‘The Report’: How Maura Tierney Grappled With Waterboarding Scenes and CIA Torture
The Golden Globe winner talks playing a CIA agent who oversaw gruesome interrogations, how she feels about the end of “The Affair,” and playing someone, for once, you root against.
Something unsettling happens when Maura Tierney appears on screen in The Report. You don’t like her.
It’s an unfamiliar position to be in, and quite disorienting after following the actress’s work over the last 30 years in projects like NewsRadio, ER, Beautiful Boy, and The Affair, which ended its series run on Showtime this month after five seasons. There’s something about her essence. You’re not so much conditioned to root for her and her characters as it is a pure reflex.
Not in The Report.
“I know, it's fun, right?” she says grinning, before she shakes her head at the optics of that word and starts over. “I mean there's nothing fun about her. I'm usually hired because, I don't know, I project that I'm empathetic. I don't know why I'm that woman, but it was really interesting to be cast in this role.”
The Report tracks the years-long investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program led by Senate staffer Daniel Jones (played by Adam Driver) under the direction of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening). The investigation eventually led to the writing of what’s known as “The Torture Report,” which was the original title of the film, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns.
Tierney plays a composite character named Bernadette, one of the few fictional characters in the film. Bernadette is a CIA agent who oversaw and continues to defend, with an almost desperate fervor, the use of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” on detainees. She is unflinching in her actions—an, again, disorienting note to watch Tierney play.
On the first truly cold day of the fall, Tierney arrives to a film production office in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan to discuss the film, the end of The Affair, and what’s to come now that promotion for the year’s two big projects is ending in tandem.
She has a workman-like warmth to her, rolling up the sleeves of her black turtleneck to kick things off in let’s-do-this fashion while still inquisitive, curious, and frank as we barrel through topics as sensitive as government torture and as grand as the state of her career. Punctuating all of it is that raspy voice, a kind of gravely husk that manages to soothe, not harsh the conversation, often accompanied by a knowing smirk and, occasionally, a head-thrown-back cackle.
Her opinions tend to crackle off her, like embers of ideas evaporating in stream-of-conscious. It’s all very stimulating. Considering the topics at hand, when the conversation is over it seems remarkable that it all seemed so...fun.
“Playing something so deeply different from what I generally play is part of why I wanted to do The Report,” she says. “However, I was quite taken by the movie. I thought it was really important for the story to be told. I just think it’s so impressive.”
The findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,700-page document are dramatized with a Spotlight-like intensity in The Report.
“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”—waterboarding, hog tying, sleep deprivation, physical violence, and more—were used on 119 detainees, at least a quarter of which probably should never have been detained in the first place. The methods worked on none of them; the CIA received no usable intelligence. The men who designed the program received $81 million in funding, had no background in interrogation, and were in charge of judging their own efficacy.
Official reports were alternately exaggerated or covered up in order to continue legal approval for the program. Then-CIA Director John Brennan worked fastidiously to halt Jones’ investigations and keep the findings from becoming public, and many of the agents involved in the program and who oversaw the torture at black sites were promoted, most notably current CIA Director Gina Haspel.
“The whole thing was solipsistic,” Tierney says. “Is that the right word? It just kept being built on its own existence and the reason for existing was its own existence. It wasn't actually achieving anything.”
Because the film ends with the reminder that agents were promoted even after these findings came out, people have assumed that the composite character Tierney is playing is largely based on Haspel, whose role in 2002 as chief of a CIA black site in Thailand, where she oversaw Enhanced Interrogation Techniques including waterboarding, was confirmed last year.
Tierney says she wasn’t instructed to and didn’t base her character off Haspel. But the fact that there are real people that her character could be based on complicates the question of how evil you might be meant to find them.
When Bernadette is first presented with a PowerPoint presentation explaining the specifics of the violent new interrogation techniques, she nodded where most winced, praising them as a “game changer.” When the techniques continue, time and again, to fail to produce any usable intelligence, no matter how much they escalated, it’s only with a hint of exasperation in her voice that she says, “You have to make this work. It’s only legal if it works.”
“You should be angry at her,” Tierney says. She remembers that she asked Burns before filming what levels of questioning or doubt she should portray, or if she should instead show some sort of ambivalence about the violence she was complicit in. He told her to have no ambivalence. Bernadette would know the stakes and wholeheartedly support them.
“I searched and I searched my brain and I was like, is there anybody that you could watch being waterboarded that you wouldn't feel bad for?” Tierney says. “And I found someone that I could imagine watching that happen to and not be upset.” She grins and interrupts before the question can even be asked. “I'm not going to tell you who it is.”
