Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Maura Tierney got her first exposure as an on-camera actor through small roles in various sitcoms, dramas, and TV movies, working with the likes of Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke, and (briefly) David Bowie. But it was the role of Lisa Miller in NewsRadio that made her into a proper prime-time star and put her in a position to pull big-screen appearances alongside Richard Gere (Primal Fear), Jim Carrey (Liar Liar), and John Travolta (Primary Colors). Post-NewsRadio, Tierney scored even bigger small-screen success on ER, and she was on track to follow it up with another hour-long drama—Parenthood—when a cancer scare temporarily derailed her plans. Thankfully, Tierney has rebounded: In addition to having spent a half-dozen or so episodes as a guest star on The Good Wife, she can now be seen on a weekly basis in the cast of Showtime’s The Affair.
The A.V. Club: Were you chomping at the bit to try your hand at a cable drama?
Maura Tierney: I was dying to. [Laughs.] No, I was! Because I was on network television for—15 years? I was on great shows, and I loved them, but I’ve never worked on cable, and it’s just such a different environment. There’s a little more freedom with the material. So I was really dying to work on a cable TV show. I wanted to do a comedy, but then this came up, and I loved it.
AVC: Did it land in your lap, or were you actively looking for a series at the time?
MT: No, it was—well, I mean, I had a meeting with them. But it was offered to me, so I took it.
AVC: How would you describe this character, Helen?
MT: Helen is the wife of Noah, played by Dominic West, and she’s kind of a wonderful wife, but in a way that’s almost—I think a tiny bit annoying. Because she’s sort of perfect. She’s a great mom—she has four kids—and she’s a successful businesswoman that has a fair-trade, eco-friendly store, and she sort of grew up wealthy, so she’s kind of in a great place. But little does she know… [Laughs.]
AVC: The series is pretty intense, and more than a little bit nerve-wracking to watch.
MT: Is it?
AVC: Well, maybe it’s just because I’m married.
MT: In that case, I guess it is. [Laughs.] I mean, that’s the point, right?
AVC: When you first got the script, did you find yourself getting caught up in it as you read it?
MT: What I loved about it was the dual perspectives, because it’s almost like a chance to play two characters. For everybody. But, you know, in his memory of me, I’m sort of more… wife-y. Wife-y and normal. And her memory of me is that I’m a lot more glamorous and intimidating and kind of cold. That’s really fun—to play essentially two different characters, really.
AVC: Are you able speak about how the season plays out? In other words, will things wrap up at the end of this season and focus on a new couple next season?
MT: Well, no, it’s the same couple, but—it’s a flashback. The whole thing is told in a flashback, and I believe that Sarah Treem, who created it, has several seasons planned in her head—at least two—and because it’s told in flashback, it can go to a lot of different places. But it all depends on if the network picks it up.
MT: That was my first job! [Laughs.] And I, uh, worked with O.J. Simpson. So that’s a little claim to fame of mine. Who else was in that? Oh, Todd Field, who went on to direct Little Children. He was the star, and then he became this Oscar-nominated writer and director. And the captain of The Love Boat, wasn’t he in it?
AVC: Yes, Gavin MacLeod played a vice principal.
MT: Yes! And I played a mean cheerleader! [Laughs.] I’ve never gotten to be the bad girl again like that. That’s the only time I’ve gotten to play a role where I was that kind of character.
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
MT: I just sort of always did it. I mean, always. When I was 5, I would pretend, and then in high school I did plays and stuff, and then I studied it in college. So I’ve just kind of been acting all my life, really.
MT: That was fun, because I worked with Norman Lear. Can you imagine? How great is that? I mean, the show didn’t last, but that was an amazing thing, to work with him.
AVC: That may be the only sitcom that’s been spun off from a location rather than a character.
MT: No kidding! But, you know, it used to be Archie Bunker’s house, so it’s an iconic address.
AVC: What did you think when you heard the pitch for the series?
