May 3, 2011 8:47 PM
Edie Falco may spend her days tending to trauma victims and juggling the hectic demands of a Lower Manhattan hospital on the set of Showtime's dark comedy Nurse Jackie, but playing Jackie Peyton -- a top-notch ER nurse and quick-tongued, functioning drug addict with a penchant for Percocet -- is as close as the Emmy-winning actress gets to living on the edge. The only thing this mother of two craves, she says, is popcorn and curling up on the couch for cartoon movie marathons with her kids.
"The greatest thing I've ever learned is acceptance," says Falco, 47, who, in addition to gearing up for the third season of Nurse Jackie, returned to Broadway in April, starring alongside Ben Stiller in the revival of John Guare's comedy, The House of Blue Leaves. "To just take life as it occurs, learn from it, and make it as enjoyable as possible. That's what life is. And it's often spectacular."
"Spectacular" is also a fitting word for Falco's career, which started on the stage and in indie films, then built momentum in the early '90s with recurring roles on Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, and a much-talked-about role on HBO's prison drama, Oz. Finally, in 1999, Falco skyrocketed to household-name fame when she was cast as Carmela, the outspoken, home d cor-obsessed wife of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano, on another HBO hit series, The Sopranos -- a role that garnered her three Emmys and two Golden Globes as dramatic lead actress. In 2003, she became the first actress to ever claim Emmy, Golden Globe, and Screen Actor's Guild awards in the same year. She also has appeared in the hit comedy 30 Rock, as Alec Baldwin's love interest, and has kept up her film work, working with Harrison Ford, Julianne Moore, and other stars.
With Nurse Jackie, which debuted in 2009 on Showtime, the drama queen proves she has a knack for comedy, too. In 2010, she took home the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for the show, a success Falco credits largely to her past personal struggle with addiction. Though you'd never think it by looking at the Long Island native now, she says her life closely mirrored her current character's struggles for many years. The only major difference: Nurse Jackie pops painkillers and Falco struggled with alcohol.
"I think having gone through alcoholism really helps me understand how Nurse Jackie functions," says Falco, who's been sober since she was 29. "It's hard for people who aren't addicts to understand the nature of [addiction] -- how irrational it is and, at the same time, how deeply powerful. If you're an ex-addict, you understand it completely because you have to. You drink because your body tells you that is what you need."
Nurse Jackie clearly identifies with that power. She'll do just about anything to score a hit -- even if it means having an affair with the hospital pharmacist. In the last two seasons, she's tossed back Vicodin, snorted Adderall in the ladies room, and gulped down vials of morphine.
But while Jackie is certainly flawed, in Falco's capable hands she's also quick-
witted, smart, and lovable, an imperfect, big-hearted heroine who cares for her patients, will tell off any MD who gets in her way, and is raising two young girls. "She's a wise guy, you know?" says Falco. "She's not that careful about the way she's perceived, which is very freeing to someone like me, who spends a certain amount of time attending to those sorts of things."
Despite the dark laughs, the show also carries a serious message, one that is personal and important to Falco and the show's executive producers, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem, both past addicts as well. "Playing Nurse Jackie makes me grateful every day that I'm no longer living a life ruled by addiction," says Falco. "It's heartbreaking to remember what that feels like: that every other thing pales in comparison to feeding your addiction. It's a great luxury to be freed from that."
Falco's victory over alcoholism came about like many other accomplishments in her life: It was hard won. "It was actually unimaginable in the beginning that I could succeed because my life so revolved around alcohol," says Falco, who credits a large part of her success to a group of pals who put down the bottle first. "Some of the closest friends in my life right now are people who got sober before me. I've got a very strong network of people who would simply not have it if I were to drop out of the club."
Finding a fellowship of people who no longer drink can have a huge influence on staying sober, says Harry Haroutunian, MD, physician director of the Betty Ford Center's Residential Treatment Programs in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "Alcoholism is a disease that loves to hide in the dark and to stay cloaked in denial, but having a fellowship holds you accountable to a power outside of yourself," he says. "For some people, that fellowship might be a recovery group like Alcoholics Anonymous, and for others, like Edie, it could be a group of sober friends."
Watching a loved one struggle with addiction can make many family members feel helpless -- something Falco understands. "When I was little, I used to break my parents' cigarettes all the time to get them to stop smoking. They would get furious with me, and then just go out and buy more cigarettes," says Falco. "It's hard to talk to an addict who doesn't want to hear anything. But there is a way out. You get to the point where you think there isn't, and I can say from the other side that there is always a way out if you ask for help."
