NEW YORK - Julianne Nicholson can smile. She has a very nice smile, a spritish smile enhanced by her green eyes and galaxy of freckles. When left on her own, she displays her smile generously.
But she doesn't get to smile much in "The Red Road," a gripping new SundanceTV series premiering Thursday at 9 p.m. EST.
"It was very dark material," she said, smiling at her degree of understatement. It was shot around Atlanta last fall, completely on location with no studio scenes, "the hardest job I've ever done. But hard stuff is good."
In this six-hour drama, Nicholson plays a woman battling schizophrenia and treating it with alcohol. She's the mother of two teenage girls and the wife of a cop in a small, secluded town that bears scant evidence of being only 30 miles from New York City as it rubs elbows with another community that's even more marginalized: a tribe of Native Americans denied recognition by the federal government. Too close for comfort, Walpole, N.J., and the Lenape Tribe share generations of bad blood.
This increasingly volatile situation lands the woman, Jean Jensen, at its tragic center, then casts her law-enforcement husband in an unholy alliance with Phillip Kopus, who's a member of the Lenape Tribe and a dangerous ex-con. (Martin Henderson plays Detective Jensen, Jason Momoa is Kopus. Other stars include Tom Sizemore, Tamara Tunie and Lisa Bonet.)
Over breakfast at a Lower East Side diner last week, Nicholson was describing how she remade herself into her tormented character - but not before she pointed, with amusement, to a tower of enormous coffee filters stacked high on the counter. They resembled paper lampshades or maybe white Easter bonnets, and she couldn't help laughing at the sight.
Then, turning serious, she explained, "I felt I understood Jean. And I read a lot about schizophrenia. I found out it looks different in everyone who has it. There's no a-b-c to its symptoms. So I used my imagination and what I read and tried to put that all together.
""She's also married, trying to raise a family and has a job," Nicholson added. "Sometimes when we see a person ailing in a film, their illness becomes everything. But schizophrenia is just one of many things Jean is dealing with."
Now 42, Nicholson is known from her three seasons as Detective Megan Wheeler on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." She's had roles on "Boardwalk Empire" and "Masters of Sex."
Film credits include "Kinsey," "Flannel Pajamas" and "Shadows & Lies."
She now lives in Los Angeles, but a new movie, "Ten Thousand Saints," has brought her back to New York for a few weeks.
She's here with her 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter as well as her husband, TV and film star Jonathan Cake, who opens soon in the Public Theater production of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra."
Nicholson described her new film as a coming-of-age story set in Greenwich Village in the late 1980s. That was about when the Medford, Mass., native first arrived in Manhattan, "so I have had fun revisiting that time and place."
The past year or two have been busy for Nicholson, she said. Right before that, not so much.
"I had just turned 40, we'd moved out to California from New York, it was pilot season, and although I had four auditions, I got no (screen) tests. And suddenly I felt like, `It's true. You hit 40 and it all dries up.' That's very scary."
But then she got a play. Then "Masters of Sex," the Showtime drama, and "August: Osage County," the recent star-studded film with Meryl Streep in the lead. Nicholson breathed easier.
"It feels like a long time coming," she said. "I'm so happy I'm not working down the street anymore - you know what I mean?"
She meant a certain nearby Second Avenue restaurant, one of many where she was a waitress in between acting jobs.
She recalled a long-ago visit to the unemployment office, where she was recognized by fellow applicants from an appearance in a Stephen King miniseries she had filmed a year ago. By chance, it had aired the night before.
"I was signing autographs on the back of people's resumes," she said.
That was her only time collecting unemployment, and, by now, her days of waiting tables are over. But she does have one tiny remaining goal: "I just got a script: A child has been kidnapped. I thought, `You know what? I'm gonna pass.' I would love to do something lighthearted - soon!"
Nicholson is delighted at the prospect of more "Masters" episodes and possibly a second "Red Road" season.
But mixing things up with a sitcom wouldn't hurt.
"I need to find funny ... relaxed ... light," she proposed. "I'm just putting that out there. Maybe it'll come."