She’s played a “summer catch.” A love interest. A leading lady in an action movie. A horror movie victim. But none of these roles have really given Jessica Biel the opportunity to truly excel, which is why her latest on-screen character is a welcome sight.
In her first lead television role since her run as Mary Camden on “7th Heaven,” Biel plays Cora Tannetti on USA’s “The Sinner,” an upcoming eight-part series that premiered its pilot episode at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday night. The thriller, based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Petra Hammesfahr, delves into the mystery behind Cora’s unexplained killing of a man on a public beach, surrounded by her husband, child and dozens of witnesses. What made this seemingly doting mother and wife do something so out of character? And why is it that we don’t fully trust her? “The Sinner” will, hopefully, explain it all when it debuts Aug. 2.
Bill Pullman plays the detective working to uncover Cora’s motives, while Christopher Abbott portrays Cora’s husband, Mason.
But it’s Biel who went all in for her role ― made clear by the applause she received following the Tribeca screening. Director Antonio Campos (”Christine,” “Simon Killer”) envelops the actress in dreamlike shots before zooming in for close-ups, letting her physical emotion easily slip through the screen. Her performance is committed, solid, and might be her best yet.
“Obviously, she’s a terribly complex and complicated person,” Biel, who’s also an executive producer on the series, said of Cora during the post-screening Q&A. “Just in the pilot we get to see a tiny bit of what’s to come ... in her mind and in her past and everything. That was interesting, for me, to think about playing somebody like this.”
Biel admitted that the role was a bit daunting, due to the fact that Cora is, well, a murderer, and so hard to read; she wasn’t sure which direction to take the character at any given time.
“The tracking of what she knows, what she remembers, what she thinks she remembers, what is a lie, what is told to her and when she’s lying [was difficult],” Biel explained. “It’s very complicated. We would constantly be going, ‘Wait, is this a moment where she’s telling the truth or is this a moment where she’s lying? Or is she telling the truth, but it’s actually a lie that we don’t know?’ So there’s this weaving of this denial and this shame and all these things,” Biel added, joking that there’s a lot of “fake news” in Cora’s head.
“It was very, very tricky to kind of remember and to keep it in line and that’s what I’ll be facing as we go forward,” the actress said.
So far, only the pilot has been completed, so the cast and crew will return to film the remaining seven episodes. The hope is to create a series that analyzes the human psyche and investigates what we, as people, are capable of.
“When I read the book, every step of the way for me was a shock, and I just feel like nothing can shock me anymore,” Biel said. “You know, like, I’ve seen it all, there’s nothing that weird or that dark. We’ve all seen it all, I think in a sense, the way we’re exposed and have access to everything. But every time there was a surprise, it was a genuine surprise for me and it just felt incredibly rare to find a piece of material where you didn’t expect every twist and turn every way. And then, generally, like, selfishly, I just wanted to play that girl and get to be a little nuts.”
“The Sinner” debuts on USA at 10 p.m. on Aug. 2.