Bill Pullman is finally exploring the possibilities of television thanks to USA’s “The Sinner,” where he has played Detective Harry Ambrose for two seasons. His acclaimed performance has netted him nominations at the Critics’ Choice and SAG Awards.
Pullman recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about working in television, how he explored his own traumas through playing Harry and whether he will continue with the series through future seasons. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Bill, this show does stand out from other shows of this genre. It’s a whydunit, not a whodunit. Is that something’s that’s always really attracted you to this role?
Bill Pullman: No, it wasn’t anything that I was even thinking of. I’m a little bit of a neophyte to television. I haven’t really done a recurring series so Derek Simonds, who created the piece based on a book, I remember we were trying to come up with the language to describe it in the first so it was really after the fact of having done the first season, they’re looking to figure out how to pitch it, try to get people to watch, and the whydunit is really what it was patterned on and has continued to be.
GD: Yeah, thinking about diving deeper into characters and why they do things, do you agree that working on a long-form TV series like this allows you more scope to flesh out a character more authentically perhaps and what you may get the opportunity to do in film?
BP: I had lived with the wrong conception that a TV series would choke me in some way, doesn’t have the kind of spontaneity that a film would, or limited series, and now that it’s becoming a character that repeats again, I’m really appreciative to have a good man like Derek Simonds, who’s been very collaborative and been a great chance to incorporate a lot of personal things into the character and always look to stretch it each season.
GD: Harry is still suffering from this crippling anxiety that took its toll on him in Season 1 and now that he’s going back to his hometown, he’s plagued by visions from his childhood that slowly start to reveal themselves over the season. How much of that backstory did you develop at the beginning of the season or was it something that you just worked on with the director throughout the season?
BP: It came about through the backdoor in a way, Season 2, the ideas because in the writers’ room the first season, we were talking about why Ambrose is acting the way he is. We built this iceberg underneath the tip that you see and below it is this story of what happened to him when he was young. I used a lot of my own circumstances growing up because I think it’s been part of the process that Derek is interested in that and making a personal investment and the aspects of the story that we have a personal authority about. My mother had psychiatric illness that stated when I was seven. My attempts to integrate those memories were somewhat traumatic to me, the idea of suddenly, in a way, being abandoned by someone. You realize that sometimes abandonment doesn’t happen intentionally. With mental illness, I think that’s quite common to feel, the nature of that. Usually, those things are making someone challenged by intimacy, not interested, knowing the previous intimate relationship with his mother wasn’t consistent or reliable. He was reluctant to do it again. That was the kind of background but then Derek called me early on with the writers’ room assembled and he said, “You know, Bill, I want to go into all this past stuff.” That’s what I said, “All right, let’s go. Let’s see what happens.”
GD: I think that would be quite daunting especially given that last season. You’ve talked about how Harry was quite masochistic. This season that’s very much at play but he’s also extremely vulnerable and there’s a lot of guilt that seems to weigh on him. That seems to play a big part in how you brought that character to life. I wondered when I was watching you progress through the season how difficult it is to portray vulnerability, especially as a male actor. We don’t see that very often. Usually, the male actor has to be the hero or the antihero or someone who’s super tough. Harry is really vulnerable and he has that softer side. What’s that like to play?
BP: I feel safe in the environment we created for the show that those aspects of it would be supported by the story, for one thing. The writing kind of reflects what this journey is. Usually, before each shooting each episode, Derek and I would go through after having already talked through basic beats, but then we go through the whole script and make sure that all these elements that I feel safe about are in place, the story is going somewhere, that it’s actually gonna be worthwhile going there. I think that’s what allowed me to dip my toes into that hot water.
GD: Yeah, it certainly came across in that way. The other thing that struck me is that the season has a completely different vibe to Season 1. I think a lot of that came from what Carrie Coon brought to the show. What did she bring to the show that sets it apart from Season 1?
