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The Affair's Maura Tierney

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Top Tierney

By Cristina Cuomo

Photography by Gregg Delman

08.29.16

As the star of Showtime’s hit drama "The Affair," Maura Tierney explores a character so many women can relate to, all the while finding herself. Beach caught up with the New Yorker, who takes comfort in the serenity of Montauk while filming the emotional highs and lows of the must-watch show.

Maura Tierney, the television queen we’ve grown up with, is all grown up herself. At 51, her filmography lists some of the greatest sitcoms and dramas in TV land. She played a newswriter in the mid-’90s on NewsRadio; a nurse turned doctor for a decade on ER opposite George Clooney; had stints on the Good Wife and Rescue Me; and landed her Golden Globe-winning role as a woman dealing with the emotional fallout of her husband’s liaison on one of Showtime’s most popular series, The Affair. Sarah Treem’s beautifully crafted series, which takes place between Montauk and New York City, features Tierney’s most haunting and powerful performance to date, as Helen Solloway, ex-wife of writer Noah Solloway, played by the equally powerful Dominic West. The show’s structure, using four points of view—usually two perspectives per episode, unfolding four different ways—is not hard to follow, thanks to the great talents of Tierney and her co-stars, who also include Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson. But “sometimes it gets very confusing when we are shooting multiple things in one day,” Tierney admits. “You have to figure out if we are in the present or in the future or whose point of view it is. It’s four actors, but it’s really 12 characters.”

On top of the challenge of playing one scene though multiple perspectives, Tierney has inhabited her role as a wife and mother of four turned cuckolded woman differently in each of the show’s seasons so far. “Helen started off as a perfect, saintly type of woman,” says Tierney. “In the first season her perfection was kind of off-putting. In season two, we got to see a more human character, and I had fun exploring that other less perfect side of her.” Her choices are intentional: “I don’t like to know too much in advance, so I just take the script page by page. If I knew the whole arc of what was going to happen, it would have been a little more challenging for me.”

At the end of season two, Helen is involved in a harrowing hit-and-run; it’s been, to date, Tierney’s hardest scene, though not in the obvious ways. “While it was highly dramatic, so much pretending was involved. There was a lot of acting like getting in a car that wasn’t moving, and that was really hard to translate into a real moment.” The cataclysmic event also represented a pivotal point in the relationship between Helen and Noah, her ex, as they are bound by it. It’s also a scene that is seen through three different points of view—hers, Noah’s and that of his new paramour, Alison, played by Ruth Wilson. “The last episode of season two showed the most interesting use of the points-of-view device. From Alison’s point of view, Noah did see her, so that signifies Noah’s terrible behavior. But if he didn’t see her, that’s heroic behavior, taking the rap for his ex-wife.”

Even though Tierney doesn’t have many scenes with actor Joshua Jackson—who plays Cole, Alison’s ex-husband—they are close off-set. “We’re all friends; we all hang out together in Montauk even if we aren’t actually in scenes together. Josh and Ruth and I will be in big scenes, like the wedding scene, but we don’t work one-on-one together, which makes me sad.” 

While her portrayal earned Tierney her first-ever Golden Globe win earlier this year, she didn’t feel an immediate connection to her character. “My reaction to the script when I first read it was that the device was interesting to me. This was a very interesting wife part. There are a lot of wife parts out there and they aren’t always all that great, and I was struck by that. Then it evolved into something even more fun.”

And memorable too. Another striking scene is one in which Tierney and Wilson face off for the first time at the doorstep of her brownstone in Brooklyn. “I really liked the scene between Helen and Alison—I like seeing those two characters together, having this kind of confrontation. That was satisfying to play and to watch.”

Season three, which returns at the end of November, proves to be even riper with plot twists and turns. “It’s quite a jump in time—about three years later—so a lot has happened to some of the characters. There are new relationships for Noah [and] a new relationship for Helen, and everyone has kind of moved on a little bit in time, but they’re still dealing with the consequences of their actions. There’s a big question mark between Noah and Alison. Helen has a boyfriend, and Cole is fully ensconced with his new wife.”

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Tierney was raised in Boston by her councilman father and real estate agent mother. She studied dance—and majored in it in college—but thought she wasn’t good enough to go pro. Before catching the acting bug, she found herself selling auto parts over the phone. “That was the most mind-numbingly boring thing ever,” she recalls. “Not only do I know nothing about transmissions, but I was cold-calling gas stations across the country—it was so sad.”

Good thing she “backed into acting since my dream didn’t work out,” because she’s one of the most respected actresses working in television today. That said, Tierney is still sometimes plagued with anxiety and insecurity. She didn’t expect to win her Golden Globe: “I was flabbergasted. It was nerve-racking but thrilling. I have been working in this business for a long time, so it felt very nice. I got so many cards from people I’ve worked with over the years, and friends in the business.”

Since Tierney has been on this dramatic-role track, she’d like to see a return to comedy and hone her theatrical skills. “I started out doing comedy, but for whatever reason, I’m not really viewed that way at this point in my career. And I think I’m pretty funny! But there’s a lot of theater I would like to do. I work with The Wooster Group, the iconic, downtown avant-garde theater company. I developed a piece with them last year that was really fun; it was based on a film called Town Bloody Hall, which was shot in 1971. The artistic director, Elizabeth LeCompte, is a genius, and I don’t throw that around too much. It’s really gratifying to work with them.”

While The Affair is riding the wave as one of the hottest series on television, Tierney is realistic about the hazards of aging in Hollywood and is relishing her work on the stage. “Theater is experimental and it doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s a different interpretation of material and it’s liberating,” says the New Yorker.

She’ll be busy with it. “I mean, how many times can they fraction off a marriage in The Affair? With this play [The Town Hall Affair], we are going to Paris in October and then we’ll be in New York in February and Los Angeles in March and April, so my spring is mapped out. And then in April I’m supposed to do another play.”

While she’s currently filming season three of The Affair in Montauk, she resides in a part of town that is a little sleepy post-season, in a prefab Leisurama house. “It’s this development that started in 1962. A developer had an idea for affordable vacation homes, so they made the template for these Leisurama houses. They are amazingly fabulous and a lot of them have been renovated, but some people have kept them in their original, pristine midcentury condition, some with Murphy beds tucked away. Back when they were first for sale, you could go into Macy’s, pick out your house, sheets, forks, spoons and plates, and buy the whole thing.”

When not filming, she’s keeping her coverworthy legs in shape. “I’m too lazy to do a sit-up, so I jog, bike, and do Pilates.” And her style is simple: “I wear a James Perse T-shirt practically every day, and I’ve been wearing a ton of Billy Reid lately—I love his stuff and it works well on me.”

In her off-hours, she also loves dining at year-round spots like Harvest, and walking the beaches surrounding the Montauk lighthouse: “It’s stunningly beautiful there.”

And the secret to her steadfast success? While the beauty of Montauk and the triumph of her career have given her a calm centeredness, Tierney retains her peace by staying true to herself and not letting the negativity of her business get to her. “My mom used to say: ‘Don’t let people live in your head rent-free’—that’s really good advice.”