Together with its new streaming arm, HBO nabbed a total of 130 nominations for the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, besting Netflix’s 129 for the most nominations for a single platform or network. Sixteen of those nominations went to Mare Of Easttown, Brad Ingelsby’s limited series that used a murder mystery as the launching pad for a riveting character study. Feeding that slow burn with her own gradually building intensity was Julianne Nicholson, who’s nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited/Anthology Series or TV Movie.
As Lori Ross, Nicholson shoulders a great burden in the series’ final act, when the true identity of Erin McMenamin’s (Cailee Spaeny) killer is revealed. But first, she’s shown to be a loving wife and mother, and a great friend to Mare, her fellow Lady Hawk. Like Nicholson’s characters in August: Osage County and The Red Road, Lori is almost undone by secrets—in this case, someone else’s. The Outsider alum was more than up to the task of portraying Lori’s unraveling, capturing the grief-stricken mother’s combination of disbelief and hope in the the series’ final moments.
Nicholson, a veteran of multiple Law & Order franchises, can also see how Mare Of Easttown’s character-first storytelling subverts the solution-focused framing of procedurals and most crime dramas. She spoke to The A.V. Club about what makes Mare such a rewarding watch (especially compared to puzzle-box shows), how women-centered stories are breaking through, and how her longtime friendship with Kate Winslet helped create the show’s cathartic finale.
The A.V. Club: Over the last few years, limited series have really come to the fore in TV discussions. They’ve also drawn some amazing talent. What appeals to you about the format? And is this something that you would like to do again?
Julianne Nicholson: I love that you can go so deeply into a character into a story, but that it’s not holding you for years of your life. I think it’s in fact ideal. I feel also there’s no pressure to keep that story going. You know what I mean? It’s just sort of a little present. It’s seven episodes wrapped up: “Here you go.” And it ends here. I feel like there’s so much out there now too, that people get overwhelmed. And it’s like you feel like, “oh.” I mean, it’s literally a selling point and I was like, “It’s only seven episodes,” you know?
AVC: The Emmy nominations have only increased interest in more of Mare Of Easttown. Kate Winslet recently said that Brad Ingelsby had sent her some ideas for a possible second season. Did you catch wind of that? And would you be up for doing a second season?
JN: Yeah, I heard that it was a conversation and I would be up for reading whatever Brad came up with because I know that he wouldn’t write a second season just for the sake of it. I think that the first season was so special to everyone involved that they don’t want to take that away from the first season by drawing it out if there wasn’t something there that he thought was really worth exploring. So I would definitely read anything Brad wrote anyway. I’m open to that.
AVC: What is Kate Winslet like as a collaborator, both as a scene partner and a producer?
JN: Oh, she’s amazing. I mean, the whole show was her child. I mean Mare the character, but also just the piece as a whole. And she’s unbelievably many things: generous, born talented, has this access to character work but being all based in truth, and she’s very detail-oriented, too. So just all the practicals of following the storyline and how much beer is in that bottle, or even this particular scene when we’re shooting it from this angle or that angle. I mean, she just holds so much in her mind. It’s kind of remarkable as well as just being an amazing person to look across at in a scene.
AVC: Whether it’s through procedurals, prestige crime dramas, or true crime podcasts, viewers really are immersed in these kinds of murder mysteries, so they think they know where this is going. And the show really plays with our expectations, in part by casting several actors from procedurals: Ned Eisenberg, Enid Graham, Phyllis Somerville. As someone who once starred in a procedural, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, how did it feel to subvert that format with this more character-driven story?
JN: That was the exciting part of it for me. Yes, so many people sort of hopped on for the crime element, but then found themselves completely taken in by this cast of characters. I found it very moving, how deeply invested the audience got in these characters and these people. I thought that was really surprising and beautiful. And that’s the interesting thing about casting a show out of New York. Avy Kaufman cast Mare of Easttown, and she’s one of the best casting people out there, especially in New York. She’s been doing it for decades now, and she just has such a great eye for talent. It’s always interesting to see who she brings together and I especially love seeing shows that are cast with largely “New York” actors.
AVC: This show explores, in part, the relationship between mother and son and what they’ll do to protect each other. But the women, both in the story and then the cast, are really at the forefront. What was it like to work on that kind of woman-centered project?
