Julianne Nicholson Breaks Down the ‘Mare of Easttown’ Finale’s Tragic Twist

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Over Mare of Easttown’s seven-episode run on HBO, its obsessed audience has transformed into amateur sleuths, putting a gumshoe’s fedora on their Twitter avatars as they piece together the crime thriller’s central mystery: Who killed Erin McMenamin?

A Google search of that very question yields dozens of blog posts and fan forums ranking the possible suspects. Now that Sunday night’s finale has aired, suffice it to say that the actual killer was likely a surprise to even the series’ most keen-eyed viewers, though one of the most popular theories surrounding the whodunnit was confirmed.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead from Sunday’s finale. Do not read further if you do not want to know what happened!)

As many Mare fans pointed out over the course of the series, you don’t cast Julianne Nicholson in the friend role if she’s not going to have some meaty material in the end. That was exactly the case for the actress, known for delivering shattering, emotionally brittle performances in films like August: Osage County and Black Mass.

First, it appears that Nicholson’s character Lori Ross, best friend of Kate Winslet’s titular detective Mare, shoulders the burden of the revelation that her husband, John Ross (Joe Tippett), is the father of Erin’s baby, DJ, and the one who killed her. But, in the kind of last-act twist that has your jaw successively dropping until it crashes through the floor, it turns out that Lori and John were covering for their young son, Ryan (Cameron).

After learning of John and Erin’s affair, Ryan stole a gun from a neighbor—the same neighbor who reported the “ferret stalker” in the show’s premiere (full circle!)—and confronted Erin. He meant to just scare her into leaving his family alone, but things got out of hand and he accidentally killed her.

That leads to a series of what may rank as some of the most heartbreaking TV scenes of the year, all at the hand of Nicholson’s acting, a steely face trembling over an open wound. There’s her reaction to Ryan storming into the house screaming, “It’s Mare! She knows!,” fired off like gunshots to the heart as Lori hurriedly envelopes him in her arms, inconsolable over the boy’s certain fate.

There’s the almost mafioso way she hisses at Mare in the interrogation room, practically shooting venom as she justified, “I agreed to lie to protect my son. And I would have taken that to my grave if you didn’t show up at the house today.” She breaks down in her car, screaming at Mare in disbelief, “My Ryan!” as she tries to console her, like a mother lion’s pained roar.

Then there are the quiet moments as Lori resigns to her new life—when John asks her to raise DJ as her own, when she takes DJ to get his ear surgery—emotionally flattened by the series of tragic events and with no other recourse but to morosely soldier on.

When we connect with Nicholson over Zoom to talk about the finale, we joke about how, when we last spoke in 2016 when she was starring on another slow-burn crime-mystery series, Eyewitness and told me, “I would love not cry at work,” joking about how serious her characters tend to be. “Sounds really nice.”

She laughs again when I bring it up this time. “Yesterday, somebody was like, do you ever want to do a comedy? I have to start saying no. No more grief.”

Still, as Sunday night’s Mare of Easttown finale proved, she’s really good at playing grief.

The series is the rare occasion in recent years of ratings and viewership growing week after week, with social media engagement doubling between episodes five and six. The show has become an obsession to the point that Saturday Night Live even parodied it. In the age of bingeing, people are breaking their habits and watching on a weekly basis, both to avoid spoilers and join the watercooler conversation.

We all together screamed over Evan Peters’ Detective Zabel (first his drunk acting, then his shocking death), raved over Kate Winslet’s performance, been amused by the ludicrous “Delco accent,” celebrated the Jean Smartaissance, and had a collective heart attack while watching Carrie (Sosie Bacon) fall asleep while little Drew was facedown in the bathtub.

The show had thoughtfully and deliberately scattered puzzle pieces across different episodes—from the “ferret stalker” to the significance of Freddie Hanlon’s addiction to the specific kind of gun used to kill Erin—and now, they finally fit together.

So we talked to Nicholson about everything: Her reaction to who did it, dealing with Lori’s grief as a mother herself, and the fact that the show’s costume designer camped out at a Wawa, spending hours taking photos of people as references for the show’s characters’ wardrobes.

The internet has been playing a “Who killed Erin?” sleuthing game throughout this entire series. Did you have your own journey with that? I’m curious how much you knew going into this.

Kate called me and said, “I’m doing a show. The part is my best friend. You have to do it. I’m sending you episodes one through six.” So they sent them and I read those. Like the audience, I thought with every episode that I knew who did it—and then it would be revealed that I did not know who did it. (Laughs) It wasn’t until we knew that I was doing the job that I was sent episode seven. I was surprised! Were you surprised?

So here’s the thing: I am not alone in thinking that the killer was going to be connected to Lori somehow, the reasoning being that you were cast in that role and you don’t cast you in that role if there’s not going to be some sort of emotional climax. Beyond that I just assumed it was John, and that was going to be it. I didn’t expect that last twist.

OK good. Me too. Then when I was reading it I was like, oh no is Lori going to be the killer? I had already agreed to do it at that time and I was like, I don’t want to kill a teenage girl! I was sort of relieved when it was my son.

What was your reaction to it being Lori’s son?

Oh god, it’s terrible. The idea of it being all John’s fault, and for something like that to happen, it’s tragic. That scene where she goes to visit him later with her daughter and the baby, it’s just so awful to think that is where he is now. That informs every day from then on. Every day starts with that, knowing where her son is.

