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Edie Falco's Life Lessons

Edie Falco wastes nothing-- whether it's the opportunity to learn from addiction battles like her character Nurse Jackie, insights about love gained from her dog... or a kitchen.
Chris Raymond

She started her day with a trip to the kitchen. As the morning sun rose over Manhattan, Edie Falco drove through the Lincoln Tunnel and into New Jersey, looking for a furniture showroom on Route 46 in Fairfield. There, she greeted the tall gray cabinets, microwave oven, double sink and subzero refrigerator that once graced her Tribeca loft. All had been removed from her home, trucked 22 miles away and placed on display next to a small white pedestal sink that once resided in the bathroom of former pro football player Amani Toomer.

Odd as it may seem, Falco, the star of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, acted as if this was a perfectly rational thing for a celebrity of her stature to do. She had just bought a new place to share with her two children and the kitchen didn’t suit her tastes. So she had it removed. If you’ve followed her career with any frequency, you may know that she has a complicated relationship with kitchens. Back in the early days, before her breakthrough role on The Sopranos, she lived in a fifth-floor walkup that did not have one. At the time, she was working as a waitress—a job she loathed. Truth be told, despite her Italian heritage, she doesn’t much care for cooking. All those references to pastina and cannelloni on The Sopranos were simply lines delivered by a gifted actress.

But that’s not why she’s here in New Jersey. According to her publicist, Falco has come all this way to receive an award. An eco-friendly citizen of the world, she had dreaded the thought of tossing out one kitchen to make room for another. It seemed like such a waste. And so, with the help of her business manager, she found a way to recycle. A company called Green Demolitions—run by a man who used to market Don Imus—agreed to dismantle the old kitchen piece by piece and haul it to this showroom on Route 46.

“Lo and behold, we brought it here and someone bought it,” says Falco. “It’s going to Pawleys Island, South Carolina.” For the bargain price of $6,500.

When Steve Feldman, who founded Green Demolitions with his wife, Lisa, learned that the thoughtful individual who had donated the somber gray kitchen was in fact TV star Edie Falco, the marketing wizard in him couldn’t resist sharing the news. He offered to honor Falco’s commitment to recycling with an award. And so she received a small glass trophy for her troubles.

But let’s face it; that’s not why she’s here, either. Falco doesn’t need the acclaim. Her trophy collection already includes the Emmy she won two years ago for her role as a drug-addicted healthcare provider on Nurse Jackie and the three Emmys, two Golden Globes and five Screen Actors Guild awards she earned for her stunning turn as the wife of a mafia don on The Sopranos. The engraved glass token she accepted on this day for “donating luxury” as a “renovation angel” does not merit space on that shelf.

But Falco has never been one to walk the conventional path. Born in Brooklyn in 1963, she grew up on Long Island as one of four children—two boys and two girls—in a bohemian family. Her father fancied himself a jazz drummer when he wasn’t working as a graphic designer in an ad agency. Her mother was a devoted thespian, a familiar face on the stage at the Arena Players Repertory Theater in East Farmingdale. She also dabbled in directing, casting young Edie in a number of makeshift productions in the family’s backyard. In 1981, as a senior at Northport High, 17-year-old Edie played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. A teacher who admired her talent advised her to study drama in college, so she enrolled in nearby State University of New York at Purchase. After receiving her degree, she moved 25 miles south to Manhattan. Her family, her friends, her roots—all were in New York. Hollywood was out of the question.

“I had no money, but I come from no money,” she once said, describing those early years in the business. She simply wanted to work as an actor, and she found ways to do that on a steady basis. Even if her credits sometimes included student films, she was, in her own eyes, a success. And yet the artist’s life demanded a singular focus. She worked for 15 years as a waitress to pay the bills. She still bristles at the thought of having to chase down the deadbeats who left the table without settling up, the nights when she did not have enough money in her pocket to take a taxi home much less pay the rent. Alcohol became a comforting source of recreation. She had lots of school friends who enjoyed a big night out. But one by one, they eased up. Falco did not. Soon she was drinking by herself. And then she was doing things she deeply regretted. “I was drunk all the time!” she told New York magazine in 2007. “My life was an absolute mess, and I was hanging out with very scary and dangerous people and behaving in ways that I was horrified by.” After one especially sordid night in 1990—Falco won’t say what happened—she had had enough. At the suggestion of friends who had already quit drinking, she embraced Alcoholics Anonymous.

