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‘The Sinner’: 7 Things We Learned About Jessica Biel’s Murder Mystery at Tribeca Screening

Variety logo Variety 4/26/2017 Addie Morfoot
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There were plenty of surprises during Tuesday night’s Tribeca festival screening of the new USA Network limited series “The Sinner.”

During a post-screening panel discussion with stars Jessica Biel, Christopher Abbott, Bill Pullman, writer Derek Simonds and exec producer/pilot director Antonio Campos, memories of filming the crime thriller’s pivotal pilot moment differed between Biel and Abbott so dramatically that it was a tad uncomfortable. Then a questioner from the audience made a not-so-flattering remark about USA Network being the home for the dark drama.

But the biggest surprise about “The Sinner,” which bows Aug. 2 for an eight-episode run, is Biel. The actress takes on the role of a young mother, Cora, who commits a heinous murder, but cannot remember why. It’s an extreme departure from her last TV series role on “7th Heaven,” which she left in 2006.

“(Cora) is terribly complex and complicated,” Biel said about her attraction to the role. “The tracking of what she knows, what she remembers, what she thinks she remembers, what is a lie, what was told to her, and when she is lying was very complicated. We would constantly be (considering) if this is a moment where she was telling the truth or lying or is she telling the truth and it’s actually a lie? That was terribly interesting to me.”

Here are seven more things we learned from the conversation about the psychological thriller based on Petra Hammesfahr’s book of the same name.

  • Biel says to “definitely” watch the series first. Then read the book.
  • Biel, who is also an exec producer on the show, said that the book left her stunned. “When I read the book, every step of the way for me was a shock and I feel like nothing can shock me anymore. I’ve seen it all. We all have seen it all in a sense, but every time there was a surprise (in the book) it was a genuine surprise for me. That felt incredibly rare. I wanted to play (Cora) and be little nuts.
  • We know little about murderer, Cora in the pilot, but according to Simonds, “flashbacks become more and more significant as the season continues.”
  • The murder takes place at a beach and was “very choreographed” according to Campos. Biel remembers the shoot going “really fast.” “It just kind of happened to us. It was just so violent and fast and swift. Before you knew it, (the shoot) was over. Abbott had a different experience. He said of the same sequence that it “felt like a bit of a dance that was quite technical. We did it 20 times, I think.”
  • Campos really wanted to direct the pilot episode. “When I read this script I said I have to do it and I fought for it. I understood the psychology of Cora and for whatever reason, I don’t know why, I’ve always been drawn to characters like this. I try to understand why people do the things that they do.”
  • The familiarity of scenery, in part, attracted Pullman to the role of the show’s lead investigator who obsesses over Cora’s motives. “I come from a small town in upstate New York and this (show takes place) in a small town in upstate New York. When a huge trauma lands in the middle of a small community, there are a lot of reasons to get ‘this’ over with and not to draw attention to ourselves (as a small community). Not ask why. Let it go away. I thought – that’s what I remember happens in small towns. And it happens to all of us. That’s what attracted me.”
  • As for playing Cora’s traumatized, grief stricken husband, Abbott said channeling his character wasn’t too hard. “If your significant other murders somebody, I’d also feel unequipped to deal with it. So that (part of the role) came very natural to me.”

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