Bill Pullman became very invested in his character on USA Network’s “The Sinner,” in which he plays Detective Harry Ambrose. Starring alongside Jessica Biel, Pullman gradually reveals Harry’s personal demons as he looks to explore those of Cora Tannetti’s.
Pullman recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria in an exclusive web chat about his fascinating character on “The Sinner,” what’s ahead for Season 2 and his experiences getting recognized in public. Watch the full video above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Bill, you play Detective Harry Ambrose on “The Sinner.” Before we go into anything else let’s just talk about how you became involved in this project.
Bill Pullman: Well, the beginning of a project is always a little bit like meeting someone you’re going to date, because it can feel like it’s meant to be or it could feel like, “We gotta work at this.” I have always had an interest in a few things. One, I’m from a small town and I have always had an interest in trees and botany and naturalists in some way through my family. Also we’re interested in nature and whatnot. So when I read the script about a detective in a small town who has this interest in the natural world and seems to be kind of involved with a little bit of some issues of what it is to come from a place that has a lot of secrets. So I felt like I was reading something that had been tailored for me. It felt right away like I was keen to see how it would all work out.
GD: So did you end up reading the book to prepare for what was to come?
BP: Well, Derek Simonds, who adapted the book and everything said, “Please don’t read it until we’re done,” so I didn’t read it until after we had shot and after we had seen the series.
GD: When you started getting into this character, did it meet your expectations as to how dark this show was going to become as you were doing it?
BP: Well, I think I entered into it without really predicting that it would be seen by people. I think I’m a little still after all the years, Rob, naive. And I just think of the character and how interesting it is, and I suddenly got hugely vulnerable in a way I haven’t for years. Just the thought of people seeing me involved in behavior in television, getting audiences different than films and everything, people from small towns that I live in or have contact with are gonna look at this and go, “Pullman, what’s happened to you? What’s going on?” And I of course empathize with the guy that’s caught like this and it’s somewhat a little bit disconcerting that they’re saying, it seems like just now there’s a little wave in which people say, “He’s so creepy.” And I thought, “Wow, I never thought of him as creepy,” but I think the practices and acting out in different directions and the complicated value structure and the left hand not really owning up to what the right hand is doing, wigs them out a little bit.
GD: Yeah, so you said the word predicting before and one big part of this show is when you’re watching this and I had this discussion with Jessica a few weeks ago, how you watch every episode, like for me, I thought, “I am so smart. I totally know what’s gonna happen. This is just easy.” And the next episode I’m like, “Actually no, I’m a complete idiot. I had no idea that was coming.” And I’m wondering if you were in the same boat. Did you do it episode by episode or did you kind of film it all out of order so you weren’t really sure what the hell was going on or were you trying to figure out what was actually gonna happen in the end?
BP: Well, we shot them pretty much in order. We cross-boarded I think twice last year. We’re doing it only in the first two episodes this year. Derek has always laid out of a rough direction, but without very many details, so even knowing the rough direction it’s still a surprise to me when you read the script and you get the actual manifestation of what could be interpreted a lot of different ways. Derek really enjoys that sense of talking about it. So now we have this rhythm of once I get a fairly production-ready script and I look at it and then we have a conversation where we go through the whole script and everything, every week we do it. He’s always asking, “Did that surprise you?” Then, “Oh wait until you see next week. I don’t wanna say anything.” It’s got a little bit of that, same thing that the audience has.
GD: Let’s talk more about Harry as a character ‘cause he is very interesting to me. Firstly, it’s obvious that he’s suffering from some kind of anxiety, which is very relatable for me personally and people watching the show. You do that thing with your fingers. I found that a really good way for me to get into who this guy is, something so simple. I’m just wondering, all those little touches, how did they come to be? What were you thinking when you were trying to make this guy real?
BP: I think there is a little bit of some sense at the core of him, something buried back there that he hasn’t been able to deal with and he senses, and in order to keep from really dealing with it directly, he’s not seeking therapy or anything like that, he’s just trying to keep moving forward rather than being pulled down, which I think is kind of like an addiction in some ways and has parallels to all kinds of addictions, but, avoiding getting to see yourself in a way. So the journey that was the first season was just keeping that in a very fluid way and then not resolving anything but having a sense of coming out a little bit more about it in the last episode in scenes with Jessica, and now this installment is a whole set of new characters but Ambrose goes back to his hometown. He’s called back there because there’s been an unusual homicide, a double murder that’s happened and a child is believed to have killed his parents and admits to it, so this is a shocking thing that can’t be explained, but it brings him back to his hometown so a lot of this journey is going back, Ambrose’s journey to go back to the source of this thing that’s buried in him.
GD: Wow, that’s amazing. I was so excited to hear about Season 2 ‘cause when I saw “The Sinner” I immediately looked it up on Google, like, “Has USA Network renewed it?” And it had, which is awesome. I’m wondering what you thought, whether you even thought that was a possibility and when you were told you were coming back and you told me about what it’s about. Are you looking forward to delving deeper and working with Carrie Coon?
