By Laura Berger | Women and Hollywood April 11, 2014 at 10:00AM
August: Osage County offers a painfully intimate look at a family reuniting in the wake of tragedy. Death brings out the dysfunction in every family, but it's clear that there have been gaping cracks in the foundation of this particular family for years. The film is a profoundly unflattering portrait of the Westons, especially indomitable matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep). We witness how Violet's drug addiction and penchant for "truth-telling" -- delivering incredibly cruel critiques under the guise of being helpful -- have poisoned her relationships with her three daughters (Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Julia Roberts) as well as their relationships with each other.
Women and Hollywood spoke with Julianne Nicholson, who portrays Ivy, the firstborn child. While her younger sisters have moved on to seemingly greener pastures far from Osage County and their own "Mommie Dearest," Ivy stays and quietly assumes responsibility for taking care of her aging parents. The role is a departure from Nicholson's decidedly steelier characters on Masters of Sex (Dr. Lillian DePaul) and Boardwalk Empire (Assistant US Attorney Esther Randolph), both of whom muscle their way into male-dominated fields.
Nicholson shares her most memorable moments on set with Meryl Streep, her take on aging in Hollywood, the appeal of playing period roles, and what to expect next on Masters of Sex.
August: Osage County is now available on DVD.
Prior to starring in August: Osage County, you saw the play on Broadway and loved it -- you couldn't stop laughing and crying. Why did you have such a strong reaction to it?
I think it's so well written that, as extreme as these characters are, they're completely recognizable -- and those relationship dynamics are completely recognizable. Tracy Letts, the playwright and screenwriter, has a genius way of making darkness hilarious.
When you were watching the play -- before you auditioned and were cast as Ivy -- could you imagine yourself portraying any of these characters?
didn't cross my mind, actually. I was so absorbed in just what was unfolding in
front of me that I never put myself in any of the roles. I don't really do that
in general -- not for any reason except that's just how my mind works.
Did playing Ivy come naturally to you or did you have to dig deep to find parts of her in yourself?
Well, in every character I do, there's a little bit of me in there. Certainly her circumstances are thankfully much different than my own. For me there was something about being where I was in my career and joining that cast -- that I had admired, watched, and respected for so long -- that I personally felt it was very easy for me to go there and be quiet and observe. I feel like that's largely what Ivy does in the movie -- that's her place within that family.
Speaking of this dream cast, early on in the filming process you got the chance to bond with your co-stars to help establish a convincing dynamic. What was that experience like?
We had the luxury of a week of rehearsals so it was mostly spending time together at the house. There was a week of just meet and greets, read throughs, and going through every scene in the script. On the first day where everybody met, we did a read through around this big table with John Wells, the director. That night there was a dinner and that is when it really dawned on me. We were in this funny little steakhouse outside of Barnsdall, Oklahoma, and in the backroom was Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, and George Clooney, who was a producer on the film -- it was kind of a joke. That was the beginning where the pinching of myself began.
And then we mostly just spent time together; everybody was open to being there and making it as convincing as we could. It was a really incredible group of individuals, and they brought so much. It was a wonderful group to get to spend some time with.
Were there any another particular moments where you thought, "Wow. This is just so surreal"? I'm imagining you playing Yahtzee with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts or something crazy.
Yeah, that happened almost every day at one point. The first scene I did with Meryl, which is at the very beginning of the movie where she's sitting at her vanity smoking and I'm making the bed was the first scene we did where it was just the two of us. That was very surreal. I drove home a very happy girl that day.
Sitting next to Meryl for the whole dinner table which was four days of filming was also pretty amazing. One day she squeezed my knee under the table in support to cheer me on. I could've died and gone to heaven.
In the movie your mother Violet, who is
played by Meryl, says that women are only beautiful when they're young and they
aren't "sexy" when get older. Older women are rarely portrayed in Hollywood
movies and when they are, their sexuality is usually ignored. Why do you think
this is the case?
