Julianne Nicholson is no stranger to the strong female character in a script. Best known for her role as Detective Megan Wheeler on Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,“ Nicholson has now taken on Sheriff Helen Torrance in USA’s new crime drama “Eyewitness.” Nicholson seems to be naturally drawn to this type of character, and she delivers them effortlessly. She has also taken to producing to help bring more strong female leads to film and television.
We had the chance to speak with Julianne Nicholson about “Eyewitness,” roughing it in the jungles of South America, and playing strong women.
How did you get involved with acting?
At the time, I was living in New York and acting was something I had always wanted to do, even as a child. But it wasn’t until I was 24 that I started taking acting classes. I was attending Hunter College and working in restaurants, like many other hopeful actors living in the city. At the time, in the ’90s, independent movies were still independent, so you could get small parts in small movies to build a resume. Then it grew to guest spots on television shows and just kept going.
Do you remember what it was that gave you the acting bug?
We moved around a lot when I was a kid and at one of the schools I had gone to — I think third or fourth grade — had an incredible little theater program. They were working with children ages five to nine, and they would hold a winter and spring performance and I caught the bug. However, I only ever did it then, and then again when I was 24. So there was quite a gap.
Acting isn’t an easy path, where you always supported in choosing it?
Yes, but I think my parents would have supported me in anything. They were always like, “Ok! Sure, go for it!” Even though they weren’t sure how I was going to do it, but they were always encouraging of me. I’m very lucky.
Most of the characters you play are strong and tough women, do you consciously seek those parts out?
You know, I must! I don’t think I actively seek out, but they are the ones I respond to.
Is it hard finding those types of parts?
I wouldn’t say there are a lot of those types of characters but there are more and more. I think that changes too, as you get older. Maybe they give women brains as they age and in your twenties you’re just supposed to look pretty. I see the parts out there, though, and they’re the ones that ignite something in me.
You star in the new USA crime drama “Eyewitness,” as Sheriff Helen Torrance. How’s the show going?
I think it’s going really well, we’ve had a few episodes air. I have to say, it was the most satisfying work experience. The whole crew was so supportive. I’ve done a lot of supporting parts, but this was my first leading role, so I had to step up really set the tone. Everyone came with their A game and really made it great.
Can you tell us a little about your character?
I play Helen Torrance, who is a sheriff in small town in upstate New York. Her background comes from being a detective in a large city, and something traumatic happened to her there. So her going to the small town was a way for her to escape. She starts to realize she misses the excitement of the bigger city, though. It was also a good escape for her from what makes her unhappy.
It really is a different type of crime drama.
I love it and I hope people are on board too. It catches you with the crime elements and you get to know these people, dig into the relationships. That, to me, was the exciting thing about it. It was sort of a character study trapped inside a noir thriller. So, there’s a lot going on. I love Helen’s character and I love these two boys. They have this love story we haven’t really seen on television before. They don’t shy away from it and what’s going on. They aren’t just gay characters, it’s a natural part of the story line. Hopefully it will show that you can have a serious story line between two gay characters.
You just got back from filming in the jungle, that must have been quite an adventure.
That was crazy! We were in Columbia, three weeks in the mountains there and then three weeks in the jungle. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. They had made a camp for us, the production. But, it was living in tents, no phones or internet. It was an incredible experience. You had to get there by donkey and raft. So, it was really intense. I think it changed me on a molecular level. I dreamed about the jungle for week after getting home, but it was incredible. It was very physically and emotionally demanding. I was only able to call my family by satellite phone every couple days. It would be a rushed 10 minutes — it was hard but in the best kind of way. It’s a South American production but it will have a North American release too. I think it’s really special. I’ve never seen anything like it, and certainly never experienced anything like it. I really excited about it!
If you hadn’t started acting, what do you think you would be doing?
I’ve actually thought about this; I think I would be teaching. Being with young people. I was a camp counselor every summer growing up, and I love to volunteer in my children’s classrooms. I love it. It’s hard work, but I see how you can impact just one person in a role like that. It’s hugely important.
Any other projects in the works?
I have a film coming up in January that I am also producing about a woman who just got out of prison and is trying to figure out how to connect with her young son. I’m excited about this film, too.
It’s fantastic that you are creating these films with strong lead female characters.
It feels really great. The more I do it, the more I want to do it, I’m trying my hand at producing this time — having more of a say in content and having more freedom to make these kinds of films.
Catch Julianne Nicholson in “Eyewitness” Sunday’s 11/10ct on USA.