The Sinner premiere: Matt Bomer on how season 3 mystery 'cuts really close to the bone'
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the season 3 premiere of The Sinner, which aired Thursday.
Right from the jump, we know that Jamie Burns, the central figure of The Sinner season 3, isn’t what he appears to be. He may seem like the model citizen of the remote town of Dorchester, a doting father-to-be whose son is just a week away from being born, and an attentive teacher to one of the finest prep schools in Manhattan. But the first time we see him, he’s hiding in a stall in his school’s bathroom, smoking sativa, a form of cannabis known for its “head highs,” and sprinkling drops into his eyes. He’s hiding something from the rest of the world, and we’re not even a full minute into the premiere.
Then things get crazier.
As Jamie, Matt Bomer succeeds Jessica Biel and Carrie Coon, who headlined seasons 1 and 2 of the USA Network anthology series. An old friend from college, Nick Haas (Sharp Objects and Birds of Prey star Chris Messina) surprises Jamie for dinner. Nick says he was just driving through the neighborhood, but the arrival clearly shakes Jamie. Nick even threatens to tell the family man’s pregnant wife about some of the things they got into in school. The tension takes a turn when the two are later involved in a car crash that kills Nick. Why were they driving around together? What were they planning to do? What happened here? The final moment gives us one revelation: Nick could’ve been saved if the medics arrived in time, but Jamie took away his cell phone and watched as he bled out. Now it’s Bill Pullman’s Detective Harry Ambrose who has to fit the puzzle pieces together.
It’s a windshield-shattering start to what Bomer describes as cutting “really close to the bone.” Below, the actor discusses the premiere episode and what’s in store this season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I live in New York, and on my way to the office today all these people kept bumping into me on the subway because they were staring at their phones. It reminded me of when Jamie is so mad at “Banker Bob” because of his loud cell phone on the train. Do you think, in terms of the themes you’re dealing with this season, that it’s important for Jamie to at least be somewhat relatable?
MATT BOMER: Yes. I think it’s a testament to Derek Simonds that he creates characters with flaws and shadowier aspects that we can all relate to. Who hasn’t been annoyed at how disconnected we are in our society today, and how people may be more interested in their phones or their devices or social media than they are in actually authentically connecting to another human being?
When you strip away the crime story, the mystery at hand, what do you think are the main elements you’re dealing with this season?
I can only speak from my character’s point of view; I don’t want to speak on behalf of anyone else’s character. I just know that Jamie is somebody who seemingly has it all. He has a great life. He has a beautiful wife, they’re expecting a child, they’ve just moved back to the suburbs. He’s got a great job. And inside, he is a kettle about to boil. He just has this complete disaffectation with society at large. He feels that the set of morals and ethics that we’re all living by are not succeeding, and he reaches out to the last person who calls his morals and ethics into question, who is Nick Haas, and that ends up being one of those decisions, in a moment of real vulnerability, that ends up spiraling his life out of control.
After the first episode, I already have my own theories about how this is all going to go, but then I remember that this is The Sinner and so the first few theories that come to mind are probably off base. Did you have a similar experience when you first read the script?
Well, I had more of a holistic picture painted for me by Derek before we started the show. But I was still surprised at the way they had the character constantly keeping me on my toes as an actor, and even as an audience member. When I would read the scripts, I really didn’t know what Jamie was going to do next. I think it’s a testament to a writers’ room that I’ve been a fan of for two seasons before this, who just peel back the layers so slowly. They have so much respect for their audience and their understanding of the story, and they do such a deep psychological dive into all the characters. So to me, I thought I knew and then I was surprised by what I expected, I guess.
I know you’ve been a fan of the series. Just from your own perspective as a viewer and now as someone who’s part of this show, how do you think season 3 keeps the concept of The Sinner fresh?
I think every great season of The Sinner is dealing with the trauma of our collective well… What’s the most authentic way to live? Are there a prescribed set of rules we should follow? It’s a deep psychological dive into the characters, but I think every season has really changed the template a little bit. You of course have the amazing consistency of Ambrose, but even his character goes through, I feel, so many changes over the course of this season. So you get the best of an anthology series in that you’re getting a new story every year, but you’re also getting a tried-and-true tone to the show, and you’re getting to witness and experience a lot of it through a character that I certainly have come to know and love over the first couple of seasons with Harry Ambrose. I would say one of the things that’s different, this season is very much about our collective fear of and denial of death, it’s about the trauma of everyday life in many ways, and it’s a very existential season. [Friedrich] Nietzsche and [Fyodor] Dostoevsky were a strong influence in the material. Your homework is due tomorrow!
I have to pick up Dostoevsky now!
Just do Notes From the Underground. It’s only like 120 pages long, or something.
You mentioned Ambrose a couple of times. One of the things that kept jumping out to me is that his home this season is isolated in the woods and he’s trying to reach out to his family for connection. Jamie, in a different sort of way, feels trapped in his role as the suburban father-to-be. Should fans be paying attention to these parallels? Is that parallel between the characters something you talked about?
