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Why Kate Winslet begged Julianne Nicholson to be in ‘Mare of Easttown’

Directors have long turned to Nicholson, an actor with Medford roots, for key roles in ensembles. With her Emmy-nominated turn in the HBO drama, she’s now rocketing to a whole new level.

“I had no idea that people were going to flock to ['Mare of Easttown'] the wonderful way that they did,” says Julianne Nicholson, who grew up in Medford.Michael Lewis/for The Boston Globe; styling by Jennie Lopez; hair and makeup by Francesca Maria

Kate Winslet had a casting wish for her HBO drama, Mare of Easttown.

Since she would executive produce the limited series, in addition to starring as Detective Mare Sheehan, she was in a position to pursue an actress she’d long admired to play Lori, her character’s best friend. Lori becomes the nucleus of the small-town Pennsylvania murder mystery, so Winslet needed someone incredible.

That’s why she made a call to Julianne Nicholson, the 50-year-old, freckled, cool-headed actress from Medford, known for roles in August: Osage County; I, Tonya; and many others. And that’s why, when she made that phone call, the Oscar-winning Winslet wasn’t too proud to plead.

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“I just felt that the qualities she possesses as a woman, as a mother, and as an actress combined meant that it would be a serious win if she would consider playing Lori Ross,” Winslet says via e-mail. “I just kept begging her to say YES.”

Nicholson now admits she didn’t accept the role at first. She read the scripts of the first six episodes and loved them, but wasn’t convinced the role was for her. “I was probably looking for a chunkier role, sizewise,” she says. But then came the call from Winslet and the script of the seventh episode — ”it all comes together,” Nicholson says, this “show about friendship and motherhood and grief” — and she was in.

Nicholson is speaking over Zoom in July, at the start of a family vacation with her husband and two children. There’s a calmness to her, as she relaxes in a Rolling Stones T-shirt. Even on a remote call, it feels like she’s ready to be transparent with you, which explains why Winslet had told me “just looking into her pale green eyes is like staring into an endless, beautiful pool of honesty.”

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As an actor at the start of a project, you “have no idea how it’s going to come together and how people will respond to it,” Nicholson says. “I had no idea that people were going to flock to the show the wonderful way that they did.” And that’s an understatement. By the time Mare ended in May, it had become the must-watch show of the spring. Its finale had 4 million viewers over Memorial Day weekend, setting a record for HBO Max. Then, on July 13, Nicholson was nominated for an Emmy, a first for her. She hasn’t watched the series (sometimes she opts out of viewing her own projects), but she knows this one could change the course of her career.

Julianne Nicholson (left) and Kate Winslet in "Mare of Easttown."Sarah Shatz/HBO

Nicholson wasn’t a big theater kid growing up in Medford, partly because there wasn’t much opportunity. She went to Arlington Catholic High School — she tried out for one play, only to be offered the job of stage manager — and opted instead for cross-country, student senate, and editing the yearbook.

But her dad, Jim Nicholson, who now lives in Woburn, says she still found ways to perform. “For example, the talent show,” he says. “She did an impersonation of Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock” — complete with a ball and chain made of a soccer ball painted black and a dog leash. Nicholson was a sophomore and she won the competition; it was perhaps the first of many shows she’d steal.

After graduating from high school, Nicholson started modeling, which made it easier for her to move to New York City, fulfilling a longtime dream. After modeling jobs in that city and in Paris, and waitressing to help pay the bills, she started auditioning for acting roles.

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She earned a few small parts, and then her first big role brought her back to Massachusetts. She played Jennifer in 1999′s The Love Letter, a romantic comedy filmed in Rockport about a group of people who find a lost love letter and all believe it might be for them. “I literally had like my last waitress shift a couple of days before I went up,” Nicholson says.

The movie would start something of a pattern for Nicholson, putting the talented young actor into ensembles filled with other talented actors, including Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Selleck, Blythe Danner, and Kate Capshaw. “I got to meet Steven Spielberg,” Nicholson says with a smile. (He later cast her in the lead of the paranormal TV series The Others.)

She followed The Love Letter with other television and film roles. Her TV résumé includes 2½ seasons as Detective Megan Wheeler on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, as well as recurring roles on Ally McBeal, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex.

Nicholson has starred in a few smaller films, including John Krasinski’s directorial debut, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, in 2009, and the 2017 Matthew Newton-directed drama, Who We Are Now. Mostly, though, she’s had smaller roles in bigger films, where she shines alongside some of the best-known names in the business. In August: Osage County, she was an integral part of an ensemble cast that included Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Chris Cooper. Her scene in Black Mass opposite Johnny Depp is a study in fear and quiet power. As Marianne Connolly, wife of FBI agent John Connolly, she faces off with Depp’s Whitey Bulger, who threatens her not so subtly.

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Cooper, who costarred with Nicholson in August: Osage County, gives her a high compliment from one scene-stealer to another. “Is she not a character actor? You don’t repeat yourself,” he says. “That tag has been put on me, and I’m thrilled with it.”

