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Jessica Biel Goes Dark in ‘The Sinner,’ a Knot of Memory and Motive

The partnering of Ms. Biel with a character capable of savage violence seems felicitous as she strives to stretch professionally.

Ms. Biel, now 35 and the mother of a 2-year-old, Silas, said she had been “desperately looking for something that would push me creatively to places that I have never been before.” To help find that role, she and Michelle Purple, her producing partner, signed a development deal with Universal Cable Productions in 2014. “Producing puts the power back into your own hands,” Ms. Biel said, “so you’re not sitting around waiting for somebody to deliver something amazing to you, which is very rare.”

Then “The Sinner,” the best seller by Petra Hammesfahr, considered Germany’s Patricia Highsmith, landed on their reading pile and struck the right chords: a darkly compelling psychological thriller whose protagonist was a complex woman, with a labyrinthine plot that could rivet viewers for eight episodes and wallop them with a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps just as attractive: It could be shot in three months.

Photo

Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman in “The Sinner.”

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Peter Kramer/USA Network

Ms. Biel is not the only female film star developing novels into limited series; this sisterhood includes Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon (“Big Little Lies”), Julia Roberts (“Today Will Be Different”) and Toni Collette (“Invisible City”).

The limited series “is the new indie film,” said Mr. Simonds, a former writer on ABC’s “The Astronaut Wives Club” and “When We Rise,” who had been brought in by Universal Cable Productions. “It’s a better way to adapt a novel because you get to live with the characters longer, and you just fall in deeper.”

“I think this area of television is filling the hole of what we experienced in the ’90s with the Miramax film,” he continued. “When’s the last time we saw a film like ‘The English Patient?’ The big movie studios aren’t spending money on these kinds of big-range, highbrow movies anymore.”

Mr. Simonds transplanted “The Sinner” from a small German town to a fictional Hudson River village where locals and city weekenders converge and collide. He also fleshed out themes the book merely flirted with: shame, repression and the pain we hide.

Those emotional wounds are central to the relationship between Cora and Ambrose, and in casting Mr. Pullman he found an actor keen to explore his character’s soft, dark spots.

Mr. Pullman, best known for roles like President Whitmore in “Independence Day” and Jack in “While You Were Sleeping,” hadn’t starred in a series since “1600 Penn,” his presidential sitcom that last just 13 episodes before NBC canceled it in 2013. But he was intrigued by the character. “There’s a side of playing Ambrose that is very much about what it is to be my age,” he said. “He still hasn’t dealt with a lot of issues, and that aspect of the internal journey has to be more articulated than anything I’ve ever done before.”

When the question isn’t who done it but why, the territory gets murkier, Mr. Simonds said. “Rather than external circumstances, the clues and the mystery tend to be about layers of character, and those are much fuzzier and much more slippery than a hard fact,” he said. “The DNA of the story was aiming right where I’m interested, which is the mind. It’s a different kind of detective work than what we’re used to seeing.”

The whydunit also requires a different, more delicate sense of timing, Ms. Biel said. “You set up a lot of questions and answer a couple every episode, so you’re really starting to feel satisfied that you’ve uncovered something.”

Somewhere along the journey, it became clear to Ms. Biel and Mr. Simonds that “The Sinner” could morph into an anthology series should it be renewed. But exactly how that would play out — whether Mr. Pullman’s Ambrose would take center stage, or Ms. Biel would return as another character — no one seemed quite sure. Only that the why might still trump the who.

“There’s a weight off your shoulders,” Ms. Biel said, “when the person is waving their hand in the air going, ‘I did it.’”

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