Julianne Nicholson Breaks Down the Devastating 'Mare of Easttown' Finale
We spoke to the actress about Lori's heartbreaking scenes, COVID delays, and what got cut.
This interview contains major spoilers for the Mare of Easttown finale, "Sacrament." Proceed with caution. You can also read our recap of the episode.
Leading into this weekend's finale of Mare of Easttown, people had been texting Julianne Nicholson with their theories as to whether her character was in fact the murderer. She was not, but the episode was a showcase for the actress who plays the best friend of Kate Winslet's Mare Sheehan, Lori Ross. At the start of "Sacrament," it appears that Lori's philandering husband John (Joe Tippett) was the person to have killed Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny). By the last 20 minutes, the audience learns that both Lori and her spouse have been hiding something even more tragic from Mare. John, who fathered Erin's child, did not kill her. His and Lori's son, Ryan (Cameron Mann), shot Erin while trying to threaten her in a misguided effort to keep her away from his family. John and Lori had agreed to lie to protect their kid.
The grief Nicholson emits is palpable as she weeps over the loss of her child, and rails at her closest confidant, who is the one responsible for putting him away. But instead of leaning into Lori's betrayal, Mare of Easttown illuminates her pain above all else. Nicholson, who has won acclaim for her work in Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex, has been a longtime friend of Winslet's. The series' star asked her to come on board. Now, following all the revelations, she talks to Thrillist about her emotional work.
Thrillist: At what point did you know Lori's involvement in the resolution of the series?
Julianne Nicholson: Kate called me and said she was doing this show and there's a role of her best friend and I had to do it. And they sent me six episodes, and she said, "I'll tell you about the seventh one." Because 7 was under serious lock and key, well into filming. So she told me a little bit about it. I don't think she told me who did it—she let me read that—just that it culminates with Lori and Mare's friendship. I did read 7 before we started filming anything. We did talk about that. And it was definitely to keep information I had that Lori didn't have for the first five episodes.
What were the challenges of that?
There were real practical challenges of that also because we filmed the whole seven episodes like a movie. We were filming scenes from the last episode in the very early weeks and vice versa. I have to say, Kate was amazing. Kate and Brad [Ingelsby], the writer, and Craig [Zobel], the director, and the script supervisor kept us all on track. They were there all the time, whereas a number of us were coming in and out. Kate had this big binder with all the scripts and Post-it Notes and arrows and crossed out and names. She wanted to be very clear that we all knew what we knew. What do we know? What are we revealing? What are we keeping secrets? What will we film that you wouldn't notice the first time viewing but if you went back you would notice?
Was there a moment specifically like that that you remember?
There were a number of moments where we didn't want to give stuff away but little tells. I can't remember specifically—probably around Ryan, him taking in information, or Billy when he walks away from the beer [in Episode 5]. There were little moments that they were very thoughtful about.
You're very close friends with Kate. I wanted to ask about those two scenes in the finale, the moment where you push her away and the moment where you dissolve into her arms, which I just think is so full of grace. What was it like doing those opposite her?
You're not the first person to mention grace, and I love that. That's such a beautiful word and a beautiful-meaning word, and I love the idea around that final scene, having that with each other. I've known Kate for many, many years, though we hadn't seen each other in a long time. I've always been a huge admirer of her work for decades, so I just felt safe knowing how wonderful an actor she was and also just trusting her because I know her and I know also she wants this show to be the best it can be in the most beautiful, generous way. She wants everybody on board with her.
They were scary scenes and we basically just kept our distance from each other on those days, especially the car scene. I don't even know if we said hello. We just kept apart and just met in the car when the cameras were rolling. It was an ice cold night. I think it was the last scene we shot of the week, so it was dark and cold. I don't think we did that scene many times. I think we came both ready for what had to happen.
The theme of what mothers would do for their sons comes through so strongly in the final episode. How did you approach Lori's role in the context of the series as a whole?
