to be very creative, they want to go with the sure bet but it's my responsibility to say no thank you I've already done that and wait for someone to have a creative idea", is the one who fell in love with the theatre as a little girl watching her mother.

"I always feel more at home in plays, that's what I originally fell in love with," she says. "All the magic is in the theatre for me. There are fun things about being in a TV show or movie but theatre is what reminds me that I absolutely love in my soul what I do for a living."

'Nurse Jackie' is on Tuesday at 10pm on Sky Atlantic

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