PASADENA, Calif. — The view from where actress Julianne Nicholson is sitting right now is pretty great, literally and figuratively.
The Medford native — perhaps best known for her role on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” — has had an excellent run over the past few years, appearing in recurring roles on HBO’s award-winning “Boardwalk Empire” and the superb Showtime drama “Masters of Sex,” and on the big screen opposite Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, among others, in “August: Osage County.” She’s currently starring in “The Red Road,” a dark new drama that airs on the Sundance Channel Thursdays at 9 p.m.
Sitting on a sunny patio, Nicholson can’t stop peeking at fellow “Road” actors Jason Momoa and Martin Henderson, the other two sides that make up the complex central triangle on the show, who are also doing interviews nearby. “I’m easily distracted,” she says with a smile of her handsome costars.
Momoa, the imposing “Game of Thrones” actor, pops by to wax rhapsodic about his petite leading lady. He says he has frequently been asked if he was intimidated working with veteran actor Tom Sizemore on the series. “You know who I was intimidated by?” the gentle giant asks. “Julianne Nicholson. I’m actually intimidated by the little cute girl.” He smiles at his costar — who says “I’ll take it” — and departs. Then Nicholson giggles and whispers conspiratorially, “Let’s watch him walk away.” As previously stated, great view.
“I didn’t look at him for the first five episodes,” she says with another laugh, about their mutual intimidation society. “I would only dart my eyes. It’s actually getting a little easier, but it took some time.”
On “The Red Road,” Nicholson plays Jean Jensen, the wife of local cop Harold (Henderson). Jean, who acts erratically, causing problems for her family, claims to be a recovering alcoholic to mask schizophrenia. “She’s been drinking heavily over the years to one, drown out the voices in her head, and two, for other people to think when she’s a little off, that’s the reason.” It’s a script choice that Nicholson found dramatically interesting, the idea that there was less stigma attached to alcoholism than mental health issues.
“I think it’s true,” says Nicholson. “I think there’s less shame around her saying she’s an alcoholic because she’s not, so it’s not an actual reveal. But it’s still interesting she thinks that’s a more acceptable label.”
Nicholson is acutely aware that she needs to tread carefully when it comes to depicting the condition onscreen, understanding that people with the brain disorder and their family and friends will be scrutinizing the performance.
“Schizophrenia looks different on everyone, which was a relief to me because it’s not having to imitate these three things to ‘prove’ that you are,” she says. “What I say is, this is what was written. I did lots of reading. I did lots of talking with people. There were three different people involved with the production on a day-to-day basis that had close relatives that were schizophrenic, so they were there. [Executive producer] Aaron [Guzikowski] has very clear ideas about what it can look like and I would check in with him. I didn’t want to overdo it but I want to see something. You want to represent something as honestly as you can. I don’t have this experience so I’m only using the tools that I’ve been given and coming at it respectfully and with empathy.”
She is relishing the role and was cheered to learn that she was the first person cast for the series.
“What’s exciting about that is that normally the girls aren’t cast first,” Nicholson says. “You get to match the boys, they’re hired first. So it felt like a huge feather in my cap to be cast. Not just for me, but for a woman to get cast first feels like a step forward.”
As did working with the Oscar-nominated Streep and Roberts and the rest of the star-studded cast of “August: Osage County.”
“If I could have ever written a list of my fantasy movie team a few of those players would’ve been on that list,” says the actress with a laugh.
“I will never forget it. It’s so in my body, the whole experience of it. Just making it and spending time with those people was great. It’s nice that it’s now a movie that people can see, but for me it was being there, being with those people, saying those words.”
Nicholson, who is married to actor Jonathan Cake, hopes to get to say more words as Jean Jensen as well after the series runs out its initial six-episode order.
“[Expletive] gets cray by the sixth episode,” she says with a laugh. “I feel like we have to do more just to see what then happens. Because I feel like in each episode terrible things happen and you feel like at some point somebody’s got to pay for it, there’s got to be some justice and it just carries on in that way all the way to the end and no one gets in trouble. Somebody’s got to get in trouble!”
Until they do, Nicholson will happily enjoy the view.Interview has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.