“I had a hunger for more,” says the actress/producer Jessica Biel — who is best known for her portrayal of a preacher’s daughter on The WB’s family drama 7th Heaven back in the ’90s, and who received her first-ever Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice nominations in December for her performance on USA’s limited series The Sinner — as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. Over the years between those two projects, Biel, who is now 36, went on something of a professional odyssey, trying her luck in a wide variety of films — among them, the drama Ulee’s Gold (1997), the black-comedy Rules of Attraction (2002), the horror flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2004), the superhero sequel Blade: Trinity (2004), the action movie Stealth (2005), the mystery The Illusionist (2006), the period piece Easy Virtue (2007) and the biopic Hitchcock (2012) — but never quite clicking on the big screen. “I really felt like I needed to take hold of my own career in a different way and just not sit around waiting for the phone to ring,” she acknowledges. “That just wasn’t working.” And so she did.
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Biel was born in Minnesota, but raised in Connecticut and then Colorado. Her father ran an outdoor-education organization and her mother was a flight attendant. At the age of eight, she was taken on a trip to New York to see Annie on Broadway, as a result of which she fell in love with the idea of performing, began taking acting and singing classes and, yes, even auditioned to replace the title character. She didn’t get that part, but she did sign up for the International Modeling and Talent Association, a showcase for young talent in Los Angeles, through which she won a scholarship to an acting school in LA and wound up with a manager. She and a rotation of one parent or the other came out for the next few pilot seasons, during which she landed ads, commercials and, when she was 14, the part of Mary Camden, an athletic daughter of a preacher, on an Aaron Spelling pilot called 7th Heaven. “That was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me in my young life,” she says with a smile. After that pilot was shot came “the second-biggest thing,” landing her first film role in Ulee’s Gold opposite Peter Fonda, who would go on to receive a best actor Oscar nomination. After that film was in the can, The WB ordered 7th Heaven to series, and Biel was on her way.
7th Heaven ran for 11 seasons, becoming the most successful show in the history of The WB and surpassing The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie to become the longest-running family drama in TV history. Biel was a regular on it for its first six seasons, and then returned sporadically during its seventh, eighth and tenth. While people who grew up with the show still tell her how much it meant to her, she confesses that she finds it — or at least her work on it — tough to watch: “I look back at my performance on that show and I cringe sometimes because it’s just not good. I was so young and I hadn’t really had all that much training and I had almost no experience.” The show also happened, for her, during what is a transitionary time in any young person’s life: when one is trying to establish one’s own identity and be seen as an adult. Biel grew restless playing the same moralistic character for so long and rebelled in various ways, such as getting her hair cut very short. Also, at 18, she found herself at the center of controversy when she appeared on the cover of Gear magazine in a very risque photograph that had been taken when she was still 17. Many wondered if she was trying to show not only that she was grown up, but that she wanted off of 7th Heaven. “It definitely was not a calculated move on my part,” she asserts now. “It just went a little awry.” By the end of the sixth season, though, a little over a year later, she had indeed had enough. “I just wasn’t feeling very challenged anymore and I needed something different,” she explains. So she left the show and headed east to attend Tufts University. Three semesters into her college career, though, she returned to LA because, she says now, she worried that the industry would forget about her if she stayed away for four years — plus, she acknowledges, “I did miss it.”
Biel then embarked on a big screen career that, for the last 15 years, has taken her on something of a rollercoaster ride. She did strong work in many of the aforementioned group of films, but, perhaps because they were so eclectic, the industry had a hard time figuring out how what to do with her. She reflects, “In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Well, if I show every side of me, and do everything different, and be able to succeed in every genre, then you can hire me for anything,’ you know? But maybe it did kind of fight against that idea and I didn’t even know it.” Instead, she says, she was left “not feeling like I could make any headway” and “hoping for other things.” Additionally, because so much attention was paid to her stunning looks (she was chosen as Esquire‘s Sexiest Woman Alive in 2005), sometimes with her cooperation, some in the biz may have lost sight of her acting abilities. “It occurred to me that maybe I’ve done a couple of things in my career that have taken the spotlight away from my actual craft,” she acknowledges. “I think I was fighting against preconceived notions from other people. I think I was fighting against preconceived notions I had of myself.” And then there was one instance of what can only be called bad luck: when she landed the female lead in a David O. Russell film called Nails in 2008, only to see it fall into financing hell; it didn’t come out until 2015, by which point Russell had disassociated himself from it and it was retitled Accidental Love. “It was such an exciting moment for me to get that part — every young woman in Hollywood wanted to get that part,” says Biel, who was sure that it was “gonna move the needle of my career,” but instead found it “such a heartbreak.” She adds, “Honestly, I have to tell you, I’ve never seen that film.”
Eventually, and understandably, Biel grew tired of waiting for others to give her a chance to show what she could do. As she was starting her family — she married Justin Timberlake in 2012 and gave birth to their son in 2015 — she was also working with Michelle Purple, a film executive and friend, to build up Iron Ocean Films, “a small production company” that they had established more than 10 years ago, through which she hoped to track down a higher caliber of projects for herself. The company signed a development deal with Universal Cable Productions in 2014, which eventually expired, but even afterwards UCP sent Biel and Purple something to consider: an adaptation of a bestselling German novel called The Sinner. “I was so captivated,” Biel recalls, “and I called Michelle and I said, ‘We have to do this. I have to do this character.’ I got very possessive over it. I was like, ‘Nobody can have this. This is mine.’ I felt that I had never been given an opportunity like this.” She adds, “No one thinks of me for something like this.” So it came to be that Biel and Purple wound up executive producing The Sinner and, over the course of eight 45-minute episodes that aired last August and September, Biel gave the best performance of her career as Cora Tannetti, a wife and mother who, out of the blue, murders someone in the bright light of day, in full view of many witnesses, and then professes to have no idea why she did it. The Sinner wound up the most-watched new basic-cable show of 2017; it brought Biel the best notices of her career; and, 22 years after Biel first made her name in TV, it seems almost certain to bring her the first-ever Emmy nomination of her career, and maybe even a win. “Being a producer is the hardest thing in the world,” Biel says, but becoming one has changed the trajectory of her acting career. She emphasizes, “Honestly, I just couldn’t be more grateful for all the things that I’ve done to get me here, where I’m actually really behind something that I’m super proud of and have the opportunity to tell the stories that I want to tell.”