She had for a long time been waiting for her life to change. Now she started looking for ways to make change happen. She found friends who did not drink. She started eating right and running five miles a day. Gradually the student films were replaced by bit parts on Law & Order and Homicide. She earned a small speaking part in Woody Allen’s 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway. Next came a recurring role as a prison officer on HBO’s Oz. Her New York ties had become an asset. When she got the call to appear in the Sopranos pilot, she paid off her credit cards. When she learned that HBO had purchased the show, she hung up the phone and immediately dialed a Realtor. At the age of 34, she could finally afford to buy her own place. Twenty-one months later, she was standing on stage at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium, holding the Emmy for best actress in a drama series. In her acceptance speech, she described it as “the most surreal experience I could ever have imagined.”

Here in America, we relish such moments. We want to freeze the camera right there, savor the sweet rush of adrenaline, but those who have achieved such heights know there’s no truth to that fantasy. To hold onto success you have to keep hustling. Even before the night had ended, Falco had been tugged back to reality. She learned that the dyspeptic comedian Joan Rivers had singled her out as one of the worst-dressed stars on the red carpet. She had come so far, and yet Falco felt like an outcast from Long Island. The new kid at school.

But it did not take long for her to recover her stride. She won her second Emmy in 2001 and a third in 2003. In between, she discovered she had breast cancer. She went to the doctor at 8 a.m. one day for a biopsy. By 10, she knew she was in for the fight of her life. At 1 p.m., she was on the set of the Sopranos, arguing with her on-screen husband about their divorce, telling him she would take him for everything he had. The news left her breathless, but she did not let on. Co-star James Gandolfini had no idea what she was going through. Producer Ilene Landress, a close friend, arranged the show’s shooting schedule to accommodate Falco’s chemo treatments so the cast did not have to know what had transpired. Falco did not want well-wishers to distract her from the matter at hand. She kept right on running every morning. She did not miss a single day of work. After eight months of treatment, she was given a clean bill of health.

It’s hard to summarize her life philosophy. She readily acknowledges that she is drawn to complexity, people who are neither all good nor all bad. She believes in moving forward, making the most of life’s many experiences, accepting things as they are. Mostly, though, she has learned to listen to her heart.

She credits her dog with leading her to motherhood at age 42. “I have a 13-year-old Lab-shepherd named Marley who made me aware for the first time of the capacity I had to love another being. I mean, oh my God, I didn’t know my ribcage could house this kind of affection. Suddenly I knew parenting was something I wanted to do. Marley absolutely made me do it.” One slight problem: Falco didn’t have a husband at the time—or a boyfriend. No big deal: She adopted a son (Anderson, now 7). And a daughter, too (Macy, 4).

She sits back now in a big yellow club chair and smiles at the thought. There’s a fake plastic plant at her side, a movie poster—HBO’s American Hollow—donated by Robert Kennedy, hanging above her head. The sun streams through the window at her back, casting her in a golden light. Though she professes to be a private person, Falco is remarkably candid about her struggles.

“It took me a long time to realize there’s nothing about me that is anything other than representative of an imperfect human being. I can’t speak for all actors, for all women, for whatever group it is I may identify with, but for me, this is how it is. There’s nothing I can say that’s probably going to shock anybody. I’m just not that weird when it comes down to it.”

Maybe that’s her great appeal. In her black boots, her dark pants and her shiny, sleeveless blouse, Falco easily passes as just another hip Tribeca mom. She is famous, yes, but she doesn’t radiate charisma. She’s approachable, as down-to-earth as someone who has won four Emmys can be. People seem to really relate to that. When you tell them you’re going to New Jersey to interview her, the response is nearly universal: Edie Falco? Really? I LOVE her.

