After years of playing formidable women such as Carmela Soprano (“The Sopranos”), Jackie Peyton (“Nurse Jackie”), Celeste Cunningham (“30 Rock”) and the real-life Leslie Abramson (“Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders”), Edie Falco is adding another to the list: Abigail Thomas aka the titular “Tommy” in CBS’s new cop drama.
Falco’s Tommy is a former high-ranking NYPD officer who moves across the country to take the job as police chief in Los Angeles. In doing so, she not only becomes the first woman to hold that role in the city, but also the first gay woman to do so.
“She doesn’t get flustered by people’s reactions to her in this job,” Falco tells Variety. “I think she knows there’s going to be pushback: Men have had a certain way of running things for a long time, and this woman from another city comes in and she’s going to take over, so I’m sure people are going to feel that. But it feels to me she very clearly sees it as their problem. Without being a s—head about it, she’s like, ‘You’ll get over it. You will or you’ll leave.'”
Falco says she isn’t drawing on anyone in particular as inspiration for the role — although she see unintentional parallels between Tommy and a female cop she was friends with in New York about two decades ago. “There was an air of badass-ness around her. I put that on her just because she had an air of confidence about her. You sort of knew you were never going to pull one over on Michelle,” she says of her friend.
The character of Tommy comes from a cop family, and that element prepares her for the job, as well as the scrutiny. The fact that the job is “in her DNA” gives her a great strength, Falco believes, but it also has taught her the realities of the responsibilities that come with slipping into the uniform and donning the badge.
“She’s lived the life of a daughter of a cop — she’s had the experience every family member of a cop dreads — and even with that she decides to pursue it. So she knows what she’s in for, and I think wherever she goes in her life, she can take that with her,” she explains.
But just because Tommy saw her father achieve great success in police work does not mean she had an exact roadmap for how to rise in the ranks as well. Being a woman, she experienced more harassment than her father did on the job — including sexual, to the point of an attempted assault.
Still, Falco notes Tommy isn’t a victim. “I think the things that went on in her past are minor compared to some things that other people went through — and I think she recognizes that. As a cop I’m sure she’s seen all kinds of horrible things,” she says.
When Tommy speaks about this moment in her past, it is very matter-of-fact and unemotional, something that Falco attributes to the fact that, in the story, the event was a part of her past and “she has metabolized a lot of stuff that she’s been through.” But from a production standpoint, she adds that “there’s something to making it seem off the cuff that tends to pull people in more, in a way. I learned very early on, if the character’s crying, the audience won’t. Jodie Foster said this once in an interview 1,000 years ago: It’s almost like you get right to the point where you’re going to cry, but if you actually cry, you lose the audience. It’s some weird thing, but I’ve found it to be true. I think, if you’ve ever heard someone in your real life telling a story about something horrible they’ve been through, very rarely are they going to relive it in front of you. And because they’re saying it so off the cuff, you’re like, ‘Oh holy crap, how could I have not known that they’ve been through this thing?'”
In the present day, Tommy encounters criticisms and concerns about how she can handle the demanding responsibility of her new title, but Falco says it’s not solely about the fact that she’s female.
“Let’s say a male cop from a small town in the Midwest came to take over the chiefship of Los Angeles,” she says. “I don’t know that they would react all that differently to him. Everybody’s got their skeletons — every organization has been running things a certain way, a little wink and nod, the understandings between people, just skirting the edges of what’s allowed and that kind of thing. So anybody new coming in doesn’t know that language and is going to be a threat.”
The biggest challenge the character has to face in the first season, Falco believes, is not adjusting to a new home base or navigating the murky political waters of the LAPD: it is stepping back into her now-adult daughter’s life, as well as learning to be a grandmother. Tommy wasn’t particularly present in her daughter’s life, and the two have been estranged for some time when they reconnect in the series premiere. “Can she actually be a mother, and what does it mean to be a mother? Can we try to move past our past and see what we have now?” are all important questions Tommy, and the show by extension, is asking as the season unfolds.
Meanwhile, the biggest challenge Falco says she is facing this first season is a tie between the wardrobe (“The cop uniform is just horrific. The gun belt is heavy. When she has to do official things she has to wear the cop uniform and it’s fitted and plastic and it’s hot. And then when she’s not in the uniform she’s in a suit but it’s fitted,” she says) and the adjustment of being on a broadcast series with a lot of network notes. (Although Falco’s most recent small screen stint was also a broadcast series — NBC’s “The Menendez Murders” — that project was designed as an eight-episode, close-ended limited series. Falco’s previous ongoing starring roles were on premium cable: “The Sopranos” aired on HBO and “Nurse Jackie” aired on Showtime.)
“There are a lot of voices on high that we have to hear from before we can make big decisions. I’m not used to having so many people in charge,” she admits.
But it is a challenge she welcomes.
“On cable television we were naked and we could curse,” Falco says. But, “as far as I’m concerned, I think we’ve gone too far in that direction now, where we somehow feel we need that to tell a story. At a certain point, cursing and nudity has become just to prove you’re on a cable show. I think the idea of having meaningful storylines without that little bit of a cheap trick is more challenging and more interesting right now.”
“Tommy” premieres Feb. 6 on CBS.