Ellen Adair recently captivated audiences as Bess throughout season 2 of The Sinner. The hit USA series just wrapped up its second season with an intense season finale. We spoke with Ellen about what viewers can expect from the episode, her hopes for season 3, and what else fans can look forward to from her next.
Read on for our exclusive interview with Ellen Adair below:
What motivated you to initially pursue acting? Is there anyone who influenced or inspired you?
I was so young when I fell in love with it, that I think it was more a motivation along the lines of a child’s wish to pet a dog or eat an ice cream cone. But I have a strong memory of seeing a family friend performing in what must have been well-produced community theatre, when I was pretty young—less than five, I’d guess—and I thought it was so cool that he got to be somebody else besides the person I knew!
When I was a little older, like six or seven, I was certainly inspired by my aunt, who’s an actor. My grandmother was also an actor, so I was probably doomed by genetics to love acting and theatre. I say ‘genetics’ partly because my grandmother and aunt live in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve spent my entire life a long plane-ride away from them, so I didn’t even see my aunt perform live until, I think, high school, which is crazy! But I saw recordings of my aunt—she played Peter Pan for years at the Portland Civic Theatre—and I had this picture of her from backstage at a performance on my desk. I thought she was the coolest. And I was right.
But it wasn’t as if I grew up hanging out in the green room while my family members were on stage, I just grew up on the other side of the country running around the house pretending I was in a Shakespeare play or going to theatre camp or writing plays and performing them with my friends like a real nerd. I didn’t have a TV growing up, so at the time my love was primarily about theatre.
You have already been able to work with some impressive names so far in your career. Is there anyone you would love to work with someday?
Oh, I love this question! Buckle up for a lot of verbiage on the subject, I just feel like there are so many ways I want to go with this. I could write a College Thesis on this question.
Well, the first person who springs to mind is Mark Rylance, since I have classified him as One of My Four Favorite People I Don’t Actually Know. I first saw him as Olivia in “Twelfth Night” at the Globe in maybe 2003, when I was studying at Oxford, and it was a performance that absolutely changed my life. Now I try not to miss seeing him in anything. He clogs the leaderboard of my favorite all-time performances. I learned that he attended a performance of a show I was doing Off-Broadway at the Mint Theatre in 2011, and I almost died—I was so glad I didn’t know before the show that he was there! I didn’t get to meet him, though.
I’d also have to say that Kenneth Branagh changed my life, perhaps moreso, because my parents took me to see the film version of his “Henry V” when I was a wee tiny child. I think maybe I was in first grade? And I LOVED IT. I made them take me back five times, and I wrote the owner of the movie theatre a letter asking for the movie poster. I imagine they didn’t get a lot of similar requests from people with first-grade penmanship, so they sent me the poster. So, my parents are essentially to blame for me loving Shakespeare my whole life, but so is Mr. Branagh. I did get to meet him when he came to a production of “Cymbeline” that I was working on Off-Broadway—I could barely get my words out I was so excited.
Tangential digression, I had also accosted Dylan Baker with my fandom in the Times Square train station because I had been such a fan of his for years, and had just seen him in “God of Carnage” on Broadway. I’d spent so long saying “Dylan Baker classes up everything that he does,” I had to tell him. And he was the definition of gracious, because he is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. So it was this insane dream to get to work with him so much on “Homeland.” And I saw Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and it made me deeply admire Carrie—I knew of Tracy, already, of course—so it was phenomenal to get to work with her, then, on “The Sinner!”
I mention this because are a lot of actors that I think I’d feel particularly excited to work with because I’ve seen them both on stage and screen (also a thread with Rylance and Branagh, of course)—I think that’s the beautiful thing about theatre, it’s about everyone being in a room together and sharing that experience, so maybe that’s why I feel like I have a better sense of them as an artist when I’ve seen them in both media. So, the first people to spring to mind. Janet McTeer. Laurie Metcalf. I WORSHIP them. Amy Morton. Fiona Shaw. Reed Birney. Oh my goodness, Jane Houdyshell. Josh Charles. Michael Aronov. Phylicia Rashad. Jennifer Garner! And there are also actors I know personally and whom I’ve seen on stage or TV, but haven’t gotten to work with, so it would be particularly lovely to get to work with them since I know I already both admire their work and love them as human beings. My mind immediately goes to all of my husband’s classmates from the Yale School of Drama, who are all fabulously talented, gorgeous human beings—Brian Tyree Henry, Kristen Connolly, Elliot Villar, Emily Dorsch, Charlie Semine, Michael Braun are probably the folks from his class that anyone reading this might most likely have seen on TV, but I would love to get to work with any of them myself. Whether you’ve heard of them or you haven’t, they’re all stellar.
