"Bess is a woman with a backbone": Ellen Adair on 'The Sinner' season 2 and much more
As Bess she formed one of the four pillars in 'The Sinner' which include the four female characters who make 'The Sinner' the winner that it is.
Television actress and writer Ellen Adair is currently starring in season 2 of USA’s Award-nominated series 'The Sinner' after captivating viewers last season on HBO’s award-winning 'Homeland'. Her amazing talent is evident in these two opposite roles that she was able to film back to back displaying her incredible range as an actress. In addition to standout performances on television, Ellen has been called "splendid" and "magnetic" by the New York Times for her stage work.
After college Ellen booked the role of Thomasina in 'Arcadia' which won an Elliot Norton Award for Best Production and garnered an IRNE nomination for Ellen as Best Actress. Her first television role was in Showtime’s 'Brotherhood' which jump-started a great relationship with the cable network and helped build a list of notable credits on series’ such as, 'Nurse Jackie', 'Billions', and of course, 'Homeland'. Ellen also was a standout in NBC’s drama 'The Slap'. Among all these roles, she gained the most attention from viewers as Janet Bayne, Senator Paley’s powerful Chief of Staff, in season seven of 'Homeland'.
Ellen felt that playing Janet was a dream and it was incredible being a part of a show built around such powerful women who unapologetically know what they want. Almost immediately after wrapping production on the drama, she booked her role on 'The Sinner' and was required to completely shift gears to become the character, Bess McTeer.
Bess, is an empathetic woman who tends to take a back seat to strong-willed people, is the victim in season two and the season arc revolves heavily around her. Ellen sees a beauty in “The Sinner” that isn’t common in television series and she attributed that to Director, Antonio Campos who marries a plot-driven mystery with clear compassion and sensibility of independent film that is captivating. Ellen will also be seen in season seven of “Chicago Fire".
In a conversation with Meaww, she spoke about the place of women in today's psychological thrillers and how the dynamics of gender roles are gradually changing.
Do you think the way women are portrayed in psychological thrillers has changed over the years?
That is a great question. I think we have seen some real changes in the last couple of years. Now, over the years, women in the genre have developed more agency rather than always being passive victims. That's one interesting thing about Bess. She is a victim to a certain degree, but with what we learned so far, she is also someone who made a choice that got her into that situation, basically.
Tell us a little about Bess. What really happened in the motel?
I can't tell you everything because there are still many episodes left! But I can tell you something that I was thinking about. In the last episode that aired, episode four, we hear a recorded conversation between Vera and Bess. Bess is talking about a fantasy, essentially about wanting to take care of Julian and protect him from these people who are looking for him. And in the scene after that, Vera says that Bess was unable to have children and that had become a defining issue for her.
So, as not being able to have children has been an issue for Bess, it also becomes a very interesting jumping off point for her. What would have brought her to the commune? Vera mentions that Bess has been there for many years, and came in her early 20s. So to already know by that point, in your early 20s, that you couldn’t have children, how could that have happened?
So, putting these in mind I made up a little back story about Bess, who she was, why she ended up at the commune. But the main thing about Bess is that she is really a person looking for a family, and wanting to take care of other people. She wants someone to look to, to know where to go, but she also has a strong instinct to protect and to be of service. It’s an interesting contrast. She is a woman with a backbone, she ultimately always makes her own choice. Yet she is vulnerable and lonely, and she is constantly looking to somebody else for the right path.
What sort of impact do you think the murder must have left on Julian, considering that he is the murderer here?
Oh, we can see in the series that it had a profound impact on him. There are many different threads of different characters’ crises that come together to make a braid that is this season of the show, and Julian’s is perhaps the central one. In episode three, we learn that he knew Adam and Bess were taking him away from home and that he wouldn’t be going back. He reacted the way he did because he saw that it was his only option of getting out of the situation, but it was very different from what he expected. In a later scene, we see him being questioned and it’s clear that he loved Bess and it was difficult for him to take in what had happened.
What is the difference in the artistic treatment of female characters in 'Homeland' and 'The Sinner'?
That is such a good question. (laughs) Well, one thing I remember thinking about 'Homeland' is when I was going on the show, I was aware that it is a world in which there need be no female apologies. It’s built around powerful women who are good at what they do. So, I knew Janet could operate in a similar way, and a few producers and writers immediately said they liked that choice. But now that I think about it, the same could be said about the female characters in 'The Sinner.’ But, because of the nature of the show, everybody falls into some kind of trap. But no one is treated differently. Harry Ambrose, probably the most prominent man in the series, falls in his own traps too, and so does Vera, and Heather, and Marin. Of course we have already seen Bess fall into a trap of her own choice. But that has more to do with the world of 'The Sinner' than a difference in conception.
Coming back to 'The Sinner,' do you think it's the extremely strong female leads that make it a winner?
It certainly is for me. It's actually something we talked about on set. There were scenes where it was just me and Carrie and Hannah, who are so great to act with, and to get to just have three actresses in a room, that doesn't happen a lot. And although I didn’t have a scene with Natalie, she is such an incredible force in the show. We joked at one point about whether or not one of our scenes would pass the Bechdel test if we were talking about baby Julian since he’s a child rather than a man. But if you are drawn more towards shows that treat women as people, 'The Sinner' can easily pass that test.
Is Ellen similar to Bess?
Well, of course! That’s my process as an actor, where I put myself in a position where I don't think about playing at it. I just think about putting myself into her situation and her life. So I just assume that she is completely like me, but then something magical happens, and I’m a different person. That is the whole reason why I love acting. I guess it's just about what is interesting as a person, thinking about taking care of somebody who is related to me. Looking for a place to belong, you know.
What are you up to next? Any big project coming up?
Ah yes! So, I am going to be in Season 7 of 'Chicago Fire' and that's really fun. And writing a series myself about sportswriters...I have always been a baseball lover. So it will chiefly about that, but also it’s about gender dynamics in the workplace, examining those same questions about women just trying to be people.