Actress Jessica Biel takes a leap in the dark

In The Sinner, Jessica Biel (left) plays a young wife who stabs a stranger to death for no apparent reason.
In The Sinner, Jessica Biel plays a young wife who stabs a stranger to death for no apparent reason.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • As the sun lowered on a drab industrial park an hour north-west of Manhattan, Jessica Biel settled into a therapist's recliner and prepared to go deep.

It took a moment to register this wan waif as the Hollywood star who commandeers sexiest-women lists and the attention of Justin Timberlake, her pop star husband.

On location for The Sinner, broadcast on USA Network, Biel was in stealth-glam mode - hair lank, lithe body obscured by prison-issue sweats - to play Cora Tannetti, a young mother who, on a gentle summer day, stabs a stranger to death for no apparent reason.

Biel's partner on this recent evening was Bill Pullman, in the role of Harry Ambrose, a 60something police detective digging to get at the root of Tannetti's madness and fill in the gaps where her memory inexplicably went blank.

His questioning slowly intensified and then panic overtook her as shards of recollection brought her past into sharper focus.

For the next few hours, Biel repeated the scene, dabbing away tears, wiping her nose and hitting reset each time the director called "cut". Afterwards, she and Derek Simonds, the show's creator, huddled in a corner exchanging notes.

With The Sinner, a Gordian knot of memory and motive, Biel, who appeared opposite Edward Norton in The Illusionist (2006) and Adam Sandler in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007), has taken on her first series lead since playing a pastor's basketball-crazed teenage daughter on 7th Heaven.

"Cora is very draining - she's tiring, for sure," Biel said a few weeks later on a rare afternoon off. "At the end of the day, you're like: 'Why did I do this? This is so hard. I can't cry another tear if you paid me a million dollars.' But it's a very satisfying work experience, as well as one of the most consistently stressful and exhausting."

The partnering of Biel with a character capable of savage violence seems felicitous as she strives to stretch professionally.

Biel, now 35 and mother of two- year-old son Silas, had been "desperately looking for something that would push me creatively to places that I have never been before".

To help find that role, she and Ms Michelle Purple, her producing partner, signed a development deal with Universal Cable Productions in 2014.

"Producing puts the power back into your own hands," Biel said. "So you're not sitting around waiting for somebody to deliver something amazing to you, which is very rare."

Then The Sinner - a bestseller by Petra Hammesfahr, considered Germany's Patricia Highsmith, a noted American thriller author - landed on their reading pile.

It struck the right chords: a darkly compelling psychological thriller whose protagonist was a complex woman, with a labyrinthine plot that could rivet viewers for eight episodes and wallop them with a satisfying conclusion.

Perhaps just as attractive: It could be shot in three months. Biel is not the only female film star developing novels into limited series. Others include Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies) and Julia Roberts (Today Will Be Different).

The limited series "is the new indie film", said Simonds. "It's a better way to adapt a novel because you get to live with the characters longer and you just fall in deeper."

He transplanted The Sinner from a small German town to a fictional Hudson River village and fleshed out themes the book merely flirted with: shame, repression and the pain people hide.

"This inverted idea, we know the who, the what, the where, but we don't know the why," trade publication Variety quoted Simonds as saying. "Instead of looking for the DNA evidence that leads you to the killer or a cat-and-mouse game, it is all about the psyche of the person."

Biel noted that the whydunit also requires a different, more delicate sense of timing. "You set up a lot of questions and answer a couple every episode, so you're starting to feel satisfied that you've uncovered something."

Somewhere along the journey, it became clear to Biel and Simonds that The Sinner could morph into an anthology series should it be renewed. But exactly how that would play out, no one seemed quite sure.

But even if Biel does not return, she has taken a leap of faith from the show. In an interview with Marie Claire magazine, she said: "I have challenges standing up for myself sometimes. Times when I don't trust my own voice. And that's the stuff I needed to bring out and explore to understand Cora."

And herself.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'Actress Jessica Biel takes a leap in the dark'. Print Edition | Subscribe