Out actor talks breakout role on hit series

Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” is back for a second season of all the wicked drama it can muster.

The dark comedy starring Edie Falco follows the title character, who juggles prescription-drug abuse and marital infidelity in an effort to keep an even keel in both her demanding job and family life. The premise is made all the more interesting by the almost-equally damaged cast of characters that surrounds her both at work and home, each with his or her own house of cards.

One of Jackie’s confidants is Thor, an openly gay fellow nurse who, despite having lost an eye to diabetes, cannot stop eating doughnuts.

Thor is played by out actor, writer and cabaret entertainer Stephen Wallem, 42, who has had many years of experience on the stage. “Nurse Jackie” is his first foray into television.

And it isn’t just any TV show. Already under intense scrutiny as Falco’s first series after the massive success of “The Sopranos,” the show quickly drew criticism in its first season from some factions of the medical community for Jackie’s less-than-ethical behavior. Gay fans also started to worry when Mohammed “Mo-Mo” De La Cruz, another gay character on the show played by Haaz Sleiman, was written off in the first season.

Wallem talked to PGN about getting his television feet wet on such a high-profile show, as well as the controversy and recognition that comes along with it.

PGN: Given your extensive stage background, was it easy for you to make the jump from theater to television? SW: I’ll have to say it was scary. I don’t know if it was easy or hard. It’s such a completely different animal than doing stage. There’s really no textbook for preparing yourself after doing stage for so long. I would say my first day on the set was probably the scariest day of my professional career because you’re thrown into the fire and no one is really there to tell you what to expect. There’s 100 people moving around and doing 200 different jobs. You have to be there and sort of look like you know what you’re doing because time is ticking. After the first two days I sort of got the swing of it. You sort of have to learn as you go along.

PGN: Are there any similarities between yourself and Thor? SW: Oh yes, more so than not. Thor was not in the pilot. I actually went in to audition for someone else. They liked me so much that they decided they wanted a whole separate role for me. You really can’t ask for more as an actor than to have something tailored to you. It’s a wonderful but very challenging thing to create a role that is so close to yourself. There’s fact that we’re gay, Thor is [also] diabetic and there’s a lot of out humor that is similar. I love that. But I also love the aspect of Thor being a nurse, which is completely the opposite of what I’m used to.

PGN: Are we going to see more of Thor in the stories than we did in the first season? SW: Yeah. I am very grateful that I’m being given a lot more opportunities this year. I think my relationship with Jackie grows. My relationship with Zoey and the core group of nurses grows as well. Plus, I have opportunities to have moments. I have a wonderful scene with Mrs. Akalitus coming up in some episodes. I’m especially proud of the finale of this season. There’s a scene that Edie and I have that is probably the most serious of my professional career.

PGN: Were you worried about Thor’s future on the show when Mo-Mo’s character left the show? SW: I’ve been asked this so many times. Did my involvement in the show have something to do with Mo-Mo’s exit? Etc. I found out very quickly that even if you tell somebody the truth, people are going to come up with their own assumptions. I’ve accepted that. I just remind people that I was already on the show. So I’m not replacing anybody. Mo’s exit had nothing to do with me whatsoever.

PGN: We didn’t think that was the case. We were just wondering if it was a case of the writer thinking the show only needed one gay character in the cast instead of two. SW: No. Even some major sources were coming to the conclusion that somehow the show was trying to whittle down the gay story lines, which is completely not true. In fact, that’s really ridiculous because the creators of the show are gay, the president of Showtime is gay. You couldn’t ask for a more gay-friendly show on television. It had nothing to do with that. The stories evolve the way that they do. There are more than enough gay story lines this season as the viewers will see.

PGN: Do you think the show deserves the criticism is receives from the medial community? SW: There are individuals that criticize the show over that, but what I love is the more nurses that I’ve met and spoken to in person. The majority of the people, especially the majority of nurses, are crazy about the show. The one thing that Edie always says, and I’m sure she’s going to have to defend this through the entire run of the series, is that she’s playing one individual. She’s not representing all nurses. Any time you make a generalization about any group of people, you’re going to run into trouble. So there’s no way that we are saying with this show that all nurses have a problem with drugs. This one individual character does and I know for a fact through other nurses that they know of nurses who are similar to Jackie. Addicts come in all different shapes and forms and have all kinds of jobs out there. All the characters are individuals that just happen to work in the medical field. We don’t represent all of medicine. You could just as easily set this entire cast of character in an office somewhere or an ice-skating rink and we would still have all the same problems.

PGN: Do you still find time to perform cabaret shows? SW: I’m ready to mount another one very soon. I did one right away when I got to New York last year. But it’s been about a year. That’s really where my heart is. That’s where my heart will always be. I’ve been on the stage since I was 7 years old. I’ve been singing and dancing for a very long time. This is the longest I’ve gone without doing something on the stage. I think that will always be a part of who I am. It’s essential that I always find time or a way to nurture that side of myself. The truth is, we only work for 12 weeks out of the year. We do 12 episodes and we shoot two episodes at once. So every two weeks, we’re shooting two episodes. That leaves a lot of time the rest of the year. So I welcome any and all opportunities to do work.

PGN: As a playwright, would you ever want to write for the show or for television? SW: I don’t think so. I like the idea of being compartmentalized with this project as far as my only job being to be an actor. It is tough because I have directed and I am a writer as well. [But] I like the idea of just having to focus on doing my job for this project, otherwise you try to take too much on. I know there are hundreds of examples of actors on TV shows eventually directing an episode. I don’t see that happening with me on this project. I’ll leave that responsibility up to somebody else. It’s a wonderful surprise to get a new script every week and really not know what’s going to happen next or know that I don’t have to work on it, change it or fix it. In this case I just love being an actor.

PGN: Has the show lured more people to your performances or opened any other doors for you? SW: I’ve gotten a lot more exposure this season than I did last season. I certainly hope that will lead to other opportunities I might not have had if I had not been on the show. I’ve certainly am sent out on a lot more auditions than I would have been if I had not been a part of the show. There’s always that fear that people will only see you in one way. I certainly hope that my experience and my abilities can keep people minds open to the idea that I am able to do something more than just be Thor. I think the fact that this exposure happened to be later in life, after I’ve been doing stage work completely anonymously for so long, is going to help with having the confidence to know that I do have the ability and experience to do all sorts of different things.

“Nurse Jackie” can be seen Mondays at 10 p.m. on Showtime. For more information on Stephen Wallem, visit stephenwallem.com.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].