Edie Falco

In recent years, Edie Falco has played a manicured mafia wife and a messy drug-addicted nurse on TV, and now she’s appearing as a schizophrenic bound for a mental institution on Broadway. A little dark, maybe?

“I would have it no other way,” Falco says. “I love those kinds of parts. They’re complicated. They’re scary, a little bit. It gives me plenty to do.”

She learned about them early, at The Arena Players Repertory Theater in East Farmingdale where her mother, Judith Anderson, still performs.

“I was profoundly shy,” Falco says of her younger days. “My mother was doing plays at Arena forever, and I would go with her. I so loved being a part of that experience, because she loved it so much. To see how happy it made my mom was a big part of why I started to pursue acting. They started giving me little parts in some of the plays. I was there all the time anyway.”

imageFalco, 47, was born in Brooklyn, but when she was 4, her family moved first to Hicksville, then North Babylon and later West Islip. As she entered high school, they moved to Northport. She remembers “big trees we used to climb up and then slide down” in North Babylon and a neighborhood children’s theater that her mother built in their garage in West Islip. “It was called the Teakettle Players, because my mother made one of the lights out of an old tea kettle. She ran it for a number of years. It was a very sweet time.”

She was cast in a few Teakettle plays and a few children’s plays at Arena, she says. But at Arena Players, she was also in a couple of dense, difficult, knotty dramas that might have foreshadowed her multiple-Emmy-winning TV turns as Carmela Soprano in HBO’s legendary The Sopranos and as pill-popping philandering ER nurse Jackie Peyton in the dark comedy Nurse Jackie, now in its third season on Showtime.

Early on at Arena, Falco portrayed a beggar girl in Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, in which her mother played the lead, a dominating widow who forces her household into protracted mourning. Soon after college—she studied acting at SUNY Purchase—she played one of three women who live in isolation until a stranger arrives in Ugo Betti’s Crime on Goat-Island. Neither drama ends happily. But they helped launch her career path.

“She had tremendous imagination and talent as a child,” recalls Frederic De Feis, founder and artistic director of the 61-year-old theater group. Could he have predicted her rise to fame? “In this business, it’s hard to tell. I knew she had the talent.”

At Northport High School, she didn’t win any roles at first, but then she got cast in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and, in her senior year in 1981, she starred as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

She can sing? “Yeeaah,” she says, drawing the word out comically. “I say that not entirely convincingly.” Actually, she has music in her background. Her father, Frank Falco, was a jazz drummer before he became a father and switched to being an art director in advertising. “He had a drum set down in the basement in West Islip, and he would play the drums and we would dance around. It’s actually among the sweeter memories I have of my childhood, dancing around with my dad.” Her parents later divorced—not once but twice.

As for singing, Falco came back to it in February with an eclectic act at a small Manhattan cabaret space for one weekend only “because it was fun. I’m doing this for my own pleasure.” She doesn’t know where she might take that voice of hers next, however. “I’ve always wanted to sing, and the opportunity really hasn’t arisen.” Besides doing a few musicals with friends in her youth, she says, the closest she ever came to appearing on Broadway as a singer was in a revival of The Threepenny Opera—another less than cheerful show—with Alan Cumming. She’d done a small workshop of the musical with him, but then had to drop out of the big-time debut because of conflicts with The Sopranos schedule.

Her Broadway outings have leaned heavily toward the serious side: Warren Leight’s Side Man, Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, in which she played a young woman who is about to commit suicide. By comparison, her current stint in John Guare’s black comedy, The House of Blue Leaves, must seem like a romp in the park. She plays Bananas Shaughnessy, the schizophrenic Queens wife of a zookeeper (played by Ben Stiller) whose girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is named Bunny Flingus. Her character is perhaps the most tragic in the play. “That tends to be the stuff I choose,” she says in a humorous tone that softens her usual delivery. In conversation, as in many of her roles, her voice juts out as strongly as her chin.

Does she have a favorite role among the many she’s had, which also includes several in movies? “The one I’m doing is always my favorite. I go head first into whatever I’m doing. What I love the most is always changing.”

imageFalco has a wide variety of roles in real life, too—recovering addict, cancer survivor, spiritual striver, person in therapy and adoptive mother of two young children. Any one of these could be the focus of a TV movie or after-school special for grown-ups.

She’s been sober now for 19 years. “I drank a lot with my friends in school, and when we got out we continued to drink. But after a while I began to drink by myself, excessively. And one by one, my friends who I’d gone to college with got sober, quietly and on their own. And I noticed how their lives were changing, and I said to a couple of them, just sort of feeling around, so tell me about this sobriety thing.”

She also did drugs a little: “Drugs were in the mixture, but I was so broke that mostly I couldn’t afford them. Alcohol was always much easier to get.” Her friends recommended that she “go to 90 meetings in 90 days, which is what they suggest in AA. And when I decided to quit that’s what I did. I went to a million meetings for the first few years. I still go, occasionally.”