There’s also no end of writers I really admire, but I feel I can’t let this question go by without saying how amazing it would be to get to work on a new play with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins or Madeleine George. Jacobs-Jenkins clogs the “Favorite New Play” leaderboard the way Rylance does the “Favorite Performance” one. This is why he’s also one of my Four Favorite People I Don’t Actually Know.
And I had planned to go on and on about my favorite actors who I’ve only seen on TV or film and directors I admire, but I’m cutting myself off. Anyone who’s dying for the answer to this question, you can find me on Twitter at @ellen_adair, hit me up. Just be prepared for a THREAD.
For those who may be unfamiliar, can you talk a little about your role on The Sinner and what originally attracted you to the role?
In the first episode, Bess looks very much like a normal, if anxious, mom—we might get a little bit of a step-dad vibe off of the character of Adam, her partner. But it turns out (SMALL spoiler alert) that Bess and Adam are actually members of this spiritual commune (some might say ‘cult,’ I won’t), where she’s lived for the majority of her adult life. Which, from the things we learn about Bess over the course of the season, makes sense. We learn that she couldn’t have children herself but it’s so clear that she wanted to figure out a way to have a family and to take care of others. And to be taken care of. She’s looking to fill that void. I don’t want to say a lot else in case readers haven’t seen the show or all of it yet!
In terms of what attracted me to Bess, I was very much drawn to her truly interesting life and the upheaval in it, but also the way I think she’s really trying to make her way through with compassion and empathy. She may be a little too empathetic for her own good, really. But also, a lot of the other characters I’ve gotten to play on TV tend to be fast-talky professional people, sometimes reserved, or dry, so it was really wonderful to get to play someone who’s different from that! Bess seems to be at a loss for words as often as not, but she mostly wears her heart on her sleeve.
The Sinner is a very intense and suspenseful drama. Where do you draw your inspiration from for your character?
Well, I did some research just so that I could spend time imagining Bess’s life in a commune and what might have drawn her there. I watched “Wild Wild Country” and “The Source Family” and I read a couple of books by Robert Johnson, whose ideas were an inspiration for the fictional “work” at Mosswood. And both Antonio Campos and Derek Simonds were extremely helpful in helping me imagine the landscape of her life that brought her up to that point. It may sound dumb or boring, but my inspiration is always “What is this person’s life like?” So it’s really about imagining that, and putting myself into that position. And Bess goes through some intense things and is faced with some difficult choices. That’s always inspiring to an actor! Also, so much of the engine of acting, for me, is my character’s relationships to the other characters that she interacts with—so my biggest inspiration is almost always the other actors I get to work with. So, with a cast like this, that’s easy!
The Sinner was recently recognized by the Emmy Awards with Jessica Biel being nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series. Was that exciting for you to be a part of a series receiving this recognition?
Oh, of course! But mostly, to be part of a series so deserving of that recognition, rather than the recognition itself. Jessica’s performance in season one is one of my favorite TV performances I’ve ever seen. It is absolutely transcendent. And she is exceptional. She gives a holy-Mary-mother-of-God-how-did-she-do-that performance: she’s transported. And I straight-up fangirled her about it when I got to meet her.
But when you look at the incredibly high caliber of performances in the first season, it’s so clear that it’s about the talent of that group of performers, but also the team that created the story, and that lifts the story. Antonio is one of my favorite directors I’ve ever worked with, and his aesthetic and his attention to detail and his careful direction absolutely brings the show to another level.
I’d also just like to recognize, too, that the other brilliant, top-notch show that I worked on this year, “Homeland,” was also nominated for an Emmy! For both Mandy Patinkin and F. Murray Abraham. And again, just so exciting to be part of a show that so richly deserves all the awards and nominations it’s received.
How was the experience working alongside the cast this season? Are there any fun memories that stick out for you from filming?
