It may have taken some time for audiences to experience the full weight of Julianne Nicholson’s masterful performance in HBO’s limited series Mare of Easttown, but by the time the finale reached its end credits we certainly felt it.
That impact is par for the course for Nicholson, an actor who has spent a career finding meaty roles in projects big and small. A veteran of film, television, and stage, she broke out on screen in her Independent Spirit Award-nominated performance in the film Tully before eventually stealing scenes from legends in projects like August: Osage County and Black Mass.
With Mare of Easttown, Nicholson delivers one of the finest performances of her career as Lori Ross, the best friend of Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), a small-town detective attempting to solve the case of a murdered teenage girl. While Lori begins as simply a shoulder for Mare to lean on, her part in the series becomes more and more significant as Brad Ingelsby’s script utilizes every element of this panoramic study of community to draw the audience into this mystery and the characters set within it.
After the series finale aired (on a night where it crashed the HBO Max streaming service because people were so eager to see how the series would end), I had the chance to speak with Nicholson about how she got involved with the project, and the process of developing this fascinating character on a slow burn arc that becomes increasingly crucial as the series goes on.
We also took some time to speak about the reception that the show has gotten, as the nation was overcome with Mare fever, before discussing her first foray into the world of directing on her entry in the film With/In, an anthology series of shorts that played at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. All in all, it was a thoughtful conversation with a tremendous actor who delivers quality work every time she steps into a new role.
Read my interview with Julianne Nicholson below:
Mitchell Beaupre: Hey Julianne, it’s great to speak with you. I’ve been a big fan of your work for a long time. I think it was in 2005 or so when I first saw Tully and I was immediately drawn to what you were doing there and have loved seeing the roles you’ve chosen since then.
Julianne Nicholson: Thank you so much. Tully is old school. It’s always so interesting to hear when someone was first introduced to your work. I have a soft spot for Tully, so thank you.
MB: How did you get involved with Mare of Easttown, and what was it about Lori that made you want to play this part?
JN: Kate and I have known each other for a long time. Even before I knew her I was a massive fan of her work, so when she called and said that she’s doing this incredible series and wants me to play her best friend I was immediately interested. I read the first six episodes and I thought from the very beginning that Brad had created such a particular, interesting world that I hadn’t really seen explored in this way. I loved how many female characters were at the heart of this story. I loved being able to experience them in everyday life, these people who are working hard to raise their families and do the right thing in the world.
MB: The Easttown area is such a particular location, an area that Brad comes from, and he really brings such a texture to how it’s presented on screen. Was that specificity useful in building your character, especially as you shot in the actual area?
JN: One hundred percent. It’s such a gift to be able to film in the location that a story is set. It’s indescribable. It’s completely invaluable what that gives to the story. To be able to be there when you’re going to get your groceries, to go get your hair done, when you’re pumping gas – having that around you when you’re not even conscious of it necessarily informs how you tackle that role and how you become that person.
MB: This is a murder mystery series, yet it also takes this novelistic approach in how it introduces us to such a scope of characters within this community. We get to feel the history of this world and the backstory of these characters. Was that idea of this being a character drama first and foremost something that really appealed to you?
JN: I totally agree, and that was a huge pull for me to do it . There was that satisfaction of being taken in with this mystery where the episodes surprised you about what comes next and whom I thought did it changed with every episode. So there was the thrill of following along with the mystery, but then to have that rich world of characters around was very enticing to me. I’ve been in shows where it’s like the cops asking the questions and the suspects or the victims giving the answers. This has been so much deeper than that.
MB: Lori is one of, if not the most fascinating character in the series as we follow her trajectory from start to finish. What was it like for you to navigate the arc of this character, as it is a bit of a slow burn where we are introduced to her as Mare’s best friend and then slowly we get more and more time with her and see her come into focus?
JN: It was a little challenging, actually. I find it easier when you’re there all the time, when you’re there everyday living in that character’s shoes. A lot of it was trusting Brad’s writing and the team in general because they had such a vision. We filmed all of the episodes at the same time, so everything was being shot out of order. I didn’t know until the show finished the impact that Lori would have because there’s a lot of observing and comforting with the character. I think it’s part of Brad’s genius that you don’t have so much of her until the very end. I feel like it’s more impactful in that way because you’re not expecting it.
MB: The series is emotionally very heavy but it never becomes histrionic – it’s always grounded in the reality of the characters. As a result, the emotional outburst that Lori has in the finale where she’s in the car with Mare and tells her that she’s taken everything from her has an even greater impact because we really feel it. What was the process like of putting that scene together?