Throughout the whole series, Lori seems like someone who is just so worn down, like she’s exhausted from shouldering the weight of so much. The finale piles that on even more, but there is something really recognizable about a mother and a wife who is carrying a lot.

Like the audience, I thought with every episode that I knew who did it—and then it would be revealed that I did not know who did it. I was surprised! Were you surprised?

Obviously these are extreme examples of what’s going on with these characters’ lives. But I think it’s not uncommon for, in particular, moms to be taking it on and just still getting it done and making sure that everything’s okay for everyone around them. It felt like an honest depiction of a woman who lives in that place, in that social standing and in that community. It felt pretty honest to those places.

Everything about her was so recognizable, down to her wardrobe, the baggy t-shirts and sweats.

I loved the wardrobe. I thought Meghan Kasperlik, our costume designer, did such a great job. She would always bring in these really specific choices for Lori. There were even details like I felt like she should wear a sports bra under that shirt. There’s certain things that are just, like, it’s comfort. You know? It’s just a particular style. Our costume designer would spend hours at Wawa, just sort of like blindly snapping pics of people for reference. Then she’d go to stores and find versions of that, which was great and I think really informs the believability of the characters.

I don’t know if it exists anymore, but there used to be a site called People of Walmart. People would send in photos of people at Walmart in embarrassing outfits.

People of Wawa!

I wanted to talk to you about some specific scenes from the finale. I was struck by the one at the courthouse, where John asks Lori to take DJ in and raise him. It’s the kind of thing that could have been this whole big, explosive scene. But you played it silently.

If I’m not mistaken, I think Lori originally had a line or two there. One of the things I loved about Brad [Ingelsby, the creator] was that he was always there to say if you don’t want to say that, if you think of something better, or if you don’t want to say anything, then great. So the scene when John tells Lori at the table, I said I don’t think she says anything. And with the courthouse too. I feel like it’s expected in a television show to have that dramatic moment but, in life, what’s going to happen when someone asks you that? It’s going to take a minute. You don’t know what that feeling is going to be or what that response is going to be. So they were open to that and they thought that could work. Sometimes it’s more interesting to see that person have the experience than hear them tell you about it.

The scene where Lori takes DJ to get his ear surgery is also fascinating. We’ve spent seven episodes waiting for this poor child to get his surgery, so it should be a triumphant moment. But Lori is so despondent, and the situation she’s in is so tragic.

That was one of the things that we talked about before filming, because the question of her taking that child is, like, not everyone would. Right? And if you do, that’s not as simple yes. And I bet the feelings around that change day to day, hour to hour. But it’s only a little baby. And he’s the half brother of your other two children, but like, this is where he comes from. So it’s just so layered.

I can’t stop thinking about the future of these characters. We see how intertwined this community is, and now everyone knows that Lori is raising the illegitimate child of her husband whose mother was killed by her son.

I know! I know. She should move to South Beach and yuk it up.

That’s the thing about those communities, though. The people never move.

I know, yeah. She’s not going anywhere.

Lori tells Mare, “I agreed to lie to protect my son.” As a mother yourself, what did you think of her decision to cover up for him?

I would have done the same thing. Also because it’s John’s fault and he’ll take the blame. I mean, you don’t want to pick apart my answer…it’s not foolproof, this plan. But it all happened because of John, and he’s happy to take the rap for it. It was an accident on Ryan’s behalf. It should have never happened. But if John’s willing to serve the punishment, then I would be fine with that. Let the kid live his life not in jail. Going to visit him in that place was awful. When she asked him, “Are you making any new friends?” It’s just like such a terrible thing to imagine.

Awful because you were thinking about what if this was your own family?

Yeah. I thought about that a lot. My son is very close in age to Ryan on the show and has a similar personality. Just nice kids. Thinking about a life being taken away in that way, to someone who that shouldn’t have happened to, it’s just terrible. It’s too much.

The scene where he runs into the house screaming that Mare is coming and you just hold him…that, like, broke me.

That was really hard too. The age that Cameron [who plays Ryan] was and that our son is too, it’s like the sweet spot where they’re not children. They’re not little kids, but they are still a little bit. They’ve got one foot in teen and one foot in kid, so they still want to, you know, sit on your lap. They still want to cuddle. It’s this funny place. I just felt very easy with Cameron. He’s also such a nice kid. We went out for dinner and we would hang out on set and he would tell me about his basketball games and his mom was great. So it was just a terrible thing to imagine.

You’ve done crime shows before on television. What do you think it is about this one that’s connected in the way that it’s become such an obsession?

I like to think that it’s the interest of the specificity of the place. Like Delco in particular, where I can’t really bring to mind another story from there. So it’s sort of peeping into a place we don’t know, and a community we don’t know. All of our intention was to create those people and those relationships as the foundation, and that hopefully was the interesting thing about the show before you add the crime. I think it’s great that it’s all these women: Mare and her mom and her daughter, Lori and the whole basketball team. Maybe something people are responding to, hopefully.

It’s interesting that for all the obsession over who was the killer and the online odds rankings and guessing and all that, the series ends on the theme of how a community deals with pain and grief. It doesn’t end when the mystery is solved. It ends with Mare trying to heal after her son’s suicide.

Yes. Come for the crime, stay for the grace.

The casting aspect of all that online sleuthing was interesting. Just as people assumed Lori was connected somehow because you were cast in the role, people couldn’t let go of the idea that Guy Pearce also must have something to do with it. But he really was just the nice love interest.

Sometimes you don’t want to be murderers and mothers of dead kids. Sometimes we just want to be people at a bar, having a beer, writing a book.