On Jessica Biel’s Killer Performance in ‘The Sinner’

Star plays an unlikely murderer in USA series and is an executive producer too

The Sinner premieres on USA Wednesday and offers a very different glimpse at Jessica Biel than one might be accustomed to, says creator/showrunner Derek Simonds. Biel, also an executive producer on the show, plays Cora, a fairly normal woman who, one day, at the beach, jumps to her feet and stabs a man as her husband and son watch.

The man dies. Cora, and those who love her, have no idea where this act of startling violence comes from.

Biel, who starred as Mary in 7th Heaven a couple decades ago, before her film career took off, said she was drawn to the project because it was “emotionally moving” and had a woman at its epicenter.

Simonds says Biel is “fantastic in the role.”

“The public does not expect a Jessica Biel who’s so raw and emotional,” he added. “The role allows her to stretch and flex her acting muscles in a way she hasn’t before.”

As an executive producer in the Universal Cable Productions series, Biel was “very involved” in all aspects of the scripts, says Simonds. “She always had great notes.”

The eight-episode series comes from a German novel by Petra Hammesfahr. Bill Pullman plays the detective sorting out the crime.

Simonds concedes that it’s “daunting” to launch a show in today’s packed television landscape. “People have so many choices now,” he said. “The key is committing to what is unique about your story, what in the DNA of your story is singular.”

He says The Sinner is a detective tale but one that stands out in its exploration of the “darker, murkier aspects of the human character.”

Asked which shows influenced The Sinner, Simonds mentions Top of the Lake on SundanceTV for its “very unsettling tone. It went places that other shows don’t seem to go.”

He also cites the British series Happy Valley for the way a violent crime affects a small town—a Northern England one in that series. (The Sinner is set in upstate New York.)

The show’s “more familiar” influences, Simonds adds, are AMC’s The Killing and Showtime’s The Affair. A review in the New York Times, which refers to The Sinner as a “whydunit,” also compares The Sinner to The Affair, for its “reliance on fraught flashbacks and the feeling of being underwater, in a constant state of unease.”

Simonds admits his own TV consumption has lacked as he got The Sinner ready for screen. “I haven’t watched TV in six months,” he said, mentioning The Leftovers and the new Twin Peaks as series he’s eager to tackle.

He’s curious how the viewing public will take to Biel in a unique new role. “She disrupts the old persona,” said Simonds, “we might know as Jessica Biel.”