JN: It’s funny you should say that because I had an interview this morning with KTLA News and they showed that clip. I actually haven’t watched the series yet, so I saw that this morning for the first time, and it’s very upsetting. It’s even upsetting for me to talk about it. We actually didn’t speak too much on set about that particular scene going into it. I think we all knew what the stakes needed to be. That friendship and their history is so developed up until that point and it was very important for us to feel that abandonment, and the loss of her family, the loss of her son, the loss of her friend. We all sort of just knew.
MB: Did you and Kate speak a lot about developing that relationship together with these two characters? It is so crucial for the audience to really be invested in the two of them together in order to feel that betrayal.
JN: We did speak about it before we started filming. Knowing each other for so long helped us see each other as people and as actors. Kate was at my wedding. We shared the same baby doctor in New York. My husband is her son’s godfather. We’ve been there for each other for a long time, so having that was a gift. We talked about what that looks like to know someone forever, to be best friends from kindergarten, to be able to walk in their house freely like that.
MB: There’s an interesting bit of contrast at the end in where Lori and Mare both are, as Mare is making this huge step in her journey towards grieving the loss of her son. It almost feels, in a way, as though Lori is at the point Mare was at when the series began, where her life has just shattered and now she’s there with all of the pieces. How do you feel about where she’s at when the series comes to a close?
JN: Yeah, God, she’s got some work to do. I just wish for peace for her and her family. I think there’s a lot of discomfort in the immediate future for her and for them.
MB: With the series having wrapped up now, was it a surprise for you as it started moving along to see how much the fervor built around the show? It’s got to feel special to be part of a series that crashed an entire streaming service on its finale night!
JN: Oh yeah absolutely. People just came to it. It really resonated with people. The morning after that “Murdur Durdur” Saturday Night Live sketch happened I had like five different people send me it, and I thought it was hilarious. I just felt like if we broke through to SNL, after only our third or fourth episode, then this must be a thing that people were talking about. I remember before we premiered that HBO sent me the first two episodes, and I was wondering who I should send it to. I never like to force people to watch my stuff because I can’t really judge how it turned out, so I’m always saying, “This wasn’t bad, I would watch it if you have time”, and just underplaying it. The process of making it was great and I trusted everyone who made it, but you just never know how it comes together. So it was a huge, huge, exciting surprise that people seem to love it so much.
MB: You’re an actor who has always gravitated towards these character-driven roles and projects that aren’t the kinds of things like Game of Thrones or a Marvel movie that you know are obviously going to dominate the cultural conversation. Is it encouraging for you to see a series like this attract that same level of attention? It demonstrates that there still is an audience out there for something like this.
JN: It’s really encouraging. Hopefully it shows that there’s a want for more of these to be made. People want to spend time with things that aren’t just superheroes or dragons. I take it as a huge comfort and a positive sign, and hope that it can continue to swing the pendulum in that direction.
MB: The Tribeca Film Festival is just wrapping up, and one of the films that played there was an anthology series called With/In, which is a series of shorts made during the pandemic. How did you and your family get involved in that?
JN: I had worked before with the lovely people who were putting that project together, and back early on during lockdown, I think in April, they said they were doing it and we thought it would be fun. It would be something for us to do, and to create this little snapshot of this time. We were the first family to do it because my husband had already happened to write these shorts. We were the guinea pigs. It was my husband and my two kids. There were some people who helped us out, who showed us how to do everything for a full tech day, but then it was just us for the actual filming of it. It was so hard. We are not technically savvy folks as it is. Really though, we felt so grateful to have been invited and it was such a special thing to do, and to have forever.
MB: Was it exciting to be able to get those creative juices flowing while we were all kind of in a moment where creativity was potentially being stifled?
JN: Totally. We were able to use that to give us this push and it was great. Such a gift. I’m honestly still processing it, though. It was so challenging. I definitely don’t want to direct. I like when I can just show up, when people tell me what to do. I like acting more. That’s my jam.
MB: I was going to ask if there was more directing in your future, but I think that answers that.
JN: No, no. There will be producing though. I’ve just got the rights for this book called Separation Anxiety, and I’m excited to find people to work on that. I love the idea of collaboration. I love the idea of being a part of what stories I want to tell, and to bring people together and problem solve in that way. But no, definitely no directing. That might change someday, but no time soon.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]