The Affair EP Sarah Treem responds to Ruth Wilson exit controversy: 'I tried to protect her'
Sarah Treem is telling her side of the story.
Late on Friday, the showrunner of The Affair shared a lengthy response to the recent The Hollywood Reporter exposé on why Ruth Wilson exited the Showtime drama. The original story alleged that Wilson’s decision to quit the show was due to a hostile work environment, discord between her and Treem, and frustrations with the amount of nudity required of her. Wilson is restricted by an NDA, but sources in the article claim she took issue with how often she was required to be undressed and the nature of some of the nude scenes she was involved in. Her pushback on these issues led her to being labeled “difficult,” and Wilson felt Treem pressured her into performing such scenes.
Treem finally broke her silence on the controversy by writing an essay for Deadline sharing her truth. “A little less than two weeks ago, writers from The Hollywood Reporter reached out to say they would be publishing an article about how I created a hostile work environment and asked for a response,” Treem begins in the long essay. “Unfortunately, not much of my perspective made it into the story, nor the perspectives of many of the half-dozen senior level producers, director and other key crew members who spoke up.”
Citing how The Affair itself “was about perspective and memory,” Treem then detailed her own perspective of what transpired while working behind-the-scenes of the Showtime drama with Wilson and how the character of Alison came to be to give context for the whole story. The showrunner revealed she began writing the show after she “had just gotten out of a very bad relationship.”
“Alison was a character forged in grief and pain, whose sexual relationships had a violent, transgressive element from the beginning, as she was using them to escape an amorphous, emotional pain that is harder to tolerate,” Treem says. “For me, the process of writing the character for four years, was one of working my own way through trauma, to try to understand where it came from and why it was so difficult to find a way out. When I first started writing the character, I felt like I was walking along a razor’s edge of survival.”
One of the sex scenes mentioned in the THR story happens in season 1 between Alison and Noah (Dominic West), from Noah’s point of view. “From Noah’s perspective, Alison is angry at him, but the force of her attraction to him overwhelms her and they have aggressive, but consensual, sex against a tree,” Treem says. “Did I know that scene reads as a male fantasy? Of course. That was the whole point. The Affair was about perspective. And specifically, about subverting the male narrative. By the middle of the second season, I had faith that our audience understood the rules of the show and they knew that Noah was an unreliable narrator.”
She continues, “But Ruth Wilson, who was playing Alison, didn’t approve of the scene and didn’t want to play it as written. By this point, it wasn’t a surprise as we had been disagreeing on the character’s choices since the second episode. By now we were at this complicated impasse where I didn’t know how to write the character any differently and she didn’t feel she could play what I was writing.”
Treem goes on to reveal that she and Wilson “had a lengthy discussion about the scene, notes went back and forth, changes were made, and then Ruth played the scene the way she felt her character would. Which did alter the intent of the scene to something that seemed non-consensual. But we had discussed the scene and Ruth made her choices as an artist. Then we brought in a body-double to do any nudity. And that was the scene we aired.”
“On a continuous basis throughout Ruth’s time on the show, I tried to protect her and shoot sex scenes safely and respectfully,” Treem adds. “We didn’t agree on the choices of the character or whether or not a sex scene was necessary to advance the plot, but that is not the same thing as not respecting or supporting an actress’s need to feel safe in her work environment, which is something I always take incredibly seriously.”
Treem then says that by the third season, she “had abandoned [her] original plan for the character and was actively trying to write Alison closer to Ruth’s vision.”
“In that season, Ruth had asked to leave before shooting wrapped to perform in Hedda Gabler on stage, which was creatively problematic for the show, but she was really excited about the project, so I wrote her out of the season early,” she continues. “I was working incredibly hard to locate some sort of happy medium for us, where she would feel good about doing the show and we could continue to move the story forward. But that season, an incident happened between Jeff Reiner and Lena Dunham in Montauk.”
That “incident” took place in 2016 when The Affair executive producer and director Jeffrey Reiner and Girls creator and star Lena Dunham happened to be in the same restaurant in Montauk. Konner detailed the events of that evening in a letter published on Dunham’s now-shuttered website Lenny Letter. She wrote, “We ran into a small portion of the crew of another TV show that shoots nearby and introduced ourselves. Within five minutes, a producer/director of that show had cornered Lena…The director asked Lena to have dinner alone the following night with an actress on the show he works on. Not because he thought they should meet, but because he wanted Lena to persuade the actress to ‘show her t–s, or at least some vag’ on TV. Surely Lena could make a compelling argument. After all, he continued, ‘You would show anything. Even your a–hole.’” Konner claims that Reiner took out his phone and showed Dunham a graphic photo of a mutual friend next to a man’s genitalia, which was reportedly The Affair actress Maura Tierney and a male actor working as a body double for actor Josh Stamberg. However, The Affair assistant director Cleta Ellington claims the incident happened differently, and now Treem is sharing her perspective on what happened next.
