‘The Sinner’ Premiere Postmortem: Bill Pullman on That Final Reveal

Kelly Woo
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Bill Pullman in The Sinner. (Credit: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

USA’s new crime drama The Sinner isn’t the standard “whodunnit,” but instead a “whydunnit.” Wife and mother Cora (Jessica Biel) clearly stabbed and killed a stranger at the beach, but what Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) can’t understand is why?

Neither can Cora, because she insists she didn’t know the victim, Frankie, at all. Cora didn’t seem to appreciate his loud music and aggressive making-out with his girlfriend, but was that enough for her to stab him seven times in front of her husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), and her son?

This may not have been such a random act of violence. At the end of the episode — SPOILERS AHEAD — Ambrose learns from Frankie’s buddy that Frankie had a chance to fight off Cora. But he let go of her arm after seeing her face. It looked like Frankie recognized Cora … and allowed her to continue stabbing him.

Pullman talked to Yahoo TV about the big reveal, as well as Ambrose’s personal demons and quirks.

Jessica Biel in The Sinner. (Credit: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

Yahoo TV: How did you react when you first read the script and got to that last scene, which tied Cora and Frankie together?
Bill Pullman: My initial reaction was wondering what it is that their connection was. There’s going to have to be some physical evidence that they were in the same place at the same time at some point in their lives, even though she can’t remember it right now.

That encourages Ambrose to pursue that angle, as part of an explanation for what happened. It’s the first concrete sense that this isn’t just a random thing. It rules out a couple of things — that it wasn’t just the music he was playing.

Is this peeling back just the first layer of the mystery of Cora? Where does this lead?
Yeah, if [Frankie] in fact recognized her, has he been destructive to her in some way in the past that she’s taking retribution for? What is it that he perpetrated? And how did he perpetrate it? And who is he associated with? Those are things that become leads that are going to be valuable to follow in subsequent episodes.

Ambrose definitely has a messy personal life. He’s separated from his wife, and he’s in this BDSM relationship with Sharon the waitress. What is going on in Ambrose’s head?
In the encounter with Sharon at her place, you realize there’s some burden that he’s carrying and that acting out in this way allows him to get some relief from some kind of condition. It may involve — who knows? — shame, maybe. Involving some kind of connection to some deep trauma he had in the past? Or some kind of exhilaration he gets? Or awakens some kind of latent excitement he had in the past or some secret?

Ambrose also has this love of nature — he talks about trees and plants. What’s his deal there?
When I read that in the first script, I couldn’t believe that Derek [Simonds, the creator] didn’t know that I also had an interest in botany and naturalism. I always had that interest, and it came through my father, who was a doctor and a naturalist. He encouraged us to learn Latin words for varieties of trees. And my mother was a great birder. But Derek didn’t know that. It was really one of those things — it made me feel like maybe he’s in touch with some buried secret about me!

I do feel like Ambrose is … there’s this term, biophilia, a love for living organisms, plants, and trees. You discover down the road where some of that comes from. You get a sense that the natural world, for him, is a place to go to and get perspective. It’s also kind of an early warning system. He looks for the tells in the natural world as he would in a case.

The Sinner airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on USA.

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