The episode submitted for Emmys consideration on Maura Tierney’s behalf featured her character in The Affair, Helen Solloway, going on a drink and drugs bender, ending in a car crash and very public humiliation.
For a character seen as so cool and collected, and so wronged by her cheating husband Noah (Dominic West), this was a thrilling episode—distinctively directed by The Last Seduction’s John Dahl—and it helped reshape the viewers’ perceptions of Helen.
It also helped score Tierney her second Emmys nomination for Best Supporting Actress (her first came in 2001 when she appeared as much-suffering nurse Abby Lockhart in ER).
In the second season of The Affair where both Helen and Joshua Jackson’s Cole had their perspectives of events added to Noah and Alison’s (Ruth Wilson), this episode, and its mix of the funny and tragic, sealed Helen’s character as just as complex and rounded as her errant husband and his new partner.
In The Affair, you can read ‘complex and rounded’ as ‘as-deliciously-screwed-up-as-everyone-else.’
The Daily Beast caught up with Tierney, by phone as Manhattan street-life roiled around her.
The Daily Beast: Congratulations on the nomination. That must have been a fun scene to film.
Maura Tierney: It was very fun, and also fun to read, a completely different side of the character. When I got the script, it was very funny and very sad: the writer did an excellent job. What I liked about the scene was it was the first time you see this character previously portrayed as annoyingly perfect but very not perfect. I thought it was a clever choice to kind of show how desperately un-OK she was. It was a real left turn for the character.
TDB: And yours and Joshua Jackson’s characters got their own perspectives this last season?
MT: The show is The Affair, and Dom and Ruth are the leads of the show. But I think creatively it was really nice for me and Josh to have a new thing to express. It was a little tricky because at first I didn’t know what I was doing. You get so used to playing this character one way or maybe two. It was liberating for both of us, I think.
TDB: How did Helen change for you as a result?
MT: In Season One she was this kind of saintly, wronged woman or very cold, classic-snobbish. She looks like she’s from outer space from Alison’s point of view. In Season Two we find out she was more complicit, controlling, or manipulative. What I like about this show is that often characters are perceived most negatively in their own point of view.
TDB: The show is so intense to watch, please tell me you have fun filming it.
MT: (Laughs.) We have a great deal more fun filming it than you might expect. Unfortunately, our stories are getting more and more separated. I miss them. Filming days can be exhausting, but there’s a lot of support among the cast and a lot of humor. The Brits (West and Wilson) are very charming and witty, and Canadians (Canadian-American Jackson) even more. That scene in the last season with Noah and Helen on the beach reflecting, and then jumping into the ocean was a quite beautiful day. You think, ‘I am a lucky person that this is my job right now.’
TDB: In the final episode of Season Two it was revealed that Helen was driving the car that killed Scotty (Colin Donnell), Cole’s brother, after Alison had pushed him into the path of the car. But Noah is going to take the rap for all of it. What can you tell us about Season Three?
MT: There will be no lack of repercussions for any of those actions. If Season Two was about the fallout from Season One, Season Three extends that exponentially. Everybody is suffering the consequences of their choices, or enjoying them.
TDB: And a lot more suffering?
MT: (Laughing.) There is a lot more suffering. How does one deal with guilt? Why did Noah cop to a crime he didn't commit? How did someone like Helen live with that choice? How can you be honest with anybody if you have this big lie inside you?
TDB: Is sexy Dr. Vic Ullah (played by Omar Metwally) coming back?
MT: Yes, he’s very much present in Season Three.
TDB: We are glad about that!
MT: He’s great, he’s Helen’s new boyfriend. Her keeping the secret of what happened that night is part of the issue with them. The storyline will have moments of humor and is human in a nice way.
TDB: Your character had some pretty hot, explicit sex at the start of in Season Two.
MT: Was it hot though? Cringey maybe. I knew Josh (Stamberg, the other actor in the scene, as Max). He’s a great guy. Again, it was very unexpected for the character. I thought it was really important to commit to that. I don’t know if it was hot, but it was real.
