After playing the matriarch of one of TV's most beloved crime families and a nurse who dabbled in criminal behavior, Edie Falco's arguing for justice for two of the 1990s' most notorious murder suspects – on screen and off.
"Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders" takes creator Dick Wolf's venerable ripped-from-the-headlines TV franchise into actual non-fiction territory, exploring the infamous shotgun shooting deaths of Hollywood executive Jose Menendez and his wife Kitty in their Beverly Hills home at the hands of their two sons, Lyle and Eric Menendez. Falco portrays the brothers' protective, courtroom-shrewd and media savvy attorney Leslie Abrahamson, who introduced the controversial "abuse excuse" defense, which posited that the brothers were driven to murder their parents after years of emotional and sexual abuse.
It's a stance that, upon close inspection, resonated with Falco as she dug into the research to help bring the trial to life on television, and one that ultimately –- as she explained to a small group of press during NBC's press day for the Television Critics Association last month –- changed the way she looked at the much-publicized case.
Leslie Abrahamson was a very polarizing figure at the time. What was your take on her after studying who she was in real life and who she was in the media depiction?
Edie Falco: Well, she was polarizing in that she was not at all interested in giving the sound bites that people wanted. That she really was really unpopular for representing boys who looked like monsters, because of what the media was being fed.
Leslie had a sort of mothering effect on the boys, which was unusual given the tragedy they were involved in. What was interesting about figuring out how to bring that to life?
Well, I'm a mother, and this is an awful thing for kids to go through -– or anyone to go through. Of course the crime is one thing, but being on trial and just the niggling questions into their past and the unkindness by the opposing team. I think it's important to help these people show up with their best selves. And she took that seriously.
Did you do a lot of research, or watch tapes of her in action in court?
Yeah, there was a ton of stuff out there. Even though this took place pre-YouTube, there's a ton of information on her, yes.
What did you admire about her as a professional?
That she took her job seriously, and she didn't always have to believe that her clients were innocent. It was irrelevant to her. Her job was to prove them innocent until proven guilty. And she took it very seriously, and I respect that. It was not about how other people perceived her or how they perceived her clients. It's that she was going to at least make sure that according to the law they were given a fair shake, and I respect that.
She was also great in front of the media.
Yes, yes, she was, I think she sort of enjoyed it and she became friends with them, and she knew their names and she knew how to ask for some space when she needed it. I think she knew how to befriend them so that she didn't make them an enemy, because that would have been disastrous.
How closely did you follow the case at the time it was happening?
It was all in the background. It was, also, I didn't have the interest in it that I have now, and I didn't realize that the main people who watch these things are women. And I'm very curious what that's about. That's another discussion, but anyway, I'm among them, the fans of this crime genre.
It was peripheral, like the O.J. [Simpson] case was. It was always on, there were a million things to pay attention to at the time, media-wise. So it was always on, and you heard the verdict. And I made the exact same assumption that everybody else did: two bratty kids from Beverly Hills who wanted money, and it really made me think how much we are what we are fed.
Has this project made you reconsider those initial preconceptions?
All of them. Everything. Things are not what they appear.
What was your own life like during the early 90s, when this was going on?
I was making a movie. I remember... yeah, I was on a beach making a movie when this verdict went down. So I was already working in my low-budget movie world.
You sport a fantastic looking wig. How do you feel about it?
How do you know it's a wig? I'm just saying! Well, we're very early on in this, but I have to say, I do kind of love the wig, and have my own little relationship going on there. But it was also the hair I wanted at that age and could never get.
Was there more pressure on you when you're playing a real person – especially a person that's still living?
Yeah, the pressure is self-induced, if I decide it's more pressure than it is – but I've decided it isn't. That she's about what she did, and that remains my sole focus, really.
Do you ever carry parts of your characters with you at the end of a project?
Nope, I'm done. It took a lot of years of working to recognize that it doesn't help me to carry it home and really get that it makes it worse. I have real kids and they make absolutely sure that they are the center of my attention when I get done with work.
You've set such a high bar for yourself with the roles that you've played. When you go looking for the next thing, is it tricky to balance between wanting to keep to that standard and just wanting to work?
It is complicated, but there is no intellectual program. I will know when I read it. And maybe some day, if I really want to work, maybe my standards are different. I don't really know. But it all plays in when I read something: If my heart is racing, it's where I'll be next.
What was the gut reaction when you read this, that first overwhelming feeling?
Well, that there was so much about this and about those boys that I didn't know, that made me realize that we are a product of what we are fed from the second we're born, and to the same degree, what I was fed about this case turned out to be inaccurate and certainly incomplete.
And I like the idea that people can shake up their beliefs about something and can change. I think that's the mark of a healthy human and this might be an opportunity for other people to recognize that in themselves as well.
So is it safe to say that you're convinced about the abuse defense?
There's no question. And you'll see. I mean, this stuff was just not made known, was just not made available. And there are two guys, like real men my age now, sitting in jail. I mean, it's one thing when it's a story that's made up by Dick Wolf and his writers. They are two real men. They went through this and now are sitting in jail for the rest of their lives.
Is legal jargon easier than medical jargon of "Nurse Jackie?"
They're both challenging, unless you put in the eight years of schooling. But, you know, that's my job.