After kicking the bottle, Falco cleaned up her diet and swapped her unhealthy addiction for a healthy one: running. "Back when I drank, I didn't exercise at all, and I decided to take better care of myself," says Falco, who discovered she loved logging miles outdoors for the mood-boosting benefits. Then, in September 2003, Falco received the life-changing diagnosis of stage 1 breast cancer. Suddenly, exercise became much more than a way to stay fit and firm -- it became a source of solace. Even on days when she was depressed over losing her hair to chemo, Falco's runs made her feel strong and calm.
Finally, in February 2004, the clouds lifted: Falco entered remission. But despite her soaring career and regained health, she realized something was missing: She wanted to be a mom.
"I had been pursuing this career for so long and living, literally, by the seat of my pants, that it never occurred to me that I would have children," says Falco who, after graduating from the prestigious Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film, lived in Manhattan and worked odd jobs to support her acting career.
"I traveled in a circle of poor artists, and I just never thought I would be a mom. I didn't think it would be something I would be good at, and it didn't seem like something I wanted. And then...it did!" She laughs. "It kind of snuck up on me and grabbed ahold of me -- and it wasn't going to let go."
That Falco was 40 and single didn't matter to her. She knew it was time and quickly began looking into adoption. "It's an arduous process, but I imagine the nine months of watching your body change [during pregnancy] is sort of an arduous process as well," Falco says, laughing, recalling the mountains of paperwork and days of waiting expectantly for a phone call.
The moment her son, Anderson, was placed in her arms that December, Falco burst into tears. "It's as big as it gets in one's life. I learned a capacity for love I didn't think I had. A selfless kind of love." That she wasn't the baby's biological mother made no difference to her. "It feels very clear to me that the second they hand you a newborn it's your child, and it makes absolutely no difference what body it came out of," she says. She likens the experience to her instantaneous love-bond with her beloved dog, Marley, 12, a yellow Lab-white shepherd mix. "It's sort of embarrassing, but I love Marley so much that I have a hard time believing she did not come from me. In a way, all dogs are adopted." In 2008, Falco adopted a sibling for her son, a baby girl she named Macy.
"They couldn't be more different from each other," Falco says of her duo, now 6 and 3. "My son is deeply intense, crazy-smart, and shy, and my daughter is crazy-comfortable in her skin, creative, and really social -- very girly. It's such a joy watching them become these little people they were always destined to be, with or without me."
While becoming a mother has undoubtedly cut down on Falco's gym time and trips to the masseuse, she couldn't be happier. "I love being a single mom," says Falco, who, despite past relationships with other well-known stars such as Stanley Tucci, has never married.
"I did this very much on purpose. I wanted to raise my children by myself. I feel strongly about being consistent for them and being there for them, and all I can promise is that I will be those things. I can't make those promises to them when it involves other people," says Falco, who recalls growing up enduring her parents' arguments and long, cold silences until they divorced.
"I just feel this is the way I can do this most cleanly. It's very painful to see one parent leave. I also have strong feelings about the way to go about things, such as education and discipline, and I don't want to compromise with anybody."
Of course, Falco quickly found out that doing everything entirely on her own would be too much, even for someone with her level of energy. "At first, I tried to do it all," says Falco, who finally gave up singlehandedly managing every night and day feedings for her son after almost walking into oncoming traffic. "I got a nanny to help me during the days, and I kept shifting my plans until I found a very workable one."
Opting to navigate motherhood alone has become a viable option for many women, says Argie Allen, PhD, MFT, director of clinical training at the couple and family therapy program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Being a single mother can be wonderfully rewarding to your child and you. "However, it's important to have support systems in place to ensure the child is adequately cared for and the mother is still able to have a healthy amount of alone time," says Allen, who recommends scheduling biweekly sleepovers at a close friend's or family member's house.
"Sleepovers can be a wonderful thing. The children get to play and socialize with their peers, and the parent can take some time to relax." Also, creating a small network of friends or relatives who can commit to helping with chores and errands is key, Allen adds.
Still, even with additional hands, parenting -- single or partnered -- is a challenge. "It just puts everything front and center," says Falco, "the things that I'm good at, the ways in which I fall short. But it's also very moving and gratifying." So gratifying, in fact, that the actor hasn't dated seriously since becoming a mom. "My kids came into my life, and whatever it was that was driving me to get involved with someone really went up in smoke," says Falco.
"Every human wants love, and here it was in such large quantities and in such purity that I just no longer felt that drive to go out and meet someone. I have life in my house. And I have deep friendships that are, on average, about 30 years old. My life is very full and satisfying."
No matter how busy Falco may be, she always finds time to do more -- a habit she sustains through the occasional afternoon nap and a wholesome, vegetarian diet chock-full of energizing fruits and vegetables. In 2009, she appeared in a Stand Up to Cancer public service campaign with actor Cynthia Nixon to raise awareness about the increased risk of infection during cancer treatment.
