One might classify Julianne Nicholson as a bit of a late bloomer.
While she worked steadily over the first decade and a half of her career, it wasn’t until 2013’s August: Osage County (where she arguably gave the best performance in the film despite sharing the screen with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts) that Nicholson started to truly gain traction. Since her scene-stealing turn in August, Nicholson has appeared in significant roles in a series of high level film and television projects, including: Boardwalk Empire, Masters of Sex, Black Mass, Novitiate, I, Tonya, Togo, and The Outsider.
I interviewed her for Disney’s Togo just over a year ago and asked if she felt she had really hit her stride as an actor. She replied with a bit of a rueful chuckle and said, “I did…before before everything shut down.” While we both laughed, the impact of a global pandemic on one’s personal and professional life was noted by me in her tone of voice. Of course, we were all most concerned with our safety and the safety of our loved ones, but for someone in the acting profession (where even the hottest stars worry they’ll never work again), that knowing laugh in Nicholson’s voice recognized something very real about the world and her profession: there is only so much time.
HBO’s Mare of Easttown was one of many projects impacted by COVID. This murder mystery, centered around Kate Winslet’s detective, Mare Sheehan, and set in a small Pennsylvania working class town, began production in the fall of 2019 before being shut down in March of 2020 as the pandemic raged. The show didn’t return to filming until that September and wouldn’t debut until April of 2021. The series was greeted with rapturous reviews (particularly for Winslet’s performance). Initially much of the praise for the supporting cast centered around Jean Smart and Evan Peters (both wonderful), but over the full of the seven-episode series, it was Nicholson as Lori Ross, Mare’s closest friend and confidante, who slowly emerged as the key contributor to the show’s success.
Lori appears to us as Mare’s no BS bestie who, at least outwardly, has her life far more “together” than the show’s namesake. But gradually we come to learn that troubles and mysteries of the Ross household go deep. At first, Lori seems to be Mare’s rock, but beneath her no-nonsense demeanor and mildly acerbic humor is a desperate sorrow that unfolds with such patience, that when the moment finally arrives when Lori is forced to face the truth, and all she can do is scream in her car, the moment is truly devastating.
Lori has been betrayed by her husband in a manner that goes far beyond infidelity, but it’s the perceived betrayal by Mare that brings Lori the most hurt. In getting to the core of the death of a young girl, Mare follows the evidence where it leads her, right into Lori’s home, and to Lori’s son. Mare has to navigate the intertwined duties of her job and her dedication to justice, but in doing so, she must lay terrible burdens at the feet of her best friend. Mare has an impossible choice to make, but it’s also an inescapable one if doing what is right is your north star. And doing what’s right is, indeed, Mare’s north star.
Mare’s diligence comes at an immense cost. The family of her closest friend is destroyed, and there’s a realistic question as to whether Lori can survive the immense burdens she must carry into the future. In the final episode, Mare can no longer leave her friend to suffer alone (even if she is seen as the cause of that suffering). She makes her way to Lori’s house. Lori accepts her presence. Offers her a coffee. Moves to the kitchen to percolate some pre-ground java. Mare enters the kitchen and slowly invades Lori’s space. And that’s when it happens…
The entirety of the emotional weight Lori has been carrying over the course of the story becomes too immense for her body to bear, and she slumps, arms by her side, almost in slow motion, into Mare’s arms, and then to the ground. In the history of onscreen collapses, it’s the greatest I’ve ever seen. Lori is so exhausted, so heartsick, that falling into the arms of the person she blames for her life’s collapse is her only option. And it happens with Mare because there’s no one else it could happen with. Her husband is in jail. Her son is in a juvenile facility. Her daughter is too young to be of aid. And on top of everything else, she is raising the love child of her philandering husband.
Mare is all that is left. There is a line in an old Police song that says “when the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” And for all the strain between them, Mare is the best of what’s still around.
Never have I seen a moment of exhaustion marry so well with desperation. Nicholson’s work over the seven previous episodes sets us up for this moment. Lori seems strong, together, and sure of who she is. But as that façade begins to crack, we see Nicholson’s performance in full bloom. When Lori’s doors are blown open by tragedy, we see her in all of her contradictions and complexity. We see fear, sadness, and despair, but also courage, and maybe (just maybe) a little bit of hope.
Nicholson brings the character of Lori to the fore with masterful patience, and when the time comes, the two most memorable moments in the show belong to her. In one, she screams. In the other, she barely breathes. Before, after, and in-between, she plays her character with such subtle craft, that those two moments aren’t just earned – they’re unforgettable.