Julianne Nicholson On Her ‘Mare Of Easttown’ Emmy-Nominated Performance, Cheesesteaks, And Accents

You know Julianne Nicholson. At least, you at least know her roles well. She’s appeared on addictive procedural and soapy primetime TV, including roles in the Law and Order franchise and even Ally McBeal. More relevantly for our purposes here, you know her from several HBO prestige dramas. There’s her role in Boardwalk Empire and an upcoming Lakers-focused series coming up, but then there are a few recent parts, in which she’s portrayed characters who have (arguably) done the most suffering within vast ensemble casts. I’m talking about The Outsider (in which she portrayed a wife of a prominent El Cuco victim, played by Jason Bateman, and the person who arguably had the most reason to be angry in the entire show) and Mare of Easttown, in which she played Lori, who lost her entire family as a result of one murder that ripped through a small town with Kate Winslet’s title character on the case.

Nicholson’s now sitting in Emmy Nomination Zone for her raw yet measured portrayal of a mother who made an unfathomably difficult choice. It’s really only the latest in a series of difficult roles for her, which could qualify Julianne as even more of an ubiquitous prestige TV face than Scoot McNairy. (At least Julianne can claim a better wig game, even if Scoot crushes the mustache title.) Seriously though, Julianne went through the emotional paces for Mare, and she was gracious enough to talk with us about how she kept a difficult role in perspective, as well as how she loves those cheesesteaks.

Congrats on the Emmy nomination. I imagine it will be a weird year with the ceremony outdoors.

Thank you so much. Is it? I have no news, and it should be outdoors, and I hope it is!

First off, I need to know how much you got to enjoy Philly food while shooting this show. You didn’t get to dig in onscreen as much as Kate did, with the hoagie.

Yes! I did have one scene where we were sitting around the TV with Mare and Helen and John and Lori, and there was pizza and chips. I was eating chips and dip for the scene, and it was good for the first couple of takes, and then I was like oh my god, salt overload. I could barely open my eyes the next morning from all the sodium I ingested. But I did enjoy, well, I was a little more of a cheesesteak gal. I had a few of those!

Philly has great tastes, but I didn’t know if you guys got to indulge much.

Yeah, yeah! Pre-pandemic, I had great pizza, the cheesesteaks. I had a lot of great food there.

Last night, I happened to look back on I, Tonya, and wow, that’s some wig magic.

I know! That wig was everything for that role, it’s true.

You’re wearing a wig in Mare, another one of your HBO entries. I remember watching the The Outsider and thinking, “My gosh, her character puts up with so much.” The same goes for Mare.

[Laughs] First of all, after doing Mare, I made the conscious decision of “maybe I’ll do another role or two where the character doesn’t suffer grief.” You know, just as a palate cleanser. I think the story and what the character’s experiencing gets inside of me a little bit? But I don’t have to take it on too much anymore, and I’m able to (for the most part) leave work at work and be myself at home when I’m with my family, cooking dinner.

And having a much more pleasant life, I imagine.

Yes, I’m happy to say that I do all the suffering on TV and have room for just joy and peace in my life.

The Outsider, of course, was a Stephen King adaptation, and King showed himself on Twitter to be a very big Mare fan. He accurately predicted the killer. What was it like to see people get so worked up about this show?

It was a huge thrill to see how invested people became in the show and in the characters and wanting to know what was coming. I’m not on Twitter, actually, but friends would send me some [tweets] to see. One of the best ones was from the week after Mare finished, the first Sunday that it wasn’t on. And they wondered, “I wonder what Mare’s doing tonight.” I thought that wrapped it up beautifully.

How much of the script did you get to see before shooting… did you know the identity of the killer?

Before I agreed to do this show, and when it was a conversation, I read the first six episodes. And then I kept being told that a lot happens for Lori in Episode 7, and as far as I remember, I took them at their word and then was given Episode 7 after I signed on to do it. So I definitely knew the whole story before we started filming.

And how on earth does one prepare for that kitchen scene?

I mean, it’s hard to prepare for a scene like that because a lot of it, well, it was performed as written, in terms of movement, making tea. I don’t think that it was written that I turned away, but you just take what was on the page and make it present for how that’s feeling in the moment. For me, the preparation actually happens minutes before the cameras are rolling. Because I can’t prepare the night before for a scene like that, or a month before. That’s largely, and luckily in my case, imagination, and access to what you think that might feel like.

As tragic as that scene was, it also felt like a celebration of a beautiful friendship between two women.

I thought so, too. And even “hopeful” might be too strong a word, but at least they were coming back together. They’ll have that love in their lives again, you know, that friendship and history.

With the Delco accent work, that got a lot of attention. The producers almost decided not to do the accents, but y’all did them, thank goodness.

Well, the writer, Brad Ingelsby, who created the show is from Delco. He’s from that part of the world, so I think an accent goes a huge way towards bringing a certain part of the country to life. We had a great dialect coach [Susanne Sulby], and she would check in with Brad, and she had a number of versions of that accent. She would record different people, and not everyone’s accent’s the same. You could sort-of listen to the different versions that she had, and [laugh] it sounds like a choose-your-own-adventure, and then I heard one that made sense to me, where it wasn’t too strong, but it was still present. We ran that by Brad, and he said, “Great.” It was challenging, but every night with Susanne, we would go over the next day’s work, and she was always on set.

Lori’s decision in this series was rough. Did you struggle with what she did?

Well, honestly, it wasn’t that much of a struggle because I agree that she didn’t necessarily make the right decisions, but I can relate to a mother wanting to protect her child at all costs or what she thinks is protecting her child at the moment. Because in hindsight, the best thing happened for Ryan. For his life, to have it come to light have to deal with consequences because I think his life would be much harder if that was a secret that he had to carry.

For sure, that would have wrecked him forever.

But I feel like it’s definitely morally dubious, whether she did the right thing or not. I’m sure legally she didn’t, but as a mother, I got it. Protect the kid, keep him safe, nobody knows.

Of course, you’ve been a part of so many ensemble casts, but this one was ragingly good. Can we talk about how great Jean Smart is?

Yes, Jean Smart’s the coolest. She’s just so down to earth, very funny, such a pro, but also brings a lightness and a humor to everything she touches. I love her, and I’m a giant Jean Smart fan.

Jean can be so funny and serious at the same time. You talked about how you were going to do something more lighthearted. You have Separation Anxiety coming up.

Yes, I optioned the book, and now we get to make it into a series, starring and producing. It’s a great book, by Laura Bigman. It’s about a woman having, I guess in easy terms it’s a midlife crisis. Her teenage son doesn’t want anything to do with her. Her marriage is on the rocks. She’s not where she hoped that she would be in her career, and she winds up, sort-of by accident, putting her dog in a sling, and that becomes her security blanket. It’s very funny, and it’s very heartwarming and touches on real issues of just getting older and being a person.

We’ve got time for one more question. If you could give Lori a more lighthearted life, where would you want her to be?

I would just love to see her on a beach in Hawaii, with her kids, just splashing in the waves, and everyone’s made it. She’s sipping a mai tai and reading a good book in the shade.

‘Mare of Easttown’ is currently streaming on HBO Max.