Still, celebrity comes with a certain, undeniable measure of power in America. Falco is well aware of that. And she’s not afraid to use it. She does so with a deft touch, though. When I misquote a statement she once made about the towering ambition of the students she studied beside in the drama department at SUNY, their unapologetic push for success—fame—she drops the smile that was on her face and fixes me dead in her sights, flashing the fiery will she summoned with such brilliance in her role as Carmela Soprano.

“I didn’t say they worked harder for it,” she says. “I said they wanted it more.”

There’s a big distinction there, certainly in Edie Falco’s eyes. Her wisdom is hard-won. She overcame her need for alcohol, she fought cancer, she spent years of her life performing jobs that were beneath her. “Things at thrift shops and stuff that people threw away on the streets of Manhattan are what I used as my housewares for years and years,” she says. To dismiss those hurdles is to overlook the performance she delivered on The Sopranos hours after learning that renegade cells had invaded her, the pains she took to hustle steaming plates of pasta and fish out to rowdy East Village diners night after night, the humbling afternoons she spent dressed up in a Betsy Ross costume or a Cookie Monster outfit for some uppity event planner.

She went to school with some talented people—Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci, Wesley Snipes, and directors Hal Hartley, Nick Gomez and Eric Mendelsohn—and this certainly brought her a few breaks, but it was the girl from Long Island who kept pushing to perform, finding ways to pay the bills while she cut her teeth in student films and far-flung stage productions.

“There was an air of confidence to a lot of those kids that I surely didn’t have,” Falco says of her peers at SUNY. “Not to pat myself on the back, but I really just wanted to be an actor. My mom was an actress when I was growing up, and she just loved it. It wasn’t about being rich and famous—she had a job and she had kids and she had a life and she did this thing at night that she loved. So that’s what I thought it meant to be an actor.

“The fact that, all these years later, I’m the one sitting here in this chair rather than one of the girls I went to school with is a joke. It’s a karmic joke. Because I wasn’t the one who wanted it. I wasn’t the one aiming for this. I wasn’t the one who ever thought I’d be able to support myself doing this. And lo and behold, this is how it turned out.

“It’s an old formula: You do what you love; people bring you what you need.”

So there you have it.

What brings Edie Falco to New Jersey on this gloriously sunny day—at an hour when she’s itching to get back home to read a book to her daughter’s preschool class? The chance to pay it forward. To show gratitude for her success. Her new home, her dog, her two beautiful children. In addition to giving her the Renovation Angel trophy, Green Demolitions has offered to contribute a portion of the proceeds from the sale of her kitchen and various other items to the cause of her choice. At Falco’s direction, the money will go to a family in upstate New York committed to rescuing animals in need. She could draw more press by steering the money to UNICEF or Doctors Without Borders, but that’s beside the point. The stewards at the Dawn Animal Agency need a champion and Falco believes in their mission. Why not put a little of that star power to good use? Now that she can afford it, she contributes to the AmberWatch Foundation, Broadway Cares and Save the Children, too.

“It’s self-serving,” she says. “This stuff makes me feel good. I’m able to give back to people who can’t afford it. I’d like to say I’m completely altruistic, but it is a gift. By virtue of the fact that I’m on a television show, I can talk to you and it might change the outcome of a life. Someone sees this, and it means something to them. It reverberates. At this time and place, I have no way of knowing how. I tend to think, Oh, why should I vote? But it matters—it absolutely matters—in ways that one will never know.”

And so she drives 22 miles to New Jersey to talk about the things that move her. She signs autographs for the staff and a birthday card for the photographer’s mother, a fellow breast cancer survivor. And she dishes out a great big hug to Steve Feldman, who diverts a portion of Green Demolitions profits into programs for recovering addicts like himself. And then she hustles out to the car to beat the traffic back to New York and read to a classroom filled with 4-year-olds. “I’ve been helped by a lot of people,” she says. “This is the least I can do.”

Post date: 
Jul 16, 2012

 

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