Interview with Julianne Nicholson about her role in Black Mass
Scott Cooper’s crime-drama Black Mass has a great cast of actors supporting Johnny Depp in the role of the Boston criminal “Whitey” Bulger, but one of the true standouts is actress Julianne Nicholson, a veteran of television and stage who has one of just two major female roles in the film but one that offers some of the film’s most powerful dramatic moments.
Nicholson has been a staple on television over the years from “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (where she played Detective Megan Wheeler) to HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” She hasn’t appeared nearly as much in movies except she had an important role in 2013’s ensemble drama August: Osage County and a starring role in one of my favorite comedies (that no one else has seen), 2004’s Seeing Other People, opposite no less than Bryan Cranston.
In Black Mass, she plays Marianne Connolly, the wife of Joel Edgerton’s FBI Agent John Connolly, who convinces his childhood friend “Whitey” to provide information to take out his competition in the underworld, and the role allows her to have some great moments both with Edgerton and Depp.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Nicholson the day before the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday as they prepared for the film’s release this Friday.
ComingSoon.net: Was there auditioning involved with this or did Scott already know your stuff beforehand?
Julianne Nicholson: There was, yes and yes. I did. Francine Maisler, she’s an incredible casting director, and she sent the script to me. Any time you get a project from her, you know it’s going to be something special, so I was very excited to read it. Then I went in and auditioned, and Scott wasn’t there, but I went on tape at the casting agent’s office, and then that night, I actually wrote Scott a long email telling him some of the reasons why I would really like to be in this movie. Fortunately, he had seen my work before. He worked with Sam Shepard on “Out of the Furnace,” and Sam wrote a play called “Heartless” a couple of years ago that I did Off-Broadway. I did that play, and Scott happened to go see it to support his friend Sam, and he said that that was one of the deciding factors in hiring me for this role.
CS: Oh so he already knew your work?
Nicholson: He did, yeah. We hadn’t met, but he had seen me before.
CS: Obviously you must have known Johnny was involved, but what was it about the character that you kind of said, “Okay, this is a character I can do?”
Nicholson: Well, it started just with being a piece set in Boston. For me, that’s already attractive. I’m from Boston, so I wanted to do a story there for like, forever, since I started acting. I thought that sounded exciting and that was something I wanted to do. This story in particular is sort of one of the ultimate Boston stories, so that was very exciting to me, and then, there aren’t a lot of women in this film, but my character Marianne, and Dakota’s character, they’re actually quite strong and have a voice. Scott said to me while we were filming that Marianne is sort of the moral compass in this story, where she sees what her husband’s doing and calls him out on it. In other places, there’s just so much violence and crime and corruption happening, and she’s one of the people, and the only person within their personal lives that’s saying, “I see what’s going on. It’s not okay.”
CS: Movies like “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas,” they have women in important roles, but there’s always the danger of having the women just being the wife and she’s just there, and it’s really more about the crimes and the violence. So Marianne plays a very different role than what we’ve seen in some other movies.
Nicholson: I’m glad you think so. I think so. I feel that way, too. I feel like they’re not so much throughout the film, but I think when they are there, they make an impact and are very important in telling the story.
CS: I think you’ve said that the character is an amalgam of a few women, so did you talk to any FBI wives or anyone?
Nicholson: I didn’t. I mostly just went off the page and thinking more about that time and place and that city. I’m fortunate enough to be from there, so I had the advantage of having photo albums filled with people wearing those clothes and being from that time, listening to that music. So that was sort of the key to getting right the time and place, but I didn’t speak to any FBI agents’ wives. I thought that what was on the page felt enough to me with Scott’s direction and with the amazing cast that I got to work with.
CS: I haven’t read the books on which this was based, but how much of John Connolly’s home life was known?
Nicholson: We’ve been saying that this is our version of this story, so we can’t know the details of their conversations at home and things like that. But it’s a movie, so they’re putting in these scenes to keep the story going and add a life to it.
CS: When you did “August: Osage County,” that was also a huge ensemble, but I assume that was a case where everyone was there all the time?
Nicholson: There all the time, yeah.
CS: For this one, because there are so many different parts and parts where you didn’t need to be there. Were you kind of going in for weeks at a time or a week or two?
Nicholson: I was in Boston for three weeks I think, and in that time, I think I worked maybe seven days, something like that. I would sort of go in and out. I had one scene or no, I had a couple of scenes with more people. I was in a couple of scenes with Johnny and Rory, and then a scene also with Benedict, who I’d worked with before, so that was nice. But you know, I would see Jesse Plemons getting ready in the makeup chair as Kevin Weeks. I thought he did such a remarkable job. But everybody was very sort of together. It was a collaboration, but very kind of private, too. Everybody was very much working on what they were working on.
CS: It’s also interesting to have Benedict in it who you had a relationship with in “August: Osage County.”
Nicholson: I know. You can’t get rid of that guy.
CS: It seems so strange that you’d end up in a movie together again.
Nicholson: I know, it does, I’ll say, “Hi, Benedict.” That was complete and total coincidence, but it’s really nice to feel—you know when you’ve been in the business long enough, it’s really nice to see familiar faces and to see people again and to work together again. It makes it fun, you know? They become your friends and you become close and then the job is over and then you go back to your lives, and so, it’s nice to be reunited.
CS: One of the scenes that everyone’s talking about is the one between you and Johnny. For Johnny’s Oscar nomination, they’ll probably use that scene as the clip. You must have been there and seen him working or did you not want to see him in character until you had to do that scene? How did you work that out, so you can get the full effect?
