Jessica Biel (‘The Sinner’): ‘I will never stop fighting and driving for my own career’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Jessica Biel just received her first Emmy nomination this year for playing Cora Tannetti in “The Sinner.” Biel also serves as an executive producer on the series, which is currently airing its second season with a mostly-new cast.

Biel recently sat down with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about Emmy nominations morning, the difficulty of playing Cora Tannetti, and how she has taken charge of her own career. Watch the exclusive chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Jessica Biel, you’re nominated for an Emmy for your performance in “The Sinner.” You’ve been working in TV for quite a while, your big break 20 years ago in “7th Heaven.” What’s it like getting that recognition from the rest of the TV community for that Emmy nomination?

Jessica Biel: Honestly it’s a beyond wildest dreams kind of a thing. Like you said, I’ve been working with this business for quite a long time and you think those kinds of things happen to other people. So it’s just wonderful. I don’t know how else to say it, especially because it’s connected to this project that I’ve been a part of from the very beginning, from when we were just looking at this book and looking at this character and then hiring our writer and creator and then he writes the script and then reading the notes and we’re pitching, USA, and casting. The whole thing was just really close to my heart and something that I feel super proud of, so to be recognized by the community, there’s just nothing better.

GD: What was it like the morning of the nominations announcement? Had you been waiting for it? Did it come as a surprise to you when it came?

JB: Of course you know it’s coming, that they’re gonna read these names, and if anyone tells you that they’re not sitting in anticipation waiting, they’re lying. Because it’s not about awards, what we do. We don’t do it for awards. You do it for the doing of it, but it’s just amazing when people like it. It’s that simple, I think. I was actually in Europe the day of the announcement. I was in Amsterdam so at this point it was like 5 p.m. I had all day to just wait and wait and wait to see, “Is this gonna happen?” So I got this call from my publicist and I was in the car with my kid, and my kid’s iPad is malfunctioning. Do you have kids?

GD: No (laughs).

JB: When your kid’s iPad malfunctions, it’s the worst. It’s like the world is crumbling. So I’m dealing with the iPad and I’m like, “Oh my god, amazing!” There wasn’t really a moment to really absorb it and I finally got into bed later that night and I sat alone in my hotel room and I just had a fabulous glass of champagne by myself and it was the best way to celebrate the whole thing. It was amazing.

GD: As you mentioned, you’re a producer on the project. You spearheaded this thing from the very beginning. Does that make a nomination all the more special because not only did you pour your heart into this role you played onscreen but also into this project that you really launched?

JB: Yes. 100%, because of the involvement. Because of my ability to have a voice in a lot of these decisions that normally when you’re just an actor, you don’t have a voice in the casting and you don’t have a voice with the writers. Not really. Not from an arc standpoint or a story point. For your character, yes, for sure you have that kind of experience, but to be involved in the location scouts and even speaking to my directors and talking about maybe how to carve a performance for one of the other actors, sitting behind the camera and feeling like that’s my place. That’s my place, too. I get to be there. I don’t feel like I’m overstepping any bounds. It’s so phenomenal. This project truly has all my blood, sweat and tears and all of our creative team’s and our crew and everybody. So yes, it’s just sweet.

GD: And do you feel now that you’ve had this experience producing this project and starring in it that you’re now spoiled for projects in a sense? You can tackle this, you can tackle anything, but also you can make these things happen for yourself and really generate these opportunities?

JB: Yes, I guess I do feel a little bit spoiled because it’s been such an amazing partnership, and I think if we didn’t have a partner like USA, it would’ve been a different thing. If they didn’t say to us, “Push the envelope. Go for it. Bring us something that you think is too far,” which is what they said. We couldn’t believe it. We’re sitting here on these phone calls going, “Did you hear that? I heard that, right? I didn’t just make that up.” So we have this amazing partner that is willing to push the boundaries of what they are doing, content-wise, and wants to push us creatively, and then actually comes back and says, “You know what? This is too far, and here’s why,” and they’re right. That’s an amazing partner, someone who we trust creatively and who gives us the leeway and the ability to really make choices that we think are integral for the characters and for the story. So that I feel like I’ve been spoiled by, by having this amazing partner, but it also has shown to me very much that now our business, you have to take your career in your own hands. Yes, you need your support. Yes, you need all the people that help you and introduce you to the right people and all of these things. A lot of this is a lightning in a bottle thing. There’s a little fairy dust sprinkled over things or there’s just not, but you have to step forward and grab your career by the horns and say, “All right, this is what we’re doing and i’m going to find something that inspires me and I’m going to fight for it,” and then when you have that kind of engagement with it, the energy’s different as well and it matters in a different way. So it’s been a great learning experience in terms of that. I will never stop fighting and driving for my own career and I feel like this has given me a lot of confidence in that area.

GD: And the interesting thing about the character you play, Cora Tannetti, the unique conceit of the series is that you know whodunit from the very beginning but you don’t know “whydunit.” In the case of Cora, she doesn’t even really understand, at first, why she committed this murder in this first episode. The cliche of actors is “What’s my motivation?” How do you play a character who literally doesn’t even know her own motivation in many big ways?

JB: Right, it’s a really good question. This performance was not possible without our writer, Derek Simonds, my director, Antonio Campos, and I. The three of us, every day, and all the other directors that we were working with as well, but the first three episodes, to really solidify who this woman is and how she responds and how she reacts and set her up, without checking each other every day and walking the line of all the things you’re talking about. “What does she remember? Is she lying right now? When she’s not lying, when she’s telling the truth but it’s actually not a truth that’s the truth, but she doesn’t know that. She’s protecting herself. Now she’s just being spiteful and now she’s had it.” Or whatever it is. “Now she’s being tender because she wants something. She’s manipulating.” This performance is very convoluted and complicated to try to find the path and braid all of the levels in, and without all of these people around me, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did. What was the last part of the question? I completely blanked.

