Part of what makes Eyewitness star Julianne Nicholson so engaging to watch on screen is surely the real-deal Julianne Nicholson — a talent willing, for instance, to bypass publicists connecting her calls in favor of a direct dial.
“Let’s cut to the chase!” she jokes.
Nicholson has inhabited complex supporting characters on shows like Masters of Sex, The Red Road, and Boardwalk Empire and in movies like August: Osage County, so it’s great to see her in a role where she is the focus.
In USA Network drama Eyewitness, she plays Helen Torrance, sheriff of small town Tivoli, New York (though filmed in Canada), who is investigating a murder. What Torrance doesn’t know is that her new foster son Philip (Tyler Young) witnessed the murder. Nicholson’s character seems to have a “been there, done that” approach to small town politics and toward the intruding FBI agent Ryan Kane (Warren Christie) — who also happens to be the killer. Parenting, however, is new territory for her.
We spoke with Nicholson after she returned from filming a movie in South America.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: When Eyewitness premiered, you were busy filming in South America. What were you shooting there?
Julianne Nicholson: Yes, I was in Colombia doing a South American film in the jungle, in the mountains about these eight teens, revolutionary soldiers, and a kidnapped woman. It’s called Monos.
RT: Do you speak Spanish in the film?
Nicholson: [Laughs] A little bit. The whole thing is in Spanish, and yes, all of my dialogue is in Spanish. Luckily, I didn’t have a ton to do. Actually, that’s not true. There were some improvised lines where it was fine if I spoke English. They didn’t understand me, but that was appropriate.
RT: So you’re playing an American woman?
Nicholson: Yes, thank God.
RT: With Eyewitness, is Ryan Kane any match for Helen Torrance?
Nicholson: I mean, no, come on. She’s all over him. He’s definitely a match, and I think it’s very interesting where their relationship goes. I think they really surprise each other. Before any crime is solved, there is a journey that they go on together.
RT: I think it’s only inevitable that there will come a time that Helen will find out that Philip saw the murder. When she does, can we expect a really explosive confrontation?
Nicholson: There’s definitely a confrontation, yes, but they happen at unexpected times. By the time it’s revealed that he saw the thing, it’s at a place where it’s not the time to be angry about that secret. It’s more about protection and keeping people safe. She blows up at him earlier on. By episode four, I think she’s straight up yelling at him. I loved working with Tyler so much. It was a really beautiful experience to explore that with him.
RT: By episode four we learn something traumatic about Helen’s past. Did that add a whole new depth to the character for you?
Nicholson: Yes. It definitely informs the rest of her life and the decisions she makes that bring her to Tivoli and where she is now. I like characters with secrets. I like not knowing everything right away and discovering things as you go. And then she’s in this marriage to someone she loves incredibly much, but didn’t reveal that to him in the early days. Now is it too late? And where do you go from there?
RT: With secrets, do you find out as the scripts come in?
Nicholson: I didn’t want too much information. I’m happy to do one episode at a time, maybe the next one, but I’m very happy to keep it in the present and discover as I go.
RT: Helen is not entirely by the book. Do you imagine this is maybe not the first case where she’s bent the rules?
Nicholson: I imagine this is not the first case when she’s bent the rules. I imagine, without going too far, she can be a bit righteous and can feel like “by any means necessary.”
RT: Do you share her search for good New York pizza when you’re filming in Canada?
Nicholson: Yes, but you know what? There was an Italian place in Parry Sound, Maurizio’s Pizza. Literally his mother was there in the kitchen, the Nonna, cooking the pizzas, and it was the best food in Parry Sound. I ate a lot of pizza this summer — a lotta pizza. It was so good, and the car wash that we filmed at shared a parking lot. They fed us well this summer. It was a very carb-friendly set.
RT: How much when you put on the uniform do you feel like a cop and feel like Helen?
Nicholson: One hundred percent. It really changes how I feel, how I walk, other people’s perception of you. I loved it. I loved that uniform. Once we got it fitting just right, I loved it.
RT: Oh, how many did you have to go through before it fit just right?
Nicholson: It was more that we chose what it was going to be. It was just lots of tailoring, tucking, nipping, and tucking.
RT: I imagine real cops don’t get that luxury. They just have to wear what’s provided, don’t they?
Nicholson: I’m sure that’s true, but there are cops on set and all their clothes were fitting them like a glove. So I was like, “What’s happening? Are there just so many size options or are they getting theirs tailored?” The ones that we saw around us all looked pretty fitted.
RT: The explosion in episode two was a pretty big stunt. Did you get to do any of it yourself?
Nicholson: I just had to throw myself down the stairs at the end, but no, they don’t let you. Not that I wanted to, to be perfectly honest. Thy really want the professionals to be in the explosions and breaking glass and stuff like that, although when I was just in Colombia, I did all of my own stunts, and I realized I’m much stronger than I thought I was. It was fun, but I’m very happy to have someone stand in for me. Make me look good.
RT: What stunts did you do on Monos?
Nicholson: Swimming in rapids was one, which I did pretty regularly. Climbing up places that could have easily turned into a mudslide. I learned how to use a machete and bushwhack, which could have very easily landed in my knee or the camera operator’s knee. It was exciting.
RT: Of course we’ve seen you play characters on shows like The Red Road and Masters of Sex. Was being the lead on Eyewitness noticeably different than the other shows you’ve done?
Nicholson: Yes, I loved it. I loved being there almost every day. I loved the responsibility. I loved setting the tone on the set. It was a beautiful experience. Adi Hasak, who created the show, called me his partner, and I feel the same way. I’ve never felt so seen and included in the process as I did on this show. I loved it.
RT: Do you have to stay in the dark place while you’re filming?
Nicholson: I don’t. I feel like I’ve done this for long enough now, when the scene is over I can pretty much put it down. Also the whole cast and crew were really positive and happy and funny. That energy was mostly what was happening when the cameras weren’t rolling, which is really nice.
RT: Were you able to do that also on a film like August: Osage County, which seemed relentless?
Nicholson: I know, but yes, we were. Everybody was so happy to be there. The scene at the dinner table where Meryl goes off, that was very upsetting for three days. Besides that, there was a lot of laughter and joy. I’m not one of those people who has to carry it into my life anymore. I think a little smidgen of it does, because you can’t entirely put it down, but not too much. Also I have a family, and it wouldn’t be fair to them if I was suddenly miserable for four months.
RT: I imagine these 10 episodes are closed-ended, but is Helen Torrance a character you would like to play again?
Nicholson: I would play Helen Torrance again in a heartbeat. I love her. I think she’s super cool and funny, and I think there’s much more to get to know about her.
RT: I know it’s still early, but have you heard any word they might be considering it?
Nicholson: I think there’s some chatter, but there’s nothing set in stone. I think that will be revealed as people decide to tune into the show or not, really.
RT: Are there any other films we should look for you in besides Monos?
Nicholson: Yes, I have a film called Sophie and the Rising Sun, which is coming out in February. I have another film coming out in 2017 called From Nowhere. It was at the SXSW Film Festival this year. In Sophie, it’s 1941 South, right before Pearl Harbor, and a Japanese man is dumped in this tiny southern town. Margo Martindale is in it and Lorraine Toussaint, and it’s sort of a picture of that time and the feelings at that time towards Asian people in our country. In From Nowhere, I play a high school teacher in the Bronx. I have four students who are not legal in the country — and what a very real experience that is these days — and am trying to help them.
Eyewitness airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network