Nicholson: Yeah, I had seen him before because we had done other scenes before then, but on that day, I hadn’t seen him, and we were in this great big soundstage and it was dark and they built that bedroom in there. Scott doesn’t like rehearsing, so there was no discussion, rolling action, open the door, Whitey Bulger. So that was a thrilling scene to film, and definitely Johnny’s portrayal of this character is such that you just have to begin the scene and something’s already happening, because he’s so incredible that you’re already in it. I was never afraid, personally, but he made me easily imagine what that moment could feel like.
CS: He’s not one of these guys who stays in character all day, is he?
Nicholson: Well, listen, to a certain extent. I mean, he didn’t drop it completely. I never saw him drop it completely, but we had limited experience together. I mean, we only had that one scene, where it was just the two of us, so otherwise, we were sort of in each other’s periphery. But you know, when it was cut, it wasn’t show time. He was quite quiet, and I don’t think he ever really dropped it through the whole filming entirely. I don’t think he dropped it entirely.
CS: A lot of people are interested in all the extra stuff that Scott filmed, but didn’t use, so was there anything you remember offhand that didn’t make it into the movie? You’ve seen the whole movie, I assume?
Nicholson: Yeah, yeah. I did. I had a scene at the end of the movie, but it couldn’t be in this movie. It didn’t make sense, because it was coming back and John Connolly’s character was being honored and Benedict gives this long speech toasting him. It wouldn’t have made sense in the movie.
CS: Did Connolly’s wife actually leave him?
Nicholson: Marianne was his first wife. They divorced. He did remarry, but as I said, the circumstances in terms of how that went down, I’m not quite sure.
CS: This movie doesn’t particularly glamorize or even humanize “Whitey.” There’s nothing in this that anyone can watch this movie and think “That’s a fun guy.” Even Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Departed,” which was based on Whitey, he found more ways to entertain.
Nicholson: No, this version, he’s not there to make friends and influence people. They’re just showing some of the facts of the story, and it doesn’t turn out well for anyone.
CS: So when you were around Boston, did you talk to other people and hear their stories about “Whitey” and those times as others have mentioned?
Nicholson: Yeah, it’s true. One of the great joys of the day was being driven to and from set by this fantastic group of teamsters, and they all have stories, either personal or their friend or the neighbor or someone in the neighborhood. But also, it’s sort of in the fabric of Boston. So my family, they don’t know anybody connected to this story, but they know the cast of characters. They remember the crimes. They remember.
CS: I’m sure it must have been all over the news.
Nicholson: Yeah, so it’s still very important, and we have the premiere on Tuesday in Boston. We’re all really excited.
CS: I heard, I know. If I wasn’t still in Toronto, I would totally get on the train and go to Boston.
Nicholson: It’s going to be interesting.
CS: I’m actually surprised it didn’t play in Boston first.
Nicholson: I don’t know why. Who knows why? Strategies. I don’t know.
CS: So what have you done since you finished shooting this and what else? You’re still on “Masters of Sex,” I assume?
Nicholson: No, my character died.
CS: Okay. I haven’t gotten that far into watching it.
Nicholson: Yeah, I’m sorry.
CS: No problem.
Nicholson: Sorry. Well, she has stage four cancer, so it’s not looking good in 1956 for her, anyway. But I did a movie this summer called “Sophie and the Rising Sun” that Maggie Greenwald directed with Margo Martindale and Lorraine Toussaint and Diane Ladd, and that’s set in 1941 in South Carolina. It’s a really beautiful story, an interracial love story between a white woman and a Japanese man, a Japanese-American man. Yeah, it’s beautiful.
CS: At this point, obviously you’ve been acting for a while, so are you getting to the point where you don’t have to do these auditions?
Nicholson: I still have to do auditions, but not always. Also, I can say “no.” I am in a very happy place right now, where I can wait. I don’t have to work until the thing that I want to do comes by, which feels good.
CS: Are you doing more theater in the future?
Nicholson: I would love to do more theater in the future, but not in the near future, because I mean, quite honestly, the only place that I would really want to do it, it’d be in New York or London, and I live in California, so I don’t want to be away from my family. I don’t want to yank them out of it. My experience is mostly in Off-Broadway, all Off-Broadway actually, and it doesn’t pay well. So it’s like, no money for a lot of time away and crazy work. So I look forward to that in the future, but though I say that, If I got the right offer and with the right people and stuff, you take those things as you come.
CS: Well, listen, it’s great meeting you finally.
Nicholson: You too.
CS: I hope you get to do more comedies.
Nicholson: Me too. From your lips. (Laughs)
CS: I’ve got to say that “Seeing Other People” is of those movies where I feel like I’m literally the only person I know who knows about it.
Nicholson: I know that only too well.
CS: And it’s impressive no one has found it even though it stars Lauren Graham and Bryan Cranston.
Nicholson: Is it Josh Charles? I think Jay Mohr is such an amazing actor. I was so blown away by him. I’ve always been a huge fan of his comedy, and I think he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. But I was so impressed by his actual sort of, I don’t know, dramatic acting or whatever you call it. He was so wonderful to be in scenes with.
CS: One of these days I’ll get to meet Maya, who just directed her first movie “Infinitely Polar Bear.”
Nicholson: To tell her you loved “Seeing Other People?”
CS: Yeah, exactly!
Nicholson: Maya and her husband, Wally. They’re great. They’re great.