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EXCLUSIVE: Maura Tierney Delivers a Calculated, Award-Worthy Performance on ‘The Affair’

by Philiana Ng 12:07 AM PDT, June 16, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

There’s something intriguing about Maura Tierney in her role as a beleaguered wife, Helen Solloway, on The Affair.

Unlike the quippy medical jargon Tierney doled out for a decade on ER, the Showtime drama requires her to be a lot more calculated with her words. Over the course of two seasons on The Affair, the 51-year-old veteran actress is acing the test; in 2016, she won a Golden Globe for her work.

The Affair relies on a unique storytelling device featuring multiple characters’ points of view -- often contradicting and differing -- and unraveling the story from there. Season one focused on Helen’s ex-husband, Noah (Dominic West), and his new life with Alison (Ruth Wilson), while season two incorporated the perspectives of Helen and Alison’s ex, Cole (Joshua Jackson).

“I thought that the vice of the POVs was really unique. The idea of the ‘happily married man’ having his life turn over -- you don’t see that on TV,” Tierney tells ET, crediting creator Sarah Treem for selling her on The Affair. “She was very straightforward and enthusiastic. She struck me as smart -- she’s so young, but she’s so talented. She struck me as someone who had a vision.”

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At the end of the second season, it was revealed that Helen was behind the wheel in the hit-and-run accident that killed Cole’s brother, Scotty (Colin Donnell), after Alison puts him in harm’s way. And also, that Noah helped cover it all up. That moment still sits with Tierney.

“It was definitely surprising to find out that she killed Scotty -- by accident, even though Alison pushed him,” Tierney was careful to say. “We all did it and it wasn’t a trap. I knew that at the beginning of the season, but I was surprised and happy about it because I thought the audience would enjoy it.”

Being on premium cable affords The Affair the ability to show nudity and sex, which are both very much a part of the story, without much censorship. Tierney spoke of that freedom, especially in regards to male nudity and pointed specifically to the season two premiere, where Helen has sex with an old pal of Noah’s.

“We show ladies naked all the time, let’s show a guy,” Tierney recalls director Jeff Reiner saying. “I think it worked really well, not because it was like, ‘Great, guys are naked too,’ but it’s an image that tells a story. It’s the first person she’s having sex with that hasn’t been her husband. I thought it was attractive storytelling; even though it was full-frontal nudity, it was something else, too.”

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There is one request Tierney has for season three: more scenes with Jackson.

“Josh and I have never had a scene where we’re just talking to each other,” Tierney says. “I don’t think our characters have ever had a conversation and that’s too bad, because I think he’s such a great actor. Plus, he’s hilarious!”

The Affair toes the line between what makes a person good or bad, and answering the question of whether a character like Helen falls on either side is difficult.

“She’s a good person that had a lot of bad circumstances happen to her,” Tierney says. “Considering the events, the narrative and the season, she’s a lot less good.”

Additional reporting by Stacy Lambe.

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