Ruth Wilson Weighs In on 'The Affair': "Memory Is an Unreliable Beast"

“We’re upholding these institutions,” the actress tells THR, “and I’m not sure that they work anymore.”
Ramona Rosales
Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson isn’t entirely sure what she thinks about marriage, especially after being involved in a broken one on TV.

The Affair star, who won a Golden Globe for her role as grief-stricken Alison Bailey in the Showtime drama, wonders whether the cultural construct has become antiquated. “We’re upholding these institutions, and I’m not sure that they work anymore,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter.

“The Ashley Madison website that got hacked — 37 million people were signed on to an infidelity site," she continues. "It kind of suggests that infidelity happens an awful lot. We treat it with such stigma, but actually so many people do it, so I’m not sure why the stigma exists in a way.”

Wilson's series, known for its he-said-she-said storytelling, spent its first season exploring the demise of a longtime relationship when her character cheats on her husband (Joshua Jackson) with married novelist Noah Solloway (Dominic West), ultimately leaving him to start a new life with Noah. Season two, which launched earlier this month, centers on the ramifications of such a decision, and does so from all four characters' points of views, adding in the perspectives of ex-spouses Cole (Jackson) and Helen (Maura Tierney).

To the actress, opening up the narrative was necessary in order to show the “ripple effect [the affair] has had throughout the families on a wider scale” (bonus: she has more time off). THR sat down with the actress, who also starred in the Broadway play Constellations opposite Jake Gyllenhaal earlier this year, to discuss her own views on both monogamy and infidelity, the show’s real-world impact and what she really thinks about the drama’s divergent accounts.

With the addition of Helen's and Cole’s perspectives, how has this season been different?

It’s been good for me. It means that there’s less pressure and responsibility on me to do every episode. I had three days off last season, so it’s been lovely this year to have a little bit more time off. And the story itself kind of necessitated breaking it apart a bit and opening it up. This season is about the consequences of the affair, and the ripple effect it’s had throughout their families on a wider scale. If we didn’t add Cole's or Helen’s perspectives, you wouldn’t see much of them. You’d essentially lose those characters.

As creator and showrunner Sarah Treem has pointed out, the tension lies in the relationships between the estranged characters, and that’s no longer Noah and Alison.

I think the thing that we realized last season is that it’s a four-way relationship. It wasn’t just about Noah and Alison — it was about their relationship with their partners as well, and how that has consequences and how they’re all partly responsible for why their marriages have broken apart. It also allows us to get inside who those characters really are. You only ever saw them as impressions — my impression of them or Noah’s impression of them — so for them to be able to serve their characters properly in a three-dimensional way is really exciting for the writers, the actors and hopefully for the audience.

It’s likely helped them empathize more with Helen and Cole. Has it affected you and your character in terms of your opinion of Alison and how you play her?

Not really. The show is interesting in that when it’s your version of events, it’s really internal and detailed. In a way, that’s how Alison sees herself. It’s very specific to how she views the world, and the same is true through Noah’s eyes, and Cole’s and Helen’s. That’s still the same, and it makes sense that everyone sees themselves differently compared with how other people see them, just the neuroses of the individual and all. So no, it hasn’t really changed me because I’ve still got my version. I think it’s just more interesting for the audience to see how Cole views himself.

Presumably you’ve had to be on set less this year?

Yeah, it’s been great. That’s awful to say because, in fact, I want to be on set everyday — but it was exhausting last season. They really put Alison through the ringer. She went through major despair, and every episode it was more and more intense. I was in a lot of Noah’s side as well, so I really didn’t get any time off. It’s not just that — the material is quite intense and full-on, too, so it’s good to have a bit of a break from it. It’s nice now because I get an intense week of work and then I’m off for a week, and then I have another intense week of work. It feels much more doable. I’m not run so ragged. Last year, I was like a zombie by the end of the season.

You’ve said that part of the reason you took on the role was because you wanted to challenge the stigma of affairs. Do you feel like monogamy is antiquated?

Certainly in North America and in the U.K., we’re very rigidly conventional in a way. We’re upholding these institutions and I’m not sure work anymore. I don’t know. I mean, that’s a question — it’s a big debate. The Ashley Madison website that got hacked — 37 million people were signed on to an infidelity site — kind of suggests that infidelity happens an awful lot. We treat it with such stigma, but actually so many people do it. I’m not sure why the stigma exists in a way. Not that I’m saying it doesn’t have consequences. That’s the problem — it has huge ramifications, but the source of that might be because we’ve put so much expectation on what marriage should be. Maybe our expectations are wrong. It’s a major question. As women are becoming more economically independent and don’t need marriage as a way to support themselves, it’s slightly changing the dynamics of what it means.

What would you say to those who struggle to find Alison and Noah likeable because of the decisions they’ve made?

My opinion is that I don’t have a place to judge people who have had an affair. It’s not my place to judge someone because everyone’s story is individual. There are reasons and ramifications, and everyone is partly responsible. That’s kind of like what this show is saying: Yes, Noah and Alison both stepped outside of their marriage and they caused pain by doing so, which isn’t a good thing, but Cole isolated Alison. He was in denial of his grief and they couldn’t deal with it together. Helen was also in denial about their relationship, so it comes down to the fact that everyone has a role in maintaining their marriage and keeping each other content. It’s about empathizing.

Do you find that easy to do?

As an actor, I have to empathize with every character I play, and I become less judgmental as a person because of that. So I’m not going to judge people for having affairs. It’s not my place to, and that’s how I approach Alison — I’m going to find the truth of what she was feeling at that point and what her relationship with Noah gave her when she needed it. It was a form of escape; it was a form of feeling needed, loved, comforted, assured and listened to at a time when she desperately needed those things. So in some respects, I don’t think that’s wrong. She wasn’t being given that anywhere else. What’s great about the show is that it’s provocative and it asks questions and makes people think and makes people angry — and I think that’s exactly what it should be doing.

How else do you think the show is provocative?

It challenges a lot of things. It’s also about gender — it’s a little bit about how men and women see each other. That’s debated in the show, even just in the outfits I wore in the first season in Noah’s version versus my version. Again, that was maybe a bit too black and white, but it provokes feeling and thought and challenges people and makes them think. What we’re finding with the show is that a lot of people are discussing it afterwards, watching it with their other halves and having real debates over what’s happening on the screen. That’s brilliant.

What’s your take on the divergent perspectives?

It’s drama, and I think you have to have an element of drama about it. From my point of view as a performer, my version always feels quite real sometimes. And then in Noah’s version, I always feel like an impression of that character. It feels like a bigger version of her that’s less realistic. That’s the game of it. It’s about memory, and memory is an unreliable beast. We shape and form it to justify what we want to remember and believe, and even to fit our own moral landscape. I think that yes, sometimes it might have been pushed to more dramatic moments, which was probably [in an effort] to reach some climatic end, but memory is difficult. In my thinking of past events in my life, I’ve embellished certain stories. Every time I tell them, they get more and more embellished and clear and slightly more dramatic. I think that’s just what happens. You manipulate memory.

There’s also a murder mystery going on, which plays out in the future. How does that impact how you approach your present-day narrative?

None of us really knows what’s going on [laughs]. We just turn up and say the lines and look a bit suspicious — just don’t play one or the other. But it’s changed slightly from the first season. We had an idea of what happened at that point, and now it’s developed from there a bit this season. It doesn’t aid or negate what we’re doing in any other scene. Anything can change, though, and that’s the nature of TV. Everything is constantly evolving, so it could all be different anyway — and that’s why it’s best not to make any major bold choices.

The Affairs airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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