By Lanford Beard
April 23, 2012 at 05:00 AM EDT
Angeline Herron
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Tonight’s episode of Army Wives featured a game-changing revelation about Army Captain Nicole Galassini, played by Emmy-nominated actress Kellie Martin. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, stop now — there will be SPOILERS. Otherwise, click through to learn why Martin was drawn to her character, what she’s up to off screen, and why it was a good thing that she was “crying all day” during her third time playing Patti LuPone’s onscreen daughter.

Though it was hinted at last week, Nicole’s army colleagues found out officially that she is a lesbian and happily partnered with a woman named Charlie (Ryan Michelle Bathe). The significance of playing one of the first gay military characters in primetime is not lost on Martin. “I’m an actor. I kind of go where the wind blows me,” she says, “and I’ve loved so many of the characters I’ve played, but they don’t necessarily have this gravitas of this character.” In fact, that’s exactly what drew her to the role. “Nobody’s ever seen me do a part like this,” she says. “I think it was a bit of a surprise for the viewers.”

But at the same time, “There’s nothing in your face about it. Army Wives is not getting up on a soap box,” she says. “Nicole’s situation is so common, and it’s actually something that people are talking about right now,” since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in December. “I like the way [the show] deals with the storyline. The writers were really willing to make her an important character and explore.”

Tonight’s coming home was momentous for Nicole, whose near-death experience on deployment in Africa has changed her perspective about going public as a lesbian. “Nicole is a soldier,” says Martin. “A soldier is a soldier — that’s how she’s always viewed the world. Buts she also has a partner, and they want to be a family.” Now, “Nicole is willing to… have everybody else see that [she and Charlie are] together. In her mind, [coming out] makes her job more difficult… but she’s gotten to a place where it’s important enough to be with her partner and doesn’t care what others think anymore.” Martin teases that this will play out both personally and professionally as the season goes on.

NEXT: A Life Goes On reunion

Indeed, the rest of season 6 will feature many highs and lows for Nicole and Charlie, says Martin. “I’m not entirely Method,” though she does have some experience to draw on. After losing her sister Heather to lupus and other illnesses, she has served as spokesperson for the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) for more than a decade. Though Martin admits she “can’t imagine what it’s really like to be a soldier,” she draws on what she went through losing her sister and best friend.

And who taught her how to do that? Why her onscreen mom Patti LuPone, of course. “When I worked with Patti on Life Goes On… Patti [was] the best crier I’ve ever met,” she laughs. “When I was a teenager, I was so impressed by that.” She asked LuPone how she did it, and “Patti told me, ‘Honey, I’ve got a suitcase full of sorrow.'” More than two decades since, Martin says, “In my little actor suitcase, I’ve got some sorrow I can call upon. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about my sister. Sometimes I use it, and sometimes I can’t because it’s this bottomless pit…. I have to dial it back.”

That “suitcase” will certainly come in handy in an upcoming episode when LuPone, whom she called her “second mom,” plays Nicole’s mother Lorraine. “We do a couple of emotional scenes together. … We were just crying all day,” she laughs. “It was therapeutic.” The waterworks stem from the fact that Lorraine “doesn’t completely accept that her daughter is gay,” says Martin. “Nicole really has to confront her and say, ‘This is who I am,’ and it doesn’t necessarily sit well.” Martin notes that this choice to cast against type — LuPone is an outspoken advocate for gay rights — made for a “different dynamic that was really fun us to play.”

Martin is slated for two more appearances, including next week, before Army Wives goes on hiatus, and she’ll appear in four more when the show returns. Coming up, Martin will also host AARDA’s “Autoimmune Walk”  on May 19 in Washington, D.C.

Read more:

‘Life Goes On’ reunion on ‘Army Wives’ — EXCLUSIVE

Kim Delaney on her rambling speech last fall: ‘Nothing you can do’ — EXCLUSIVE

‘The Client List’: Lifetime Goes for Sex Appeal

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