How Bill Pullman Channeled the Inner Torment of 'The Sinner' (Exclusive)

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The 64-year-old veteran actor talks to ET about his on-set rapport with Jessica Biel, season one highlights and why the sophomore installment will have a completely ‘different energy.’

Before The Sinner came along, Bill Pullman was a little “shy” about committing to the rigors of television.

“Every once in a while, I would encounter friends who are on things that they’re not happy about. Just the thought of being with something that was working so well and in season four, we’ve lost our gas, it’s weird,” Pullman, who’s made a steady career out of memorable film roles in classics like Spaceballs, Independence Day and While You Were Sleeping, told ET during a day off  from production on season two of The Sinner. He’s dabbled in television over his 30-year career, starring in a handful of made-for-TV movies and limited-run series.

“It’s not like an actor can really design an ever-changing, evolving, beautiful sequence of new parts and challenges, but your chances for that are easier if you don’t do the television thing. So there was a fear of commitment. It was something that I couldn’t predict how it would go,” the veteran actor said. “But being in this, I feel very fortunate.”

In the first chapter of The Sinner, based on the Petra Hammesfahr novel, Jessica Biel plays young mother, Cora Tannetti, who fatally stabs a man named Frankie Belmont in broad daylight on a crowded beach -- with seemingly no idea as to why she did it. As the season unfurls, Cora digs up traumatic memories from her buried past -- with the help of Pullman’s Detective Harry Ambrose, himself an intriguing mystery waiting to be unpacked -- which become key to unlocking her true motive and the “why” of this hauntingly complex puzzle. What surfaces isn’t a cut-and-dry explanation of what led to Cora’s violent act, but the result of what happens when suppressed trauma -- of the psychological, emotional and sexual kind -- finally combusts.

“I liked the fact that in season one, there wasn’t an evil guy who was at the center of it or who was connected to the Russian oligarch, or there wasn’t someone who was a psychopath locked up in a cage yelling at the moon,” said Pullman, 64, an Emmy contender for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie. “Everybody in the story is culpable of many aspects of the spectrum of behavior that they are not owning up to, and there’s a sense of collective trauma to this small community. Even the characters who you feel could be the worst -- like [Frankie’s dad] who helped Cora in captivity. He wasn’t just an evil person. He did that behavior like almost anyone else would have done if we were in that exact situation.” He paused, sifting through Cora’s months-long memory gap during that time. “Well, maybe not everyone, but we would be capable if put in that circumstance.” 

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Over the course of the eight-episode season, Cora and Ambrose’s connection grew from adversaries to true confidantes. Pullman’s understated portrayal of a man at constant odds with his present and his past added depth to a character who came to be Cora’s biggest protector and defender. “Ambrose was in a place in the first installment where he was really erratic. He had been hiding a lot unknowingly, but waiting for it to be exposed, like Cora was,” Pullman said, adding that Ambrose “internalized” everything in his life as a result. “By the eighth episode, Ambrose connects to her in a way that is his first true intimacy, of sorts, and a little bit of an easing of all of the issues he’s dealing with.”

Two scenes, Pullman’s personal favorites, illustrate their unlikely bond. In the fifth episode, Ambrose implores an imprisoned Cora not to take a plea deal as her case begins to unravel, and the two connect for the first time over the phone, as their chat turns to personal topics such as family and life. “Looking back at it, there was a way where we were so intimate with each other,” Pullman noted. “We’re not in the same room, we’re sharing confidences that we haven’t shared with anybody else. It revealed this very unique chemistry that they had.”

The second is the aforementioned conversation in the car between Cora and Ambrose, an unlikely bond cemented in the finale, when Ambrose confides to her that he went through something similarly scarring as a child -- a mystery left unsolved for season two. “That really was an attempt to move to a new place with each other,” Pullman said. “Sometimes, when people are hiding something, there’s contradictory impulses of hiding and also waiting for something to be exposed about them -- to get this monkey off their back. I think Ambrose is drawn to Cora because he senses a similar anguish buried inside her that’s being pulled out and unraveled, that offers relief from his own demons.”

Pullman praised his frequent scene partner, Biel (who is also an executive producer), calling her “a great spirit” who “set the tone” for the show and kept things light on set. “My normal inclination is to, if I sense that that’s not getting done, I step into that role,” he mused. “For Ambrose, it really was needed for me to keep my own space, so it was such a relief that she would do it. I really felt gratitude for the way she carried herself.” He recalled spending an entire day with Biel in the car filming that pivotal finale scene, a culmination of all the hours spent together. “That was quite a good fortune of circumstance, because we were able to read each other very closely from having spent that much time together, just as the characters were.”

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While Cora got a semblance of a happy ending at the end of the season, with the door left open for a possible cameo by Biel down the line (likely not this year though -- “I think they decided it’s not a card they want to use,” Pullman says), Ambrose’s long and winding journey continues. Already knee-deep in filming the follow-up, which will star Carrie Coon (Fargo, The Leftovers, The Avengers: Infinity War) as the mysterious and formidable Vera, Pullman hinted that the new season hits “close to the bone.” The sophomore season brings Ambrose back to his hometown in rural New York to investigate a new crime: parents murdered by their 11-year-old son with no apparent motive. (The genesis of the new story was borne out of conversations Pullman had with creator Derek Simonds last year while filming season one.)

“There’s a different energy, because Cora was frequently in a lost place or a devastated place. It was so wrenching for her to [be] constantly disappointing, hurting people and the anguish she lived in for so much of it, whereas Carrie’s character brings another dynamic in that she is a strong woman in her community as a leader,” Pullman said, looking ahead to the coming summer season. “She has a confidence and a great ability to lead and understand the world around her. She’s like the exact opposite kind of female [character] when the story begins.”

Though Pullman admits he doesn’t know if Ambrose will reach a place of contentedness like Cora was able to achieve, he has noticed -- of the episodes they’ve already filmed for the new season -- that there is “a more honest vulnerability [for Ambrose] to push himself in places he hasn’t before, in terms of sociability and honesty and not fleeing when things start to look like they might be trapped.” “So there is some side of him feeling like he has a formulated idea of what could bring him into a healthy place,” he posited. “Whether that happens or not, I don’t know.”

“He can’t afford to be that friendly with people that he’s around. He’s designed his life not to be truly intimate,” Pullman added. “The challenge, as Derek and I talked about last year… if something is so internalized, how do you even know it’s there? I think what is scary and wonderful about this season is that’s gonna change, particularly in the character of Vera. She begins this journey with Ambrose and those issues can’t be hidden anymore.”

The Sinner returns Wednesday, Aug. 1 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on USA Network.