Over the last seven years, Julianne Nicholson raised her profile as an actor by giving a number of excellent performances in high profile film and TV projects. While she wasn’t necessarily looking for a Disney film about a man and his dog, Nicholson eventually found her way to Disney’s Togo. The lure of working with Willem Dafoe to tell the story of the Alaskan serum run of 1925 which saved the lives of the children in Nome, Alaska, proved irresistible.
In our conversation, we discuss dealing with the elements, working with Willem Dafoe and dogs, and what it’s like to be working in the prime of her career.
Awards Daily TV: Since 2013 with August: Osage County, you’ve given a number of lauded performances in well thought of projects. Do you feel like you’ve hit your stride as an actor over the last few years?
Julianne Nicholson: I did…before before everything shut down. (Laughs). I think you’re right, since August there’s been an accumulation of work where I feel like my opportunities have been getting a little bit better and more frequent. And I do feel like taking the long road has served me well.
ADTV: I particularly loved Novitiate. I wish more people would have seen it. You and Melissa Leo playing tug of war for the soul of Margaret Qualley was really something.
JN: Thank you so much. That was fun working with Melissa.
ADTV: You both were kinda scary. (Laughs).
JN: Well, she’s definitely an intense personality. You just have to show up and try to hold your own.
ADTV: I told both Ericson and Willem that if you were trying to invent a movie I wouldn’t want to see, a Disney film about a man and a dog would probably be it. But when I saw that you and Willem were involved, I thought Togo could be something different. And is it ever. What drew you to the film?
JN: Willem was the initial draw for me, because I’ve been a huge fan of his for decades. He’s such an interesting actor and he makes such interesting choices. So, already my curiosity was piqued. And then I read the script and I thought it was really good. I thought that it wasn’t precious and that the character of Constance felt like a real presence. Of course, it’s the story of a man and his dog, but I felt like she was a a partner. I felt like she got equal play within that story. Then I spoke to Ericson and I liked what he had to say about it, and I watched some of the films that he had made. I knew that he was going to be the DP as well as the director, and I thought what he could do with the natural world and the action made him the right guy for it. It felt like a pretty easy, ‘yes’ ultimately. And, you know, Disney has definitely had its highs and lows over the years, but still for me I grew up on Disney – those were the movies I saw when I was a kid. There is something meaningful to me about that. Also, if you can make a good one, how special is that?
ADTV: What really impressed me about Constance was she wasn’t simply “the wife.” And it’s not hard to see how she could have been nothing more than that in a film like this.
JN: I think that’s a real testament to all of us, but in particular to Ericson and also, Willem. Willem has no ego. He doesn’t come in feeling like he has to be the top dog In that environment and in that time, Leonard is going away for weeks, sometimes months. She needs to hold down the fort, to keep the fires going and take care of the dogs at our home, and fixing anything that comes up. She needs to be strong and present and not waiting for someone to take care of her. That was an important part of the story for Ericson. He didn’t want to just have “the wife” character – the woman waiting at home for her husband. It was a real story of collaboration and needing both parties to keep that place alive.
ADTV: I think in many ways you’re Leonard Seppala’s ballast. You’re the one who is telling him what What is going on inside of him – things he isn’t ready to accept.
JN: I like that. Leonard the character and Willem the actor were both very open to that idea.
ADTV: Something I’ve noticed in your previous work that I thought played really in Togo here is your lack of easy sentimentality. Do you naturally gravitate to those kinds of roles?
JN: I think it must be. And thank you. I hope so. It’s much more interesting if you’re not giving it all away – If it’s a slow burn, if it’s a discovery. If you feel like the character has such deep awareness of themselves…that doesn’t ring true to me.
ADTV: You mentioned Willem being a big draw for you to this project. I know both he and Ericson really enjoyed working with you. They raved about your work, in fact. What was it like working with Willem for the first time?
JN: Willem is the best. As I said, I’ve been a fan of his acting for so long, but I’ve never actually worked with someone who has the combination of passion, commitment, is egoless, and serious while also having a very real and constant sense of play and mischief. He never brings his cell phone out of the trailer. You’re never going to look over and see him sitting in his director’s chair texting. When he goes to set, that’s where he is. I barely saw him sit down. He’s working with whatever his character is working with. It really felt like there was no hierarchy on the set and that started with him and also, Ericson. Willem has been doing it the longest of all of us and doing it the way he has been. He set the tone. Ericson was also very egoless and just wanted to make it the best story. Our part is quite an intimate story, because we were always in that little house, and it was just the two of us mostly. It felt very small in in the best way, and we all just showed up every day hoping to make it the best it could be.
ADTV: Speaking of making it the best it could me, I understand the weather did not co-operate.
JN: Oh my god, no!
ADTV: Ericson shared with me that the early scenes in the film of you and Willem in the bedroom were scheduled for later and once the weather forced you inside, the schedule needed to be adjusted to move the shooting of those scenes up front. Was that reset a challenge?
JN: I don’t mind a little a little upset in that way. I like things getting thrown at me. I like not necessarily being “quote unquote” prepared. In that case I felt like it really served us actually to do those quieter scenes in the beginning, because I think we learned a lot about the characters and about each other. I think Willem then trusted me, which allowed him to be free and more comfortable. I think ultimately it was our friend – that we had to change everything around. Us, not set dressing, or anyone else. (Laughs). But for the acting. I think Ericson was pretty happy with it too, It was good for us to jump in because those are the scenes for me anyway…when you have to go deep. It reveals who that person is – what that looks like for them. Whereas if you’re just cooking bacon or whatever, it’s very easy to sort of stay in your head or stay in your own experience.
