Edie Falco: The actress who married the mob

For years, Edie Falco supported herself as a waitress and took any part that came her way. Then she got a plum role in the hit show The Sopranos. But star status takes a lot of getting used to
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Edie Falco is currently learning how to say "no" but it isn't always easy. "It doesn't feel good, I can tell ya," she says a little ruefully when asked whether she's getting more polished at turning offers down. "It still doesn't feel right and I question my friends and my agent. And right now I'm sort of enjoying having options, you know. Gosh, for years I didn't."

As it happened, she couldn't say "no" to the option of appearing in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues ­ an actress's rite-of-passage she had somehow missed until now. Which is why she is sitting here in a pale blue Jil Sander trouser suit and rehearsing another skill that many fellow actors may never be called upon to exercise ­ that of giving a press interview.

In the past few years she's had plenty of opportunities to polish up both skills since her appearance as Carmela, the wife of a depressed Mafia mobster in The Sopranos, transformed her from a struggling bit-part player to sought-after star.

But old habits and old anxieties die hard and Falco had plenty of time to acquire hers ­ 12 years when waitressing largely paid the bills and acting was an occasional side order. Neither half of her career biography is unusual, whether it's the aching stretch of missed opportunities and false starts or the sudden frenzy of A-list success ­ but what is a little unusual is just how long the first bit lasted. Even now, several years into the better half of her CV, Falco can't be blithe about just how much it can cost to pay your dues as a working actress.

"When your person is what it is you are advertising, or what it is you're using to try and get work, there are a million ways to be hurt, to be insulted, especially if you're a young kid and you don't know quite know how you fit in yet. But the truth is that I didn't know what else to do."

This suggestion of an accidental life occurs more than once in the conversation. "I have never really had any kind of plan," Falco says at one point, and her explanation of how she first took up acting depicts her as positively desultory in her ambitions.

She was born in 1964 and grew up on Long Island, New York, the daughter of an Italian graphic artist and a Swedish mother with a passion for amateur dramatics. They appear to have adopted a policy of benign indifference to their children's futures. "My parents parented in a very interesting way," she recalls. "They basically just let us do what we thought we wanted to. For years I was a gymnast and I went to camps and classes and my parents went 'Good. Go for it' and when I quit, 'Good, fine.' They were supportive across the board."

It took a more propulsive adult to push her towards acting school. "In high school you had to fill out little things where you wanted information from colleges about what you'd like to do. My mom, when I was growing up, was an actress and I used to go with her to the theatre, but she had a real job during the day and at night she would do her plays. I figured that's what you do when you are an actress, so I thought, well, I'll be a psychologist and I was filling out all of them saying give me psychology information. My English teacher was the one who said 'Well, aren't you in all the plays and stuff?' and I said 'Yeah' and she said 'Well, why don't you be an actress?'. And it seemed like the most absurd thing I'd ever heard, but I just said 'Alright, send me stuff about acting schools'."

She went to Purchase College, a relatively youthful state-run performing arts school nowearning a reputation as a supplier of street-smart talent. The "Purchase Mafia", in which Falco is indisputably a made woman, is now a recognisable entity for New York casting directors, but it wasn't when she graduated. An early part in a movie ("I thought, this is going to be easy") was followed by three years in which the only actingwas looking cheerful when people complained about food.

In the end it was a more established mob that rescued her, when a pilot for an unconventional kind of Mafia TV show was taken up by the HBO network. She was not a reluctant evacuee from the realities of life in a fifth-floor walk-up with a hot plate for a kitchen. When she was rung on Christmas Eve to be told that the first series of The Sopranos had been given the go-ahead, she says, the next call she made was to an estate agent. The second series paid for a house in the Catskills, and the third for a car to get her there.

The fame that flowed from The Sopranos ­ an instant critical hit in the US ­ wasn't actually her first taste of recognition. Occasional roles in independent movies meant there were occasions when people she was serving would suddenly realise they'd seen her somewhere before. But this salted the wound of a career that could never be relied on to pay the rent.

"I so hated it... because I'd be handing them a frozen margarita, you know, and they're like 'Oh my god, aren't you that actress?' In my imagination they were thinking 'So why are you waitressing?' and I had no good answer for that, except 'Because that was the last job I did'." Her new fame ­ consolidated by the simultaneous Broadway success of the play Sideman and appearance in the television series Oz ­ contained its grit of disadvantage too.

"I feel like it really limits the ways people can see me," she says, recalling the blizzard of public identification that then engulfed her. "It was a little disconcerting in New York when I was doing Sideman. I would do the play for two hours of exhausting performance, and I'd come outside by the stage door and people would yell 'Carmela!' and it kind of broke my heart. I thought 'Well, didn't you just watch this for two hours ­ and did I for one second convince you I was somebody else? Or did I lose that ability now because all you can see is the lady from the TV show?"

She isn't precious about this, fully aware that what's on the other end of the see-saw readily outweighs such professional irritations. But you sense too an old dread of the typecasting that can as often lose an actress work as secure it. "In college I was cast in all these strange offbeat, Diane Keaton roles, and for a long time that's how I was cast. And then I played this tough Brooklyn woman in Laws of Gravity, wearing my overalls and ripped shirts, and those were all the scripts I got, and then I played a lawyer on Law & Order, and so every part I got was a lawyer... It's the last thing you've been seen as, and then you get those scripts for a long time, and right now it happens to be these Carmelas, these Italian-American mothers and wives ­ and I'm not a mother and I'm not a wife."

In fact, she's at pains to point out that however hemmed in Carmela might sometimes make her feel, getting the job represented a break-out from a preceding imprisonment. "When I read the script I thought 'It's a brilliant part, I know exactly who this woman is and I'll never get cast', and there's never a better confidence to go into an audition with than knowing there's no way I'm ever going to get this. I was sure it would be Annabella Sciorra, Marisa Tomei, one of the many Italian-American actresses who got all of the other parts that I wanted."

These days her confidence comes from something more durable. "I've sort of always had a sense of confidence about what I do while I'm doing it," she says, "but the sense of confidence stays with me now more during rehearsals. I just don't worry about things the way I used to." And she is slowly weaning herself off that addiction to the word "yes" ­ convinced at last that the question will be asked again whatever she answers.

Edie Falco appears in 'The Vagina Monologues' until 1 July at New Ambassadors theatre, London WC2 (020-7369 1761)