Like Chuck Rhoades, the dogged district attorney on Showtime’s “Billions,” Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) on USA’s “The Sinner” is a man with a secret fetish: he keeps a dominatrix.
Or maybe she keeps him.
Her name in Sharon (Meredith Holzman) and she’s a plus-sized, forceful blonde who knows how to push his buttons as he investigates a murder that seemingly has no motivation. Finding Ambrose in the local supermarket, Sharon lures him to an unoccupied aisle and tosses some oranges on the floor. Ambrose knows what he must do. He gets down on his hands and knees and picks up the fruit.
It’s their only G-rated moment.
“It was both the reason to avoid the role and the reason to take the role,” Pullman says of the show’s kink factor.
“The Sinner” is based on a prize-winning novel by German writer Petra Hammesfahr. In the TV adaptation by Derek Simonds, it plays like one of those noirish TV mysteries where the killer, Cora Tanetti (Jessica Biel) — a young married mother of one — stabs and kills a young man, an apparent stranger, at a lake. She and Ambrose, the investigator assigned to the case, are inextricably linked by their traumatic, twisted pasts. Cora has a complicated family history with a crazy mother, a terminally ill younger sister and the enforcement of many Catholic rituals. Ambrose has Sharon.
“You get a sense that there is an intimate level of compatibility with her,” Pullman says. “That role-playing echoes something that allows [Ambrose] a certain kind of stability.”
Before taking the part, Pullman discussed it with his wife, Tamara Hurwitz. “I needed to get the clarity so that I wasn’t going to surprise my family,” says Pullman, 64. “My wife read the script. [She asked me] ‘Is your head on straight?’”
‘This isn’t just playing the dad of three sons in a sitcom. I’ve always loved noir.’
He didn’t know for sure, but he was willing to jump off a cliff or two. Pullman had taken that kind of risk before, in 2002, when he played an architect who went way outside his comfort zone in Edward Albee’s Tony award-winning play “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?” “Being in love with a goat for a year changed my life and it’s why I’m doing ‘The Sinner,’” he says. “This isn’t just playing the dad of three sons in a sitcom. I’ve always loved noir.”
Fortunately, he enjoyed a good working relationship with Biel. “We discovered things together by ramming through them,” he says. “The next day, I would say, ‘Did we really get there? Why is it we were three degrees off?’ Film, it’s so hard. We don’t get another chance and it never got easier.”
“The Sinner” is scheduled for an eight-week run, after which Pullman says Cora’s case will be solved and producers decide if “Ambrose is a character you can continue with.” In Pullman’s last series, NBC’s family friendly sitcom “1600 Penn,” he played the US president. It only lasted 13 episodes, but Pullman had a great time filming the show, which co-starred Josh Gad, and was perplexed by people’s reactions when it was cancelled in 2013. “They said, ‘Too about that series,’ but I got everything I needed out of it. We had a good run,” he says. “Maybe it wasn’t the perfect idea for a number-one hit. But I don’t know if I could take seven years of a show.”
“The Sinner” 10 p.m. Wednesday on USA
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