Oh, so many! Because it was such a fun cast. I remember the night that we were filming a scene outside of the barn, the scene where Marin first comes to Mosswood, it was very cool for summer, but we were all wearing light garments and got quite chilly. We’d go back into the barn to warm up and get out of the wind while they were turning the cameras around, and one time, Carrie just started dancing to get warm, and Hannah and I immediately joined in. We jammed for a while. There was no music or anything, just a lot of amused background actors. I think Carrie is the coolest person I know, seriously. She made me laugh on a daily basis, that kind of laughing where you almost don’t know if you’re going to get enough air. I always had the best with her and Hannah.
Adam David Thompson also made me laugh every day that I worked with him: that is a man who can tell a great story. He had a running joke, too, where he insisted that people refer to him by his character name (also Adam). And Brennan Brown! Also slayed me, he has an exceptional dry wit. I adore both of those men. We talked a lot of baseball, since I’m a big baseball nerd, and it is a mark of how much I adore Brennan that I can overlook the fact that he is a Yankees fan. (Adam’s a Cubs fan; that’s fine.)
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what a good time I had with Elisha, too. He’s such a cool, kind, human being, and he’s not only preternaturally talented for his age, he’s also preternaturally smart. We’d just sit around talking about Shakespeare, or theatre, or music. I’m not sure I can think of any on-set hijinx that were as comical as the time that we decided to go rowing in Central Park. I only had canoe and kayak experience previously, and it turns out that does not translate as much as one might think.
One moment I just remembered on-set was when it was Radium Cheung’s birthday, he is the absolutely brilliant Director of Photography on the show. He doesn’t eat any sweets but he loves sparkling water, so they wheeled out a cart full of seltzer with some candles in it. It was very funny and you could also feel the entire room thinking, “Oh, that’s smart, what if I gave up sugar,” and then going to get a cookie at craft services.
The season 2 finale of The Sinner is fast approaching. Without giving too much away, what would you say viewers can expect from your character and from the episode? What are you most eager for them to see?
Well, the end of the season shows us why Bess did what she did. Here’s another spoiler alert for anybody who hasn’t seen the show at all, but seeing Julian’s birth and his infancy makes you realize that the trick of the show, that he appears to have three different mothers, is actually true on a sort of spiritual level. And the final episode will bring us back to, in a way, where and how Julian’s whole story started. And more!
In your opinion, are the viewers in store for a satisfying conclusion to the season?
Oh yes! I know it seems like things couldn’t possibly get resolved from how episode seven ended, but they do, with some twists along the way.
What are your hopes for the series going forward for season 3?
I’ve heard that they’re thinking of making it a trilogy, and that’s spectacular. The first season, of course, was based on a book, so I don’t think they originally thought of making a second season until it was so popular. Which of course it was, since it was really lifted by those incredible performances and the film aesthetic of both Antonio and Radium! So, I hope we see something satisfying for Ambrose—Bill Pullman is utterly magnetic in this role, and I have said that watching him listen is like drinking a nice glass of ice water with lemon on a hot day—and I also hope that we continue seeing very strong, complex roles for women. For me, that’s a defining feature of the show in its first two seasons, and I think the show is doing incredible work chipping away at the old notion of what female roles in psychological thrillers traditionally are.
What else are you working on? What can your fans look forward to from you next?
I’m going to be in season seven of “Chicago Fire!” I also shot on an independent film this spring, “Sins of the Son,” that I know locked picture recently, so it may be in the public eye soon! And a comedy webseries that I’m the lead in, “Domestic Partners,” will hopefully be hitting a computer near you soon, and another one “Countdown,” will definitely be out this fall.
And myself, I’ve been working on writing a TV series about sportswriters, from an idea that my friend Chris Carfizzi (we met on “Billions”) and I developed together. It’s also about gender in the workplace, and the changing face of media. I think it’s really important as an artist to create your own things, but it’s easy for actors, because of the nature of the discipline, to spend their whole lives bouncing between other people’s creations. Which is great, and which is, don’t get me wrong, a blessing! But creating something yourself—it’s different. I’ve produced a few plays with a little theatre company I started in New York, called Happy Few Theatre Company, and I know that the experience of creating a whole project from the ground up really changed me, as an artist, for the better.
And speaking of writing, I also have a book of poetry about theatre—I think the biggest focus is the relationship between the actor and the character—called “Curtain Speech,” that should be out this fall!
Thanks to much to Ellen Adair for taking the time to answer some questions for us!
Keep up to date with Ellen Adair by following her on Twitter @Ellen_Adair.