Nicholson says she strives to be an actor whose performances make her unrecognizable from one role to the next. “Sometimes you see an actor and you feel like they’re always doing versions of that [same] character. Maybe they’ve got a different haircut or maybe it’s 1970 instead of 1998, but they’re basically versions of the same person,” she says. “I feel like ‘character’ to me means you really try to transform into something else.”

That could be why Nicholson was unrecognizable to some when she showed up on Mare of Easttown as Lori, a former high school basketball star in a Dave Matthews Band T-shirt, seemingly on the outskirts of the story until, suddenly, she isn’t. And Nicholson’s ability to so fully inhabit her roles, seemingly effortlessly, is what made Winslet so intent on casting her. “Her performances are always rooted in truth,” Winslet explains, “and she brings an unfussy quality to everything she does, making her work extremely pure and understated.”

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Nicholson with her canine friend Lucy in upstate New York in July.Michael Lewis/for The Boston Globe; styling by Jennie Lopez; hair and makeup by Francesca Maria

One of Nicholson’s next projects should appeal to hometowners: Adam McKay’s HBO series about the 1980s Lakers dynasty, in which she’ll play Cranny McKinney, the wife of Lakers coach Jack McKinney. (A note for Celtics fans: Bo Burnham, who grew up in Hamilton, will play Larry Bird, while Lowell native Michael Chiklis will step in as Red Auerbach.)

She’ll also appear in the Andrew Dominik-directed Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde, as Monroe’s mother, Gladys. “I was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe when I was in high school,” Nicholson says, “so to have it all sort of come back to playing her mom in a real Hollywood movie feels very, sort of — I felt very happy for my 17-year-old self.” The Netflix film, slated for release next year, will start with Norma Jean at age 7, then pick up two decades later with Monroe’s mother in an asylum. “That was pretty gruesome but wonderful,” Nicholson says. “Andrew Dominik is such an interesting, genius filmmaker so it was really fun to get in there with him a little bit.”

Another big project on her docket — one she hopes is boosted by the attention from Mare — is the adaptation of a darkly funny novel by Cambridge author Laura Zigman. Nicholson read Separation Anxiety, about a self-help writer whose husband lives in her basement because they can’t afford a divorce. To self-soothe, the main character begins to wear her dog on her body at all times.

Zigman was ecstatic when Nicholson made an offer to option the book in January. “I mean I was already a fan,” Zigman says. “It was so evident, just from the get-go, that she’s a reader, I mean she’s a true reader — she’s not just an actress who says she’s a reader. She’s just so normal, and so sensitive, and she was very passionate.”

Nicholson says the project is important to her, not only because of the compelling story, but because it would give her more to do, both as an actor and executive producer. She wants to continue to work in ensembles, but she’d also like to star, something she speaks about openly.

After the Zoom interview, Nicholson sent me an e-mail, noting that she’d just woken up to another offer of the role of a “mother in distress” within an ensemble. And that got her thinking. “I do like working with people I admire and I very much appreciate good material but to be honest, ensemble work has been much of my career because that seems to be the size role that ‘Hollywood’ feels most comfortable offering me. It’s been the brave few so far who offer me a lead role,” she wrote. “This is one reason I am now looking to be more proactive in creating projects that excite me where I have more to do.”

Before that, though, there are the Emmys to look forward to. Final-round voting begins on Thursday, and the ceremony will air live on CBS on September 19. When he learned the news, Nicholson’s dad couldn’t have been more delighted by a recognition for his daughter that seemed like a long time coming. “I mean, we all know what a great person and actor she is,” he says, “but to be noted by her colleagues, professionally — you know, a lot of people say [it’s] overdue.”

Nicholson’s talent wasn’t news to Kate Winslet, of course. She saw it all along.


Meredith Goldstein is a Globe staff writer and the advice columnist of the Love Letters column and podcast. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Nicholson (right) in a scene from "Monos."Neon

THREE TO SEE

Julianne Nicholson is proud to be a chameleon. In Mare of Easttown, she’s a detective’s best friend, entrenched in the town’s secrets. In I, Tonya, she’s Tonya Harding’s longtime skating coach. In Black Mass, she’s steely Marianne Connolly, facing off against Whitey Bulger. When asked to curate her own watch list for new fans, Nicholson picked the following three projects, which together show she never does the same thing twice.

1. Who We Are Now

Nicholson stars as an ex-con trying to regain custody of her son in this 2017 drama. It’s “a small movie that my friend [director] Matt Newton wrote for me,” she says. “I thought it was a really beautiful movie.”

2. Monos

Nicholson is a prisoner of war in Alejandro Landes’s 2019 film (above), which took her to Colombia for filming and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “That was a pretty wild ride,” she says.

3. Togo

The 2019 Disney film costars Nicholson as Constance Seppala, wife of dog sledder Leonhard Seppala (played by Willem Dafoe) who brought life-saving diphtheria medication across Alaska in 1925.

“If you saw those three [films], it would give you a pretty good idea of three very different roles in three very different stories,” Nicholson says, “and that feels fun to me.”