Warning: Spoilers ahead for this week’s episode of The Affair.
What did she know, and when did she know it? Maura Tierney’s character on Showtime’s The Affair, Helen Solloway, may still be in the dark about the fling between her husband Noah (Dominic West) and waitress Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) — and about his mistress’s involvement with cocaine dealing. But the NewsRadio and ER vet tells Vulture she was clued in early by creator Sarah Treem.
How much did you know about what was really going on when you started shooting the show?
I knew a fair amount. Sarah had the first two seasons pretty well mapped-out in terms of an overall arc. So I knew from the very beginning what happens in episode six and what happens in episode eight, but in terms of exactly how it unfolds, I didn’t know. And I didn’t want to know. It’s kind of fun for me to be in the dark. Because you don’t want to play something more aware than the character is.
Since the show is depicted from two POVs — Noah’s and Alison’s — are you always aware you’re playing your character in one or the other’s memory?
It’s really specific, the differences between how Noah remembers Helen and how Alison remembers Helen. The wardrobe’s different, and the hair and makeup are different. I’m much more attractive in Alison’s memory than I am in Noah’s, which is fun. The character is much colder and more of an elitist snob in Noah’s memory. They’re very different, and we’re always very aware of that.
Are we ever going to see Helen’s POV? Is that what season two will be?
I don’t know. It would be fun for the show to open up to see both Helen and [Alison’s husband] Cole’s perspectives, but I don’t know how much you can fracture the narrative and have people stay with it. But I hope that will happen at some point.
Are you excited that the show got picked up for a second season?
I am. This is a really fun job, and the cast is great. The four of us, especially — I always joke with Dominic that it’s like a parade of shame. We all have to take off our clothes and cry in front of each other. Everyone’s very relaxed and close.
You’ve primarily done network shows, aside from a guest stint on Rescue Me. Is cable a whole different world?
It’s different in terms of the language being a little freer. You can say goddamn instead of damn. That’s freeing — not that cursing is what acting’s all about, but it’s novel to me to be able to use grown-up language. And the pace is different. Ten shows is very different from 22. So people don’t get quite so exhausted. It’s easier for everybody because they’re not run ragged.
Are you comfortable doing the sex scenes?
No! I thought I was all about it. When they asked me about it in the beginning, “Are you comfortable with this?” I was like, “Absolutely!” I figured, fuck it, I’m older, at this point I might as well. And then it’s always kind of excruciating. But then you do it, and it’s okay. For me. There are other actors who are probably more relaxed. I’m still kind of uptight about it. But it’s germane to this show. The sex is part of the show because it’s called The Affair. It’s not called The Conversation.
With Dominic, how do you establish that sense of history that you two have been a couple for 20 years or so? Did you know each other before this?
Not at all. I always kid him because I think he called me “Laura” at the table read, but he says he didn’t. The writing was there for that — there’s a shorthand between the characters within the script. And he’s a very fun guy. It’s easy to be relaxed around Dom. He’s a really good friend and a really good actor.
When people come up to you and talk to you about this show, do you get a feeling of whether they’re on your character’s team?
I just had a birthday party for my mom, and all of her friends who watch the show and are older don’t know whom they’re rooting for, and that’s the goal of this show. I felt not a lot of judgment on Noah in that room. But Sarah has shared with me some of the tweets, and people do get nasty about it.
People got to know you first in comedies like NewsRadio and Liar Liar, and then you took a turn towards drama with ER. Was that a conscious choice?
It wasn’t. After NewsRadio, I did say to my agent, “If I get another TV show, I’d want to do a drama.” Then I got offered the part on ER, and I was on that show for eight years. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do comedy. It’s just that people stopped thinking about me that way. My character was so problem-laden.
Do you have a preference between comedy and drama?
No, I think good writing is good writing. Even in comedy, I’m always the straight guy, which is okay because that’s a skill. But it would be nice to get out of that box. So maybe I’ll try to do that on my downtime before we start up again.
Do something wacky?
Maybe. Can you imagine me wacky?
Sure. I can see it.
Good, I’m glad!
You won the Celebrity Poker Showdown in 2004. Does being a good actor help you have a good poker face?
I was good at poker for one day — the day I needed to be good. I played for 11 hours straight, and I won, which was great, but I don’t even like poker. I was so tense, it was awful. I feel guilty when I win, and I’m a really bad sport when I lose. It’s no fun for me at all.