When Maura Tierney was a regular on John Wells’ “E.R.,” she spent 22 episodes a year wrapping her tongue around medical jargon at top speed. As jilted Brahmin wife Helen Solloway on Sarah Treem’s Showtime series “The Affair,” she measures her words as they dig deeply into what happens inside intimate relationships.
Tierney portrays the wife of wayward novelist Noah; according to Tierney, he sees her as “the perfect martyr wife,” she said during our video interview. From the perspective of Alison, Noah’s lover, Helen is “raucously aloof and confident and classist.” (Tierney convincingly acts to the manner born; she grew up in middle-class Boston.)
Season Two brought the perspectives of Helen and her counterpart, Alison’s husband Cole (Joshua Jackson), to the forefront. “In her understanding of herself,” said Tierney, “she’s very not perfect. She has to work super hard to be this kind of Brooklyn mom. She can’t do it. Actually, she falls apart.” One of the funniest episodes shows Helen taking too much marijuana and pills to drive safely; she finally realizes what a mess she has become.
It was more complicated for the writers to slot everyone into the timeline, said Tierney, but it yielded more for the actors to play with. “It’s Sarah’s show,” said Tierney. “Even if other writers write the episode, everything passes through her computer. By and large, she’s the creator of the characters. At the end of Season 1, Sarah said, ‘I think we’re going to open up the show next year.’ ”
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This allowed the creative narrative device to remain interesting and not devolve into a trick, said Tierney: “It opened up the storytelling for them, for Cole and Helen to have more POV. It was more about her character having more responsibility for what went down… Sarah’s goal is she wants to peel away and get into intimacy, communication, truth-telling — and the lack of truth-telling.”
Helen is a sympathetic character because she loves her husband, who left her with three headstrong children to raise. And she didn’t see it coming. “She didn’t fall down,” said Tierney. “People stop noticing things, like how difficult the intrusion of her parents are, how hurtful it was to her husband that she was still taking money from them. You get used to a certain way of doing things. It’s the accruing of small tiny things you let slide, and you led slide, and then there’s a big chasm.”
While Helen tries on several romantic interests over the course of the series, she never stops loving Noah. “He’s a romantic ideal for her, even if she took him for granted,” said Tierney. “He’s very charming and sexy, very much the person she fell in love with.”
Some of the juiciest dramatic scenes involve Helen finally standing up to her bossy mother (the formidable Kathleen Chalfont). “Those were some of my favorites,” said Tierney. “Chalfont is wonderful; she plays the character so well…when Helen says to ‘shut up,’ it was satisfying. Margaret needed to shut up!”
Another favorite episode reunites Helen and Noah during his book tour. “We shot both of those restaurant scenes in one day, back to back,” said Tierney. “Sixteen pages of dialogue is a lot, with back-to-back POVs.”
That episode was shot by Laura Innes, her old “E.R.” cohort who’s now a top TV director. “We’re good friends,” said Tierney, “but she’s very demanding. It’s a little daunting. I always forget: ‘Yay! Laura’s directing!’ But she’s demanding, which is a good thing. You feel like you don’t want to let her down.”
When Tierney landed a Golden Globe nomination, that was shocking enough, she said. But when she won, “I could barely talk. I was really surprised.” She managed to recover. “The Affair” will start production on season 3 in August.
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