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‘The Sinner’: Carrie Coon on Playing an Outsider — Not a Cult Leader — and How It Helps Her Navigate a Polarized World

Carrie Coon had a baby, thought about leaving Hollywood behind, and came back to save the world — basically.

Carrie Coon, "The Sinner"

Carrie Coon, “The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

As if you need any more evidence that the world is a bit topsy-turvy right now, know this: Carrie Coon wasn’t the first choice to lead “The Sinner” Season 2.

“As always happens in Hollywood, that actress said no, and a week later they came to me,” Coon told IndieWire.

That’s reason No. 1 Coon gave for almost not coming back to television in 2018, and from any TV fan’s point of view, it’s more frustrating than the second. Given that Coon is an Emmy- and Tony-nominated actress with impressive credits from some of modern television’s most acclaimed creators, she’s due her pick of parts… but that’s also why she’ll get more opportunities, and between her title role in the 2017 play “Mary Jane” and her new gig on “The Sinner,” it’s not like she’s been hurting for work.

In fact, when the call came to portray “The Sinner’s” Vera Walker, the leader of a mysterious commune, Coon wasn’t even looking for a job — hence, reason No. 2.

“As you can imagine, I had decided that I would take some time off because I’d had a baby,” Coon said of her first-born son, Haskell, who she had with her husband, Tony winner, and “Sinner” co-star, Tracy Letts. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll take six months off and I won’t do anything’ — and then Tracy got the call.”

Letts was approached to play Jack, an old friend of Bill Pullman’s detective character, Harry Ambrose. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had previously worked with “Sinner” director Antonio Campos on the 2016 feature “Christine” and took the new role in part because he was going to be in New York anyway, mounting the Broadway production of his latest play, “Mary Page Marlowe.”

“So I thought, ‘I’ll come to New York for the summer and I’ll hang out with our baby and our friends,'” Coon said. “And [then] they said, ‘By the way, we’re very excited: There’s this actress, we put an offer out to her, we hope she says yes, and she’s going to be great.'”

Needless to say, Coon hadn’t heard anything because she wasn’t that actress.

THE SINNER -- "Part III" Episode 203 -- Pictured: (l-r) Elisha Henig as Julian Walker, Carrie Coon as Vera Walker -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

Elisha Henig and Carrie Coon in “The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

“They probably hate me telling that story,” she said. “I’m supposed to be like, ‘Well, I was their No. 1 choice,’ but you’re never their No. 1 choice. […] Tracy and I always joke that if they’re calling us, they must be down to five or six [on the wish list]. But really, somebody had somebody in mind and that didn’t work out, and some other people had me in mind, and it did.”

Even worse than almost missing out on Coon in “The Sinner” would’ve been no Coon at all — which, for a fleeting moment, was possible.

“There’s a world I could’ve envisioned where I just kind of never came back; it was very lovely to be home for eight weeks with my husband and my baby, you know, baking bread in my kitchen,” Coon said. “That was very appealing to me, and my baby is a really interesting little person, and I want to spend all the time I can with him.”

Yet the timing of the “Sinner” offer was impeccable: Coon should be playing Vera Walker, and not just because she has the tenacity and vulnerability to be both imposing and empathetic. Coon has done the work to understand Vera’s position.

“It’s not a show about an evil cult,” Coon said. “It’s a show about a community of people who are trying to find a better way and are misunderstood.”

Vera is an outsider, and whether she chose to be one because she prefers to keep her distance from the modern world or she was forced to the fringe by its discriminating denizens, well, Coon gets it.

“I think that distrust is a really important piece of the puzzle,” Coon said of her character. “Because, of course, there are people who distrust the government for specious reasons — for reasons that are not entirely accurate, [like] when there’s misinformation; [there are] people who don’t understand that the government is also responsible for your roads and your bridges and your post office and your schools. There are a lot of things we rely on [government to provide], so government is not a terrible thing. And yet there are a lot of people who are actually oppressed by certain aspects of our government — by operations that run our democracy — and that’s real. That’s a real thing. Any outsider can tell you the system operates for the privileged and not necessarily for [them].”

THE SINNER -- "Part IV" Episode 204 -- Pictured: (l-r) Bill Pullman as Detective Lt. Harry Ambrose, Carrie Coon as Vera Walker -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

Bill Pullman and Carrie Coon in “The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

Coon is an outspoken advocate for truth and accountability. Just look to her Twitter feed for news stories supporting minority voices, covering issues from gerrymandering to kleptocracies. So for her to play Vera, a character who might very well look at some of those stories and label the sites publishing them as “fake news,” informs both the character and actor playing her.

Herein lies the answer to why Coon did come back to work. It wasn’t for the money or the fame or the consistency. She imagined what’s waiting beyond the walls of her happy home.

“There’s also a world where when I get to pursue my life as an artist, [and] it makes me a better parent,” Coon said. “I’m a fully functioning human being, and when I get to go and investigate the world in this way and investigate myself, it ultimately makes me better equipped to help him navigate the very uncertain time we’re living in.”

Through Vera, Coon can better understand the human condition — and, to borrow the turn of phrase she used for her character’s mission, to be more “fully integrated” herself. That’s a big win for the Coon/Letts clan, but it’s also a pretty big win for the real world. Now is when people need compassion more than ever.

“The Sinner” airs new episodes Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on USA Network.

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