From show creator Derek Simonds and executive producer Jessica Biel, the second installment of the drama series The Sinner sees Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) back in his hometown in rural New York, after a double murder committed by an 11-year-old boy (Elisha Henig) with no apparent motive raises a series of questions. When the investigation pits him against a local commune, the mysterious Vera (Carrie Coon, in another excellent performance on her long list of excellent performances) steps in and becomes a very complicated piece of this undeniably haunting and disturbing puzzle.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Carrie Coon talked about the unusual journey she took to this project, having the support necessary to take on this role only a few weeks after having a child, enjoying the mystery of Vera, relying on the showrunner and directors as they shot out of order, the ways in which she identifies with her character, and how the series subverted her expectations a number of times. She also talked about her next film, The Nest, with director Sean Durkin and why she’s looking forward to doing that project, as well as her experience on Avengers: Infinity War, where she played Proxima Midnight.
Collider: It was such a pleasure to talk to you about The Leftovers every season, and you were great in Fargo. It’s nice to see you do another very ambiguous, mysterious character again.
CARRIE COON: That’s my thing, I guess. I’m typecast as ambiguous.
Complex and ambiguous are good things to be.
COON: I’ll take ‘em!
How did you come to be at the center of this season of The Sinner?
COON: It came Tracy’s way first. My husband got the call to play Jack. Antonio Campos directed a magnificent film, called Christine that Tracy was, along with the magnificent, mind-blowing Rebecca Hall, and it was one of my favorite performances of Tracy’s on film. And we knew Antonio had helmed the show on USA, so Tracy had his eye on it. He watched a couple of episodes on a plane and said, “It’s really good,” so he came home and we binge-watched it. Then, he got the call and they offered him Jack. They had offered the role to another actress and she said, “No,” so they came to me. That’s just the reality of the business. I was only a few weeks postpartum, at that point, and they didn’t know if I was open to working. They came to me a couple of weeks later and gave me the start date, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, can I start a show eight weeks after my baby is born? That seems foolish. Let’s do it!” They figured they were sweetening the pot by saying Tracy and I wouldn’t really work together very much, so we could just pass the baby back and forth, but my husband has three other jobs so that didn’t quite work, and I ended up working a lot more on The Sinner than I was expecting. But I have to say, everybody was so ready and willing to accommodate me, as a new mother. Everybody was very sensitive to the fact that I was going out of my mind and that I would need some support. We were very upfront about what we all needed to make that work, and it was such a lovely group. We’ve had a really lovely summer.
Did you guys ever try to come up with any suggestions that would necessitate having to cross paths during the show, at any point?
COON: There was one day that we met up in the make-up trailer, and the crew hadn’t really seen us together before, so that was really funny. Everybody was teasing us. They thought it was very cute to finally see us together, catching up on our lives and making out in the hair and make-up trailer. There were a couple of people in the crew who finally put it together and were like, “Oh, Tracy was talking about his baby, and then you were talking about your baby, and then he was talking about his play, and then you were talking about your husband’s play, and now we’ve figured out that it’s the same baby!” It took people a little while.
To the audience, this is a very mysterious woman with undetermined motives, at this point. Was she also mysterious to you?
COON: What was interesting about taking Vera on was that she was mysterious, in that we weren’t sure how it was going to end. What was very challenging about taking her on was that, in television, you don’t shoot anything in order. It’s all dictated by location and finances, and all of that. And we started off shooting scenes where Vera was knocked back on her heels, so I was playing her rattled before I ever played her and got to know what her day-to-day, energetic presentation was. I had to break her before I had established her. In addition to that, I was recovering. I was eight weeks postpartum, out of a c-section, and I was in a brand-new body that was yet unfamiliar to me, as I was recovering, so my first few days felt very weird. In addition to that, on my first day, we shot in the same courtroom where I shot the divorce scene from The Leftovers. It was so surreal to be back in a place where I had worked on another show, with a really ambiguous character. I was really thrown, so I’m grateful that my work is passable because I wasn’t quite ready. That surprised me, actually.
How much did you actually know about your character arc when you started this? Did they let you know what some of the layers were, and did you have all of that in your mind, as you were playing her?
COON: I had a lot of the plot in my mind, but there were a lot of surprises along the way. It’s not like working on a play. I find that when you’re working on television, it’s hard to keep the long arc in your mind because you don’t always know what’s coming and it could change, so you need to grip rather loosely to those ideas and be malleable when they change. For me, it was more a matter of trying to make each moment truthful, and then letting an editor decide what the tone was ultimately going to be. That’s the part of television that you don’t have a lot of control over. Your job is to give them some colors to paint with, but you don’t get a say in what the final structure is going to be. In that regard, I had to trust the directors, who were working on the show and had the full hour in mind, when we were going from moment to moment, out of order. I relied more on that than I ever have because of my personal circumstances. Suddenly, all of this time I had to prepare, as an actor, was gone, and I was showing up on set and learning my lines in the hair and make-up trailer. I was like, “What have I been doing all of these years, before I had a baby? I’ve been working so hard. This is my new process!” I blush to confess that most of my nights and any free time I had was spent just trying to be with my child and not really thinking about work. Anything good that happened was because of directing and editing, and good scene partners.
How do you see this woman, and how do you think that compares to how she sees herself?
COON: It’s interesting, I think Vera and I largely agree. Much like myself, she’s quite righteous. I can be very righteous. I think that’s what we share most, in common. I can be a terrible know-it-all, and she might have grown up that way. I also believe that she’s more on the ball, in terms of what her vision is, for the way she wants to live her life, even if it’s executed imperfectly. I am someone who would be more inclined to follow Vera than to be her because I’m always looking for inspiration in how to live my life more fully and more morally, whatever that means, from day to day. That’s the human condition. We’re destined to continue asking these questions, and we won’t get a lot of answers. I guess that’s why I end up on all these shows that are full of ambiguity. But I think she really believes that she is doing good work, that the work she’s doing is helping to create more integrated human beings, and that operating from a binary perspective of good and bad, and right and wrong, is society’s construct and not necessarily the way human beings are actually supposed to live. I believe that she sees a future where human beings are more liberated and more integrated, and yet she has not quite let go of her ego entirely. Her ego gets in her way. If there’s something Vera can’t quite see about herself, it’s that. That’s where her pride is holding her back and preventing her from creating the world that she’s committed to. Obviously, her son is her greatest project, and yet she has to also be willing to let him go, and be the person that she’s influenced, and accept the ways that he’s not the person that exists in her platonic ideal of what her son would be.
This show also really explores the idea of how what you’re looking for is never what you expect. Once you had learned just where things were headed with this and how the puzzle pieces fit into place, how unexpected was it?
COON: I am very firmly planted in the ground, as an actor, and though I’m quite willing to weigh in on the writing when I bump up against something, I don’t have that capacity right now. When I engage in a story like this, I’m engaged, as an actor. I try to say, “What does this person want? What are they doing to get it?” I don’t overly concern myself with the longer arc because I feel that that’s not my purview. That’s what Derek Simonds is being paid by USA to do, and I’m being paid by USA to listen to Derek Simonds and do the story as truthfully as possible. If I handed you the series of scripts, I would probably be just as surprised as you were about the twists and turns that were coming. I didn’t know very much. I was conditioned by Damon Lindelof, so I guess my work has paid off, in that regard. I’m a very good foot soldier in the war that is scripted, hour-long series television, in the moment of peak TV.