Meanwhile, she went on other quests as well. “I’ve gone to therapy for a million years.” For what? “For life. If it were up to me, it would be required. For being part of a civilized society, for raising children, for having a relationship. To really know who you are, on some level how to exist, is very important…It has also made me a better actor, I think.”

She’s not sure if her parents’ divorces contributed to some of her troubles. “It’s a very deep question of nature versus nurture. I think even if my parents had not divorced, I would have ended up with some sort of addiction, some darker places, because it’s part of my genetics, part of my physiology. It can be exacerbated by events. I don’t know that it’s caused by them. I don’t know. I literally don’t know.”

Both of her parents still live in Northport, and she visits both when she comes to Long Island, which she does regularly to be with her family; her sister also lives in Northport, one brother lives in Smithtown and the other in Lynbrook.

They weren’t a religious family, she says. “I was not raised in a church, but as an adult, I’ve traveled to different places to see what makes my insides feel good. I’ve been kind of all over the place, but lately I have a Dharma teacher, and I’m learning a great deal about Buddhism, which seems to fit me well, or I fit it well. It’s a set of beliefs that I have no difficulty attaching myself to.” She probably won’t raise her children in that or any religion, she adds. “I think it served me well to look on my own, to see where it led me and what inspires me. I think had someone tried to nail me down, forgive the expression, into one particular expression, I would have rebelled against that. Nobody ever pushed me. I was free to find my own way, and it’s been very meaningful because of that. Because I needed it, my insides needed it.”

In 2003, while she was in The Sopranos, Falco was diagnosed with breast cancer. With chemotherapy, she overcame it. All those years of therapy, sobriety and spiritual enlightenment probably contributed, too: She never missed a day of work.

Soon after that frightening episode, she adopted her son Anderson, now 6 (named after her mother), and her daughter Macy, now 3 (“I always thought it was the coolest name ever”).

Cancer wasn’t the reason she adopted, though, she says. “I had been thinking about it for quite some time. And then, as a sidebar, I had my little cancer chapter. Once I was recovered, I thought, ‘All right, let’s do this.’”

Despite being single—though reports have linked her to several men over the years—she didn’t have trouble adopting. She never considered having a child of her own. “Not really. A lot of people feel differently about this, but I don’t feel that it’s more special if it’s your own child. I think a child is a child, and once it’s handed to you and it is in your arms, it’s your child. And I believe, without getting too cosmic about the whole thing, that all the children are all of our children, that we’re all the parents, every one of us. It’s our responsibility to take care of all the kids. Which child I actually have in my arms is not important to me.”

Then it takes a village? “Yes—especially now that I’ve tried to do pieces of it alone. Then I thought, I’m going to take advantage of all the people around me who are offering their help, and what a difference if makes. So many people are in my kids’ lives, people who love them and take care of them and are part of their lives.”

After many years in the West Village—first as a struggling actress in a fifth-floor walk-up, then post-Sopranos in her own brownstone—she now lives in a loft in Tribeca with her children. She blissfully goes about all the ordinary tasks a mother does, she says, like taking the kids to play dates and dentist appointments. No one recognizes her, she says, or lets on that they do.

Perhaps that’s because she now wears her hair very short, in real life and for her role as Nurse Jackie. After The Sopranos ended its eight-year run in 2007, she received many scripts “for Italian women and mob wives. All I did was say no for a long time.” She almost thought she was “done with acting, because nothing was appealing to me.” Then a friend told her about a script for a series called Nurse Mona.

It appealed. “I liked it right away. I liked who this woman was.” But the original version was “very dark,” she says, and she feared people wouldn’t want to watch the show more than once. “You want people to attach themselves to the lifeline of this person, and to go where she goes.” So, after much tweaking, Jackie emerged as a loving wife and mother and a valued nurse with some huge problems: A boyfriend on the side and a strong addiction to prescription drugs.

“Being a sober person, I was very reluctant to portray a woman who uses drugs, and to do it in a way that was even at all lighthearted. I don’t want to be a proponent for that kind of thing, because it’s an awful life.” However, the show addresses her feelings, she says. “I think we often see the fallout from Jackie’s shenanigans, that in an ideal world people would see it as it really is, which is a big fat bloody mess.”

Falco starred in a movie recently, too, directed by her college friend Eric Mendelsohn, who also gave her one of her first movie roles in 1999, Judy Berlin, which was set on Long Island. Mendelsohn grew up in Old Bethpage. The new film 3 Backyards, was shot in Northport, Port Jefferson and Sag Harbor, she says, and she was able to go home every night to her children. Nurse Jackie is made even closer to home, at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens.

So she doesn’t leave New York much? Falco laughs. “Yes, I like working at home.” It’s where she’s found happiness, in her own complicated and slightly dark-tinged way, with her children.

As for the future, Falco says she has no plan. “Who knows what will happen next? I never quite discipline myself about these things. I tend to listen to my insides and see where I’m led.”

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.