JN: It was great. I mean, it didn’t feel much different along the way. It felt actually genderless when we were making it. It just felt like everybody was the same and everybody was going to make it the best show that we could. It wasn’t until after that it really dawned on me, I should say, that it was so largely a female-centric story, especially even in the one house with Mare, her mother, and her daughter. And then the importance of friends and the women on the basketball team. It felt great to be in a role like that in a show like that, where it wasn’t just supporting the dudes. And also how exciting it is that people responded to that. We don’t just have to be playing wives, the mothers, and the secondary characters. There’s such a great audience for female-centric stories.
AVC: We’ve seen that not just with Mare, but shows like Hacks, which stars your co-star and your fellow nominee, Jean Smart. Do you think audiences are just more primed for that? What is helping these stories break through?
JN: Well, I think with each success, it just opens up more opportunities and with the amount of stories being written and how many different places there are to watch them, there’s just more opportunities. So yeah, I think that there’s just more to watch, more available, and the quality is getting better. Also there’s no stigma around television anymore like there used to be. So everyone wants to do television but for so many years you could either be a television actor or a film actor. That doesn’t exist anymore, thank god.
I feel so delighted to have the recognition… after working for so long. But I also feel like that nomination was the icing on the cake.
AVC: There have been some comparisons between Mare Of Easttown and August: Osage County [in which Nicholson co-starred], which both have these fraught family dynamics. But Mare also reminded me of a Sundance show you starred in, The Red Road, which has told this multigenerational story set against the backdrop of a town in turmoil. Did you see any similarities between the shows or do you kind of see any now that you’re looking back now that both of them are in the rearview?
JN: Yeah. That hadn’t come to my mind, but I can totally see why you would make that connection. I can see that or my character in both, especially as far as secrets. I mean, in The Red Road it was about sort of trying to hide her mental health issues. August [Osage County] has that too, right? The devastation around keeping secrets and mothers and their children and small town. Totally.
AVC: Those secrets are exposed in the finale, but some of the most intense scenes have very little dialogue. When Lori’s in the courthouse, she says nothing when John asks her to care for DJ, or when she sees Mare. So much is communicated without saying a word. How did you and Kate prepare for those scenes where you’d be primarily relying on this like nonverbal communication?
JN: Well, I actually love those moments. I love when you don’t need words and you don’t need dialogue to spell something out. And Brad Ingelsby was so great about that. In that scene in the courthouse, there actually was a line or two written for Lori, but I talked to Brad and to Craig [Zobel], the director, and to Joe. And I said, “I think in this particular case, not always, but it’s stronger if Lori doesn’t give anything away, because what do you say to this information? What do you say to this question? How do you answer that?” I just felt like it might be more interesting to just internalize that. For the audience, it actually allows them to have more of a feeling about it if they’re not being told by the character how they feel about it.
Brad wrote such a beautiful script and was always encouraging. I didn’t have to change much or do anything differently than everything that he put on the page, but he was very encouraging. He said, “If something feels better or sounds better, or you don’t want to say something, please just say.” And that’s such a gift to get from a writer. As far as preparation, I think Kate and I both just knew where our characters were. I’m thinking particularly of the scene in the kitchen, and we knew how much they loved each other and what the loss of that would mean to each of them. Lori really trusts Mare, and I’ve known Kate for a long time in my real life, too. So I felt we could just both be there for each other in that scene.
AVC: In that kitchen scene, there’s this great, small moment where Lori’s shoulders just kind of drop and she starts to sink to the floor. The moment that her shoulders drop, it’s almost as big of a release as when we see Mare climbing the ladder to go up into the attic. Is that something that you thought to do ahead of time, or just kind of something that happened once you were filming the scene with Kate?
JN: I think that was something that just happened. I knew that there was something we needed to get from standing up to being on the floor that was written, and a hug was written. But I think the mechanics of that, or it just sort of happened naturally, and everybody was very generous around that and allowing us to find that, and then working to capture it.
AVC: There are moments of humor throughout, but Mare Of Easttown tackles some heavy themes. How did you guys unwind between takes?
JN: I would say between takes for those heavy scenes, you have to hold onto to it—at least we would hold onto it a little bit. I mean, for me, it’s hard to laugh between takes and then get right back into such material, but at the end of the scene, you can laugh, go eat some chocolate, and have a hug. Once the scene’s over, you can put it down. It was a very fun set. Joe Tippett, who played my husband, John, it was the first time I had met him and he and I got on like a house on fire. He was just hilarious. We mostly laughed whenever he wasn’t sharing devastating news with me. [Laughs.] Our kids were great on the show also. They were just cuties and fun to be with.
