15 Jan 2010: Pill-popping role as Nurse Jackie has helped the former Sopranos star bury her demons

When Edie Falco won her first Emmy for her portrayal of Tony’s wife Carmela in The Sopranos in 1999, Joan Rivers declared her one of the worst-dressed of the evening. Falco still bristles with indignation: “I felt like Carrie getting blood poured on her at the prom. My feelings were really hurt.” I suggest that Rivers is one to talk; she looks like ET. Falco flashes back: “She looks like she was in some horrible fire, frankly. But whatever, to each his own. It was not a good start in the industry.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1963 to an Italian art-director father and a Swedish actor mother, Falco actually made her acting debut in the late-80s and, in the early-90s, had small roles in a series of forgotten films. She started to make a low-key name for herself on US TV in 1993 with appearances in Law & Order and Homicide and, later, as a corrections officer in HBO‘s prison drama Oz. She even did a pilot for a TV version of Fargo which came to nothing. Her on-screen tenacity has always been balanced with a hesitant tenderness, but her performance as mob wife Carmela Soprano was the one which blew us all away.

Over the course of a monumental 86 episodes she loved and hated Tony, watched him immerse himself in therapy and tried it out herself (only to have her husband described as a depressed criminal and she his accomplice), and somehow brought up two children. Although The Sopranos was flooded with testosterone, some of the finest roles were for women – most memorably the late Nancy Marchand as Tony’s formidable mother and Lorraine Bracco as his serene shrink. Falco, meanwhile, was careful not to make Carmela into a caricature; instead she became a tough-talking icon.

Most actors are lucky to have one role as career-defining as Carmela in their careers. Falco, who was in her mid-30s by the time she found fame as Mrs Mob, now has two. The first series of the medical comedy Nurse Jackie debuted on Showtime in America early in June 2009 and, while it will never be as talked about as The Sopranos, it’s made Falco a star all over again. Falco, with a cropped, boyish haircut, is Jackie Peyton, an ER nurse who snorts prescription drugs to kickstart her day; slips off her wedding ring each morning before work; has sex with the hospital pharmacist in exchange for Vicodin; tells a newly-trained doctor to “stay the fuck out of my way”; and, in the first episode, flushes an abusive patient’s ear down the toilet just because she can.

‘Lately American TV has been willing to see the flaws in people … Viewers want to see characters they can imagine really existing. Carmela and Jackie definitely fall into that category’

As a show, Nurse Jackie is the antithesis of the insipid, sanitised world of most medical dramas. It’s immediately engaging, funny, sharply written and well acted. As a character, Jackie is utterly credible as the anxious mother, adored wife and over-worked nurse. She is verbally abusive yet, when no one is looking, Florence Nightingale. Both Carmela and Jackie are emotionally flawed characters and it’s their very vulnerability that makes them so appealing.

Falco, initially hesitant to analyse, eventually concurs: “Lately American TV has been willing to see the flaws in people. Now all you see are characters striving to be good but just falling short of it. Viewers want to see more characters they can imagine really existing. Carmela and Jackie definitely fall into that category.” Showtime, which has long lived in the shadow of HBO, seems to be pioneering series anchored by smart, capable women, from Nurse Jackie, Weeds and Tracey Ullman’s State Of The Union to United States Of Tara, created by Juno writer Diablo Cody. “The balance is certainly changing fast; there are still not as many strong female characters as there as strong male but there’s a fan base for shows with decision-making women and the networks are responding.”

At 46, Falco is one of America’s most successful television actors – she’s won two Golden Globes and three Emmys – and a critically acclaimed stage actor. She can’t leave the Manhattan loft she shares with her two adopted kids without being recognised. Once she was in the parking lot of a mall when a group of semi-hysterical women invited her to a slumber party. “I’d gotten used to people calling out ‘Carmela’,” she recalls, “so I wasn’t surprised by these women running after me. They all looked like variations of Carmela – the hair, the nails, the jewels. I was dressed in my jeans and T-shirt and another woman said she recognised my disguise. I told her, ‘This is me, honey!’ Anyway, these Jersey women begged me to go to their pyjama party. All I could think was, ‘God, if you had any idea how bored you’d be by my company …'”

Although she’s now a loved-up mother – Anderson is four, Macy aged one – Falco has had her difficult and wild times. She was treated for breast cancer in 2003, and admonished by the press for having an affair with Stanley Tucci who was married at the time. She gave up alcohol 17 years ago after admitting to being “drunk all the time” and hanging out with “scary people”. But she talks about her hellraising in the vaguest of terms: “In the early days, I used to think that good actors lost themselves in roles. You feel like you can make the story fuller and richer if you let it extend into your real life. And then crazy, dangerous things start to happen.”

Did she spend periods of her life wandering around Manhattan pretending to be a mobster’s wife? She cackles: “Exactly! I started to handle my life as Carmela would handle hers. It got ridiculous. And then I realised that you can still be a good actor if you put the character away at the end of the day. My life is now so spectacular that I don’t want to leave it for any length of time. I’m not the first woman to juggle kids and work. I do it imperfectly but I do it the best I can. All I know is that I love my kids more than I’ve ever loved anything in my life.”

Falco’s spectacular life involves watching “nourishing” documentaries on TV but “no acting”. She hasn’t seen The Wire, and admits to being slightly reclusive; she’s been shy for as long as she can remember and still struggles at industry parties. She doesn’t have “a damned thing” planned for 2010, apart from hanging out with her kids. When they’re older, she might take them on a road trip to Italy and Sweden to meet extended family members: “I’d love to do that more than I can tell you.”

Suddenly, she remembers that this year’s not quite as empty as she’d hoped; most of January will be spent promoting the second series of Nurse Jackie in Los Angeles. But then there really is nothing, not unless a third series is commissioned, and “nobody’s throwing money around like they used to”. There almost certainly will be a third season, but at some point Nurse Jackie will run its course. What does it feel like to leave a series? Falco sounds unusually sober: “I’m getting better at endings. I used to slip out of the door before anyone noticed. I’m now forcing myself to be grown up and actually hug people, say goodbye properly. Even if I feel awkward doing so.”

She laughs: “I used to grieve on my own but not any more. I’m sad at the end and that’s OK.”