It’s of course essential that the actor-auteur relationship has some bedrock of trust, and the last descriptor one could apply to Julianne Nicholson is “amateur.” Still, carrying the first feature by a playwright (brilliant or otherwise) is no small task, making so much more admirable her turn in Annie Baker’s Janet Planet––perhaps the most sui generis American film to get any sizable release in 2024.

As the film arrives in theaters, I had the fortune to speak with Nicholson via Zoom, our interview highlighting the inextricable bond between her acting process and Baker’s formalist framework. There’s also oversharing about the conditions under which I’ve now seen Janet Planet twice, a facet that, given the writer-director’s own approach to exhibition, is (nevertheless, perhaps) germane.

Julianne Nicholson: Where are you?

The Film Stage: I’m in New York.

Okay. I hear it is hot there.

Terribly, unbearably so.

My husband’s there right now and I just got a text from him saying it was the hottest hour of his life.

It’s terrible. I hate it. As it so happens, I’ve seen Janet Planet twice now. The first time was at NYFF when I could dress properly––jacket, pants––and the second time, in June, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt, which never feels right in a theater. It’s so slovenly.

I understand. I respect that. But I feel like––especially with a film like Janet Planet, where you’re immersed in summer––maybe it works. Maybe it’s an immersive experience for you.

Yes, absolutely. The end scenes have me pining for fall.

Exactly. You want to get the sweaters out again.

The first time I saw it I also mistimed drinking a Celsius, and so for the entire second half I had to urinate as much as I’ve ever had to go in my life.

Oh, no.

It didn’t completely derail my enjoyment but… I think Annie Baker would appreciate this, given her work’s consistent focus on the body and pain.


The second viewing was in one of those weird rooms where the screen is, like, five feet from the first row. I figured that was a unique opportunity to see it very up-close, but it also got me to more fully appreciate the way you use your face as an actor. I recently had to act in something and I kind of freaked out when the camera turned to me, because I realized I have no idea how to use my face––in cinema or in life. I wonder if you have a particular methodology for non-verbal performance, and how Baker’s script helped work with that.

I don’t think about using my face. I think that, with a camera, if you are actually listening to the person you’re in a scene with––whether they’re speaking or you’re actually paying attention to them––if you’re having actual thoughts of whatever’s going on in the scene or whatever you think your character’s maybe thinking about in the moment, then the camera picks it up. That’s my understanding and that’s been my experience of it. In fact, I feel like if I start acting like something it’s… that’s picked up, too, and it makes me want to peel my skin off.

Can you point to times when you’ve overplayed something?

Oh, my gosh. Yeah. Of course. I have that; I still have that. One thing that jumps to mind is, very early on in my career, I did an episode of Dellaventura, which was Danny Aiello’s New York cop show. And I think we have a tendency––I’ll speak for myself––I have a tendency, especially then, where if nothing’s happening internally, then that’s where you start acting like what you think is supposed to be happening. It was one of my very first jobs and it was the very first thing that I told people about. I was still waitressing, by the way; I wasn’t a full-time actress, so it was a big deal when you got jobs. And that was one of the fun things about being in New York: you would get an episode of Law & Order or Dellaventura. There weren’t a ton of those going on in the ‘90s, so I told people about it and I watched it, and I was just horrified because I just felt like I was mugging the whole entire time.

Then there was a scene where it’s written I was supposed to cry and I just could not bring up anything. I was so nervous; I was so in my head judging myself. And I remember sweet Danny Aiello would sort of come look at me after and be like, “Did you cry? Any tears?” So that’s one example that jumps up. But I feel like the practice is trying not to have any expectations of how you’re supposed to feel because, as people, there’s no expected way anyone reacts to anything. You know what I mean? We’re surprised all the time by how people respond to things or how we do, and that’s what’s interesting to me. But it’s literally a lifelong practice: to not have expectations, and so long as you’ve done the work and paid attention to who the character is and where they are in that moment, it’s just listening and trying to be present.

When I saw Janet Planet, without reading an inch of the script, I said we need more 110-minute movies that seem to have come from a 67-page screenplay.

Do you know how many pages it was?

You’ve said it was about 70.


I really didn’t expect to nail it.

Wow. Well done. [Laughs]

And the script had a lot of non-verbal sections. As an actor, reading it, what does that spark? Is it excitement to play around, or a feeling of “I have unique preparation ahead of me”?

I felt excited by it. Especially because I trust Annie so implicitly. I’ve seen many of her plays and I know that she has an understanding of what to do with silence, with the moments in-between. I think it’s fun because you can’t prepare––so for me that’s exciting, in terms of moment-to-moment. You can’t prepare the scene if it’s just being and experience or you’re finding something on the day, like what the character is doing. It’s a little… unnerving, because I’m also aware of not wanting to bore people. [Laughs] You have to trust the editor, then, that they’re going to know what to use. And I knew we had someone [Lucian Johnston] great on this.

Even though the script was 70 pages, there was some first cut of the film that ran about two-and-a-half hours.

I think that’s what Annie said. There was definitely an original cut that was quite a bit longer.

Did you see it?

No. No, I didn’t.

The movie feels very finely crafted, which of course doesn’t happen overnight, so hearing there was potentially that much more footage surprised me. Do you remember what didn’t make it in?

I guess it was more of those scenes that were not on the page. The cut that was that long, it was never an official cut. I think it was an assembly of Annie’s. It started out as that, which I think is pretty typical––not an uncommon thing for a director to splash everything out there and then sort of get in there and fine-tune it. No, I think it was more… I had a bit more with Wayne, I think, in the beginning. More dinners. Maybe a little more chat. Nothing jumps out at me. I think we just filmed a lot of life for these people around the house; I think that was the most of what was removed.

