Playing complicated characters is something of a second nature for Edie Falco. After years of memorable performances on the small screen, she returns to feature films with Outside In. Here, she takes on the role of Carol, a high school teacher whose former student, Chris (Jay Duplass, who co-wrote the script with director Lynn Shelton), becomes part of her life once again after he’s released on parole after 20 years in prison. When the film screened as part of SXSW this year, we got the chance to sit down with the acclaimed actor to talk about why that seems like a rare opportunity, her preference for using first takes, and why she has a hard time watching The Sopranos.
What was it that sparked your interest in Outside In?
You know, I get calls, “There’s this movie, they want you for this part, it’s with these people,” whatever. Oftentimes, that’s enough for me to know whether or not, at least, to read it. But they said Jay Duplass, and he and I had worked together on Landline. We didn’t have a lot of interaction, but there was one scene in particular in that movie in a car, and I just thought, what a delight. What a lovely guy. He’s funny as hell.
So I read it, and it’s smart and interesting. I don’t know what they think happens to women after they turn 50. But they still fall in love, and they still are confused, and they still have very wide emotional lives. You don’t see a lot of that. It’s as if at some point, all that is done and then you’re like a mom, or like a CEO. The fact that this woman was enthralled with her emotional life, and it was sort of somewhat verboten. She was confused by it, and delighted, all that stuff was just thrilling.
When you’re on set, with Jay as a co-writer and the director as another co-writer, how protective are they of the material?
When I walked into this, I didn’t know. You don’t know which way it’s going to go. I’ve been doing it long enough that I can kind of finagle any situation happily. The things I remember from when I started out in independent film with Hal Hartley and Nick Gomez, it was this feeling of like, “Okay. This is the story we want to tell. In this scene, maybe there would be, because he doesn’t know yet about this, maybe you should mention something.” It was like that. It was completely collaborative. I had not anticipated that kind of openness and generosity.
I’m not a writer, so I can imagine you work, and you work, and you work, and then an actor comes in and says, “I’d rather say this.” So I understand that they may be a little protective of it. But these guys just weren’t. They just weren’t. They really wanted to tell the story and it was lovely.
Did you feel like you knew this character enough to put your own spin on it?
It was never hard. It was all very simply written, and one of the first times me and Jay, I forget what our first scene was, it occurred to me, “Oh. There is some room.” If he wants to add a moment here, which felt organic, that’s cool. I’m sort of using my spider-sense, like “How does this director work?” They know each other. So the first scene we shot, Jay came in and he said the lines, and then he said something a little different and I answered back. You’ve got to sort of feel your way around a set, especially if you don’t know the people.
That’s one of the reasons I like series television because you know the people, you know the directors. You know the feeling in the room and all that shut is out of the way, so you can just get down to the work. But I discovered pretty early on that there was not going to be a need for a lot of finagling around those guys. [When I was] really in the moment I would say, “Now wait a second. What if I was to do this, or say this?” They were completely open to it.
Is it harder to get to know your character in a project like this, versus episodic television where you spend literal years getting to know them?
I don’t know that it’s harder, but it’s definitely different. And also, since it’s a short thing, each scene is important. It’s a part of a story that’s somewhat condensed. You tend to be living in heightened places because over the many years of a show on television there are scenes where you’re making breakfast. You know what I mean? It’s hard to say if one is easier. They’re very different.
Did you end up getting attached to this character, given that it seemed like such a welcome departure from the kind of stuff that’s usually offered?
Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes. It’s less saying goodbye to the character than just saying goodbye to the experience. This film in particular, being in the Pacific Northwest, I’d never been up there. I got it quickly, just how beautiful it was. The size of the trees. Just how alive it was. The mist in the air. I’m from New York, and that’s where I’ve always been. It was very beautiful, very alive.
And each director has a set of people they surround themselves with. In Lynn’s case, and a lot of directors’ cases, people they’ve worked with for a long time. The production designers, the DP, they all knew each other and they had a flavor that I hadn’t come across. It was just lovely. That’s what’s often hard to walk away from. But that is the bittersweet truth of my life.
Do you ever go back and revisit your work to relive those experiences?
Nah, not really.
No. Me, and Aida Turturro, who’s one of my dearest friends, who played Janice Soprano, she and I decided, because many episodes I never saw of that show, to sit down and watch [The Sopranos] from beginning to end over a summer. We got four episodes into the first season and I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. It was just too evocative. And of course, the fact that Jim [Gandolfini]’s gone was part of it, but also just we were such kids. And what it was like in the beginning, it was too much. It was too much. It was just too turbulent. I mean, fun and all that stuff, but it’s… I don’t know.
