Before she signed onto Showtime's “The Affair,” Maura Tierney had done practically everything it's possible for an actor to do in television. Her first regular series role (on “The Van Dyke Show”) was opposite no less than Dick Van Dyke; her second (“704 Hauser”) was working for Norman Lear, on the same set where “All in the Family” took place. She's been the leading woman on a classic (if underappreciated in its time) sitcom in “NewsRadio,” helped carry an enormous hit drama (“ER”) as it transitioned away from its original cast, been the lead on a legal procedural (“The Whole Truth”), and was one of the original stars of “Parenthood” before a bout with breast cancer forced her to drop out of the role of Sarah Braverman.
She had done all of those things on one broadcast network or another, which is why she agreed to play Helen Solloway, the wife Dominic West's Noah cheats on in “The Affair.” (Last summer, she told critics, “There”s just a little more freedom (on cable), and I really wanted to experience that.”)
It wasn't a huge role in the first season, but it was also really two roles in one, since Tierney had to play Helen both as Noah saw her, and then as Noah's lover Alison did. This year, though, things get more interesting for her, since the series' two points of view now become four, giving us the perspectives of the spouses Noah and Alison left behind as well. (I've seen the first two episodes of the new season, which debuts Sunday at 10; the first is split between Noah and Helen POVs, the second between Alison and Cole.)
Back at summer press tour, I sat down with Tierney to talk about the challenges and freedoms that come with her current job, revisit past roles (including why she never came back to “Parenthood” after her cancer went into remission), why she has only done dramas since “NewsRadio” ended, and a lot more.
So when you took the job, did (“The Affair” creator) Sarah (Treem) talk about the idea that down the road, we were going to get Helen”s story, or was that something that came to you later?
Maura Tierney: We didn”t talk about that. I don”t know if that was always her plan or not. I think towards the end of last season, the writers decided to give Helen a point of view as well. I don”t know how long it was in the works.
You talked a year ago about how you were interested in doing this because you”ve done almost everything in TV, but you”d never done a premium cable drama before. Over the course of doing that first season, did you find yourself wishing you had a point of view, or was there enough meat there?
Maura Tierney: I felt it was fun because you”re essentially playing two characters. I was happy with the work last year. I mean I”m happy this year, too, but I was happy last year.
In terms of the two characters and the two different versions, how long did it take you to figure out a consistency and what”s different about Helen when he sees her versus when she sees her?
Maura Tierney: That was quite clear. How Noah sees Helen and how Alison sees Helen are quite clearly drawn in two very different women. And I”m much colder and a bigger snob and way more class conscious in Alison”s POV. When we got to Helen”s point of view, it was a little tricky because the instinct is to just fall into playing it sort of how Noah saw her. And I”m still trying to figure out what unique aspects can be revealed when it”s Helen seeing herself. So I”m still working at it.
But do you think that there is any sort of fundamental truth of Helen in Alison”s point of view?
Maura Tierney: I do. I mean, I think there”s fundamental truth in all of the points of views, and there”s fundamental untruths. But yes, I think one of the things that the character has to come to terms with is her wealth and her privilege and her lack of ever coming up against any real serious challenges. So I don”t think Helen is a cold bitch, but I think there”s an aspect of privilege to her life that she has been unaware of.
The show can have these extreme discrepancies, not just in characterization, but sometimes in terms of incident. Like when Cole draws the gun in Noah”s version, it”s dramatically different in terms of the details than in Alison”s version in the finale. Did you and the other actors talk about that at all?
Maura Tierney: That was talked about for hours and hours. Not so much me, because I”m a bystander in that scene. Except in that scene, Helen had my favorite line in the whole show when she says to Mare Winningham, “All right, this is way too fucked up for me.” Because she”s the only one in the room that is saying what is going on which is way too fucked up. Before the gun even comes out. It wasn”t really my scene, but the other three actors talked about it quite a bit because, it was a really dramatic turn and all of a sudden Cole has a gun and we haven”t seen anything like that before. So there was a lot of discussion between Sarah and the actors about how best to do it.
How has the cable drama experience been for you a season and a half into it?
Maura Tierney: I love it. It”s really nice to have the freedom language wise that I have and topic wise that we have. The time is great.
