PASADENA, Calif. - Julianne Nicholson spent her formative years in a house in the woods with no running water or electricity. She's still a child of nature when it comes to replacing light bulbs or installing batteries in her children's toys.

But Nicholson is adept at two things: she's a dandy waitress and a memorable actress. For a while she couldn't decide which was her calling.

"I was a very good food waiter," she says. "I was not a good cocktail waitress because I like when the people are there they need something from you. The cocktail waitress is encouraged to push drinks and go up to people, and I didn't like that. But I was a very, very good waitress."

She waitressed for 10 years starting when she was a teenager working herself through Hunter College with a French and anthropology major. "I was in denial or something," she laughs.

"And I finally realized if I want to do this (acting) I need to really take a chance. It's scary trying to do something that you have no idea how to start."

She'd moved to New York at 18 with a girlfriend, $800 in her purse and some iffy modeling gigs. She tried an acting class occasionally but didn't get serious until four years later when she stumbled on a class that ignited her passion for performing.

Although the tall, freckled redhead spent two years as the cooler half of the Major Case Squad on "Law & Order: Cri-minal Intent," she figures she's still waiting for that "big break." She's costarred in "Masters of Sex," "August: Osage County" and "Boardwalk Empire," but that big break may have exploded with her latest role in the thriller, "The Red Road," premiering 9 p.m. Thursday on the Sundance Channel.

Nicholson plays the schizophrenic wife of a sheriff who is snarled in solving a crime and a cover-up against the threatening backdrop of racial tensions and old wounds.

"This one I felt like I should do," she says. "It made sense to me. Sometimes you don't know until halfway through the job who really that person is or how to play them. But this I felt - I got nervous, petrified before the audition - but I felt free. There was something about the writing, who Jean Jensen was and me that day that made it feel accessible."

Her upbringing may have been unorthodox, but she thinks it was the perfect way to grow up. "My parents separated ... and she met a man who's been my stepfather for 37 years, a very important person in my life ... And they decided they wanted to live in western Massachusetts, which is a beautiful part of the world. This is in the late '70s, they decided they wanted to try this different way of living.

"We had kerosene lanterns and camp candles and had a pump for water and it was scary at first - I was 7 years old. But actually a beautiful way of life and I'm very grateful for it now," says Nicholson.

"I guess they would be classified as 'hippies' but they were upstanding people with jobs. It was just a lifestyle choice, but they had long hair and wraparound skirts. I think I have a little of both."

At 11 she went to live with her father, a teacher. "Mom did daycare and taught but she's an herbalist and basically we were guinea pigs from when we were little kids ..." she says.

"My mother is the first one to tell you to go to the doctor if you've been bitten by a tick. She actually works with doctors. You have to live the lifestyle, though. I don't use herbs myself very often or even at all regularly, but I had a sickness that I couldn't get rid of for a long time. And I went to a naturopathic physician in Connecticut and changed my diet - no meat, no dairy. It was very hard, but it worked. I feel like you have to believe, you have to be with the right person. I don't make a sweeping claim that it works."

She's been married for 10 years to British actor Jonathan Cake, whom she met on the set of an HBO pilot that failed.

The pair has a son, 6, and a daughter, 4.

While she wishes it were easier to find rewarding roles, she doesn't stress about it. "There's no guarantees, so I'm just trying to be grateful for what I have today and trust that that's not going to go away," she says. "I would love my career to continue to look as it has looked up until now."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

'The Red Road'

Premieres 9 p.m. Thursday on Sundance Channel