MT: I thought it was great! I mean, I mostly thought, “I want to work with Norman Lear.” [Laughs.] That was the primary thing. I wonder why it didn’t work. But, yeah, when I heard the pitch, what I mostly thought was, “It’s Norman Lear, and I want to work with him.”
MT: That was fun. I loved that movie. I think everybody’s great in it, and it’s so funny and interesting and original. We went to Sundance, but it’s too bad that—I don’t know why, but the critics didn’t like that movie, and it was so independent that it needed that. My ex-husband [Billy Morrissette]—we were married at the time—wrote it and directed it. And I loved James Le Gros and Kevin Corrigan. It was such a great cast. Christopher Walken! We were in Nova Scotia.
AVC: How was Walken?
MT: He’s wacky as shit.
AVC: That’s what I wanted to hear.
MT: [Laughs.] He is! But he’s fascinating. Everything you think he is, he’s that. It’s all true. And I think he likes to be that way. I think he cultivates it! He taped his lines to the chest of one of the young actors he shared a scene with—and he was delighted with himself for having done that! But he was also excellent in the film.
AVC: It’s become a bit of a cult classic, certainly among people who study Shakespeare. People take these adaptations seriously, and that’s definitely a unique interpretation of Macbeth.
MT: They do take them seriously. I mean, when you said Macbeth just then, I kind of instinctively cringed and was, like, “Wait, where are we?” [Laughs.] You know, it’s funny: After the movie, people would send my ex-husband these things that were like textbooks, and they would basically be full treatises about the themes of Scotland, Pa. And none of them were really what he’d intended. He made a comedy out of it! But it was really fun to make. I wish more people had seen that movie.
MT: That was really fun, too.
AVC: It was just a one-off appearance, but how did it come about?
MT: I don’t know. They just asked me, and I said “yes” because I liked that show. [Laughs.] But here’s what was interesting about that. You know how a lot of actors will say that it’s important how you act off-camera, that you work for the other actors, and… I’ve always envisioned myself as a person who’s really present for the other actors, and I’ve always tried to do the same thing off-camera—or better—than I did on-camera. But when you go on The Office, you’re always on-camera. And then you’re like, “Oh, so this is what it’s like to just really work hard.” Because you never know when you’re on camera or not. It lights a fire under your ass. It seems like they had a blast on that show. It was fun for me.
AVC: Had you worked with James Spader before?
MT: I hadn’t. He’s a little wacky, too. [Laughs.] But nice! He’s not Walken-level wacky.
MT: That was really fun. I mean, it’s Dick Van Dyke! And Jay Sandrich was the director, who directed The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was really lucky to be able to work with super-talented people early on. And Dick was so sweet. We had a lot of fun. But that show was kind of—I don’t think anybody was watching that show. [Laughs.] In addition to Jay, Kari Lizer was also on the show—as an actress, but she went on to create The New Adventures Of Old Christine. The most fun thing about the show for me was that I got to have curly hair. My hair is straight, but the character had curly hair.
AVC: The Van Dyke Show was your first gig as a series regular, right?
MT: Yes, it was. That was right after I got fired from Growing Pains.
AVC: Um—this is the first I’m hearing of you being fired from Growing Pains, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for further details.
MT: Yep. I was fired from Growing Pains.
AVC: So did you actually…
MT: Get fired? Yes, I did.
AVC: I was going to ask if you actually did the show and it’s just not on IMDB, or if you never made it on at all.
MT: Well, I was hired, I rehearsed, and—it was a multi-camera, so it was on the second day of rehearsal that I was fired.
AVC: Is it worth asking why?
MT: I don’t know why! I think maybe I had a bad attitude. [Laughs.] I really don’t know. The director kept saying, “Watch Kirk [Cameron]! Watch Kirk! Kirk knows what he’s doing! Watch Kirk!” And then I got fired. So that’s what I get for watching Kirk, I guess. Or maybe I didn’t watch him closely enough. Either way, I don’t think I’m welcome in his bunker.
