This interview includes spoilers for the Season 3 finale of “The Sinner.”
Nick infected Jamie, and then Jamie infected Harry Ambrose — or wait, was Harry infected all along?
It’s not a virus that these three characters are passing around on the USA series “The Sinner,” although they liken it to one. What has really taken them over are seductive, self-destructive Nietzschean concepts of embracing pain and flirting with death as pathways to higher truths. These notions have led Nick (Chris Messina) to stab himself with a steak knife, Jamie (Matt Bomer) to embark on a murder spree, and all three of them to consent to being buried alive (for a limited time).
These dangerous games finally came to an end in Thursday night’s Season 3 finale, in which Ambrose, played by Bill Pullman, shot Jamie because he was a metaphysical threat — quoting Jung, talking about the unconscious, questioning fate. “It’s an impulsive moment that’s surprising for Ambrose,” Pullman said in a phone interview on Wednesday, “almost as if he’s rejecting this other side of himself.”
From his home in Los Angeles, Pullman talked about his character’s conflicts, about being buried alive and about having his dreams invaded by Keanu Reeves. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why do you think Ambrose cries at the end? The detective and his suspect weren’t exactly friends, but they did share a connection. Is he grieving?
Maybe they shared the sense of what it’s like to be lonely. I think Ambrose has been aware of his own sense of dislocation from other people. He’s compelled to be more exposed about himself, yet he can’t. So I think he finds something simpatico in Jamie, who has this ability to name things in the other person: “I sense that there’s something angry inside you.” Jamie represents his shadow self, and Ambrose’s resistance to acknowledging that keeps him from real change. He’s comfortable with the agony that he knows. My brother, who is an infectious disease doctor, said that some people would rather choose their dysfunction that is causing them ill health versus the unknown, healthier behavior, because there is an entrenched fear of the unknown.
Harry’s also responding to how much fear Jamie has at the end. Jamie didn’t think that would be what he discovered on the edge. He didn’t go into some kind of state of serenity, the way Nick did when he was dying. So Harry is grieving for that bizarre condition of how we think we can make death something calming, but in the moment, we’re terrified.
Part of Nick’s philosophy — as practiced by Jamie — is that you need to shake people out of their comfort zones, disrupt their routines. He would have a field day right now.
Nietzsche said that the earth is like an organism with a skin, stretched thinly around the world, and this skin can get diseases from time to time. And one of the diseases that it has is humanity! So his writing is full of darkness about who we are, as a collective organism.
With previous seasons of “The Sinner,” the people who have committed crimes are victims of trauma. But this season, Jamie is very much like Ambrose, and there’s something dark inside them that seems to be a priori — a given, not something that can be explained, or apologized for, or looked at to see if it can be corrected. There’s some kind of self-loathing in the two of them, and it’s dangerous.
The two of them become burial buddies. What was it like shooting that when Ambrose agrees to be buried alive?
I didn’t trust it at first. I didn’t believe I could get Ambrose to the point where he’d make that choice. [The showrunner] Derek Simonds, to his credit, kept shaping it, so there wasn’t a lot of other recourse to help Ambrose build the case. Then add his sense of eminent danger, his conflicted empathy, his frustration. Once that got solved, it was the physical challenge. It’s like an astronaut going into space. Just before launch, their heart rates are not much higher than we would experience making a left-hand turn into L.A. traffic. You prep to be in control and not panic.
How did you use creative dream work this season? This was an option offered to you back in Season 1, but this was the first season you participated in that process with the rest of the cast, right?
There’s a very Jungian approach to what Derek does. Derek had a three-day workshop before we started the pilot, and I didn’t feel it was important to Ambrose at that point. Now I trust Derek in such a different way than I did three years ago, so this season, I did it. It was amazingly useful. Part of my fear going into it was that I don’t remember my dreams. But [the coach, Kim Gillingham,] suggested I think about the possibility that if I have a dream, I’d like to remember it. And bang! I had a Technicolor dream.
What happened in the dream?
I hadn’t been to the shooting location yet, but it looked like Harry’s house in the woods. I followed a 5-year-old girl wearing a tiara out to a pond next to the house, and she started to walk right into the pond. I went into the pond, too. Both of us were fully clothed. And there were two ducks at the far side of the pond watching us. I never dream about other actors or anything like that, but Keanu Reeves was also there, and I couldn’t figure that out. Why was he in my dream?
And then I remembered that Keanu had a very interesting response to a question in the past year, when Stephen Colbert asked him, “What do you think happens when we die?” Keanu took a breath, and then he said, pretty slowly, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.” It was something about his demeanor, the profundity and the simplicity of his response. So I think that was why, because those issues about facing death are part of this season. Parsing all of that the next day was particularly valuable. It was like a crack of lightning over a dark valley — I could see the valley for what it was.
How so? And how did it affect your performance?
Everything you see is also something seeing you back. What are the ducks to you when they look back at you? So you start seeing this invitation to spontaneity, to be more playful, to be more willing to take this sense of connection to Harry’s journey. The girl is a reflection of some aspect of Harry. It brought a kind of heightened awareness. That was powerful in the framework, the fear of being seen that has always been part of Harry’s natural state.
“The Sinner” invited you into the writers room to help incorporate aspects of your personal life into the story in Seasons 1 and 2. Anything in Season 3?
In Season 2, we incorporated aspects of how my mother had a psychiatric illness and the consequences of unintentional abandonment. By this season, there was also Ambrose’s biophilia, I call it — the love of living things. The writers all know I have an exotic fruit orchard, so Derek said: “We slugged in this stuff. What would he say?” I used my own experience for the nursery scene where he’s like: “Don’t choose these. These are root-bound.” Planting the tree with Jamie is intimate. It allows them to get to the place where they can talk candidly.
Greil Marcus once wrote an essay called “Bill Pullman’s Face,” describing your face as its own landscape, a window opening into America as a “nihilist kingdom.” He said you look pushed down by the weight of a world that looks just as it did yesterday but no longer makes any sense.
[Laughs] Interesting. A recurring series does give incredible permission to recognize that there is so much more that can be seen, even when you’re not talking, you know? I was just talking to Derek about that. I said to him, “There seem to be a lot of people who enjoy not being told things verbally but sensing them in the stretches of silence.” Choosing takes is a matter of deciding when the subtext is enough. But the subtext is not just one color. Sometimes it’s the opposite, in the same moment.
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