The first time you see Bernadette is on 9/11 watching the towers fall on the news with her coworkers, when the CIA headquarters in McLean, VA, is considered a potential target and the staff are evacuated. It’s crucial to be introduced to her at this moment, as it lays the groundwork for what viewers would take away as the only justification for her actions.
Adam Driver delivers a line at the end of the movie about the people who were working in the CIA before 9/11, that it happened on their watch. When the physician’s assistant monitoring the torture tells her that what they are doing is every kind of unethical, illegal, ineffective, and wrong, she guilt-trips him by underlining the gravity of what’s on the line in the throes of post-9/11 paranoia and panic: the lives of his children. “We’re not going to get beat again!” she tells him.
“There was a lot of shame and fear,” Tierney says. “And I think shame and fear can drive people to do terrible things. As a former Catholic, I experience shame quite often.” She gives a self-deprecating giggle before straightening her posture to make her serious point. “I think it could really drive you to the extreme of that character who watched waterboarding day in and day out and instituted that part of that program.”
With its exposure of government cover-ups, exposing of whistleblowers, and examination of a crisis of democracy rooted within the very institution, The Report is certainly timely.
“It's a story that we read about it in the paper, but when you watch it, you see Dan Jones’ dogged determination to uncover the truth,” Tierney says. “We all should know. It's like Watergate, but worse because people died. We need to know what the government is doing.”
Tierney filmed The Report before working on the final season of The Affair, a sequence of heavy, dark projects that one would imagine would drain an actor. But for Tierney, it was actually the opposite.
“I loved The Affair, but it’s, you know, melodrama,” she says. “I think it's very good melodrama. I like that. But to be out of that milieu, let's say, and do something that's much more sort of fact-based and story-based and not emotional, for me, was refreshing.”
Asked how she feels about the series being over, she’s quite definitive and fast to respond. It’s feels good. Five years is a good run, and it is also long enough. It’s not a slight to the project or the people she worked with, and shouldn’t be read to be colored with any of the drama behind costar Ruth Wilson’s still-mysterious, controversial departure from the show. It’s simply pragmatic. Maura Tierney’s been on several television shows, and those shows end.
I confess to her that I stopped watching in the second season. It was too uncomfortable to watch and even root for all this cheating and betrayal. It scratched at too many insecurities and worst-case nightmares about relationships. So when in doing research for this article I discovered that series creator Sarah Treem and her husband divorced during the production of the show, it was a strange, meta, almost horrifying revelation.
“I mean, I'm divorced,” Tierney says. “People get divorced for all different kinds of reasons. So I don't know if I would put it that in that slot there. But yeah, life imitates art imitates life imitates art…”
Without spoiling specifics of how the series ends for her character, Helen, we’ll say that there’s an unexpected happy ending for her and Dominic West’s Noah, who are married at the start of the series. What struck Tierney about the ending was that, for the first time, Helen is doing what she wants.
“She was such a martyr,” she says. “She was always taking care of everybody else and putting out fires and taking care of her children. To have her say, fuck it, I really don't care what anybody thinks. And even if they think she’s stupid and a sucker, it was the character making a choice for her own herself to be, to be happy. To me that's the happy ending.”
At the moment, she doesn’t have another project lined up. When asked she’s feeling about her career, more broadly speaking, she’s as blunt and brief as before. “I don’t know, to be really honest.” Right after filming on The Affair wrapped, she did a play in Los Angeles, Witch. She says theater “is always nice to do cause it's like a sorbet or something, a complete palette cleanser and just so different.”
It’s at the end of November that The Affair would normally be heading back into production, so she expects that in the next few weeks when she doesn’t have a set to go back to is when it might start feeling strange.
We mention that maybe a comedy would be a nice next step, considering that’s what she was initially known for, with NewsRadio. “People forgot I can be funny,” she says, laughing. She protests that she did play the straight man on NewsRadio, but then concedes. “It's funny to me. It's just, I think since ER, you know, I've done some films that are comedies, but it's been mostly dramas.”
The mention of ER makes me wonder if she’s ever thought about how many episodes of TV she’s been in. It has to be in the hundreds, not just because she played Dr. Abby Lockhart for so long, but because she’s had an enviable number of long-running shows and extended guest arcs over her career.
“I should try to figure that out,” she says. “But will it feel good or bad?”
Definitely good, I argue. It has to be an impressive number. (About 400 episodes, based on my rough calculations after the fact.) “Well, we’ll see. Maybe that’s what I’ll do tomorrow. Grab a calculator.”