Were there times, whether on “ER” or some of the other network shows you did, where you found yourself wishing you could curse?
Maura Tierney: Yeah, of course you just wanted to be able to say “shit” once. That”s how people talk. And we would always have to say “damn it,” and someone”s dying.
Anthony Edwards did get to say “shit” in his death episode.
Maura Tierney: You”re right. He got to say it, but he earned it. I didn”t really say it. I did give the finger to Sally Field one time though, and it stayed on the show, which was great. Listen, I loved my character in “ER” and that was a great eight years of my life. But this is nice, and the pace is a little bit slower. And there”s less script so the writers are less stressed out.
“Parenthood” came to an end earlier this year, and I think back to that original pilot with you in it.
Maura Tierney: Did you see it?
Yeah I did. It”s funny, because you were by far the best thing in that version of the pilot.
Maura Tierney: Oh, thanks.
But them having to reshoot it forced Jason Katims to figure some other stuff out, and that version overall is better.
Maura Tierney: Yes, my diagnosis was a gift to them to rethink the show.
Did you and Jason ever talk down the road about coming in as a Braverman cousin or something?
Maura Tierney: He did. I love him very much as a writer. I have great respect for his work. And he had emailed me a while back to do a little part on the show, and I had a feeling, and I was like, “Does the character have breast cancer?” And he was like, “Yes.” And I was like, “Oh, fuck you!” (laughs) I was like, “Make me something else and I”ll do it.” But that just didn”t feel right to me, doing a bit on that show. It just felt, I don”t know, forced or something.
You and Lauren Graham did “NewsRadio” for a while together. It”s funny that she wound up coming into that role.
Maura Tierney: It”s really funny. And now they”re together, right? Her and Peter (Krause). I made a love match, too.
So all these good things came out of that, and you”re okay.
Maura Tierney: Well knock on (wood), but yes.
You said you didn”t want to play a breast cancer character. You did that on “Rescue Me.” Did you feel like you got that out of your system?
Maura Tierney: Yeah, and also that was really different. I mean that was a much more raw was very visceral. Peter Tolan, I would work with him any day of the week. Also Denis Leary. I email Denis to tell him I want to be on his new show. I want to do an episode. They were really cautious and interested to have my input. I don”t know. It was just – I felt very safe to do that there to go back to (acting). And “Parenthood,” that many years later, it didn”t feel organic, that”s all.
Norman Lear was here when press tour started. And I don”t know if you heard the quote, but he said the one that got away from him was “704 Hauser.” As a young actress starting out, you”re working with him over a year in the Archie Bunker house.
Maura Tierney: Can you imagine?
What was that like for you?
Maura Tierney: It was awesome. Norman is a lovely man. He”s incredibly intelligent and insightful and he”s kind. I think it was my second real job I ever had, and he just knows a lot about comedy. It felt lucky. You know, I worked with Normal Lear. I worked with Grant Tinker. I worked with Dick Van Dyke. I worked with Jay Sandrich. Like these people were television in the '70s and the '80s. I had a cool beginning; none of those shows succeeded, but I worked with TV greats.
“NewsRadio” ran five years and was great. But since then, your career has pivoted away and it”s been largely dramatic. Was that by choice?
Maura Tierney: No. No one will freaking hire me to be in a comedy! When “The Whole Truth” ended, I really was looking to do something funny. I think multicameras can still be funny. I don”t know why that”s out of fashion. They”ll probably come back into fashion. Either way, I really wanted to do a half-hour comedy, but I don”t know what people thought. They got out of the fashion of thinking that I”m funny. I don”t know why. I think Helen has a sense of humor, too.
Have you ever watched the “NewsRadio” DVDs?
Maura Tierney: No.
The reason I bring it up, is because with the commentaries, it”s almost a running gag: Anytime a new person comes on the commentaries, almost all men doing it, the second you walk on screen, the conversation stops so that the new person can say, “Oh wow, look how hot Maura is.”
Maura Tierney: It”s too bad. I was so self-conscious and had no confidence. It was 20 years ago this year, and I'm like, “What the hell was my problem?” I had so much insecurity and did not feel hot at all. But that”s nice. Is that true?
I”m not making it up. I believe even Warren Littlefield says it.
Maura Tierney: What? Maybe he should be my future ex-husband.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com