Julianne Nicholson has been a working actress since the mid-’90s, but it’s especially over the last three years that the Law & Order: Criminal Intent alum has been getting the work a talent of her caliber deserves. Below, we break down the four roles that prove Nicholson is an actor to watch -- beginning with USA’s latest, Eyewitness.
1. Helen Torrance, Eyewitness
Nicholson is given the leading lady treatment in her return to primetime with USA’s Eyewitness, starring as Sheriff Helen Torrance of Tivoli, New York, an ex-big city cop who thrives on the thrill of cracking cases larger than herself. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much of that in her new small town life with her husband, Gabe (Gil Bellows), and their foster son, Philip (Tyler Young). That all changes when three bodies are found dead in her jurisdiction and she begins obsessing over the murder, an FBI cover-up, and more. Despite committing herself to justice and doing what’s right, Nicholson makes it clear that there’s more to the hard-edged Helen than meets the eye; it’s unclear, for instance, why she left Buffalo and whether or not she’s stable enough to meet this new case’s demands. Add familial obligations and tensions to the mix, and Helen makes for a juicy, complex role. Nicholson more than rises to the occasion.
2. Dr. Lillian DePaul, Masters of Sex
Straight off her arc as Esther Randolph on Boardwalk Empire, Nicholson next appeared alongside Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen on Showtime’s buzzy Masters of Sex in 2013. It’s a role that perfectly fits Nicholson’s talent for internalizing her emotions; with the staunch and prickly Dr. Lillian DePaul, she managed to paint an entire hidden emotional landscape with a single look or gesture. DePaul is hardened because she is vulnerable, most explicitly through her battle with terminal cancer. When she decides to all but kill herself by stopping her treatment -- and then to literally kill herself with a sleeping pill overdose -- the series lost more than Virginia’s ideological adversary; it lost a character that connected with audiences and tapped into unspoken universals, for better or worse.
3. Ivy Weston, August: Osage County
It would be easy for any performer to get lost in a feature film as jam-packed with awesome, scenery-chewing performances from the Weston family ladies -- namely Julia Roberts as Barbara, Juliette Lewis as Karen, and Meryl Streep as their mother, Violet. (Streep even received her 18th Oscar nomination for the role.) But as the subdued Weston sister Ivy, Nicholson walks away with much of the film’s emotional pow. Perhaps most memorably, audiences believe she may rise to the occasion in the play-turned-film’s infamous “eat the fish” scene and stand up to her mother, but Ivy falters at the news of her true relationship with her cousin and lover, “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). While her costars are simply a trainwreck worth watching, Nicholson makes audiences root for Ivy till the end, which is what makes the rug being pulled out from under her that much more impactful.
4. Marianne Connolly, Black Mass
Nicholson got back to her Massachusetts roots for Scott Cooper’s Whitey Bulger crime drama, Black Mass, slapping on a pitch-perfect Boston accent and trademark surliness as Marianne Connolly, the bemoaned wife of crooked FBI agent John Connolly. With her limited amount of screen time, she establishes Marianne as the moral center of the Connolly family and the only one who will stand up to Bulger and to the man her husband has become under his wing. While other films of the gangster niche often enact tokenism with their respective daughters and wives, Marianne comes out fully fleshed thanks to Nicholson’s nuance—and who can forget that scene in the bedroom with Whitey? It’ll leave you breathless.