clock menu more-arrow no yes

Edie Falco will always tell you exactly what she thinks, like it or not

Edie Falco’s surprisingly ambitious new CBS show got her thinking about cops, queer identities, and LA.

Edie Falco plays the first woman police chief of Los Angeles on “Tommy.”
Edie Falco stars in Tommy on CBS.
CBS

When you interview Edie Falco, you’re in for a ride. Even if she disagrees with the premise of your question — as she did when I tried to ask her about her acting process — she’ll tell you exactly what she thinks and spin you in a brand new direction entirely. Where some actors remain tightly focused and pinned to their talking points, Falco is always game for whatever you throw at her.

Though she had been working steadily for over a decade when she was cast on the groundbreaking drama The Sopranos, her complex and riveting work as Carmela Soprano, the endlessly compromised wife of Tony Soprano, shot her to stardom. She won three Emmys across the show’s six seasons, which ran from 1999 to 2007. After that, she joined Showtime’s Nurse Jackie as the title character, an addict nurse just trying to hold her life together. She played that role for seven seasons, from 2009 to 2015, and won another Emmy.

So when she signed on for CBS’s new drama Tommy — in which she plays Abigail “Tommy” Thomas, the first woman chief of police in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department — the show’s profile immediately rose. Tommy debuted last week, and though its early episodes reflect the growing pains you might expect of any network TV show in its first season, it’s nicely idiosyncratic and quirky for a CBS cop show, engaged with modern sociopolitical issues but also possessed of a dark streak of humor that keeps it lively. Meanwhile, its personal storylines, in which Tommy navigates being a lesbian trying to date women in a brand new city, go beyond those of the typical police drama. Despite the show’s flaws, it’s clear why an actress of Falco’s caliber was attracted to it.

But her casting also led to a lot of big questions, about the ways she’s come to think about the role of policing in 2020, about the fact that she’s playing a lesbian when she isn’t one herself, and about just why a show whose premise is so centrally about Los Angeles is filming in New York. (Okay, maybe that last one isn’t a “big question,” but as an Angeleno, I had to ask.)

Falco and I recently met in Pasadena, California, to talk about those issues and so much more. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Edie Falco appears at the 2020 Television Critics Association winter press tour to discuss Tommy.
Francis Specker/CBS via Getty Images

Emily VanDerWerff

I’ve heard you say that you like to watch documentaries about police officers. What have you learned from those? This is the first time you’ve played a cop in decades.

Edie Falco

I played a prison warden in Oz. That’s the closest. But the way cop shows are done — it’s like, [excited voice] “There he is. It’s the perp.” But these guys [real cops] are so chill. They do this all day and all night, many of them for their whole lives. They’re not going to ratchet up on the excitement level to where a lot of actors play them.

I immediately become disengaged when I see that in a cop show. When I see these guys on [A&E documentary series] The First 48, they’re deeply passionate about finding the bad guy, but there’s something so low-level about their demeanor. I find that really engaging.

Emily VanDerWerff

When you watch those shows, do they give you a sense of what separates effective policing from ineffective policing, of which we have so many examples?

Edie Falco

An open mind. I think [Tommy] is very clear about what’s right and what’s wrong. She’s got a pretty clear center as far as that’s concerned. It isn’t as easy as one might think to implement that when you’ve got so many different variables.

It’s another in a long line of jobs I would not want to have. Different characters I’ve played, I’m like, “I don’t want to do that.” There is so much at stake here. Life-and-death stuff. But it’s being clear about what is right and knowing that there are other people with other points of view that need listening to.

Emily VanDerWerff

When you were developing this character, did you try to incorporate anything from the people you saw on the documentaries?

Edie Falco

If there is some sort of process that I have, I am unaware of it. It happens on some sort of subconscious level. And oftentimes, the period of time from when I say yes to when we start shooting is very short, so there really isn’t a ton of time to do any preparation — which is not to say I would do it even if there was time. Whatever it is that happens, happens on a subconscious level.

I read an interview recently with Anthony Hopkins, talking about The Two Popes, where he’s playing a real person. The interviewer asked, “What kind of research do you do?” And he said, “I did none.” And I almost jumped through my ceiling with joy because he knows what’s involved. He knows how to be a person! He knows what people believe in.

I have some actor friends who kid me about the fact that I don’t really do research, that whatever research I do, I do in my day-to-day life just about being a human. What people do for a living is often one of the smaller parts of the stories that we tell. There are a million people who aren’t going to agree with me on that, but this is how it works for me.

Emily VanDerWerff

Do you get a lot of questions like that, about your process? Writers tend to over-intellectualize. We think so much about everything. But when I sit down to write something, it’s coming from somewhere I don’t really think about.

Edie Falco

The writers and the painters that I am most moved by, I’ll see their work, and I’m like, “Oh, my God. So, that’s probably because in your earlier works ...” And they’re like, “I have no idea. I just painted it.” Something comes through you, and I think it’s language-less.

Emily VanDerWerff

You’ve had the great luxury of playing a character for a very long time, twice now. So, what do you look for when you take on a TV project, knowing it could take up years of your life?

Edie Falco

Well, I never assume that. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you really don’t know anything. I did pilots very early on that I thought were going to be the next big chapter of my life that fell apart. I did a little thing [The Sopranos] as a whim, and that turned into the next 10 years of my life.

So, I don’t ever think in those terms. I go by reading the pilot. I find it interesting. I don’t want to put it down. My system becomes activated — whatever that means. That’s how I know.