Well, absolutely. We talked about it from before the show began, and then we experienced it over the course of filming. I think there is a genesis of something that starts in their relationship and that first questioning that Ambrose has with Jamie after the accident. There is this connection that happens in that moment that is just the beginning of a massive journey that they go on together over the course of the season. Even though they look at it through a different lens, I think they see the world in a similar way, and as much as either one of them might not want to admit it, they have a lot more in common than they have differences.
It’s been teased that this season’s mystery marks the most dangerous and disturbing case of Ambrose’s career. Can you give any broad strokes as to why this case is so dangerous?
No. I really can’t give you any of the specifics, unfortunately. That’s why it’s so hard to do press for a job like this. But I will just say that his involvement in the case probably puts him in the most dangerous place that he’s ever been in the series that we’ve seen so far.
What was the experience like for you, having watched the show for as long as you have, to now being in the thick of it?
I had met Derek years ago when he was involved in Call Me By Your Name, and I knew the way that he liked to work with actors, and it was the way that I like to work. I knew that he was really interested in dream work and using the subconscious to bring that material into your work as an actor. So I knew that it was going to be a deep dive and something that was going to ask things of me that had never been asked of me as an actor before and challenged me in ways that I’d never been challenged. You kind of just buckle up and strap yourself in, and then give yourself over to it 150 percent. It was, for me, the most incredible creative experience and something where I was working 70 hours a week and spending more time in the character’s head than I was in my own and committing myself physically and losing weight for the role. It’s the kind of deep dive that you hope for as an actor, the kind of multifaceted character. It just gives you so much to work with and you try to drop your ego and just really serve the material.
Then after I met with Jessica and I talked to her and I spoke with Bill, I knew the level of commitment and dedication it was going to require from everybody involved. You dream of those kinds of experiences as an actor. I was lucky enough to talk to Carrie during filming as well. I always joked that there should be a Sinner support group for Jessica and Carrie and I, or have a hotline where we can call each other at any given time and go, “Oh my God!” It was so great to have Jessica there as somebody who had been through this before because it is really sticky psychological material that cuts really close to the bone. And then Derek is highly intelligent and very perceptive, and he starts to pick up on things in you and pull those out of you and use those in the material. Before you know it, you have a hard time differentiating. I definitely had to burn some sage when this was done.
Was there any specific detail that helped you really understand who this character was or that made him more interesting and complex?
Derek and I had conversations starting months before filming about the character and what his central struggles were, and who he had been and who he was now and who he would be by the end of the season. It’s hard to discuss in depth too much about those. I just knew, having watched the show and then hearing about his struggles, that he was going to be someone who was relatable because a lot of the existential aspects that he’s struggling with are things that you were just talking about in the beginning of the interview: how we live in these times where we feel like we’re so connected, but in many ways we’re more disconnected than we’ve ever been. We have social media and all these different ways where we can click a “like” on someone’s post, but does that mean we’re really connected to them, and is it just another performance? How do we really connect if we feel this sense of loneliness and spiritual disconnection? I know that Derek also took things from my life and from our conversations and used those and incorporated those and wove those into the characters. So it’s just one of those things that starts from a really rich source and then, over the course of the series, cuts closer and closer to the bone.
In terms of your specific performance, one thing that stands out is your eyes. When we first meet Jamie, he’s pouring on eyedrops cause he doesn’t want people to know he’s been smoking weed. Then he asks one of his students, “Why do you look so scared?” Even though you’re calm, your eyes felt so wild. I’m curious if that aspect was something you specifically wanted to bring through.
I think it’s just an extension of someone who is trying to create, on the outside, a world where everything is fine. He’s the golden boy, he’s the yes man, he’s got it all under control, and the windows to the soul can’t hide what’s brimming inside of him.
Do you have any tips to offer viewers moving forward this season? Would you say the devil is in the details and there are clues hiding in the background?
Yeah. I’ve only seen the first hour of the show, but I was surprised at how many little Easter eggs there were planted in that in that hour that pay off later. So, yes. I can’t speak to the entire season, but I think Derek has the entire thing structured. He knows how it’s going to play out from the beginning, and so he weaves in all these little bits and pieces that almost seek a new subconscious. If you think about the wallpaper from the first season, there are these little details that get under your skin, if you’re really paying attention as you watch the show.
As an actor, is it important for you keep certain details unknown to yourself in a story like this, or do you like to know the entire arc of your character?
Oftentimes as an actor you’re at the mercy of wherever they are in the creative process. This was just one of those really fortunate experiences where I had signed on to the show at a pretty early phase, well before they started production. So it started a very, very general meeting with Derek and I where he had a loose idea about what the show was going to be, but there was nothing terribly specific about it. Then we’d meet again a month later, and all of a sudden so much of it was fleshed out. And then we’d meet again. Obviously, things evolved as we shot. So, for me personally, I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but so much of what you’re trying to do is get out of your head and not think about you, just really focus on where you are in that moment in any given scene. But it is a nice perk when you have a job like this where you do have a holistic sense of where the story’s going so that you can have that kind of percolating on the back burner, even while you’re in the moment in any given scene. But we don’t always get the choice. So you have to roll, you have to roll with it either way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.