GD: It was just a character who doesn’t know her own motivation.

JB: Oh, right. So, whenever we got lost from that, or any time I felt lost, the one motivation that I knew that she was always trying to do is she was just trying to protect everybody and herself from the past. So this kind of survival mentality. Whenever I didn’t know what the motivation was, I went back to that, to, “I don’t care what the truth is. I don’t care what’s going on. You’re not gonna hear about it, and I’m gonna redirect and I’m going to be strange or be emotional or manipulate you or make you feel bad for me or whatever I’m doing, but you are not going to hear what’s happened to me. I will never tell you.” It’s like that survival kind of thing. So that was the motivation behind the no motivation of that character and we always went back to that.

GD: Eventually though, of course, we do learn what happened to her and she learns what happened to her in the seventh episode of your season. All the secrets come out, it’s a big flashback episode. It’s some of the most intense material of your season. What was it like playing those flashback scenes since they’re so traumatic for her in the moment and in the future?

JB: Well, ironically, some of the flashback stuff was kind of freeing, because it was the stuff leading up to the very end of the end sequence of the seventh episode. It was kind of lighter, somehow, because she hadn’t experienced that major trauma yet, and then the trauma that happened after those kids left that underground room area when it all goes down. So it felt kind of emotionally easier for a minute, and then, of course, we get to the sequence where it just absolutely all falls apart. It’s very intense, playing those kinds of sequences and those scenes. It also feels a little out of body and it feels like I look back and even on the day it didn’t feel very tangible. Things are happening and you’re doing the scene and somebody says “Print,” and you go, “Wait, what did I just do?” That’s kind of the space you wanna be in, that mindset of, you kind of disappear into it. It takes you over instead of you driving the train on that.

GD: Is there a way that you decompress between scenes, going from intensity to intensity to intensity for a lot of the series? How do you get out of that, go home at the end of the day and just be back to Jessica?

JB: With this one I found it was very easy to do that, because it was such an emotional drain on a daily basis all day long. It wasn’t like, “Oh, a nice easy scene,” and then, “A really hard scene.” It was like, “Hard scene, hard scene, hard scene, hard scene” all day long that by the time we were done, I couldn’t wait to get it off. I couldn’t wait just to get in the car and do a crossword, look at a magazine, read my book. I pretty much passed out in the car on the drive home because the output was so extreme. But also, I have a kid at home. I don’t have a choice. He doesn’t understand what I’m doing at work. He doesn’t understand the mindset that I’m in. He’s gonna be up at 6:30, he’s gonna want breakfast and he’s gonna wanna play. So you have to shake it. You just have to shake it off and go on and be Mom.

GD: Season 2 is currently airing. It just started airing a couple weeks ago. You’re still an executive producer on the series even though from what we’ve seen so far, Cora Tannetti is not a part of the season. How closely involved were you in developing the second season and really shaping it as much as the first season?

JB: We were pretty heavily involved again in the second season. A little bit more removed because I wasn’t on a regular basis dealing with my particular character and my arc, and “Does it make sense,” and, “How do we do it.” I wasn’t on set every day all day long. So that was a bit different, but we have been remotely supporting Derek, our writer-creator and all of our writers, looking at the drafts, looking at the roughs, what is it gonna be, how do we feel about it, giving notes, responding to casting, responding to the post and the cuts, all of that kind of thing. So, very heavily involved as much as possible, but from afar, which is totally different. It’s hard. It’s hard to be far away, especially for a project like this that’s so close to my heart, but that’s what I’m learning, that that’s what you do as a producer is you hire the people that know what they’re doing and you let them do it. And you have to step back. It’s just the process.

GD: Do you ever think of what’s going on with Cora Tannetti now? Do you think you’d ever revisit that character in the future if the opportunity came or do you feel like the door’s kind of closed on that particular story, that you’ve put that away?

JB: It’s a good question. I always like to leave it open just a little bit, in my mind at least. Like, “Oh, Cora, she could come back, right? Somehow, someway?” Maybe that’s my ego talking. I don’t know. I feel very fondly for her in some strange way. But realistically, I don’t know. I feel like we really satisfied that storyline. We’re not sure where Ambrose and Cora go after this. We exhausted a lot of ideas for Season 2. We really took a look at it and said, “Does this makes sense? Should Cora come back? How does the season look if she comes back?” And it felt to us and the creative team that it didn’t do the show justice. It was changing the show. What was gonna happen? She was gonna be a sidekick? We couldn’t figure it out in a way that made any sense and we really felt strongly about moving Ambrose forward and really giving him the foundation, letting him be the foundation of the show and then watching him un-peel, letting us look into his brain and his psychological trauma, because we really satisfied her story, so we felt creatively that this was the right way to go to maintain the integrity of the show, to maintain the language and really the “whydunit” again. I always keep it open, just in the back of my brain that maybe if we find an amazing idea that it could be possible.

GD: Is there anything else that as a producer or as an actor or both that you’re working on that you’re excited about now, coming after “The Sinner,” this experience and this nomination?

JB: We have tons of things that we’re always developing and behind the scenes. Nothing that I can actually talk about because it’s all living in lawyer land right now, which is a good thing because it’s moving forward. But yes, we have some television ideas that we’re developing, a couple film ideas that we’re developing, actually thinking about some podcast ideas, so really feeling excited about some opportunities coming after the show.

GD: Congratulations on that Emmy nomination and best of luck next month when the awards come around and thank you so much for talking with me.

JB: Thank you so much, it’s been great. Appreciate it.

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