ADTV: Ericson said he ended up feeling like that was a lucky break to have to reschedule like that. It allowed you and Willem to create the foundation for the relationship early on.
JN: I think that’s right. And then you can be playful. Then you can find those moments where it’s just a couple being together. It doesn’t all have to be grim. It can be just moments of a day.
ADTV: What was it like working with the dogs? I imagine the level of patience required is shall we say, advanced? (Laughs).
JN: Yeah, they’re the boss. You can’t talk your way into another take. (Laughs) It was definitely challenging. Again, Willem bore the brunt of that, as did the crew much more than I, but we were definitely on Diesel’s time. That was the name of our hero dog playing Togo. There’s also a level of unpredictability and having to just be present because you don’t know what’s coming, which I think is good. And those sled dogs were really special. There’s this company called Snowy Owl up there that does those dog sled rides, and watching the relationships with the the men and women that work with those dogs and how strong they were and well behaved. But also playful and sweet. That was pretty special to be around, and the puppies of course.
ADTV: Were you a dog person before this?
ADTV: Willem said he wasn’t either.
JN: I know that’s the great irony of this movie. We were both like ‘meh.’ (Laughs). But, that said, I was crying at the end of this movie too. When the dog passes and he says that we lost him on whatever afternoon in November – I thought Ericson did that really beautifully. And not in a sappy way, but in a really moving way. And for me, not a dog lover, It went bigger than that, and sort of became about people too. People that you love that don’t ever really go away.
ADTV: I thought that was as much as anything a story about friendship. Togo just happened to be a dog.
JN: I agree.
ADTV: I have to confess, towards the very end when Willem is going through the countryside and he sees a vision of Togo as a puppy and says something to the effect of still being able to see those that you’ve lost, a sound came out of me that I did not know I could make. (Laughs). My wife and I both just lost it. I was holding it together all the way through and then I just fell out.
JN: I know, it definitely creeps up on you. (Laughs).
ADTV: My favorite scene in the movie is when the father brings his daughter, who was saved by the serum that was brought back on the dog run, to thank Leonard and Togo for what they did, and then the young girl just innocently asks if Togo is going to die, because he’s in such rough shape. Willem then abruptly walks off into the snow and confesses to you in the cold that you were right about everything. That he wasn’t;t going to be able to handle this moment. It’s very powerful. By the way, it looked very cold, and neither of you were dressed for it.
JN: Tell me about it! (Laughs).
ADTV: Can you talk about shooting that scene? It felt like the emotional peak of the film to me.
JN: Yeah, and I think we felt that. I don’t like feeling that way about a scene, because the pressure can get in the way. If I’m not mistaken I think we filmed that sort of towards the end. So, at least we had the story in our bodies to recall where we were and what had happened. And really, it was just listening to Willem. That’s when it’s just about sort of showing up and listening, really. And caring for him. We didn’t have to do it many times. And it was freezing, as you say. We gotta get this in 2-3 takes, max! (Laughs). It’s too cold!
AD: As you pointed out, your part was mostly listening – you don’t have a lot of lines in the scene, but when he tells you of his guilt over running Togo so hard and how you were right that he wasn’t prepared to lose him, the look on your face is extraordinary. You were taking no pleasure in it. In fact, you looked like you had your own guilt for being right.
JN: I think for her she she knew this thing was going to happen, But knowing it and experiencing it are two different things. I think that’s probably what that was.
ADTV: It was fascinating to find out that Diesel is Togo’s grandson 14 times removed. There’s a lot of historical correction in this film about what happened on the serum run and who should have received the lion’s share of the credit and so forth.
JN: Yes! I think because so much of what we learn here is about how it’s presented to us. So, Balto comes over first, he gets his picture taken, now it’s his story. This is a small story in the grand scheme but to sort of be able to right that wrong feels good. I got attached to the story because we lived in it for a couple of months. So, it did mean something to me. And it’s funny – people’s reaction. We saw a girl on a hike before all this went down and I was talking to her parents, and she was so mad at Balto – the little girl – for getting all the all the credit. And I was like, I don’t think that’s exactly how it went. (Laughs). It’s funny how people get invested in the story in that way.
ADTV: I mentioned before that I had an impression of what kind of movie this was going to be and that I was so pleased to discover how much more it is than I anticipated. That seems to be the overall reaction too. I imagine it’s gratifying to see the response to the film.
JN: Totally. You know, I always want people to like the stuff that I’m in. I’m hoping that when I read the script that I’m responding to something that other people might also. And yeah, of course, a man and his dog. It’s like, oh man, haven’t we done that before? So, it was very very nice to feel like people were responding to the movie that we hoped we were making.
ADTV: I asked Willem and Ericson if they would do another dog movie any time soon. There was a fairly long pause and some laughter that followed. (Laughs).
JN: What did they say?
AD: Willem let out this sort of wonderful cackle and said ‘Depends!’ (Laughs) I think they were both of the opinion if they got a truly great script built around dogs, they would consider it, but neither of them were going to go running after another dog movie.
JN: I’m not running to that opportunity. (Laughs).