Fifteen years ago, she began studying Buddhism and recently joined a cabaret act. "I'm always doing stuff that keeps me occupied, interested, and challenged," says Falco. "It's just the way I stay happy."
In addition to looking forward to seeing what season three holds for Nurse Jackie, Falco has been prepping for her return to Broadway in The House of Blue Leaves. "I saw the play a million years ago, and I remember leaving the theater with this glowing feeling, thinking 'God, that was beautiful,'" says Falco, who was only 18 at the time. "Here it is all these years later and I'm getting to do it. It's just one of those glorious things about this career that I've had that's been such a gift." But ask Falco what she's planning next, and she'll laugh and tell you "nothing." "I tend not to think that way," says Falco.
"What has worked for me has been not to plan anything. All I know is that I love what I do. I don't want to direct, I don't want to write. I really just love to act. Thus far, I just see what comes my way or gets offered to me and what moves me. "As a result," Falco says, "I've had this tremendous journey that's much better than anything I could have planned."
Sweat for your sanity. To actor Edie Falco, the gym is for more than staying toned and trim. "It always clears my head," says Falco, who was running up to five miles a day until knee pain recently caused her to cut back. "You feel better all day because of the endorphins running through your system. I do it more for my brain than anything else. It just makes me feel good."
Say "yes" to siestas. Scoring eight straight hours of shut-eye rarely happens for Falco, as she's often up early with her children and stays up late to cross items off her to-do list. However, whenever she has the chance, she'll catch some midday zzz's. "I love to nap in the afternoon," says Falco. "I'll grab my dog and we'll go up in my bedroom and sleep for a few hours. It's not consistent, but it seems like the greatest luxury in the world."
Make exercise "me" time. As an Emmy-winning actress and a single mom of two, finding time to exercise or sneak in alone time isn't always easy. Her solution? Combine the two: While a babysitter watches the kids, "I'll do an exercise of some kind and listen to music," says Falco. "It's very quiet time, very private time."
Don't be crazy about cardio. In the past, if Falco had a 5 a.m. start time, she'd be up at 3:30 a.m. to work out. "I used to be sort of obsessive about exercise," admits Falco. "But now, I fit it in where it's manageable and reasonable. As always, just do the best you can."
Reward yourself with a healthy treat. Forget chocolate, cookies, or cake. Falco's must-have treat is popcorn. "There's something about watching TV and eating popcorn that's so satisfying," says Falco. "It's got all the perfect flavors, and I can almost tell myself it's a vegetable."
Cave to your cravings -- occasionally. Though Falco mainly eats a healthy diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables and lean proteins, like fish and low-fat dairy, now and then she indulges in her favorite foods. "I go through periods of time, like the holidays, that are just ridiculous," says Falco. "But I always go back to ground zero. I just feel better when I eat well."
Boycott boredom. In addition to running, Falco stays active with Pilates, yoga, and the elliptical machine. "I'm always switching it up to stay interested," says Falco. The healthy bonus: Varying your fitness routine is a good way to avoid frustrating plateaus and helps prevent over-use injuries, too.
Nearly 18 million people in the United States -- about one in 12 adults -- abuse alcohol or are alcohol dependent. While actor Edie Falco relies heavily on non-drinking friends for support, there are numerous ways to get help.
"Alcoholism is a chronic disease that requires lifelong management, but you can live a long, healthy, and fulfilling life beyond your wildest dreams if you recover from this disease," Haroutunian says. Here, his top tips for getting -- and staying -- sober.
Admit you have a problem. "There aren't always red flags that clearly show that someone is an alcoholic, but there are signs that allow us to recognize problem drinkers," says Haroutunian. "Drinking more than intended at any specific time, loss of control while drinking, or continuing to drink despite adverse consequences are absolute hallmarks of this disease." Not sure you have a problem? Find a simple questionnaire at aa.org.
Reach out. There's a reason more than 2 million Americans are members of Alcoholics Anonymous, the nonprofit group that originally proposed the "12-step program" as a method of recovery from alcoholism: It works. "In my experience, recovery is possible when the 12-step program is used," says Haroutunian. "If you attend the meetings and practice the steps on a daily basis, your chances for recovery are very, very high."
Find new ways to de-stress. Many people become addicted to alcohol because it eases stress and lessens anxiety, says Haroutunian, and alcoholics must learn new coping mechanisms, such as meditation, exercise, or cognitive behavioral therapy. So, instead of reaching for a drink the next time you're under the gun at work or have a fight with your spouse, hit the gym, go for a run, call a friend to vent, or try another healthy activity that eases tension.