Julianne Nicholson interview: ‘Blonde has been worshiped and brutalized and I get both sides
AAs a teenager, Julianne Nicholson was a “fangirl” of Marilyn Monroe. The Emmy-winning star of Easttown Mare and the jungle thriller Monos devoured all the books she could find about herself. She watched her movies, listened to compilations of her songs, had pictures of her stuck in her locker. “I was obsessed,” she recalls. “I thought she was so beautiful and tragic and kind of unknowable.” Now, decades later, she’s playing her mother in a film so incendiary that everyone involved – including star Ana de Armas – has been forced to rush to her defense. Nicholson, to his credit, admits it won’t be for everyone. Especially those who don’t want to see her as a schizophrenic child molester.
Nicholson, all ocean green eyes and freckles, calls from her daughter’s bedroom in Hampshire, sunlight beaming through the window behind her. She has just moved to the UK from New York with her husband, actor Jonathan Cake – a native Briton – and their children, after a pit stop at the Venice Film Festival to watch Blond for the first time. She was nervous – her teenage adoration for Marilyn made her feel “protective” of the star’s memory, right down to the women who were to play her on screen – “but Ana blew my mind.”
Did this feeling of protecting Marilyn’s memory extend to Blond himself? “Yes,” Nicholson said softly. She repeats it, more decisively this time. “I think the book was written with so much love and so was the screenplay. Meeting Andrew and talking to him about the process and the years he put into the project and the story he wanted to tell…it was worth really worth it and was special.
Blond distills the short life of Marilyn Monroe into a parade of macabre encounters and existential hits for the soul. She is transformed into a pound of flesh that America feasts on. That premise — from writer and director Andrew Dominik, who adapted the doorstop from a Joyce Carol Oates bestseller — naturally got Blond already in trouble. An impressionistic art film punctuated with scenes of abuse, orgies and flashes of joy turning to misery – plus a talking fetus! – he was called “ridiculously vulgar” by the new yorker and “a death march in slow motion” by NPR. The IndependentAmanda Whiting called it a “new low” in Hollywood’s treatment of the star. Others have been kinder, with Mark Kermode writing in The Observer that it is a “gothic melodrama [and] fever dream. On review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, Blond currently sits at a delicious 52% “fresh” – so close to “rotten” you can practically smell it about to turn. “I think it’s a remarkable movie,” says Nicholson. “But he’s been worshiped and bullied before, and I get both sides. I imagine it’s just going to get more as time goes on.
Whether Blond is a biopic of Marilyn Monroe who was doused in gasoline and set on fire, Nicholson plays the match that ignites him. In just 15 minutes of screening as Gladys, Marilyn’s mother, Nicholson suffers a nervous breakdown, speeds through the streets of Hollywood as he bursts into flames and tries to drown his daughter in the bath. “I feel like I have to prep some people in my family,” she said with a grimace. “Or, dare I say, discourage them from watching it. I often get thrown into darker dramas, so when they come across my work now, they’re like – she lets out a weary sigh – “’Here we go again!’ This time, I’m just going to say, ‘Look, you don’t have to watch it.'”
There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between some of the reactions to the film and the spirit in which it was made – Dominik and De Armas, for example, condemned the adults-only NC-17 certificate it received in the States -United. . It means Blond joins a troubled bloodline that includes Showgirls, Emmanuelle 2 and, uh, Flesh Gordon meets the cosmic cheerleaders. I admit I found Blond much less objectionable than I expected. “I, too, thought it would be more explicit,” Nicholson says. “I feel like I’m seeing a lot more sexually explicit or violent films on a regular basis aimed at seven/eight/nine year olds, which is terrible. So much of what we’re seeing [in Blonde] is artistic and beautiful, but I wonder if it’s because the sex and violence here elicits feelings in us that aren’t normally what happens when we watch a simpler, R-rated movie. I don’t know if it makes people uncomfortable.
One of his big hopes for the film is that he can introduce her to people. “Which might make them want to dig a little deeper into the work I’ve done, or maybe it will remind me of someone,” she says. “I expect a lot of directors I admire to be curious about this.” But she’s also pragmatic about potential outcomes – Nicholson’s career has never been linear, always zigzag. Even the Emmys didn’t look like a big change. “He’s the rare actor who gets the role that changes everything,” she says. “We think that all the time. It is perception. But it’s still hard work. Like, ‘Oh my god, am I still not getting this offer?’
There were more than a couple of false starts. In 2000, she was a few years out of drama school when she was cast by Steven Spielberg to direct a supernatural drama series he was producing titled Others — Nicholson had worked with Spielberg’s wife, Kate Capshaw, on a romantic comedy called The love letter one year before. Others was scary and ambitious (and all on YouTube, if you care to watch) but was canceled after 12 episodes. She had a brief run on Ally McBeal soon after starred in a few other short-lived TV shows and had supporting roles in films such as Kinsey, Black Mass and Me Tonya. Watching her steal scenes is almost like being invited to a secret club. Call it The Cult of Julianne Nicholson.
Whenever she gets a rare showcase, like the 2017 indie punch-to-the-gut who are we now – in which she plays a destructive and desperate mother fighting for custody of her young son – critics howl about the “wonderful and unsung Julianne Nicholson”, or that she would win an Oscar “if there is a justice in this sick and sad world”. Has she ever noticed the words that tend to pop up around her? “Like underrated?” she laughs. “It’s honestly the story of the last 10 years or so. I feel like my name is not mentioned without “underrated” before. And it’s good ! But it’s a strange feeling.
She remembers how surreal it was to win the Emmy and go to the awards for Easttown Pond, HBO’s murder mystery starring Kate Winslet. People approached him to tell him how much they liked his work. “When I’m not on set, I don’t go out much,” she says. “I’m not very ambitious, so sometimes I feel like I’m acting in a vacuum. As if I was doing the work and then coming back to my life. So it’s really moving to then meet people in the business and hear them say nice things, or receive a lot of kindness from them.
Which is a roundabout way of saying she wishes she were less surprised that people noticed her. What might help is to get bigger pieces. “It sounds funny,” she admits, “but I would like my characters to be more central to the story in the future. I love being part of sets, but now I’m at a stage where I’d like to get more involved. When she’s working on something, she finds that she learns more and more about her characters as she plays them. “But when you only have four scenes out of five, it means the character closes [early]. I want to go further.
It’s Nicholson’s dream. Plus, she adds, more trauma in the child. If anything other than Nicholson links Blond, Monos, Easttown Mare and its 2020 HBO limited series the stranger, it is violence inflicted on or by children. Not the prettiest of coincidences. She remembers something she said to her agent earlier this year – halfway between a joke and an order.
“If you send me another dead child, I swear I’m leaving.”
‘Blonde’ is streaming on Netflix now