Edie Falco: The reluctant star

Since The Sopranos, she can't sit at a café without fans shouting 'Yo Carmela!' at her. But, as Matthew Tynan discovers, there's a good deal more to Edie Falco than being a mere TV celebrity

Monday 18 November 2013 04:40
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Edie Falco is not a "star". At least, not by design: "There are people out there you could call movie stars, and they're not my people, they're not actors". Edie Falco would have us believe that she is a mere "actor". "Stars," she continues, "are just playing themselves over and over again."

She does have a point. In her case, every new part is a radical departure. It was her role as Carmela in HBO's flagship mob drama The Sopranos that has made her, if not a star, certainly a celebrity. On top of that, she is about to appear in John Sayle's latest opus, Sunshine State, alongside Angela Bassett and Timothy Hutton.

I meet this reluctant "celebrity" in a chilly rehearsal space in Midtown Manhattan. The thirtysomething actress is coiled up in the cushioned nook of a sofa (which is doubling as a prop). She squints down at my tape recorder with some suspicion, wary, perhaps, of the demands of fame. Or it could just be sheer exhaustion from her hectic schedule. Edie Falco is more handsome than beautiful, with an expressive face, prominent nose, and strong chin that she tucks in, creating the strange illusion of a tired smile across her lips. When she speaks, the words flow in a great rush.

Raised in suburban Long Island (still clearly evident in her accent), about an hour's drive from New York City, her parents were avid dabblers in the arts. Her father, Frankie Falco is, among other things, a jazz drummer, and her mother, Judith Loney, is an actress who would work during the day and spend her evenings doing community theatre. Edie found herself naturally drawn to the stage. "My parents were supportive," she says, without much conviction. "They never said, 'oh get a real job'. I was always sort of on my own as a kid." Besides, she's pretty sure that they "were pleased by the way it turned out".

Falco went to Purchase College, New York State University, more for the scholarship it offered than for its academic reputation. It turned out to be a prescient career choice. Her class was so full of talented individuals that, as a group, they have been dubbed "the Purchase Mafia". Alumni include Stanley Tucci, Wesley Snipes, Hal Hartley and Parker Posey, to name but a few. In such company, it was hard for the young suburban girl from Long Island to make her mark. "I was very quiet," she admits. "I was in a company of women who were very ingénue-ish, so whenever we had to cast a play, I always got the weird parts – the old lady, or the prostitute who wanders across the stage."

This left a permanent impression on her ego: "I was 19 years old and I was playing a 60-year-old grandmother with a fat suit and a blacked-out tooth. I was like, how did this happen?" It's easy to be swayed by Falco's gentle self-effacing charm, but if the spotlight was stolen early on, she's basking in it now. Of course, she paid her dues along the way, and like every other wannabe in town, spent many years slinging hash in any one of several New York eateries that she would rather forget. Nevertheless, she had the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.

It was at Purchase College that she met Hal Hartley who cast her in The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1991). Nick Gomez, who was at that time working for Hartley, was impressed and cast her in his directorial debut, Laws of Gravity (1992). From there, she went on to work with such film-makers as Abel Ferrara (The Addiction) and Woody Allen (Bullets over Broadway). In 1998, Falco won a Theatre World award for her performance in Warren Leight's dark jazz-fuelled play Side Man (she recently reprised the role in London, playing alongside Jason Priestley). Her performance as a naive actress in the much overlooked indie film, Judy Berlin, is an absolute gem – effortless and entrancing.

And then, of course, there's The Sopranos, for which she has won a Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild awards and a slew of Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama. She would have been the odds-on favourite this year as well, but scheduling changes left the show ineligible for consideration. Falco takes no credit for her own success: "I've chosen absolutely nothing in my life. That's the God's honest truth." She doesn't even believe it's about talent. "Luck," she muses, "I've had some luck."

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These days, though, things might be going too well. The last episode of the new Sopranos season only just wrapped, she's in the midst of rehearsals with Stanley Tucci for Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, plus she's wasting a rare break to talk to me about her new film, Sunshine State, the latest civics tutorial from the indie director John Sayles. Sayles (Matewan, Lone Star, Limbo) did not have the luxury of having befriended Ms Falco at Purchase, so he took the old- fashioned tack and sent her a hand-written letter pleading with her to take the role. Her first response was disbelief: "I thought it was a joke, you know, sent by my agent or something, but signed 'John Sayles'!"

Sunshine State follows the fortunes of a beachfront community in South Florida under threat from real-estate developers. The film is most admirable for its measured character studies, its persuasive humanity, and its quietly persistent politics. Falco plays Marly Temple, a sea-swept Southern divorcée who has sacrificed her own youthful aspirations to help run a small motel owned by her crotchety father. She finds herself at a crossroads: sleeping with a young golf pro but tempted by the soft-spoken charm of a landscaper (Timothy Hutton) who is on the payroll of the evil developers.

Falco's performance is a revelation. Despite her relative youth, Marly Temple is played with a hunched, loping gait, and the pained squint of a woman who has spent long summers resenting the endless sunshine. Nevertheless, we can still sense the faint gleam of unextinguished hope, and, more importantly, she can still laugh and make us laugh with her. Falco herself gives all the credit to her director ("He was incredible!"). Despite the heaviness on screen, the shoot was a breeze: "They called it Camp Sayles," she recalls, "since all we did was play volleyball and softball, and occasionally shoot a film."

Still, it is Carmela Soprano, the mob boss's wife, that remains Falco's signature role, and the one that has brought her the most recognition. Eric Mendelsohn, who directed her in Judy Berlin and also happens to be her "best friend", has been having breakfast with Edie Falco every day since they left college. These days, though, Mendelsohn complains, their meal is regularly interrupted by fans yelling "Yo Carmela!" from their car windows. Falco unveils the magic behind her transformation into Carmela Soprano: "With Carmela, it's all about the hair and the nails and the jewellery." She then adds: "I guarantee that if you put that stuff on, you'd be playing Carmela in a half-hour."

I timidly inquire whether the rumours of a rowdy Sopranos set are true. "Well, you know, they're a bunch of loud Italians," she says, as if this explains everything. "There's always a lot of food and cigar smoke, and some of the guys get kind of excited about the roles they're playing."

Falco loves the camaraderie. "We're all these well-trained, underpaid actors, who've been thrown into this tornado of a show, and somehow we've remained very grounded". Of course, they're no longer underpaid. "When I'm involved in a project I care about," she continues, "I feel different. I feel as in sync as I ever feel." One gets the sense that she would much rather immerse herself in a fictional role, than have to keep up the tiring façade of real life.

What's next for Edie Falco? Besides the five months of performances she has already committed to, she's hoping for absolutely nothing. On her last free day, the first in a month and a half, she retreated to her house in the Catskill mountains outside New York. "I felt like I was falling apart, everything just melted. I so desperately needed some time to sit and do absolutely nothing." I wonder if she has had time to have a personal life. "Who said I have a personal life?" she spits. It's not "the greatest thing ever" she admits, choosing not to mention her recent break-up with John Devlin, the director.

But Falco is still pleased the "chips fell" the way they did: "Whatever it is that orders the universe seems to be doing a better job than I ever could." And what if it ends? "If I'm a 'star' today and someone they don't recognise tomorrow, that's fine by me. It's all meaningless anyway." Is there anything else she might want? She doesn't pause before answering: "More time!"

'Sunshine State' is on general release

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