On Season 2 of USA's crime anthology The Sinner, Carrie Coon plays Vera Walker, the mysterious leader of Mosswood Grove, a peculiar spiritual community on the outskirts of Keller, New York whose relationship with the town can charitably be described as uneasy. The town doesn't want them there, but for the most part is willing to leave them alone as long as they don't cause any trouble. But trouble happens in the form of her son Julian (Elisha Henig), who murdered two absconding Mosswood members who claimed they were his parents in a Keller motel. And in the second episode of the season, we found out more about who Vera is and what she's doing. Sort of.
Vera is working to get her son back from the state, but she's hampered by her self-imposed disconnect from society. She and society don't see eye to eye, and she wants to be separate from it to focus on "the work," whatever that entails. It might be genuinely helping people through spiritual growth or it might be something sinister, if that obelisk Officer Heather Novack (Natalie Paul) found in Vera's barn is any indication. What's clear is that Vera is trying to carve out a place for her community in a world that doesn't want to understand them.
TV Guide talked to Carrie Coon about where Vera came from (the town in Oregon where the Netflix cult documentary Wild Wild Country took place, maybe?), where she's headed and why we need a show as ambiguous as The Sinner right now.
How did you get involved in the project, and were you a fan of Season 1?
Carrie Coon: My husband Tracy [Letts] caught a bit of Season 1 on an airplane. He was on the lookout for it because he'd worked with [director] Antonio Campos in Christine, a beautiful film with Rebecca Hall and Michael C. Hall, so he wanted to support Antonio's work. And he saw it on the plane and he came home and said, "it's really good, I want to finish it." So he caught me up and we watched it together and thought it was very smart and ambiguous in all the right ways and that the character Bill [Pullman] was playing — it was a very character-driven mystery. There were some unresolved, quirky issues for each of the characters that didn't necessarily contribute to the plot, they just made the people more specific. We enjoyed it very much. We thought Jessica [Biel] was doing fantastic work and we loved Antonio's sensibility in those early episodes and how they set the tone. It just felt really edgy and smart. And then Tracy got a call to play Jack Novack. And they said "oh, we've got a great part" for this actress who I won't mention, "and we're hoping she says yes." Well, it wasn't me, it was somebody else, but the actress turned it down. And two weeks later, after we decided Tracy would in fact sign up and say yes — he was doing a play in New York anyway that he'd written — and I thought, "oh, I'll come to New York for the summer and hang out with our baby and see our friends." And then they called me and offered me the part of Vera and it was very intriguing. And I really enjoyed talking to [showrunner] Derek [Simonds] about the story and I know Antonio and I'd been dying to work with him, so I said yes. And now Tracy and I are on the same show. But as you can see from the story, our characters actually don't run into each other very much, so we're just passing our baby back and forth.
That worked out very nicely.
Coon: Yeah, it was a great opportunity for us this summer. It really fit into our family life. And we loved Season 1, so why not?
I really like how this show challenges assumptions. We're watching Vera to see if she gives away some cult leader insanity, but she never does, at least not in the first two episodes. She seems, more than anything else, like a mother who's concerned about her child.
Coon: Absolutely. And because of the system he's caught up in, the conflict for her is whether she can continue to maintain the ideals of this community she's building and also defend her son's actions in this system that's entirely punitive and not open to her particular moral structure. It's tricky stuff, because ultimately how much does the parent bear responsibility for the child? If you're shaping your child in a very specific community separate from the broader zeitgeist, is it fully your responsibility when that child behaves in a way that's unacceptable society, or does society need to make an adjustment to accommodate a range of behavior.
Well, I like that in the first two episodes, we don't know. The show doesn't really take a side.
Coon: I love ambiguity in my art. I find it resembles my life. I said that often when I was talking about The Leftovers, just when do you get neat answers? And yet we demand it from our entertainment when in fact our lives are quite ambiguous all the time. There aren't very clear black-and-white decisions being made. And that was the thing that was very appealing about Season 1, was the gray area was so present, which felt very truthful to me. And in a time when it feels that our political conversation is so reductive, it has become very black-and-white, I'm very gratified living in the gray area for awhile. I think it appeals to viewers that there's a more complicated reality. There's some nuance to the argument, and I think that's important.
Right, it's like we can't deal with nuance in real life now, so we need it in entertainment to remember what it's like. So how do you approach playing this character who gives so little away?
Coon: First and foremost, you're playing what's given to you on the page. And the question in a scene is always what do you want and what are you trying to do to get it? And her inscrutability is a tool. She has to obscure some of the roots of the work that they're doing because she feels it will be misunderstood because society has shown her over and over again that it will in fact be misunderstood. And that there are consequences to that misunderstanding. And if people are not open to the work that they're doing, they're not necessarily prepared to understand it, either. So I think some of Vera's inscrutability is about protecting her community.
We don't know much about the work that they're doing, but that's another part of the ambiguity. It might be good work. It might be very helpful.
Coon: Yeah, it might be helping a lot of people. And you get to see some glimpses later on in the season about the inner workings of the community, or even just the tenor of the community when the people are allowed to be unencumbered by the outside world, and I think there is in fact something positive happening. But you can't control all of the consequences, and what Julian has done is an organic outgrowth, perhaps, of the work that they're doing, but not one that's acceptable in the broader society that they're escaping and hoping to change, ultimately. I think any idealistic community like that is hoping that their ideas will eventually penetrate and infiltrate and help to make the world a better place. That was the appeal of Wild Wild Country. They were frightfully accomplished in what they were able to do in the sect up there in Oregon, and if you were able to look at it objectively you could be very impressed by what they were pulling off. But because it feels foreign and threatening, people will fight to maintain their mediocrity [laughs], because it's familiar and comfortable. And I think Vera wants to reach beyond mediocrity and have more whole, integrated human being.
Her driver's license is from Oregon. Was she a Rajneeshee?
Coon: Oh, that's funny. I wonder if people will make that connection. I think perhaps the documentary Wild Wild Country has seeped into the subconscious of some of our writers. But in that episode they say she's originally from East Texas.
The only thing she gives away is "my son is so far beyond anything you can understand, you have no idea." How will we see what that means play out?
Coon: I think you'll see the revelations and the limitations of the grand experiment.
The Sinner airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on USA.