As Cora Tannetti in USA’s The Sinner, Jessica Biel brutally stabs a young man to death in front of dozens of people on a beach. Why would she do that? Cora doesn’t know exactly, but what ensues is a twisting ride on the coattails of a fantastically unreliable protagonist. As each thread of the mystery is pulled, Biel is believable, vulnerable, and deliberately unreadable all at once. As she says, “There’s almost like a multiple personality in one person. I do feel that it’s as if a small village of people live inside her mind.” And she plays them all seamlessly—a task that was, she says, “a real, real challenging thing, but so cathartic.”
Her Emmy nomination for the role is the feather in the cap of a distinguished career. Celebrating from Sweden, where she’s on tour with husband Justin Timberlake, Biel gives us an insight into her passion for screens big and small.
My First TV Lesson
It would really be 7th Heaven. I remember speaking to one of our camera operators when I was 14 years old. It was the first season, and I literally had to get up from my chair in the scene and walk someplace. The DP and the camera operator were teaching me how to stand up smoothly and then walk, because, see, when you’re a kid you get up jerkily and awkwardly. I missed my light. I didn’t even know there was a light. I remember that as a formative first television learning experience, in a family-oriented, safe place where people were helping me and teaching me mechanical stuff. I remember the technical stuff more than I remember even my emotional stuff, or the real acting stuff.
Characters I Always Wanted To Be
I wanted to be a lot of different people, one being Orphan Annie. Everybody wanted to be her at one point. And that really inspired my music. Initially, my career was all music-focused—voice lessons, theater, and dance. I didn’t watch that much television growing up; it just really wasn’t part of my family culture. But I remember wanting to be Kelly Kapowski [Tiffani Thiessen] and Jessie Spano [Elizabeth Berkley] from Saved by the Bell. And I remember seeing Romeo + Juliet as I got a little bit older, and I wanted to be the Claire Danes version of Juliet. It was definitive in my life. Watching her performance I was like, “I want to be an actress.”
The Role I’d Kill For
I would kill to play Don Draper in Mad Men, but as a woman. He’s just so human and flawed. I mean, you hate him, but you cannot get enough of him. He’s brutal to his wife, and yet you are still with him. He manages to keep you interested and liking him as you hate him. And he’s so smart. When he’s great, when he’s brilliant at work, and you see that kind of genius in the character, you just want him to succeed, even though he’s lying and being a dick to his family. I just find that that kind of character that you can get behind and trust so challenging and so amazing.
My Toughest Role Yet
Certainly The Sinner is the most emotionally and psychologically challenging character I’ve ever played. There’s that moment where she’s just like, “I’m going to let it go, I’m going to sink under the water.” I feel like we’ve probably all had a moment like that and flirted with, “Should we do it? Can I go under water and not come back up?” And most of us cannot. We have to come back up. It’s that survival instinct. That’s just a good example of a really technically and emotionally tricky moment that definitely makes this part the most challenging of my career.
My Desert Island Shows
It would be a combination of Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos. That’s my lineup. God, there’s just so many good ones. But I would say if I could have those three, I would be pretty happy. I think because they’re just done so well. They’re either super incredibly funny or dark or raw or real. I mean, there are so many other good shows as well, but I just am moved by those.
My Guilty TV Pleasures
I don’t watch that kind of thing very often, and this is terribly embarrassing but kind of interesting: Say Yes to the Dress. I’m also into My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. It’s really humiliating exposing that to you. And maybe this is not so surprising anymore, but I love true crime stories. I watch 48 Hours: Hard Evidence. I love prison shows. I watch young women in prison, or the prison system. Young kids in prison, which sounds so hard to believe after The Sinner, but I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing.
The Books I Wish Were TV Shows
There’s an amazing book series called Wool by Hugh Howey. I’m not terribly into dystopian societies, even though I think it’s interesting, but this particular one, with a woman at the helm, I think could be a really great show. I also love period stuff, like The Crown and I’ve always been interested in trying to adapt Tender Is the Night into something.
The Films That Make Me Cry
The first one coming to mind is Beaches. It’s a classic. Then there’s such a goofy old movie called Drop Dead Fred that always makes me cry with laughter. Oh, my God, it’s so funny. Phoebe Cates is so amazing. Also Sharon Stone in Casino is heartbreakingly amazing. My heart breaks for her every time I see it. And maybe Edward Scissorhands. Those beautiful characters that you so badly want to protect and love.