Edie Falco (‘The Menendez Murders’): ‘A lot of it was difficult,’ playing Leslie Abramson [Complete Interview Transcript]

Edie Falco picked up her 14th Emmy nomination this year for playing defense attorney Leslie Abramson in “Law and Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.” Falco has won four Emmys in her illustrious career, including three for “The Sopranos” and one for “Nurse Jackie.” This is her first nomination for a limited series or TV movie.

Falco recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about how her perception of the Menendez brothers case changed upon playing the part, delving into Abramson’s public versus private persona and her gratitude in paying such strong characters over the course of her career.

Gold Derby: Edie Falco, you are back in the Emmy race for your performance in “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.” You play Leslie Abramson. I’m curious, this Menendez brothers trial was something that really galvanized the country and inspired a lot of strong opinions on a lot of different topics, so when you first got approached about this, what were your expectations like for the series?

Edie Falco: I can’t say I had any expectations for the series. I just know that my interest was piqued because what I learned from Dick Wolf and all the people at his company that did all this research was that I couldn’t have been more wrong about my perception of the story, and to imagine that I was not alone in that was intriguing to me, that maybe we could set the record straight, because I think it’s an important story and also to imagine that it’s probably not the only story where we have been fed the information that tells the story that they want told.

GD: Right, can you talk a bit more about that, how your perceptions of it were changed by what you found out through the show?

EF: Yeah, the news cycle was not what it is now, so whenever it was in the evening that we heard the news, it was about these two spoiled rich kids in Beverly Hills who killed their parents and that was how I filed it away in my brain, and the more I learned about it the more I realized it was pretty plain and simple a story about child abuse.

GD: You play Leslie Abramson, the defense attorney, who became a controversial figure in her own right. There was a lot of stuff about her in the media, so I wonder, what was your approach to that character?

EF: It was the same as it is to any character. I just tried to find out what it is that was her through-line in this story, where she was coming from, what did she care about, what was her viewpoint, how did she go about getting her point across, kind of the same thing I would do even if it was a fictional character.

GD: There’s this push and pull that happened during the trial and is still talked about today between this perception about the Menendez brothers. On the one hand, people saying that they were spoiled rich kids, on the other hand, people saying they were victims of child abuse, and there’s still this passionate defense of either argument. Your character really is obviously on one side of that, on the child abuse perception of it. Can you talk a bit more about how that relates to your character?

EF: Based on everything I learned in preparation for this, it seems pretty clear there is no question that these kids were abused in a very big way, and not only that, their parents were abused, so there was a cycle going down through the generations, which is pretty much how it happens unless somebody does something about stopping it, therapy or whatever, to put an end to the cycle. It seems pretty clear to me people were coming out of the woodwork after a while to say, “Well I kinda suspected this but I didn’t know for sure.” There were allegations all over the place that this had been going on in that household and people were either told to shut up or they were told that they were exaggerating or unclear about what they had seen or what they had heard but it seems to be that this really did happen. Even my first meeting with Dick Wolf, he was talking about it, and I said, “Yeah, but did this stuff really happen?” And he said, “There is no question.” That is the way I went about this. Unless all the research is dead wrong, I’m going to assume that that’s the case, and also I assume that that’s what Leslie was feeling.

GD: Speaking of the real person, in terms of your own research, what did you do? Did you meet with her? Obviously there’s a lot of video out there of her ‘cause this was highly televised, so what did you do on your own?

EF: There is a lot of video but certainly less than if it was happening now. You’d be surprised. There was some video of her speaking to reporters outside the courthouse and stuff like that. It was not of great import to me to do a physical imitation of her, because it was for me more about where she was coming from. You could say, “The defense attorney with the curly hair,” and people go, “Oh yeah, I know her.” But it’s not like they’re so familiar with how she looked and how she walked and how she talked that it was important to imitate that. It’s a very strange thing playing a real person and playing a real person who’s still alive. I wanna have respect fo this very difficult chapter she went through in her life. I wanna tread lightly, basically, is what it was. I just wanted to get what she was going for there and understand her point of view. I was able to read lots of stuff including her own book, and get an idea of who she was and what she cared about.

GD: As you said, there’s not as much video of her as there would be today, but certainly there was enough of her and certainly enough of the Menendez brothers, to create a public perception in people’s minds. The show does a really good job of burrowing underneath and seeing what was going on in their private lives. Can you talk about that public persona versus that private persona? Did you find a difference between those?

EF: The private persona, a little more difficult because it was all to a large degree in René Balcer’s imagination and based on things he himself had learned about her, but what they have transcripts of are her court documents and things that she did when she was defending these guys. So the other stuff is kind of like connecting the dots. You’re making assumptions. The scene may have gone something like this. So that’s the part I imagine is most difficult, most challenging and maybe most fun for the writer of a piece like this where you have to create a fully-dimensional person out of little pieces.

GD: And she went through her own legal troubles herself with the incidents with Erik’s psychiatrist and some of the things that they had talked about. I’m curious if you could talk about playing that aspect of it?

EF: Again, based on the research, what that was is it says that she had changed the wording of some of the transcripts that came from the psychiatrist based on his meetings. I think that’s not really the case. There are 50 million people and 50 million versions of this but from her own her words in her book, she said basically he’s write in chicken scratch and it was very hard to figure out what he actually said and that in changing the wording it was more about making it clear. Not to defend her, because this was not part of our story per se, but it seemed to me that it’s more about intention, and I don’t think there was any malintent on her part. I really think she was just trying to clarify things.

