In Charge in Isolation
Wearing two hats and a prison jumpsuit, Jessica Biel returns to television in USA's The Sinner.
Jessica Biel’s return to television finds her pulling double-duty.
The star of the Emmy-nominated Seventh Heaven and The Rules of Attraction stars in The Sinner, the USA Network’s latest mystery series. Based on the novel by Petra Hammesfarh and adapted by Derek Simonds, The Sinner features Biel as Cora Tannetti, a woman with a mysterious past who stabs a man to death without any understanding of why she did it. Biel is also one of the show’s executive producers.
The eight-episode series finds detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) helping Cora piece together her memories, only to discover a greater tragedy resides in Cora’s past. Unlike most mystery series, The Sinner immediately lays out who committed the central crime. The real mystery lies within why it happened, and what drove a seemingly normal woman to violently take a life.
Biel found The Sinner to be a good opportunity to spread her wings as a producer and actress, and a great way to play with the episodic crime procedural format.
What drew you to the book and this particular story? What did you find interesting about it?
The book took a bunch of different turns I never saw coming. I think it was very intriguing and unexpected. I was constantly being surprised. And I loved that the main character was an unreliable character who I liked and trusted, and then, didn’t. I just thought it could really be a phenomenal vehicle for a creative performance.
The character you play, Cora, has endured some trauma and memory loss. Did you do any research on trauma victims?
I did. I spoke to a few psychologist friends of mine about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and these moments of trauma people have from regressive memories that they’ve blocked out. It happens, which is kind of insane. In terms of how the human brain will handle these experiences that we go through sometimes in life, I felt like what we were doing was very accurate.
But, with a performance and character like this, I found it was really quite important to find a way to tap into the real emotions that this person could experience and have a spontaneous protocol while doing the scene work; to be able to be raw and accessible, as opposed to plotting out a particular performance.
For me, I think this particular creative experience itself lent itself to being really vulnerable and seeing what happens on the day.
Cora is imprisoned for the majority of the scenes set in the present-day. Was it difficult to play a character who is not allowed to be a part of the action playing out?
I guess sometimes it was a little tiresome to be in these locations where I was isolated, and to be in these scenes set in small rooms. Sometimes, I felt like I was missing out on what was happening with everyone else on the show.
But that isolation helped to create a real understanding of what it’s like to be locked up, of what it’s like to see the same things and same people over and over again, and be in such a small space. The world starts to come in on top of you. That feeling of vertigo is helpful for this kind of a thing.
Cora is much different character than those you’ve played before. Was there any hesitancy on your part to play someone so untrustworthy or unreliable?
Only in that we might lose our audience because Cora is not likeable. [We were] just concerned about finding the balance of feeling like you can relate to her, like you understand and trust her, and are still willing to give it another shot when betrays you. That was the big concern.
Of course, I felt nervous wondering if I was going to be able to pull it off, about what kind of emotional intensity was needed. You can feel like, “Oh, I can totally do this, no problem,” until you get your feet wet and understand the lay of the land a little bit more. But I didn’t have any hesitancy about it. In fact, it was a draw.
What appealed to you about doing an eight-episode series?
You get to explore these characters in way you don’t get to explore in a feature because you don’t have the time. This will be close to seven or eight hours of living with these people and this story by the time the series is completed.
I think it’s satisfying to know you’re going to have an ending to this thing only after eight hours. That’s something I think you can get down with in your life. You can say, “I can commit to eight episodes.” You’ll have a satisfying ending – at least we’re attempting to give you one.
It’s nice middle area to live in because you’re not doing something that you can get tired of. Plus, you have way more than an hour and half or two hours to explore the multi-layered and complicated directions of all these people.
The series isn’t afraid to change its structure from one episode to the next. Was that something everyone had in mind when creating the series?
I don’t think it was necessarily a conscious decision. It was intentional to turn the police procedural on its ear and come up with a structure that’s a little bit fresh. But, I think just the storytelling lent itself to these unorthodox structures in all of the episodes.
I think it just started to go that way, so we got on that train and it worked. It felt good for us and was doable for production. It ended up the way it did by accident.
The series has a very definite resolution. Could you see yourself returning to play Cora? Are there more stories to tell with her?
I’m not sure about that. And I don’t think any of our creative team is a hundred percent sure. We always thought the eight episodes would be it.
If we do have the opportunity to explore more stories, I think that’s going to need a big brainstorm session to really understand what is the best thing for the show – not for me, not for [the creative staff]. What would the audience be interested in seeing if we got another go? I’d be open to playing Cora again, I’d just want to make sure it’d be the right thing for the show.
You’re also an executive producer on the show. What was it like adding this new role for you?
I learned I’m not necessarily the best technical producer. I’m not that great, and I think it’s good know what you’re not great at.
I’m a really good creative producer. I love working with writers. I love development. I love the casting process. I love everything having to do with the scripts and putting together the pieces in a creative way. I’m not so good at keeping the budget on track, or some of the other very important technical things. I have amazing partners very good at those things.
It was a great experience and a lot of hard work, but it was amazing to be a part of the show from the very beginning, and to really have a voice that was part of the team. It was amazing to be able to make suggestions and have my writer come to me and ask my opinion, and to work hand-in-hand with all our directors and series writer-creator Derek Simonds very closely.
That was the greatest part of the whole thing for me.
The Sinner season finale airs on September 20 on the USA Network.