'The Affair' Star Maura Tierney: Helen Is "Not the Victim"

"She understands that she was partially complicit in what put the cracks in the marriage," says the actress.
Courtesy of Showtime
'The Affair'

[Warning: This article contains spoilers from the first episode of the second season of The Affair.]

When The Affair premiered its second season on Sunday night, it showcased more Maura Tierney than ever before.

The actress’ added screen time is a welcome consequence of the Showtime drama’s decision to expand its trademark point of view storytelling structure to include the perspectives of Tierney’s character, Helen, as well as Joshua Jackson’s Cole.

Season one relied exclusively on Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) to carry the story, but now that the couple is finally together, there are fewer opportunities for the varied accounts that drive the show, says series creator Sarah Treem. Opening up the narrative to their ex-lovers' voices allows for the same tension that permeated the first season to continue in the second installment.

“It became clear that a lot of the storytelling — the paradox that is the engine of the show — was going to lie in the relationships between the estranged characters, which are now the ex-spouses,” Treem told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the premiere.

The season two opener sees Helen deal with the fallout of her marriage, navigating ugly divorce proceedings, attempting to get back into the dating game and, yes, developing a unexpected weed habit. THR caught up with Tierney to discuss the changes for her character this season, her personal views on infidelity and her take on the show’s two-sided storytelling.

Were you excited when you found out the writers were going to add Helen and Cole’s point of views?

I knew it was discussed at the end of last season, but I didn’t find out until the writers room started back up again in February or March. There’s a bunch of new writers this year so I met them, and they had sort of sketched out the season, which is when I found out. I think that the device of that “he said, she said” is really compelling. I do think if I had to do a whole other season — we’re doing twelve episodes this year instead of ten — of “he said, she said,” it’d be hard for the writers. I think giving four perspectives opens up the storytelling for them. It would have just been too hard to maintain the “he said, she said” for twelve more episodes.

Has it been a lot more work for you?

Dom and Ruth are working less because there are chunks that they’re not in, which didn’t ever happen last year. So if it’s Cole’s point of view, Dom’s not in it. So he’ll have half an episode. They are working less. I am working in a way that — I don’t know if it’s more or less — but because we work all on our own, it’s sort of like I show up and then for eight days I work a lot and then I have eight off. So it’s really much more efficient for me this year. I like it.

How do you think Helen is handling the separation?

I don’t find this very appealing, but the idea that her money was always something that she kind of had to hide because it made him uncomfortable that they depended on her parents for money. I thought her response to that would be like, “F— you,” and I got her a big Rolex and flashy bag. It’s not going to make her happy, but I wanted that detail to be in there, whether it’s noticed or not. What we’re trying to do is just tell a story of Helen figuring out that she’s not the victim necessarily that she thought she was. And certainly Helen got screwed, but she’s trying to figure out what happened and in doing so, understands that she was partially complicit in what put the cracks in the marriage by perhaps never standing up to her parents in defense of him and not really supporting him creatively at all, or forgetting to do that, and contributing to what allowed him to fall in love with someone else. So her culpability. When people have hard times, it’s very interesting to me if they handle it with grace and dignity or not. That’s really what life is about, right? That’s what character is: how do you handle the shitty, shitty times and she’s having a shitty time. That’s what I like about her part of the story.

Wilson has told THR that part of the reason she wanted the role was to challenge the stigmas of affairs. Is that also why you were drawn to the show?

Yes, Sarah said to me when I met her initially that if the show went two seasons, that Noah does leave his family and then writes a book, the book becomes very successful and he becomes very wealthy. And so opposed to it being a morality tale, it’s more like he leaves his family and everything great happens to him. I was quite intrigued by that because I liked that it wasn’t telling a story that had moralistic repercussions. That, I have not seen before. I don’t know if they’re still intending to do that, but those things do still happen. I also don’t want the character Helen to disappear, but I am rooting for that affair — the idea that they were soulmates and that they had to destroy everything to be together and did it, is very romantic to me. The concept of what is it like when you do the thing that’s going to make you the most happy and you don’t think about anybody else. Nobody hardly every does that, so doing that is really interesting to me. What’s the fallout? I do think in that way it challenges the conventional notion of affairs.

Has the show changed what you think about infidelity personally?

No, not at all. I mean, I still don’t want anyone to cheat on me! I really don’t. It’s happened. It really hurt. I don’t want it to happen again. It’s not going to change the pain. I’m divorced, I don’t know. The notion of — some people I guess are meant to be together in monogamy for their lives, but perhaps everyone isn’t. Perhaps some people have two or three great love affairs. But the show didn’t change my views on that. Probably getting a divorce changed my views on that.

Do you think monogamy is antiquated?

I’m antiquated — I tend to be fairly kind of jealous in a relationship that way. I would love to not be, but that’s how I was raised — I was raised Catholic. I would like to rail against these things, and I think some people are. I would like to have a real equanimity about people coming in and out of our lives. The show hasn’t changed any of that. It’s something I struggle with as a human, but I think a lot of people do.

In terms of the show’s two-sided storytelling, do you ever get a script and feel like one account is too divergent from another?

I don’t tend to do that. I come from a very strong line of very talented showrunners. So when I was on ER, there was John Wells and there was David Zabel, who was the showrunner and the main writer, and Paul Simms, who did NewsRadio, another show I did. Very, very creative talented person. So I came up in television really respecting that and not questioning it too much. So if I have an issue with the script, I don’t tend to have an issue with it in that way. Like, “Oh, these are too different. They are too wildly different.” That’s not where my concerns go. My concerns go to, “I don’t know if I would believe that Helen would do that,” or, “I feel like this line is a little expositional,” or, “I feel like she needs to talk less.” My notes tend to be much more specific about what Helen is doing, as opposed to that. If they want to make a show about a gun fight in two different ways, you know, what am I going to do? It also feels valid for the other actors to say, “This doesn’t make sense to me.” But I don’t tend to bump up against that creatively.

There’s also this court case developing in what Sarah Treem calls the “future present.” How much, as an actress, do you need to know about where your character is going in the future?

I don’t need to know anything. I didn’t need to know last season and I don’t really need to know this season. I know more this season  — it just happened that way. But I tend to be a little bit anxious about knowing too much because I don’t want to play the end before we get to the end. And because we jump around too much, and there’s a future present, and then there’s the flashbacks, which are two years from that, there’s going to be two episodes where a year has gone by between ten or eleven, I think. So I need to just stay where I’m at, which is already a little hard to do, and not think about the future.

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