BP: It was always a question about the idea of a commune and the prejudices that we all have that this has gotta be some cult thing, that this is all clearly a disguise for a lot of abhorrent behavior. I think we didn’t want to have that be the case that because it was based on Western New York State where I’m from, they call it burned-over district because there was so many utopian communities that were started there and spiritual communities. The Mormons started there, the Oneida community. Carrie brings to it a real sense of commitment that this is a spiritual journey that she’s on and the discoveries you make about her, the fact that some of the principles weren’t able to be achieved, but underneath it was a good intent. Carrie is so smart and so adaptive and in a way, enigmatic to read but always compelling to sense there’s a human being behind this somewhat masked exterior.
GD: I asked you this question last year and I wouldn’t mind revisiting it if you can and it’s about how the subject matter of what you’re working on sometimes takes a toll on you personally. You mentioned last time that it did actually have some effect on you personally because of the subject matter and because of how vulnerable and masochistic Harry was. Did you find that that was also the case this season?
BP: I really wasn’t sure about my own family. I come from a big family, three brothers, three sisters. A lot of our past growing up in our hometown was not really made public. Our situation from the exterior, we were pillars of the community, my father was a doctor and we were all reliable high school students and whatnot but underneath it was all this going on, which probably people know about. But to investigate it with the season, the first thing I thought about was this was gonna be a travesty to this tacit agreement that we had not to talk publicly about what happened to my mother. I was always somewhat apprehensive of what it would be like when the show starts to air. The truth of it is that none of them commented on it. I think it’s maybe because we’d just as soon not talk about it. It’s difficult. Also, the fact that you always have the illusion that by a certain age you’re resolving all these issues of being young. That’s one of the things I said to Derek. It’s so unusual to have a guy like Harry who’s really had a whole life and he’s avoided really dealing with these things that happened to him a long time ago. I think it’s a testimony to the fact that a revelation about yourself and your upbringing can happen at any stage of life.
GD: It’s actually quite jarring, as you say. You get to a certain age and you think, “Oh, I’m comfortable in my skin now. I think I know who I am and what I’m doing.” And then, you’re right. Certain things might pop up that actually do become setbacks. I think Harry by the end of Season 2 is in a probably better place but what do you say about where Harry is at the end of Season 2 given that we know there’s gonna be a Season 3?
BP: There was a little bit always a sense with Carrie Coon’s character that she opens him up because she reads a lot about what he’s going through. Even though it doesn’t ever clearly go into any long-range connection between them, she’s, in a way, opened him up a little bit to having the possibility of having some kind of intimate relationship.
GD: Is there a potential that you would continue playing this character for further seasons? Is that something that you would like to do?
BP: It’s been a surprise, like I said. I couldn’t believe that I would be as intrigued. Right now at the point we’re getting ready to gear into Season 3, we’ll shoot it through the fall, I’m in great anticipation of what this work is gonna be. As long as I have that feeling, I enjoy it.
GD: You can’t really complain and the other thing that maybe might be a nice little reward for you is that you received a Critics’ Choice nomination for your role on the show and an individual SAG nomination. What was that like for you? Was it an exciting time to be amongst your peers?
BP: Yeah, I always think of myself of having a little Teflon for awards. I’ve managed to avoid them so successfully (laughs). Then you realize, “Wait a minute, this seems to be not according to plan.” I don’t keep up enough with all that’s going on until award season and then I look at, “Okay, these other actors that are nominated in the same category, what are these things they’re doing?” It really allowed me to watch some things that I wouldn’t have watched that I really enjoyed watching a lot. Anthony Hopkins, Javier Bardem, these are really great actors working at a good level. I appreciated that aspect of the nomination.
GD: You’re right, it was so great to see you amongst the list of nominees. It’s been a long time coming and perhaps maybe we’ll see more of that to come now that you’re enjoying yourself so much on “The Sinner.” Bill, thank you so much for your time today. Good luck with Season 3. We really appreciate it.
BP: Always great to talk to you about it.