MT: That was fun, but it was a weird, tiny part. My brother, who’s younger—I really wanted to do it because he liked the show. And then I did it, and it turned out that he couldn’t give a shit. [Laughs.] It was still fun, because it was Family Ties, but it was really quick. It was, like, one second.
MT: That was great. The thing about that show is, I auditioned for NewsRadio in New York, and two days later I got a call saying, “The casting director accidentally erased your entire audition.” I was like, “Are you fucking kidding?” And I had to go back and redo it, but it was right after Thanksgiving, and I remember it was when they were lighting the tree at Rockefeller Center—the casting office was near there—and there were just massive amounts of people. I was just so frustrated that I had to deal with that to go back and do it again. But then, after that, they flew me out, so maybe it was, like, this blessing my first audition got erased. They so did not know who they were going to cast for that role. I flew in, went directly to the network test, got hired, and started rehearsing the same day! [Snaps fingers.] It was just like that. But we gelled right away. It was a blast.
AVC: It’s fortunate for them that you did gel right away, given the quick turnaround.
MT: Yeah, right! But there was no one over 30 on that show—except for Phil [Hartman], who acted like he was 15 years old. [Laughs.] But none of the writers or the other actors were over 30. It was so much fun.
AVC: Do you have a definitive Phil Hartman story?
MT: Um. [Long pause.] I don’t know. I do remember one thing he said to me. Joe Rogan was being so fucking mean to me one day—and mostly we were all friends, but Joe could be a weirdo—and I was sort of upset about it, so I was just sitting over in the corner. And Phil came over and put his arm around me, and he said, “You know, I just want to tell you you’re loved.” Isn’t that really nice? I know you expected me to tell some wacky story about Phil, but he was like that, too. He just put his arm around me and said that. He was so sweet. He was a really nice man.
AVC: Do you have a favorite Lisa storyline or episode?
MT: Yeah, I loved… [Starts to laugh.] Okay, well, first of all, I loved the space episode. That was fucking hilarious. All of those weird, bizarre concept shows that we’d do at the end of the seasons, like the Titanic, were great. But I also love the episode where Lisa wants Dave to tell her his sex fantasy, and he won’t tell her. And it’s just so funny at the end of the episode when he says something like, “I want to be with a space prostitute.” I don’t know, that episode was just really fun. She’s trying to work with him—but he’s just such a nerd!
MT: I love Bob Odenkirk, so when he asked me, “Do you want to do this?” I said “yes!” I just think he’s hilarious. Again, I’m the straight man. I’m the straight man a lot. In fact, I’m almost never not the straight man! [Laughs.] But I don’t care, because I just think he’s great. And that’s a talent, too. I’m not shitting on being a straight man. It’s just how I’m cast or perceived or whatever. Maybe one day before too long I’ll get to be wacky. I don’t know. I hope so. We’ll see.
MT: [Wistfully.] Oh, yeah. Jason Katims. See, I get to work with super-talented writers and showrunners, like Jason, Norman Lear, Paul Simms, John Wells. What I did was fun. It was unfortunate that I had to jump out of that show [for cancer treatment]. But I watch it. It’s a great show. And maybe I’ll be able to work with Jason some other time. We certainly had a blast on the pilot. But, you know, the thing about that is, Peter [Krause] and Lauren [Graham] are a couple, so if I hadn’t had to drop out, she wouldn’t have gotten in, and they never would’ve made a love connection. So I take credit for that—as well I should! [Laughs.]
Law & Order (1991)—“Patricia “Patti” Blaine”
Dead Women In Lingerie (1991)—“Molly Field”
Fly By Night (1993)—“Denise”
AVC: You did an early episode of Law & Order, and you also worked with Jerry Orbach—but not in Law & Order. That was in what appears to have been your first film, even if it apparently never actually got a theatrical release.
MT: I don’t think that was actually the first film. Maybe it was. You’re talking about Dead Women In Lingerie, right? [Laughs.] But I also did another little movie called Fly By Night, I think it was called, which was also never released.