BP: Yeah. God, was I not supposed to say any of that? I think by the time the thing comes out, that’s the beginning of the whole thing so it’s gonna be told, I think. I think it has been told, so okay. This TV world of what you say and you don’t say I get a little nervous about, Rob. I’m not familiar with it. But yeah, I think there is something about getting into this part of it that feels a little closer to the bone in terms of a lot of details that I had shared with Derek and things are woven into it all.
GD: It’s very exciting, we’re all really looking forward to that, and the other part of Harry, obviously he’s got this sexual proclivity thing that he does which at first I thought, “What on earth is happening?” And then you finally realize he just needs this woman to dominate him for whatever reason. That whole thing is strange, but what were you thinking of when you were trying to also make that relatable, or at least something that we could understand?
BP: It’s strange about masochism, feeling unworthy, feeling alack and that somehow the pain is almost more comforting than not having it because there’s a clarity to it and a sense of it somehow gets distorted with also a little bit of oblivion, which is something that I think is connected to wanting to just… that section in the first episode where he actually almost passes out and that sense of, “I just want out of here. I want out of my body. I want out of my torture, my personal torture.” That goes on with him and then I think he really came through something through her experience, Cora Tannetti’s thing, that there’s been a vicariousness as she got seen more there was something in him that also wants to be seen. There’s something about people who hide things. They hide things but there’s a side to them wants that side to be seen. This may be subconscious but I think there’s a way she sees him in some way and sees his failure to have real true intimacy and all these issues that allows him to say, “Maybe I can try to keep from falling off the rails for a little while.” I think that’s what begins the second installment.
GD: There’s a lot there to chew on and you didn’t necessarily need to even have it for the telling of the story, especially for Cora, but it was so fascinating to have your character be this very flawed and very interesting and kind of strange guy that has obviously some serious demons. Anyway, I thought that was really interesting. The whole point of the question though is Jessica, when I asked her about what toll did this take on her, she said she spent so much time crying that it was so physically and mentally exhausting and draining. I’m wondering for you because as Harry goes through the season, he gets more and more disheveled and broken down and I’m wondering if when you’re playing a role like this, what kind of emotional toll does it take on you personally?
BP: You do it and you think that you’ve been doing it so long that’s it’s a craft or something and you’ve been able to compartmentalize yourself in some ways from it, but I think I went into a depression when it started to air and that I couldn’t explain. I thought, “Why am I suddenly feeling so vulnerable and paranoid a little bit?” But I think in a way it was a sense of shame, that I didn’t have doing it all ‘cause it’s almost like you get nabbed for something and then you start to feel this shame that isn’t because of the work or isn’t because I’m associated to a project that’s dealing with this. It was almost like Harry’s personal shame that I suddenly was conflating with my own circumstance. But I got over it after a week.
GD: It could’ve been worse. I have a two-part question. I’ll ask the first part first, and that is, what reactions have you been getting from people that you encounter about this particular series and your work on it?
BP: It’s particularly wild because just before starting this I was in Poland for three months, shooting a movie in Poland and it hit European Netflix about that time, maybe February, I guess January, February it started to get in there, so suddenly, Europeans were looking at it, and it’s a very different world over there. In some ways, they really went crazy for it. There’s something that fit their modality I think, and I always like the fact that many of them say, it’s a story that leads you to imagine just frightful things from frightful people, that there’s a real sinister, dark vein of people, but then you discover that they could be normal people who’ve been distorted to do things. I think you discover in the first about Cora Tannetti, the real torturer is someone who really didn’t at all think of themselves as a torturer and would probably never do it except for this very narrow circumstance. So in a way you’re looking at humanity that’s a little more culpable, all the characters have some kind of culpability.
GD: And what about when you’re in airports, restaurants and whatever, what’s the one project that people most want to talk about with you when they come up to you? You’ve been on TV and film for such a long time, what’s the one thing that you think people mostly want to talk about?
BP: Well, I think ‘cause I’m sporting a beard, Rob, this seems to be something that’s with me now and with Ambrose and everything. It kind of happened accidentally. I had done a theater production in Norway and had a beard when I went in for a costume test for the sequel to “Independence Day,” so then I had a beard, ‘cause Roland [Emmerich] said, “I like the beard.” Then we came out of that and then I was doing with Derek and Antonio Campos, who was the director, and they looked at it, they said, “Hey, we like this beard.” So I seem to have had the beard. So now, I think when people come up to me, they’re seeing first the beard version and they think, “Wait a minute, are you in disguise?” If they haven’t seen “The Sinner,” “You don’t wanna be recognized do you? You have the beard now.” So you kind of go through that a little bit.
GD: So yeah, your filmography should just be pre-beard Bill, post-beard Bill. It’s a different person, really, a completely different person. Mate, “The Sinner” did so well at the Golden Globes earlier this year. There’s a lot of talk that it’ll do well at the Emmys in a couple of months. We all hope that will happen for you, Jessica and the series. Thank you so much for your time and congrats on a great Season 1 and we’re looking forward to Season 2.
BP: Great, good to talk to you, Rob.
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