It’s interesting to hear that, especially when you consider how the show — and its characters — evolved over the course of those six seasons. But with Outside In, you talk about the familiarity that Shelton had with the people around her. Does that help in capturing that small-town aesthetic?
It just helps capture, for me, an ease in the working environment, whatever the work may turn out to be. She did have a lot of local people there, like some of the extras and some of the people that worked on the film. That helped. I didn’t know the town we were in or any of its history or anything about it. And to hear them say, “Yeah, it is what it is,” or whatever. Like, “I love it and I hate it.” It was helpful to get from the real people there to get an idea of what we were trying to do.
I suppose coming from New York, small-town life is a total 180 from what you’re used to day-to-day.
For sure. For sure. The big part of it is, I live and work in New York. This past year, I’ve spent four months working in LA. I’d never done that before. I wanted to just give it a try. I don’t need to do that again. I’m a homebody. Also, I have kids. I have little kids. I mean, not little, but I have kids.
It’s harder to just pick up and go than when I was in my 20s. Regardless, I was never good at it. I don’t like to pack a bag and go to Bulgaria. I don’t know. But anyway, to have to pick up and go to Washington, and live in a B&B, you do get completely swallowed up by a feeling of the people and the town. I’d get up early and walk around and see people jogging, and imagine, “Oh, that’s how they live here now. This is what they do in the morning before their job.” It does help. It helps to be staying in the place that you’re shooting. As I said, [with] Nurse Jackie and The Sopranos, I’d wake up in the morning in my own bed with my own house and my family, and then go to work and then come back. But to have to completely surround yourself with that project is fun, and it’s helpful.
You seem to have a very strong rapport with Jay’s character. Is that kind of thing immediate, where you find it in the performance, or does that come out of rehearsing before the cameras roll?
Depends on who you ask. You’re asking me, and the answer is no. I find that actually to be antithetical to what we’re trying to do. I don’t know why. I got very lucky, first of all with Gandolfini, and second of all with meeting Jay. Especially since he’s not an actor primarily. It’s not what he’s always done. And I think Jill Soloway, is that her name? The Transparent woman who does that show?
Whoever it was that said they cast him, and he was like, “I guess I’ll be an actor.” That can be scary because you don’t know what you’re walking into. But the first time we rehearsed the scene, I was like, “Oh, oh!” But there was an ease there. Long story, but in my acting school, what we spent a lot of time doing was being four-year-olds. He’d say, “Right now, you’re a four-year-old, and here’s your toy chest.” I was like, “Somebody shoot me.” But he wanted it to be like acting really is just like the way you played when you were kids. You didn’t say like, “I would never do that.”
You just grab something and play, and the second I met Jay, I realized, “Oh, that’s what we have here.” So not a word was spoken about backstory or rehearsal. Not a single word. And I was thrilled. Just thrilled. We would roll the camera and run it, and then we’d try a different way. That’s, often the first or second time is, surprising things happen that you didn’t anticipate. That’s what I’m always interested in seeing.
So you thrive on those first-take situations?
Yes. The more you do it, and then the more you’re thinking about it, you lose a lot of energy that way.
I suppose that could translate to this situation these two characters find themselves in, thrust back into one another’s lives.
Could be. I hadn’t thought about that. But yeah, for sure. For sure. A lot of it is in the translation of the viewer. “Oh, I see. That probably was because she didn’t…” You know what I mean? You guys are filling the missing pieces. Yeah, I hadn’t anticipated the way that could help the story.
Finally, I know you’re not a big watcher of The Sopranos, but the news broke recently that there’s going to be a Sopranos prequel.
It was sent to me and [they] said, “Did you hear about this?” And I hadn’t. Our producer, Ilene Landress heard about it. She said, “I’m sorry. He swore me to secrecy.” He’s apparently been working on it for a while. It’s the story, I guess, of the people who were the elders when we were shooting when they were kids.
Is that intriguing to you to maybe be able to go back and watch this, knowing you’re not going to be in it?
Sure. Definitely. I’d be curious to see what actors he is intrigued by. For sure. But I tell you what, it’ll probably be easier for someone like you to watch. Because, as far as Sopranos trivia stuff, I got nothing. The fans know quite a bit more about it than I did or do now, certainly. So, I’d have a lot of catching up to do, I’m sure.
I’m just imagining too, maybe this is an avenue for you to be able to kind of watch and see this world as a viewer that you’ve had so many years invested in, that you’re not familiar with as a viewer. But you maybe get to actually sit back and enjoy just David Chase as a storyteller as a viewer.
Right. Could very well be, but, I mean, I’m not a fan of those mob shows. So, probably not. It’s too violent for me. “I don’t like the way they make Italians look,” whatever the comments we got. I’m just a fan of his zeitgeist. I look forward to that for that reason, for sure.