But, yeah, I did work with Jerry Orbach on that other film—that horrible, horrible film—and he was a very nice man. But I actually worked with Paul Sorvino and Chris Noth on Law & Order. I had to testify against my mother!
AVC: It’s kind of a rite of passage for a New York actor to do an episode of Law & Order.
AVC: So what’s the story on Dead Women In Lingerie?
MT: Oh, God, that was awful. I mean, that was literally the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever—it was just awful. This woman who was, like, an accountant directed it. It was just terrible.
AVC: So did you take it just so you could say, “Hey, I’m in a movie”?
MT: Well, yeah, but it was also the start of my career, so I think I was mostly just saying, “I’m working!”
AVC: Right around that time, you were also in The Linguini Incident. Do you have a David Bowie story?
MT: Oh, my God. Yeah, well, he was, like, my idol when I was growing up. It was sort of when I was starting to listen to music and I realized that I didn’t have to listen to classic rock like all the kids I went to school with. He was a revelation to me. And my friend Richard Shepard directed that. We went to college together, so we were very good friends.
I guess I don’t have a great David Bowie story, but I remember I had this one scene where—it wasn’t even really a scene with him, but he was a bartender and I was a waitress. And I found out from Richard that David Bowie liked the Pixies, and I loved the Pixies at the time, so I just kinda sorta casually dropped the Pixies into the conversation so that David Bowie would think I was cool. And then he, like, sent his person out and had him buy all the Pixies CDs that existed, and we played them in the dressing room, and it was fucking awesome. It was an amazing moment to, like, hang out with David Bowie and listen to the Pixies.
AVC: Okay, I don’t know if your threshold for a great David Bowie story changed in the middle of telling it, but that’s definitely a great one.
MT: Isn’t it? You’re right. I forgot. [Laughs.] I’m old. I forget! But you’re right. That was great. Oh, and I went out for drinks with Iman one night, too. But I was so painfully shy.
AVC: Still, you had drinks with Iman, and you hung out with David Bowie.
MT: Yes, I did. [Laughs.]
MT: The film that forced Gene Hackman into retirement. [Laughs.]
AVC: I’ve always suspected you might’ve had something to do with that.
MT: No, it wasn’t me, it was the film! But Ray [Romano] is such a great guy, and I think Gene Hackman is really—I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of amazing actors. Like, a lot. [Laughs.] Like, Academy Award-winning actors! Not that that means everything, but you know what I mean. And I found Gene Hackman to be incredibly delightful to act with, one of the most relaxed, engaging actors. I loved working with him so much. Him, and Jimmy Woods on ER. They’re just—I don’t know, it was just a wonderful experience.
AVC: Perhaps he sensed retirement was imminent.
MT: Maybe. [Laughs.] No, I just think he’s just a very pleasant actor.
AVC: What’s funny is that I’ve talked to several people who’ve worked with him, and they’ve generally had nothing but praise for him when he’s on-camera, but most of them have said that he’s not one for small talk off-camera.
MT: No, but you know what? He was nice to me. He didn’t like the director. But I don’t think he likes directors. I think that’s his schtick. I mean, he did, I believe, tell the director at some point to, uh… [Starts to laugh.] “Will you just shut the fuck up and go over there and say ‘action’ or whatever it is you do?” Now that’s funny.
AVC: That is funny.
MT: [Laughs.] But he was nice to me! He was lovely. That part was great. Unfortunately, that movie wasn’t the greatest, either, but—easy come, easy go.
MT: I loved Rescue Me. I really loved that job. I loved Denis [Leary], I loved Peter Tolan, I loved that role, I loved the character they created. I thought she was such hot shit, really tough and smart and different from the part I had played on ER, which I’d done right before, so it was really liberating and fun. The part was fun, and the clothes were fun, too. It was great.
AVC: Was it the character that originally drew you to the part, or just the opportunity to work on the series?
MT: Both. I remember Denis and Peter—actually, maybe it was just Peter—calling me up and pitching me the idea and the character, and I immediately wanted to do it. I liked the show, so I wanted to be involved, and then I really liked the idea that this character was kind of a rock ’n’ roll girl. It was great!
