You’ve seen Maura Tierney on your TV for the past couple of decades, whether in NewsRadio or ER. Most recently, she’s been inhabiting the world of Helen Solloway on The Affair — a jilted wife and bougie Brooklyn mom of four. She’s seen grappling with the turmoil around her, sometimes behaving self-destructively, and ultimately holding one of the darkest secrets imaginable. And while Helen may be a fan favorite — we root for her as the wronged wife even as she repeatedly makes things worse for herself — it doesn’t appear that things are looking up for her anytime soon.
“She’s dealing with a lot,” Tierney, 53, tells the Cut. “The character is happy for about 17 seconds in the season.”
Ahead of the show’s season-four premiere, she talks how The Affair’s changed how she looks at past relationships, how she feels about the current political moment, and why she has a soft spot for the show’s most unlikable character.
What are Helen’s central conflicts going to be this season?
What Sarah [Treem, The Affair’s co-creator and showrunner] says is the affair is a pebble you throw in a pond and each successive season is kind of a ripple effect of that affair. This season is examining what all of the four of us are holding onto and what we need to let go of in order to be happy. We’re trying a little bit to be about forgiveness. That’s Helen’s journey — what she wants to get to is radical forgiveness. Radical forgiveness is hard because it’s fucking radical. That’s no joke. She’s dealing with a lot. The character is happy for about 17 seconds in the season.
A couple seasons ago, Helen started vaping and that became a thing her character was known for. Is she done with that for good?
I don’t know if that’s all done. I don’t think it should be. I think what little things are revealed about Helen’s past — like that she used to hand out candy in college, naked, during finals — I like when we see parts of her life that are less buttoned up. But she certainly does like her wine, that hasn’t stopped.
White wine is such a consistent prop for her and I was wondering how much of that is an intentional choice?
I don’t think it was intentional, no, but I think unconsciously it was. Because there’s a lot of people stressing her out and she’s a control freak, so she’s not necessarily handling things head-on. I think reaching for a glass of wine is an easy way to just sort of calm yourself down and not freak out because you’re not in charge. I think she’s a little in denial about her issues and wine helps her fix that.
Would you describe yourself as a control freak too?
No! I’m actually not. I mean, who isn’t? I don’t like or need to be bossy and I’m a fairly obedient actor. I’m pretty easygoing. I have other faults but I’m fairly easygoing.
How do you personally like to unwind when you’re stressed out?
I will have a glass of wine, for sure. Honestly, this is so cliché, but I find that if I exercise — I’m a runner, I like to run — if I do that in a regular fashion and Transcendental Meditation, that really works for me. That’s just like putting in money in the bank to be calm.
Obviously The Affair’s whole premise is that every episode is told between two different perspectives and they always vary — sometimes only slightly and sometimes drastically. Looking back, has that changed the way you’ve thought of past relationships at all?
Yeah, I would say all of them. But I wouldn’t limit it to romantic relationships. I know there are times when I’ve been with whoever — a lover, my mother, my brother — and I’m positive I remember what I said, and they don’t. Or vice versa. The truth is, you and I are going to walk away from this conversation and we’re both going to have had a completely different experience. People wonder what’s the truth, what really happened? And I think all of it’s the truth. All of it really happened. If someone believes it happened, maybe it happened.
Something I’ve noticed is that Noah, while a really compelling character, is still profoundly unlikable. People still hold the affair against him. Whereas Helen actually killed someone and I think she’s seen as a more sympathetic character. How do you feel about that?
[Laughing.] That’s true! I don’t know why and I don’t understand the persistent judgment of that character. He went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit, which gave him a nervous breakdown. I don’t even think he is unlikeable. Something got latched onto not liking him and not forgiving him. I always thought that the character was kind of fascinating because he chose his own happiness. How many people do that? That’s a bold, brave move to choose your own happiness. That’s not how it worked out.
Do you think there’s anything Helen could do that would make her fall from grace?
Listen, that character makes a lot of choices this season that I really did not agree with and I got into some kind of serious discussions with Sarah about the choices she makes. Ultimately though, it’s Sarah’s show. The stuff I think Helen does — it’s not like, running someone over and leaving the scene of the crime. It’s very controlling and selfish, things that I would never do. But we’ll see how people respond.
You’ve been on TV or in movies for a few decades — what do you look for in a role now, and how has that changed over time?
I have the luxury of having a little more freedom of choice. A script — usually you can just tell, I get a visceral response when it’s good. It’s not like “A, B, C, and D are met.” It’s nice when you just have a visceral response to a character.
And you had that with Helen?
I did, and with the story. Initially, I thought, Wow, they’re showing an affair of two people who are actually sort of happily married. I like that they did not make the wife a nagging shrew who didn’t fuck her husband. Clearly they were happy, clearly they had a happy sex life. They didn’t try to make any of the spouses bad guys and that, to me, was very new. In a way, it’s not patriarchal — forgive me, I was made fun of for using that word – in the sense of, “let’s justify a man’s quote unquote bad behavior by making his wife intolerable.”
Growing up, your dad was a politician who ran for mayor of Boston. Do you have any thoughts on this current political moment, or do you feel more prepared to deal with it because you grew up in that world?
My father was on the Boston City Council — Boston’s a big city, it was a very legitimate position. It was super fun, you meet so many people, and everybody’s political in Boston. Nothing in the world could have every prepared me for the climate we’re in right now, which I find so distressing.
I find a lot of women my age — a lot of my female friends that are 40 to 50ish — they’re all having weird bouts of “Oh I keep waking up at 3:30 in the morning.” Someone that says “grab them by the pussy” is our president. I feel like there’s some kind of distress. I have noticed, in discussions with my female friends, this kind of unease. And I’m just wondering if it’s the result of a year and a half of “Oh my God, I can’t believe this.”