TORONTO, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- Actress Julianne Nicholson says an excellent script is usually what entices her to sign up for a film, television or stage project.
"I mostly follow the writing and it is often a gut response when I read something," the 44-year-old Massachusetts native told United Press International in a phone interview this week.
"It's not a matter of: 'Is she a good person? Would I like her?' But more if I like that character and if she's been fleshed out. I have a manager whom I've worked with for many, many years, whom I trust. Pretty much 100 percent of the time, we respond to the material or not. So, it's great to have that sounding board and shared taste and wanting to do good work and work that we're proud of and work that we feel happy to be putting into the universe."
Best known for her work on the TV shows The Red Road, Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire, Nicholson is currently earning rave reviews for her performance in the big-screen drama Black Mass, which is already generating Oscar buzz after a triumphant screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Helmed by Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, the movie focuses on Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger's evolution in the 1970s and '80s from capricious, cold-blooded criminal to kingpin, thanks to his collaboration with the FBI, particularly Agent John Connolly. While the government has always claimed Bulger worked for years as its criminal informant, Bulger maintains to this day he was promised immunity by corrupt local, state and federal authorities whom he says he paid well to ignore his crimes.
In the cinematic crime-drama, Johnny Depp's Bulger is seen agreeing to a partnership with Connolly by which Bulger will be left alone to conduct his business, as long as he doesn't kill anyone and continuously provides information useful in bringing down the Italian mob. Joel Edgerton plays Connolly and Nicholson portrays Marianne, Connolly's wife and the witness to how the lawman's ambition leads him down a rabbit hole of double-dealing until he is eventually arrested, along with Bulger's minions as Bulger takes off for more than a decade. Caught in 2011 and tried two years later, Bulger is currently in prison serving two life sentences while his lawyers work on his appeal. He is 86.
"This story, this script, knowing who was attached – both Scott Cooper to direct and Johnny in the title role and Joel to play John Connolly -- it seemed like a good jumping-off place for a great movie," noted Nicholson.
Also appealing to the actress about Black Mass was the chance to play one of the film's few female characters, its moral compass and the only woman who can hold her own with the dangerous men around her.
"I want to portray women with voices and strong senses of themselves and who can determine their own destiny and, so, it was very exciting to me to [not just] be one of only a few females in the movie, but one who has her own voice and strength and power," she explained, mentioning it was fascinating to play a character whose circumstances change drastically as her increasingly distant husband spends more time entertaining criminals than locking them up.
"It's exciting to get to play an arc, to sort of revisit the same person over the course of time. Marianne and John start off very much in love and optimistic and fighting the good fight and she watches her husband change and ultimately leave her within the marriage before she says, 'Enough is enough.'"
One of the most memorable, albeit heart-stopping, moments of the film is a confrontation between dinner guest Bulger and Marianne, who has hidden out in her bedroom, having told her husband she doesn't want to break bread with Bulger and his associates. The vicious Bulger storms upstairs, tells Marianne he doesn't believe her excuse that she is sick, then threatens her.
"It was electrifying to film," Nicholson recalled. "I have been a fan of Johnny's since 21 Jump Street, so to get the opportunity to work with him in a role like this where he so completely disappeared within that character, it was brilliant to do that scene with him and it was thrilling and terrifying and wonderful and alive."
The real-life, married mother-of-two said it was easy for her to understand how frightened and hurt Marianne is in that scene since Connolly is just one floor below her, but doesn't run to rescue her from the menacing Bulger.
"That was a huge part of the upset in that scene for me," she revealed. "What's happening is terrifying and awful, but knowing that my husband is downstairs, allowing it to happen pushes it to another place altogether."
The critically acclaimed film also gave Nicholson the opportunity to briefly share a scene with Benedict Cumberbatch, who played her controversial love interest in the movie August: Osage County and who portrays Billy Bulger, a state senator trying to stay out of his brother's criminal activities, in Black Mass.
"They're back! There's another chance for them to be together," she teased when told her reunion with Cumberbatch on screen was a welcome sight.
"It's so nice after you've been doing movies for a while and to see familiar faces and to work with people. I just did a movie with [another Osage County alum] Margo Martindale this summer that she recommended me for. She had the job originally and I think the director was happy with the decision in the end, but I think Margo pretty much made her cast me in the film," she laughed. "And it's so nice when there is already a sense of history there and an ease and familiarity and a real joy in getting to work with people again and again."
For now, Nicholson said she is enjoying moving between television and film, as long as the roles are right.
"The more you can do, the better," she emphasized. "I feel so fortunate that I've been given great opportunities in TV and film, and theater, as well. I feel like each one of those things supports the other and you learn from every medium and every job."