Jessica Biel has a killer new role — literally. In USA’s “The Sinner,” an eight-episode limited series based on the international bestselling novel of the same name by German crime writer Petra Hammesfahr, the actress plays Cora Tannetti, a seemingly normal wife and mother who brutally murders a total stranger in full view of a beach full of people.
That murder forms the basis of the series’ intriguing pilot, directed by indie mainstay Antonio Campos and written by Derek Simonds, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday night.
Biel also produced the project, so it’s clear that the twisted new series has become a major passion project for her. And when it came to choosing the role, Biel used a post-screening Q&A (where she was joined by Campos, Simonds, and co-stars Christopher Abbott and Bill Pullman) to explain just what it was about Cora that made her so eager to take on the complex part.
“When I read the book, every step of the way for me was a shock,” the actress said. “I just feel like nothing can shock me anymore. Like, I’ve seen it all, there’s nothing that weird, nothing that dark. We all have seen it all, I think in a sense. But every time there was a surprise, it was genuine surprise for me. It just felt incredibly rare to find a piece of material that you didn’t expect every twist and turn of the way.”
She added, “And then it was just genuinely selfish! I just wanted to play that girl and get to be a little nuts.”
While “The Sinner” has seven other episodes to unspool when it bows on the USA Network later this season, Biel promised that further episodes will only deepen the mystery. The pilot? That’s just a taste of what’s to come.
“Obviously, she’s a terribly complex and complicated person,” Biel said. “Just in the pilot, we get to see just a tiny bit of what there is to come. Through the series, we’re going to slowly peel the onion of her and her mind and her past and everything. I think that was terribly interesting for me to think about.”
But Biel also promised something like resolution, or at least some answers to the questions — including the major one: why? — that thread through the series. It’s just going to be a little complicated getting there.
“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’s lying, it’s very complicated,” Biel said. “We would constantly be like, ‘Okay, wait, is this a moment where she’s telling the truth? Or is this a moment where she’s lying? Or she’s telling the truth, but it’s actually a lie and we don’t know?'”
That was the most challenging aspect for Biel and the rest of the series’ cast and crew, but they’re hopeful that it will pay off for the show’s audience.
“There’s all this weaving of this denial and this shame and all these things, and this truth that she really does believe,” the actress and producer said. “This thing happened to her — which you will find out, if you watch the show — it was very, very tricky to kind of remember and keep it in mind. That’s what I’ll be facing, what we’ll all be facing as we go forward.”
Asked to describe her hopes for the series in three words, Biel got honest: “hopefully, shockingly good.”
“The Sinner” debuted at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Its television premiere is set for Wednesday, Aug. 2 at 10 p.m. on USA Network.