TDB: The encounters between Helen and Alison are rare, but always so volcanic and tense. Can we have more?
MT: I would love that, but I actually think it’s interesting for the show to be judicious in bringing them together. I’m not sure how much I’d hang out with the woman who stole my husband. But this season there is another occasion for them to have a deeper conversation about this man they have in common.
TDB: He’s been an asshole to both of you.
MT: I don’t think of Noah as too much of an asshole. (Laughs.) It’s a TV show, I get that. But I do think, who selfishly chooses to make themselves happy? Nobody. So, what are the choices founded in the darker side of our characters? I think that character is exploring the incredibly self-interested part of what a human is.
TDB: How are people watching the show—do they tell you?
MT: Some are watching it alone, some with their partners. Some are comfortable doing that, some are not. I think it touches a nerve, and sometimes it doesn't. It’s a fresh take on many things. The character of Noah doesn't have a shrew of a wife. It’s not a patriarchal show, saying, ‘Of course he’s having an affair because he has a terrible wife.’ The woman he is having the affair with is not a slut. She’s deeply complicated, interesting young woman. The Affair takes these archetypes and turns them over a lot, because nobody is just one thing. Life is more complicated than that.
TDB: What advice do people give you on the street?
MT: (Laughs.) In New York, people have shouted in passing, ‘Bravo,’ ‘Great work,’ and ‘He’s an asshole.’ With Season Two, it was like different ages watching it, and men watching it too. The demographic of the show is expanding.
TDB: Did you always want to act?
MT: I really wanted to be a dancer, but I just wasn’t good enough to do that so that didn’t happen.
TDB: You were first famous because of the show NewsRadio, then—on a very big level—as Abby in ER. What was that kind of exposure like?
MT: I’ve been working for so long, it was like a gradual thing. I’ve never been someone pursued by paparazzi. But I swear, the week I started on ER it was quite noticeable that people were looking at me. Overnight it felt different: not weird, just noticeable.
TDB: Again, Abby suffered and suffered…
MT: That's my métier. (Laughs). Deep sadness. (Laughs). And Sally Field played my mom. She’s a movie star, and great, and I learned a lot from her. It wasn’t just Abby’s sadness, it was that relationship people responded to.
TDB: What would you like to do next?
MT: Theatre, which I did do and continue to do! It’s something I like to sharpen my skills in. I am in a play with the Wooster Group, first in Paris in October, then February in New York, March in Los Angeles and April in San Francisco. It’s called The Town Hall Affair, and it’s based on the documentary Town Bloody Hall about Norman Mailer’s 1971 debate with four famous feminists of the day [Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling]. It’s shocking how Mailer talks to these women.
TDB: Has The Affair and [the intense Yasmina Reza play] God of Carnage put you off relationships for life?
MT: No, I don't think so. Infidelity has been around since marriage has, right? Being on ER didn't put me off taking medicines. I think the show is thought-provoking. Much as I love and respect Sarah (Treem, the show’s co-creator and showrunner), her ideas are not necessarily mine. I find her ideas interesting and compelling, but we’re different women. These aren’t my necessarily my philosophies. I’m telling a story.
TDB: Are you single yourself?
MT: I’m dating somebody. I am enjoying it very much, and having a really nice time at the moment. I’m very happy.
TDB: Where should Helen go next?
MT: Oh, I’d like to see Helen at Burning Man, railing against her uptight upbringing. It’s tough. I don't know where she finds any kind of peace. I’d like to make the character a little more unleashed.
TDB: Helen and Alison should end up together.
MT: (Laughs.) You know what? Ruth has pitched that. I don't think it’s out of the realm of possibility for this show, quite honestly. OK, they both go to Burning Man, I like it. I am going to pitch this idea. You will get credited if it ever comes to be. I’m good that way. I don't steal the credit.