Of which there’s plenty in the final cut.

Yes. There’s nothing in there where I wish, “Oh, that could’ve added another color.” I don’t feel like that when I watch it. Also, yeah: I think it’s a good length. I feel like there’s so many films that are now over two hours, two-and-a-half hours, three hours, and I’m just like “oy vey.”

I understand.

I bet!

If my bladder was in agony for a movie that’s closer to three hours than two…

Forget it! That last hour’s lost, one way or another. [Laughs]

I’m a huge fan of Annie Baker’s, but I don’t know much about her life––it’s just the work––and watching Janet Planet, I had some sense of “this seems to be plucked from some kind of personal experience.” Then I look into her biography and, lo and behold, she did grow up in that area around that time. And in an LA Times piece it was said there isn’t as much connection as you’d assume; she insists your character is nothing like her own mother.


Much more of a construction. But I wonder if, in talking to and working with her, you suspected there were things strung throughout the characterization and screenplay that she didn’t totally let on.

I think, first of all, you don’t know much about her by design. [Laughs] I think she feels like her work is the thing. She’s spoken about her life a bit more around this because it’s where she grew up and she was the same age, a similar age, in 1991 as Lacy is in our story. I think what she has said––and what I took from her to be true––is that the world is personal to her. Like: western Massachusetts, Amherst. And for me, too. So it was more about creating a world that was very familiar and recognizable and personal. But I feel like the people––the characters in it––are more amalgamations of people that we might have known, people that were in our worlds through our parents, through our moms. But she never gave me any impression that, actually, Janet was more like her mom than she let on.

Maybe it’s my own lack of creativity, but whenever there’s correlation between a person’s origin and a work’s milieu I think there has to be something.

But actually there’s so much in the world. I don’t think she was anything like Lacy and I don’t think Janet was anything like her mom. But we had a year to talk about where we grew up and who these people were and what would be in their house. For instance: she brought blankets from her mom’s house. Lacy wears a t-shirt that was hers when she was growing up. There’s a body cream that I used to get every year in my stocking that’s on a bureau. There’s crystals. There’s dolls. There’s so much personal stuff that’s in there, but I don’t think it’s necessarily in the characters in terms of people in our families. Also, I always fantasized that she had the little figurines, and I think that might have been from her life. But I don’t think she ever played piano. I think she had friends. So much of it is deeply personal, but it’s not specific to the characters in the film.

In doing cursory research I discovered you have two kids. I was also sort of stopped dead to learn one has the incredible name “Ignatius Cake.”

[Laughs] I know. We call him Iggy, but yeah, I know––it’s a big name.

Very powerful.

I know. It’s a lot.

It sounds like someone who’s bound to be notable.

I know. Well, we feel like he could either go Ignatius Cake, which is––I don’t know––lawyer, academia. Or he’s Iggy Cake––the rockstar, artist. He could go either way.

Pretty good choices in each case.

Yeah, I know.

And you’ve been acting well before you had children. Of course an actor will say they’ve accrued a lifetime’s experience that will show in their work, and this is such a good movie about a parent-child relationship in its many gradations. So does the experience of being a parent make playing a parent easier, or do you have––which I would totally respect––the unromantic view that acting is acting?

I think being a parent makes playing a parent… better. For lack of a better word. Of course you can use your imagination and you can create that and it can all be wonderful, but for me… having the experience of being a parent is hugely helpful to playing a parent. Even though I don’t feel like I’ve played my relationship with my kids in any role, but I feel like––for me––what I know parenting to be in my body, that’s helpful.

The roster of actors is quite impressive for what I assume was a modestly scaled production. I’m such an Elias Koteas fan…

Me too.

…and I hadn’t seen him in so long. The way artists have a “late style,” I’ve said this film is like “late Koteas.”

Yeah, yeah! [Laughs] I love him, too.

Will Patton.

Will is incredible, also. Annie is so… revered, and she and Will had worked together before onstage. Annie is also so particular and also stands by her guns. Is that an expression? Am I making that up?

Sticks to her guns.

Sticks to her guns! Thank you. And she did deep, deep dives on each one of us, I know, and wanted to meet us. It’s not, like, a whim; it’s a very thoughtful, ongoing process while she discovers, figures out who she wants to cast. We all––from her and from the 70-page script––thought and hoped it would be something special. That doesn’t mean tons of people aren’t going to see it, but that the work that we made would be something special.

It’s exactly the kind of movie where people who want to see it will see it.

Yeah. Agreed. Yes.

Did she discuss anything especially attractive on your CV––something that sparked the casting?

She didn’t with me, but I read somewhere that she watched this movie, Monos, that I did in Colombia. That’s the only one that I’ve heard her mention. But we also met when Circle Mirror Transformation was at Playwrights Horizons; I was doing a play there called This by Melissa James Gibson. That’s where we met and had been introduced to each other, briefly and in-person, and also to each other’s work.

There seems a very strong connection between you two. I don’t know if it’s hoped or expected there will be more collaborations, or how much she wants to make a film career or stick with theater.

I expect she’ll do both now. I expect and hope that she’ll do both. I’ve read about her that she’ll be making theater for the rest of her life, and I just know that she’s writing or has written or is in the process of writing another film script, so I imagine… how cool to be able to do both, right? That would be my hope: she gets to work in both mediums forever. I think she’s such a special talent.

Janet Planet is now playing in limited release.

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