Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
In this week’s episode, Variety’s managing editor of TV Cynthia Littleton talks with Jessica Biel, the star and executive producer of USA Network’s “The Sinner.” Biel is Emmy-nominated for lead actress in a limited series for her portrayal of a traumatized woman, Cora Tannetti, who commits a shocking murder.
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“The Sinner” marked Biel’s first major achievement as a producer after launching her Iron Ocean Films banner with partner Michelle Purple. Biel got the motivation to assemble her own projects the old-fashioned way — out of frustration with the lack of meaty roles that were coming her way. She was also concerned about being typecast as an actress thanks to her formative years on the WB Network drama “7th Heaven.”
“The desire was to find material that was really compelling and something I would never be thought of for — a particular role like this,” Biel says. “This gave the opportunity to really take control of the material and set it up in a way that we felt really strongly about all the key elements.”
Biel settled on “The Sinner” a few years ago after reading the 1999 novel by Petra Hammesfahr on which it is based. She remembers telling herself: “This thing is mine and I’m going to hang on to it.”
“The Sinner” experience adds Biel to the growing list of actresses who are using their star power to leverage new clout as producers and packagers of strong material. There’s too much happening out there to sit around and wait for the phone to ring, she says.
“That’s really an important element now in the entertainment business — to take control of your own career in that way. You used to sit back and wait for someone to give you a call, and then maybe you’d get an audition and maybe you’d get a call back. It’s not that way anymore. It really feels to me the business has evolved in such a way that you have to go after what you want and what you’re looking for.. You can’t just sit back and hope that somethings going to fall in your lap. You have to attack it.”
The role of Cora proved a physical and emotional roller-coaster for Biel. The character is triggered to commit a freak murder, which leads into an unraveling of past traumas ranging from sexual abuse to being held hostage for years before she became a wife and mother. Biel did a lot of research on the issue of post traumatic stress disorder and related conditions. But the most important factor in bringing the character’s pain to life was for her to look inward.
“My job is to find where my life touches hers,” Biel says. “That’s where I feel her. That’s where I have the compassion for her and somehow understand what this must be like for her,” she says.
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