Matt Bomer is diving into the sinister.
InThe Sinner's latest chapter, the 42-year-old actor takes the reins of USA Network's haunting anthology crime series from executive producer Jessica Biel. In the eight-episode drama, Bomer plays the seemingly picture-perfect Jamie Burns, an upstanding Dorchester resident, schoolteacher and expectant father, who turns to Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) for support after surviving a devastating, fatal car crash. As things go on The Sinner, Jamie isn't as pristine as he appears and suddenly, his world begins to unravel as the investigation surrounding the mysterious circumstances of the accident come to light.
For Bomer, who broke through more than a decade ago on USA as the brilliant, suave con man Neal Caffrey on the blue-sky dramedy, White Collar, returning to the network -- for a very different kind of role -- was a bit of a homecoming. "I remember being on White Collar and thinking, 'Oh, can I say damn?' Now, it's like, well, how many F-bombs are we going to drop in this episode?" Bomer said with a laugh. "It's so great that they have not felt that they had to stick to one type of model, but really varied their storytelling for the sake of the best story to be told. I feel like I've been a beneficiary of that in both iterations of that work."
And having Biel, who led the series' first season, on set during production was a godsend for Bomer. "She is an amazing producer. She's an amazing boss to have," he said. "She was on set checking out the shows seeing how things were going, always available if I had any questions. Being on The Sinner, I feel like there should be a support group for everybody who's had to go through it because it is such a deep psychological dive. To have her as someone who's been through it and to lean on and ask questions was invaluable to me."
Before the franchise's newest mystery kicks off, Bomer -- who lost 20 pounds over the course of the season ("We felt like was right for what the character was going through") -- hopped on the phone with ET to discuss why he wanted to join the tormented world of The Sinner, diving into the psyche of a deeply troubled human being and letting go his vanity.
ET: You've gotten to go to to some sinister places before with past projects -- American Horror Story comes to mind. What was intriguing to you about the world of The Sinner and your character, Jamie?
Matt Bomer: It started with me being a fan of the series. I love the show. I love the tone of the show. I love the almost documentary-style level of realism that the acting required in order to tell the story in a believable way. I love the way the show is shot. I love the deep psychological dive they take into every character involved on the screen. I met with [creator] Derek [Simonds] years before, when he was involved in Call Me By Your Name, and we really hit it off. I love the way he liked to collaborate with artists, I liked the way he liked to work. We both were big fans of using dreams and the subconscious to influence the work, and I knew it would be a deep dive. I was hungry for something that was going to challenge me in ways I hadn't been challenged before and something that scared me that I didn't know if I could do. I had a feeling, even though our initial conversations were just very loose conversations about thematic elements of the story, that Derek was going to come up with something really special and he just created this incredible world as things progressed. It appealed to me on all levels.
Were you able to able to explore other parts of yourself with this character that you felt you hadn't accessed before in the past?
Oh, without question. Anyone who's lucky enough to get to play on The Sinner gets to do the kind of deep dive, hard work, gritty work, work that's going to cost you physically, emotionally, psychologically. But that's what we live for as actors or certainly one of the things that I enjoy so much about the craft, is that if you're fortunate enough to get to play well-written parts that you can access parts of yourself that you haven't had to before.
This role required me to not care what other people think on a way that I've never had to do before. You really have to drop all vanity on this show. There's little to no makeup, they shoot you extremely close, they shoot you at all hours. There are a lot of night shoots, there are a lot of big emotional moments that play in the night and it called on me to do and behave in certain ways in front of groups of people that I've never had to do before as an actor, so I really had to just be so invested in the character and where he was at any given moment -- which you're always doing, but on this one in particular, especially as the series goes on, I had to really try to be in the moment and not worry what anyone else thought.
The Sinner has this very unsettling undercurrent that has become its signature, which is part of its appeal, I think. Did that feeling of discomfort seep into the season as you were making it?
Yeah. We were all really lucky that the whole cast got to get together and do a workshop, which I felt really benefited the material because we really were able to bare our souls in front of each other, so that by the time we got to the set we didn't have to worry about all the trivial... not trivial aspects, but you didn't have to do the getting-to-know-you aspect of the job, which can sometimes take a week or two just to get comfortable with the people you have to emote in front of. We were already on set ready to go, knowing each other and knowing that we could trust each other. I felt like that was integral to the storytelling this season.
We did this dream work where we all brought our subconscious into the work, and all of a sudden, all these weird things started happening on set. There were all these little serendipitous moments and a lot of synchronicity happening, and then Derek starts to use aspect of aspects of yourself in the character that he knows about. It all becomes this dream-like experience where aspects of your subconscious are creeping out into the work that you're not even really aware of. I've only seen the first hour, but I also know that there are so many little Easter egg moments that he's constructed even in the first hour, that if you're really paying attention as an audience, they may just wash over you but they tap into your subconscious and to your psyche without you really knowing it. And they pay off later in the show. Like the wallpaper in the first season or all of these little details that he's thought of from the get-go.
At first, Jamie seems like the perfect husband and the ideal guy, who's about to become a father. But you quickly see that it is all just a ruse and you can sense the tension inside of him that's threatening to burst. He's hiding a lot of secrets and clearly battling some demons. How bad do things get for him?
I was shocked, truly, at how deep down the rabbit hole the show goes this season. Even having been a fan of the first two seasons, I was really shocked. But I also know that a lot of the things that Jamie is struggling with existentially are things that I've struggled with on a certain level. He has this frustration with, and this disconnection from society. He feels like the way we're living now, and the sets of morals and ethics that we're living by aren't working for us. We all feel like we're so connected being plugged into our phones and liking people's [social] media accounts, but are we actually connected? Do we really know each other? He ends up in a very human, vulnerable moment reaching out to the last person who he really felt alive with, who really called his morals and ethics into question and called him out on not just being an automaton who's numbly walking through life and that ends up being a mistake that really wreaks havoc in his life. Then it becomes a moment by moment decision-making process where he is someone who is having a romance with a philosophy and a set of morals and ethics that he doesn't really have the emotional capacity to handle.
You're referring to Jamie's relationship with his old college friend, Nick, played by Chris Messina. Even from the get-go, it's clear that Jamie and Nick have a fraught dynamic. How did you and Chris navigate that together?
We were lucky enough to do the workshop at the beginning of the season, so we got to know each other. We had a strong sense of what we were going to try to bring to the role and we knew inherently that we were going to support each other in whatever choice we made. Honestly, this is a show that doesn't have a massive budget, so it moves pretty quick. When you're there, particularly when you're doing these heavy scenes -- often several of them over the course of a day -- you're really just focused in 150 percent the entire time you're there. Then you're supporting the other actor, and Chris was so great at coming on set and taking risks and being so brilliant that you just felt like you could make any choice with him and it was OK.
I feel like that sense of interplay and really not knowing what's going to happen when they call "action," allowing a scene to go any way, whether it works or it falls on its face, or it works and you find something that you never knew was there, that potential and that improvisational aspect of the scene was what we tried to keep alive as we were telling the story. We'd obviously built this huge history of their relationship together that we had to work off. And then at the end of the day, you hug it out, you tell each other you love each other and then you go on about your lives.
At the premiere earlier this week, Jessica said this season is "unique." Can you elaborate on what she meant? How is this mystery or the way it unfolds different from the last two seasons?
I feel like a lot of the first two seasons dealt with a very specific trauma that influenced someone's life. While there are aspects of that with Jamie, this is as much about the trauma of everyday life as it is about one specific incident that changed the course of someone's life. It's also about our collective fear of and denial of death.
The Sinner premieres Thursday, Feb. 6 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on USA Network.
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