I am a wife and mother and it's actually the most important thing to me, so to be able to transfer my experiences of what that is to Lori was very helpful. I have a son who is just a little bit younger than Cameron, who plays Ryan, who has a similar personality. Cameron is very gentle and kind and open and caring and easy to be with, and my son is a similar-natured person, so just using my imagination of what that would feel like was very helpful and horrible, if you can imagine.
What was it like working with this young actor tasked with doing so much?
He's so great. We went out to dinner a couple of times, just to get to know each other, and we would sit near each other on set and ask him about basketball. I would ask him, "Have you read this? My son's reading this." And actually, that scene when Mare comes to the house after he says, "She knows, she's coming," I think it was written they were lying on the couch with each other. Brad is such an incredible writer, and also one of the great things about him is he's not precious about his script at all. He's always like, "This is what it is, but if you have anything you would rather say or not say, please just let me know." And nine times out of 10, we would do it as he had written it, but to have this comfort and freedom is really special and rare. I just felt lying down together didn't exactly feel right, and my son is still in this [phase] where he's not a child, but he's not a full teen yet. He will still hold my hand, he will still sit on my lap. Even though he's literally about the size of me, he still feels small. So I was like, "What if he sits on my lap? Cameron, are you OK if you sit on my lap?" That just felt like having the boy still that was going to have to go and deal with this sentence and this result of what's happened. It's finding those things and exploration, and it's also just the beauty of Brad's writing.
Did you have an inkling that the series would become so furiously obsessed over?
No. I mean, I never do. I can't think about what the end result is going to be. Because early on in your career you are like, "This is it," and it's like no. What the response is is like magic. We all hope for that with everything we make, but I don't think there's a recipe to make that thing happen. We were hopeful, of course, that we were making something good, but I've been wonderfully surprised by how much people are talking about it. It's been amazing. And I'm so happy for everybody because they worked so hard—Kate and Craig and Brad were there all the time.
Did you see any of the theories from people who thought Lori did it?
People have been texting me: Is it you? And some people are like: Oh my god, I hope it's you. And other people have been like: Oh my god, I so hope it's not you. It's been great to see, not only are they following it, but they have real feelings around it, which is so fun.
The filming schedule was interrupted by COVID. How did that affect production?
Well, I think that practically created so many other challenges on the production side, which luckily I didn't have to think about that. I think some scenes were lost because of that, just for pure scheduling, because with COVID protocols you couldn't change locations on a day. It just grew.
Were any of your scenes lost?
I haven't seen the show, so I don't know. There was a scene that was written where Kenny asks John and Lori to consider adopting the baby while he's in prison. That was a scene I wish we could have done. There's also a scene after that of John and Lori driving home and talking about it. I missed that scene. But, you know, stuff is written, stuff is filmed, and ultimately, you find out in the editing room what is needed, and we didn't need the scenes so it's OK to lose them. Things like that along the way, you don't get to do everything.
What was it like coming back after the delays?
The good thing about it was, at least we had those five months of filming before. We all had relationships we could fall back on. I think it would have much harder to start the story already masked up and distanced.
Did you have any familiarity with Delco County and the accent going into it?
No. I'd never been to Philadelphia or any of those surrounding areas and had no idea about that accent or anything. That was an education for me.
What was the most interesting part of going there to film?
For me, it was mostly accent-related and listening for all the different versions of it because town-to-town, house-to-house, person-to-person, it would sound different depending on what that person did for a job, how old that person was. It was really interesting to hear all the different versions of what that accent could be. Working with Susanne Sulby, our dialect coach, was really helpful. She was there everyday and there every scene. We would work on every scene the night before we filmed it, going over it phonetically and circling sounds and things to be aware of. If you dropped them, she would come in and say, "Don't forget this or that." But she was also really careful about those big scenes, keeping a distance. She was very sensitive to when was the right time to come in and when was the right time to leave it alone.
How did you think about Lori's acceptance of DJ into her life?
We talked about about that before we were anywhere close to filming. I thought that, and I know Kate did as well, that baby has nowhere else to go. That child is Lori's children's half sibling. It just felt hard, but the right thing to do. I think for the most part, these people are good people. Not John. I'll just speak for Lori: She wants to do the right thing.