AVC: What was it like to work with young actors like Cameron Mann and Kassie Mundhenk in this kind of story? Was there something that you did to kind of help them navigate it?
JN: I don’t do anything to help them navigate the acting side of it because I know they have their own way in to a character and they have the director. But I do think it’s important to create a relationship with child actors who play your children before you even get to set, just to have a relationship in place. So you’re not just meeting on the day, you’re not just talking to each other for the first time on set. It goes a long way towards everyone’s comfort, but particularly with children and to put them at ease to make them know that you’re there to just support them and take care of them and protect them in the way that you would your own children. Because first of all, it’s the humane thing to do. It’s the better feeling thing to do. And it ultimately results in, I think, a better performance.
AVC: Brad Ingelsby said that his goal with the ending was to make something surprising and rewarding. I think we know what made it so surprising, but what do you think makes it so rewarding?
JN: Well, I had a couple people actually reach out to me after the finale aired, saying how grateful they were for the release of that final episode and for the catharsis of that resolution. Even with all that sort of grief and turmoil ending with a tiny sliver of hope, I think people were surprised at how deeply they felt for these characters. And I think it’s very special to make people care.
AVC: That is very true. Especially in the last few years, with these puzzle-box shows that are so concerned with constructing the mystery and misdirecting the audience, and you find you don’t even care about who this is all happening to, you know?
JN: Yeah. You just want to know what happens. And I think it surprised people how much they cared. I think the show just crept up on people, actually.
AVC: In Mare, we get all these wonderful details that make the characters feel so lived-in, and the families feel real.
JN: And how they hang out together, which I love. I feel like you don’t see that in any sort of way that goes on unnamed or not highlighted. I thought there was a real joy and honesty to that.
AVC: When I saw Kate grab a paper towel to hold her slice of pizza, I was like, “This is how I want to see people having dinner on TV.”
JN: [Laughs.] Yeah, who’s getting a plate?
AVC: It must be gratifying to get this recognition at this point in your career. But after being nominated for Emmy nomination and being on this hit show, are you thinking about how to make the most of the momentum or are you just kind of going about things the way that you always have?
JN: I guess that’s probably the better idea or an idea [laughs], but I think I’m just kind of moving forward. I’ve been doing it for 25 years now and I feel so delighted to have the recognition, as you asked, after working for so long. But I also feel like that nomination was the icing on the cake. Now, we just keep going, and hopefully being in a show that had so many eyes on it and that did so well will open other doors for me. But I mean, it’s just a process. It’s a career as a path. You just keep moving forward. It’s not whatever you expect, for good and bad.
AVC: Speaking of future projects, you co-star in the upcoming Marilyn Monroe movie, Blonde. What has it been like to work on that film?
JN: That was very special one to be a part of, because I play her mother and Joyce Carol Oates wrote this beautiful book which is a fictionalized retelling. So it’s not all facts, but it’s taking what we know of Marilyn’s life and making the story of it. I love Andrew Dominik, the director, and Ana de Armas just plays a beautiful, heartbreaking, open Marilyn. And for me, I was a huge Marilyn Monroe fan. Actually, when I was in high school, I had the posters on my walls and I would watch her movies. I had like these cassettes that I think I listened until it snapped in my little tape player. So it was pretty thrilling to sort of go back and revisit that story in this way, from this angle. And to be a part of that story felt so thrilling for my younger self.
AVC: Once again, this Emmys ceremony is going to look quite different—it’s taking place outdoors and there are all these restrictions on who can attend. What is Emmys night going to look like for you? Are you bringing a date?
JN: Well, first of all, I feel like it’s changing daily, so I have zero expectations of actually going anywhere on the night. And honestly, I would be just as happy to sit on my couch with my husband and two kids and eat popcorn and take a minute when it’s my category, but otherwise just enjoy the night. But luckily, as of now, I do get an extra ticket. So I’ll be bringing my husband and it would be so fun to go and support the show and celebrate with them. But I’m also aware of the practicals around the pandemic and even those who are vaccinated, which I am, but there are no guarantees. So it feels like being cautiously optimistic and waiting to hear.
AVC: Last year, it really was something to see all those people in hazmat suits, just hanging out outside the nominees’ homes.
JN: [Laughs.] I don’t think my street can support that. I’d have angry neighbors.