Maura Tierney is known for a slew of great television dramas that run the gamut from medical (“ER”) to complicated marriages (“The Affair”). But her two most recent series took on the timely topic of justice, and more specifically how far one might go to save a loved one from having to pay for his (alleged) crimes.
On Showtime’s “Your Honor,” Tierney stepped in as prosecutor Fiona McKee in the back-half of the first season, working in the same courthouse as the central character who covered up his son’s fatal hit-and-run. Now, though, she stars on the same premium cabler’s adaptation of “American Rust” as Grace Poe, the mother of a young man who is assumed to have killed someone. While it is local police chief Del (Jeff Daniels) who is the first to take measures to cover up her son Billy’s (Alex Neustaedter) presence at the crime scene, Grace, too, will do whatever she has to to keep Billy safe, Tierney says.
“The character is very balls out, and so it was a little more adventurous for me to jump into that skin. I’d love to be able to say, ‘F everything,’ but that’s not really my personality or my process. So, it was fun to be that person,” she explains.
Here, Tierney talks with Variety about stepping into Grace’s shoes, how she approached the source material for the character and what she found most challenging about diving into the relationship between Grace and Del.
Did you read Philipp Meyer’s novel, “American Rust,” prior to taking on this project?
I didn’t. It depends on what the situation is, but if whatever I’m working on has source material, I don’t always [read it]. Generally, I like to just base the character on the teleplay — the script that I have — because that’s what the writers are writing. In this case, I knew they were deviating from the book to a certain extent, and from what I understood, the book was a lot about someone’s internal monologue, and I didn’t want someone else’s internal monologue going on in my head. So, once I knew they were changing it, I was just going to read the scripts and respond to what I got from the scripts.
If you didn’t want the book character’s internal monologue to influence you, did the same go for her backstory in the source material? What did you have to imagine for her life and her past relationships with these men to really understand why she’s so pulled between them now?
To be honest with you, it was a journey. How I like to start working is just, “What’s on the page? What’s in the scene? What is she doing; what does the kitchen look like?” So, it’s not like I make a journal of the character or a history; I try to take the facts and see where my mind goes with that. But throughout the season, you get more and more facts and I came to realize in a way the greatest love story for her is with her son. As we progress, that’s it for her. I think she knows how to love her son — I don’t know if she really knows how to love anyone else in a healthy way — and I started thinking, “I don’t know if anyone’s loved her or taken care of her.” But all of that grew as we were shooting.
Do you view her as stuck since she might not be able to do as much as we might hope to change her circumstances?
Yes, I think so. She made a mistake in having a child with a man that is incapable of being a father, and I do think at a certain point you go, “How did I get here?” I think “stuck” is an interesting word because what I like about it is, it’s like, “All right, I’m going to do this then. I am stuck, but I’m going to try this. If I have to seduce this man to help my kid, I’ll do that.” I think they’re all stuck, but I think the stuckness is also is existential in a way. She did everything right, she worked really hard all her life, and her house is getting foreclosed on…what happened? What happened is she’s making a living wage but doesn’t have any support from the other parent of her child.
There is a line in the book that showcases how Grace’s life has been dictated and dominated by men. Specifically it’s when she talks about coming home from graduation and there’s a Pinto in the driveway and a book of pay stubs waiting for her and her father tells her her new job starts Monday. There seems to be a heavy undercurrent of misogyny in her life and even if the details are different, that theme runs in the show, with how her husband Virgil (Mark Pellegrino) treats her, how Del seems to feel the need to make decisions on behalf of her family, and with what she goes through at her factory job.
I don’t think she reflects a lot that way. Certainly I think it’s true that if you get to be a woman of my age, which she is — the rules were different back then. People got away with much more shit and you took it, or you figured out a way around it, or you figured out a way to deal with it. Luckily now, you don’t have to see that as much, hopefully. But I don’t think the character thinks so much about misogyny so much as, “This is the way it is and I have to deal with it.” What I think is interesting is that every wall she runs into, she pretends they’re not there; she just does something else about it. And it’s not always the smartest choice, but I think she’s like, “This is what it is and whatever I need to do to survive this, I’m going to.”
And the men in her life are so important to her.
She is, in her son’s life, maybe overly zealous; there’s a codependent aspect to that relationship. And she is very drawn to her husband; he’s super charming and magnetic, though he’s a terrible father. She’s drawn to Jeff’s character because he’s a good man and intellectually she knows she needs a good man in her life, but she’s also drawn to him because of what he can possibly do for her son. I don’t always know if she knows what her motives are.
Other than saving her son? Billy is not an angel, but did you feel you had to play Grace as fully believing he was innocent of this particular crime?
I cannot even ever see her believing he was guilty; I don’t know what it would take for her to believe that. But what does happen is that she decides to stop playing by anybody else’s rules because that has not worked. She played by the rules her whole life, but by a certain point in the season, she just says, “I’m done with that” and she takes extreme measures to get what he needs, really.
You mentioned that Del is a good man, but he’s effectively abusing his power. Are he and Grace really on this journey together or will the scales tip for who has the upper hand in their relationship as time goes on?
They have a past; they dated and then she goes back to her husband and breaks his heart. She’s very unreliable for him. And that has all taken place before the show starts. And then during the season, she does learn things about Del, and I think the tricky line to walk was trying to seduce him and be with him because she loves him, or trying to seduce him and be with him to help her son? Well, two things can be true! So, the tricky part for me was in the performance of that because it had to be subtle because the audience is not stupid and you don’t want the audience to think Del is stupid, so she had to be very subtle and very convincing to get him fully on her side. She’s got to be a great manipulator or really loves him and she doesn’t even know [it]. And there are three or four key scenes where I think that happens, and I struggled over them a lot because they had to be subtle but they had to be specific. Del is smart, but she has to be smarter, in a way.
What kinds of conversations did you guys have on set about the weight of what Del is doing?
We didn’t talk that much. I think it was our style as an ensemble, at least the older people. Everybody did a lot of homework, so we came to the set very prepared to just let it fly right away. But I think [Grace] doesn’t care; I think she doesn’t believe it; she’d need a videotape of it to believe he did it. He’s an innocent, her child. She believes that and so do I. He’s also violent — however, that is a product of being in this dead-end life. That’s why people get violent, that’s why people self-medicate — because they’re out of options. This is what people do, no matter where they are, when they have no resources. We didn’t discuss, “How far would you go?,” but that’s the question of the show and what we’re all exploring in the end.
“American Rust” premieres Sept. 12 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. The first episode is already available via YouTube and the network’s app.