“I was in California at the time, editing the show and taking care of my new baby,” Treem says. “When I heard about the incident, I came back to New York and tried to figure out what actually happened. When the Lenny Letter came out, I repeatedly urged Showtime to do something. I wanted to shut down production, do sensitivity training, address the cast and crew and apologize for what had occurred. But instead, I was told to stick to certain talking points and let the network handle the response. By the time the third season was over, Showtime executives told me to write Ruth out of the show.”
According to the THR story, it was then that sources say Wilson filed an official complaint with Showtime regarding a hostile work environment, prompting an internal investigation. In a statement obtained by EW, the network said that action was taken, saying, “When confronted with a report of inappropriate behavior involving anyone within our offices or productions, we immediately initiate a process overseen by our compliance team in the case of our own shows, or in the case of series we license from others, we collaborate closely with the relevant production studio. In the instances that THR is referencing, appropriate and decisive action was taken.”
While the investigation was carried out, Reiner was reportedly allowed to stay on the show, but chose to exit after he was told that he could no longer direct episodes that featured Wilson. The incident allowed Wilson to negotiate her own exit from the series, but not before one final disagreement with Treem took place over how Alison’s story would end, with Wilson reportedly vetoing Alison fighting off a brutal rape before being murdered.
“In the article, it was reported that I wrote a distasteful script and the Showtime executives had to ‘intervene’ to remove a ‘violent sexual assault.’ Here’s what really happened,” Treem says. “Alison needed to go. But for a character to disappear, on a show like this, she needed to die. She couldn’t just walk away into the sunset because we followed our characters wherever they went. I could have written that she got hit by a bus in the first episode, but I loved her character and wanted to finish her story meaningfully.”
Treem then references the new character introduced in the fourth season, a veteran named Ben (Ramon Rodriguez) who was sober and impotent, but he felt a spark with Alison so he asked her out. “If you know anything about the tendencies of abusive men, that would be a big red flag. But Alison doesn’t,” Treem says. “All Alison knows is that she’s attracted to him. Over the course of her final season, she slowly starts to open up to him. She tells him about her past. About the loss of her son, about her affair. He seems like he can understand her grief, because he’s been through his own. And then one day, she goes to find him at his office, unannounced. And there she meets his wife.”
Alison then runs to California and breaks down with Noah and his ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney), who encourages Alison to stand up to the men in her life and “stop playing the victim.”
“Helen doesn’t know who Alison is dealing with though. In the case of a domestic violence victim, ‘standing up’ to the abuser is bad advice,” Treem says. “So that’s how I set up the final episode. Alison calls Ben and tells him to meet her alone in her apartment.” Treem set the final scene at a real condominium apartment in Montauk called Rough Riders, since “that was the place I was staying when something similar happened to me.”
“So, when it came time to end Alison’s story, I went back to her beginning. Back into a situation where a married man is projecting his fantasies onto her and she could potentially use sex to numb her pain,” Treem continues. “But this time, she chooses differently. She breaks up with him. He tries to force himself on her, but he’s still impotent. She fights him off and screams at him to get the hell out of her apartment. She then gives him this powerful speech about how she’s been in pain her entire life. And maybe that’s why people think she’s weak. But she is f–king sick of it. And because she is finally standing up to him, because he has to face the fact that she can’t and won’t save him from himself, because she’s finally showing him the truth of who he is… he kills her. Which, in situations of domestic violence, is exactly what often happens.”
Treem says sought approval from both the network and actors with that script, knowing it would be controversial. According to her, Showtime “loved it and never gave a single note on the sexual content.”
“But once Ruth’s team reported that she wasn’t happy, they suddenly asked me to change it,” Treem says. “At that point, I absolutely fought back because I didn’t want to write a script where a veteran just goes insane and kills a woman with no impetus. If I had known I wouldn’t have been able to follow through on a storyline I had been setting up since the beginning of the season, I would not have made the character of Ben a veteran. To this day, I hate that the storyline seems to suggest that veterans suffering from PTSD are so crazy they might murder women at any point.”
Treem goes on to say that she has “given [her] entire professional life to confronting the patriarchy and celebrating women’s narratives through [her] writing.”
“Yes, I know women can be chauvinists and there is misogyny among women, but that is simply not what happened here,” she adds. “As in many things, it is very tough to be a woman and do this job. I did not always agree with Ruth Wilson, but I did always have respect for her craft, her ability and her process and I tried to write her a character deserving of her immense talent. I know she’ll continue to tell the story of complex, multi-faceted, remarkable female characters for the rest of her long career. I plan on doing the same.”
Two marriages collide when a tragedy brings an affair to light; the Showtime original series stars Joshua Jackson and Maura Tierney.