GD: You’re right about one thing, it is very hard to read doctors’ handwriting, having been to a few in my lifetime. Was there a particular moment that you could point to throughout these eight episodes that was really difficult to play or an example of something that maybe was a challenge to you as an actor?

EF: A lot of it was difficult, ‘cause it’s an awful, awful story and as I am the mother of a boy and a girl, but this was about boys, these are the people they go to for support and comfort and safety, and these were the people perpetrating these crimes against them. It’s just the most awful kind of thing you can do to a human, to make them feel unsafe, to literally be unsafe in their home environment, which is supposed to be the scaffolding on which they build a life. I guess it was her final statement, I can’t think of what it’s called.

GD: The summation.

EF: The summation, yes, where she goes through talking about what the father would do to him. It was awful. And she was very professional. It was important for me not to let on how much this touched me personally, because at least in that particular time it was not entirely appropriate. It was challenging at times. It was infuriating and just a difficult situation all around because the parents were sick, but the kids bore the brunt of that.

GD: There’s a great team of directors on this show, starting with Lesli Linka Glatter and on down, the showrunner and also Dick Wolf. What did they give you that helps get you through those moments?

EF: It’s hard to say, ‘cause I’ve been doing this a very long time, so for the most part I keep my own counsel on those types of things. There were a lot of nuts and bolts in the storytelling of this, and that was what the directors were there for, among other things, creating shots and creating the mood of the set and all that stuff. But as far as my own performance and that kind of thing, if I felt like I needed help I would ask, but for the most part I felt like I kind of knew what I was doing and if I was off the mark they would tell me.

GD: It gets a little easier over time i suppose, to find nuance.

EF: And whether or not you can trust yourself with these things.

GD: Right. We’re in this golden age of television and you were a part of a couple shows that really helped kick that off, starting with “Oz” and then “The Sopranos,” which you won three Emmys for. I wonder if you could reflect a bit about the sense of discovery or freedom or whatever it was that made those shows so revolutionary and that led to things like this show, where you’re taking something maybe 30 years ago wouldn’t have had the kind of depth and nuance that it has today.

EF: As I was working on all these shows over the years I had no perspective. I still don’t, as far as where those shows fit into the lexicon of television and started a thing. The truth is, I’ve learned this by watching shows like watching CNN’s “The 2000s.” I still cannot see clearly where each of these shows fit into the world. I have to read about it. I was more than anything else just thrilled to be working, to be working on something where I loved going to work every day, where the writing was great. I loved being with my fellow actors and crew people. That’s the only awareness I had about it. I went into this business where I kept hearing, “It’s very hard for women. Roles for women are harder to come by.” I just never found any of that to be true for me, and I feel like I’ve just been blessed in so far as my particular journey in this business, that I’ve been exceedingly lucky to find the roles that I’ve found and to work with the people that I’ve worked with.

GD: Well certainly Carmela Soprano is one of those great roles. You won three Emmys for that show, including in the first season on your very first nomination. What did that kind of recognition mean for you?

EF: The whole thing is a blur, to be honest with you. I didn’t quite know what any of it meant. We were all shot out of a cannon. We all went from New York City theater actors with no money and little fifth floor walkup apartments to getting a ton of attention. I don’t know if anyone has a slow easy rise to something like that but we certainly didn’t. I was told, “Go here,” and I went there. Show up for this thing, and you get a dress for this thing and then you come back to work on this day. So it really was, again, without any kind of outside view of what was actually going on, you just do the best you can to keep your head above water and remember to constantly be grateful because the whole thing has been such a gift, truly, to get to do something I love as much as I love this and to do stuff that people watch. I’ve been very lucky.

GD: You also won an Emmy for your work on “Nurse Jackie.” I actually did an interview earlier with your co-star in that, Merritt Wever. It’s pretty nice we’ve got this little “Nurse Jackie” reunion at the Emmys.

EF: I know, and Betty Gilpin, too!

GD: That’s right, yes. I hope you all three get to spend some time reflecting on that or maybe present an award or something. I wonder if you could just reflect a bit about going off of “The Sopranos,” such a high watermark for any actor and then be able to get another great role, a very different kind of role immediately after that.

EF: I don’t have a great idea about, “What’s the next best move for my career?” I’m going on a visceral sense about what is interesting to me. I’m not great at working on stuff that doesn’t actually interest me. So from a totally selfish standpoint, that’s where I was coming from when it came to reading stuff after “The Sopranos,” and yes, of course it was a little disheartening for a while ‘cause it seemed like there was a lot of stuff that just did not speak to me. When I first read “Nurse Jackie,” it was very different. It was much darker, but there was something about the character that I really responded to, and it underwent a bunch of changes. You never really know, and once I shot the pilot I thought, “I don’t know, will people watch this? Who knows. Who ever knows with this stuff.” But 10 years on “Sopranos” and 10 years on “Jackie” and I’m the luckiest person around.

GD: Well you certainly had another great role to add to that list of great television roles. Edie Falco, thank you so much. Congratulations on your Emmy nomination and thank you for the time.

EF: Thank you.

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