First of all, I think it's a shame, and it's not true that older women aren't sexy. I think it's something that is in our society: we equate youth with beauty. We just keep putting that message out there. In this country, I don't think people are brave enough to show that there is an audience out there that have that experience and would like to see it when they go to the movies.
In this movie, it was so refreshing to see these gorgeous and complex female characters
I thought so too! And all 40+ except for Abigail [Breslin]! It's a huge point of pride for me to be a part of that group. Personally, I've never seen Julia Roberts look more beautiful than I did everyday in front of my face and not onscreen -- to see her not looking like a movie star, that beauty that comes with age and experience, I wish we could see that more and more. Personally, I feel better now than I did when I was twenty.
Why is that? I feel like the industry
generally doesn't make women feel that way.
No, it certainly doesn't. I don't know why I'm able to feel that way -- dumb luck? I feel like with the experiences I've had in the last couple of years and the strength that I have in my life and things I've done -- having a loving, committed relationship for 12 years now, being the mother of two children, giving birth. And sticking in this industry, which is not always very kind to women, makes me feel good. I feel like things are definitely better for me now at 42 than they were at 22.
The film shows how much Violet influences her daughters' identities and their relationships with other people -- their sisters and partners. How would you describe Ivy's relationship with her mother and sisters?
I think they are very complex relationships. It's so funny: you have such different dynamics within a family whether you're one on one, or if you're all together, or if you're with just two people. I think Ivy has taken care of her mother for 10+ years -- I mean, really her whole life, but by herself for the past decade. Maybe I'm just talking as Ivy right now, but she believes her mother must know that and recognize that and love her for that. Violet is also an addict, and very selfish -- she only thinks about herself. That's a big part of their relationship and how Ivy feels about herself.
She hasn't seen her sister Karen [Julia Roberts] in so long. I feel like there really isn't much there, which for me is such a foreign concept because I'm so very close to my siblings, especially my sister who is very close in age to me. I can't imagine not having at least some kernel of something in there, of love, attachment, and care. In the case of Karen and Ivy I don't even know if that's there. It's so buried. I don't think she actually feels much for her these days.
I think Ivy and Barb [Juliette Lewis] very much have an older/younger sister dynamic. She thinks Barb can do no wrong and probably thinks everything came more easily for her and is a little bit jealous of her, but loves, admires, and probably misses her.
I read that you've loved working on Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex because you enjoy being able to explore women's experience's from the past. Why is that?
It's a huge part of why I do what I do -- just to experience other people's lives is such a gift. To go into other times and feel what it would have been like, what it could have been like, is very interesting to me. I feel very grateful to be born in the time that I was in this particular country.
I have opportunities. I feel like there's still a long way to go for women and gender equality but we've come a long way, baby. We're doing ok.
It's complicated now when you feel like you want to work and you want to be at home. That's a divide that I think a lot of women, myself included, struggle with. Meanwhile, I'm cooking kale chips and I'm running late to work because they called me in early. That'll give you an idea of where I am right now.
Very glamorous -- true.
What's the first performance by an actress that you remember being inspired by?
Honestly, I'd have to say Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. It was literally The Wizard of Oz, then Jessica Lange in Tootsie. There was a huge period in between.
I was blown away by the storytelling in The Wizard of Oz as a little kid. I was just completely taken into that world. I wished I was her and thought that adventure was amazing. I don't know that I actually equated it to a performance, but that was the first time I was really riveted by a performance by a young woman onscreen.
What's coming up next for you? Can you tell us anything about season 2 of Masters of Sex? Your character (Dr. Lillian DePaul) has developed such an interesting relationship with Virginia.
I don't think I'm really supposed to. You see them still working together. Their relationship is deepening, and all that can go along with that -- relationships get more complicated the longer they go on. I love them together. I find them so surprising and interesting -- that dynamic of two people who are so different that really find an understanding and genuinely care for each other.