Emily VanDerWerff

What about this pilot made you think, “Oh, I’ve got to play this person”?

Edie Falco

The writing was smart. The dialogue was the way people really talk. Tommy had dimensions. She had a private life. There were things about her that I felt gave her more than you often see in some of these cop shows or in any shows. And also she was funny. We had some quippy comments that all the characters said that I actually laughed out loud at.

Emily VanDerWerff

I’ve read enough scripts to know how unusual that can be.

Edie Falco

Ooh, boy. [Laughs.] Depending on how much I want to work I’m like, “Well, I mean, I could do this.” I’m so glad I know enough to walk away from some of those.

Edie Falco stars in Tommy.
Tommy deals with a rapidly escalating crisis in the pilot.
CBS

Emily VanDerWerff

There’s an aspect to Tommy about her sexual orientation that 20 years ago would have been the center of her character. “She’s a lesbian!” But on this show, it’s just another thing about her. Was that interesting to you to play — finding a way to work in that personal aspect of the character amid all of the other stuff?

Edie Falco

I love the idea that she’s gay and that it isn’t a part of the way she’s identifying herself necessarily. I hope we get to the point in the future where a person’s sexual orientation is irrelevant. I mean, why is that something that has anything to do with her ability to do this job? It is one characteristic of many in her.

I am not gay, but I know, if I imagine, quite a bit about what it’s like to be gay. There’s a person whose eyes you look into and you love them. Why does anything else about that matter? It’s something I’ve never quite understood. There will be people who disagree with me or may not like the answer. I’m being honest with you.

I have a gay friend who said that growing up, he would see shows like Father Knows Best. It’s a man and a woman, and they’re always kissing and falling in love. And he just thought, obviously there’s something wrong with me because never do I see a boy falling in love with a boy. The only way you know how to grow up is you see yourself represented around you, either in your parents or in culture. We’re a little late to the game with this. But let people see themselves so that they know that, yeah, she loves other women and she’s the chief of police and she has a daughter.

Emily VanDerWerff

Both The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie had incredible ensemble casts, and you might tune in for the main character but then become just as interested in the other characters. And so much of television is about building out ensembles. How do you try to nurture those relationships and performances throughout the cast?

Edie Falco

It’s interesting, because Tommy is about the police department in a huge city, so it is diverse. And when we went to cast this, only then did I realize that I have not worked with a lot of people who aren’t white. Nurse Jackie was certainly closer, but not close enough.

I saw tapes of a million actors who I had never seen before. I’d never heard their name. I’d never seen their work. It was so exciting. And the people that we found are so talented and so different and bring such different experience to the table. The areas of the city they grew up in, the things they experienced as kids. I’m talking about the actors themselves now and what they can bring to their roles.

One of the many things I loved about making this show is how it made me realize how small-minded my own experience was and what a pleasure that I get to have this kind of growth as a person in the midst of my workday.

Emily VanDerWerff

What do you respond to when you watch an audition tape? What gets you excited about another actor?

Edie Falco

It’s very simple: Do I believe them? Do they carry with them a certain confidence? My dear beloved Merritt Wever, whom I adore from Nurse Jackie, I remember seeing her audition for the first time. She really is that girl who walked off the stage after her [extremely brief Emmy acceptance] speech that time. She really hates all this stuff.

But when she started to read the lines, she snapped into this confidence of who this character was. It was breathtaking. Does this actor believe themselves as this character? That’s what I respond to.

Emily VanDerWerff

You’re filming most of Tommy in New York, even though it’s about the Los Angeles Police Department. What was important to you about making sure you could continue to film in New York instead of coming to LA?

Edie Falco

I shot [Law & Order: True Crime] in Los Angeles over three months. It was very hard for me to be away from home. I have two kids who are in school. I’m a single parent, so I can’t just pick up and leave. It’s traumatizing for them, it’s traumatizing for me. So I’ve set that stipulation for myself, more or less, that if I’m going to do something long term, that may be a series, it’s got to be in New York.

My own experience with being a New Yorker and having flavors of LA in my life is pretty much exactly what the character is going through, so that worked out quite well. We shoot the whole thing in New York. I came here to Los Angeles for one day to shoot. And the rest is just people come and shoot B-roll stuff of people skating down the Venice boardwalk to make sure people know this is where this is.

Emily VanDerWerff

I just have to make sure you’re not a New Yorker who irrationally hates Los Angeles for no reason.

Edie Falco

It’s beautiful. Look at this weather. It’s just not home.

Emily VanDerWerff

We’re living in a time when the ways that police departments intersect with the communities they are supposed to serve and protect, especially communities of color, is something we’re thinking and rethinking constantly. Did playing a chief of police change how you thought about that issue at all?

Edie Falco

I don’t know. There are good people and bad people and there are good cops and bad cops. The truth is, I don’t really think anybody starts out bad, people or cops. To go into that line of work, you’ve got to have a part of you that wants to serve the populace, that wants there to be justice. And I think people in the course of their jobs and the course of their lives can start to have influences that may pull one way or another. And who knows [what can happen] when people are vulnerable?

People are swerved around all different ways. [This character] understands that about people in general. It’s part of the human condition. But she really is pretty steady in her understanding of what’s expected of her. That’s what’s guiding her.

Emily VanDerWerff

Changing a whole system is much harder than changing people.

Edie Falco

It’s on a granular level and it’s not going to be done quickly. You’ve got to take a little piece at a time and just keep doing the right thing.

Tommy airs Thursdays at 10 pm Eastern on CBS. Previous episodes are available on CBS All Access.