When Jessica Biel first read the novel on which the USA series “The Sinner” based, all of her theories about the protagonist were wrong, and that’s precisely why she had to play her. At an Emmys FYC event earlier this year, the actress discussed what first drew her to producing the series and starring as the murderous mom Cora Tannetti, who has no apparent motive for stabbing a stranger to death at the beach one day.
“It really was this amazingly complicated complex unreliable narrator, this woman where every step of the way I didn’t know if she was telling me the truth, if she was lying to me,” Biel said. “What was going on with this person? Her psychology was so fascinating.
“Every twist and turn is so unexpected. I feel like I’m a bit of a savvy reader, and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I know where this going. It’s probably going to land over here.’ And every time I was wrong, and that’s what was fascinating. How is this getting me? It’s getting me at every turn. And this woman is just completely blowing my mind. I love her, I hate her, I understand her, I’m afraid of her… Reading this book, I just kept saying… ‘I have to do this. I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can, but I have to do this.’”
As the series delves into her psyche through the tenacious investigation by Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), Cora herself is often just as confused as the viewers, if not more so. As old and twisted memories try to resurface, Cora is left trying to differentiate what’s real, what’s false, and what her mind has manufactured.
“We did do a lot of that fugue-y, dreamlike, surreal, in-and-out performance,” said Biel. “It’s terrifying to take on something like this. I was absolutely petrified every day because you’re trying to walk a fine line of, can an audience like this person and follow this person with all of these strange and unusual behaviors and all the strange action that she’s doing? And she’s not being helpful? What is she doing, you know? That was hard and it was scary, for sure. But I think all of us actors like to be tortured. I just enjoy that. I enjoy some emotional torture.”
Preparation That Worked Like a Dream
Biel took a few different approaches to try to unlock how to play the complexities of Cora Tannetti, including tapping into her own subconscious through dreams.
“I did a lot of unusual preparation, sort of this dream work kind of stuff that [showrunner Derek Simonds] actually is a teacher of,” she said. “It was scary. It was a lot of subconscious [work] where you ask yourself these questions and then see what happens in your dreams. Then basically with one particular dream we would dissect it. And it was helping me to find where my life sort of combined with her life and where we paralleled, and where I find the compassion and the understanding for what she’s doing and what she’s going through. So it was very kind of unusual and surreal-ish, which was perfect for this role for me.”
Peter Kramer/USA Network
On top of that, Biel looked into PTSD to understand how and why Cora might have these difficulties understanding her own motivations.
“[I did] a lot of PTSD sort of research, patient research and talking to different psychologists and what patients have gone through and the actual fact that this can happen because I didn’t believe it at first,” she said. “I thought, ‘Can you really just forget? Like you really just go and there’s a black hole? That’s actually possible?’ And it is, it really is. And I didn’t know that, so getting into the actual medical technical things that happen to people who are recovering from traumatic experiences. That was important to me too.”
Let’s Get Physical
During one scene in which the detective is questioning Cora, he plays the particular song that had triggered her violent actions in the first place. When she attacks him in the same fashion, two of the prison’s guards have to forcibly pull her off of him. At first Biel’s co-star wasn’t sure how they’d accomplish this scene to make it seem reasonable that she could overpower him, but he didn’t need to worry.
“We would talk to Derek about it, and I said, ‘You know, she kind of attacks me. And I don’t know if she can really whomp me down on the floor like that,’” said Pullman. “It turns out that she could. And these two guards grab her, and then she did this whole curl and kick, and I was on the ground.”
It turns out that Biel has always been coordinated and athletic, which Pullman was quick to call attention to when it came to a specific soccer move in which she’d execute a standing somersault that would end with her throwing the ball back in from the sidelines.
“You would flip your whole body and project the ball halfway down the field,” Pullman said.
“When I was in high school playing club soccer at VUSC, here, in LA, I would do the flip-throw on the sidelines into the game,” Biel confirmed. “It’s an old gymnastics thing. I was a gymnast for a long time, so it’s old body memory. You just do it with a ball. It’s not that hard I don’t think. I can still do it.”
Peter Kramer/USA Network
Perhaps because of this physical prowess, the struggle in the interrogation room isn’t what took the greatest toll on the actress. Instead, she pointed to the loss of fluids.
“I was just was tired and I think adrenally exhausted,” she said. “I mean, the amount of snot that came out of my body, I still don’t think I’ve recovered from the dehydration of the snot dripping constantly… the tear-snot situation. I think everyone got splattered by snot. The poor camera guys. It was ridiculous.”
Having shot the series in the same order as the episodes the viewers watched meant that Biel’s physical and emotional state improved as her character uncovered each new revelation.
“My face was always scrunched up. I was like, ‘I don’t know anything. I don’t get it,’” she said. “We did that for so long that when we were able to connect in a new way and I was able to trust his character and go along and really try hard to find the answers together, oh my god, it was the best. It was so nice. It felt so good not have to be in that state anymore. I finally didn’t have to be confused anymore.”