AVC: I’d wondered if it might’ve been Peter who called you, if only because you’d already done Finding Amanda with him by that point.
MT: You know, you’re right, that is why: We’d worked together before, so I already knew him.
AVC: Was the decision to do ER a conscious attempt to shift away from comedy and into drama?
MT: On some levels, it was. When I finished NewsRadio—I did that for four and a half years, for five seasons—I remember saying to my manager or my agent—and it was just a thought—that the only way I would go right back into a TV show was if I could do an hour drama, because that was something I wanted to do. I just remembering thinking that I didn’t want to do another sitcom. Then I got offered that job. It was weird. I guess I just put it out there somehow.
AVC: You’ve said in the past that you felt like you fell on the Television Academy’s radar as a result of Sally Field being cast as your mom.
MT: Yeah, that was the best. She’s wonderful.
AVC: That had to have been a thrill.
MT: It was a thrill, and I was so nervous, because she’s very specific about the work. But it quickly becomes unintimidating because she is so focused on the work and so serious about it. She taught me to take the time you need to do the work that needs to be done. She was very unembarrassed about needing to take her time to get where she wanted to go. And as a result of working with her, I think I took myself more seriously as an actress. She gave me the insight to do that. And the balls. [Laughs.] Which is a tremendous gift.
I also think her performance and what we did together kind of created my character. Like, once you saw Abby’s crazy-ass mother, you’re like, “Oh, I get it now. I understand this woman.” [Laughs.] You know what I mean? She did, like, 10 episodes, I think, but the first three she did really informed every other thing that happened to me for the next four years. It was great.
AVC: When you originally joined the series, was it always intended to be a lengthy stint, or was it a short arc that just became longer?
MT: No, it was always intended to be long. I think I signed on for four years? And then I signed on for three more or something like that. I forget exactly.
AVC: Do you have a favorite arc from your run?
MT: Well, I loved the stuff with Sally, obviously. [Long pause.] I don’t know. I had a lot of fun on that show. I liked what they did with me at the end. I’d originally wanted them to kill me off, but in the last season they wrote this really amazing arc for me, where Abby gets involved with Goran Visnjic’s character, and then I accidentally get pregnant, and then she falls off the wagon and struggles with her addiction. It was really intense. And it totally felt like I got to go out with a bang.
MT: That was not my first job, but it was my second. It was a TV movie, back when they still used to do TV movies. And it was with Jason Bateman! Isn’t that funny? Now he’s, like, a giant movie star.
AVC: I believe you also got to work with Frank Stallone on that project.
MT: [Bursts out laughing.] Yes, I did, and I remember that because he asked me out!
MT: That was nice. That was actually a good movie. In fact, that was probably my first job in a really good movie, with great actors. I mean, Sam [Samuel L.] Jackson was in that, Willem Dafoe—it was really great. And a really cool movie. Oh, and Mickey Rourke was in that, right? And I think he shot his girlfriend when he was doing that movie! He was dating that model [Carré Otis] and he shot her by accident. Do you remember that? I think it happened during that! But I didn’t work with him at all. I only worked with Willem Dafoe. It was sort of a small part, but it felt like an important movie. It just felt like there was quality to it.
MT: That was fun. I mean, I love that show. But especially my mother fucking loves that show. To the point where I need her to shut up about it sometimes. I’m like, “I know! The Good Wife is your favorite show!” [Laughs.] So that’s sort of partially why I did it. Also it’s shot in New York, and I hadn’t been on TV in a while, so it’s nice. It’s a nice set to be on. I mean, my character didn’t quite sort of evolve into what they had pitched me. But that’s okay. I had a nice time.
AVC: Did they reach out to you? I’d wondered if it was connected to you having worked with Julianna Margulies in the past or if that was incidental.
MT: I actually don’t know. The Kings [Michelle and Robert], who created the show, called me and pitched me this character, and it seemed fun. And, yes, working with Julianna again was fun, too. But I didn’t work with her that much. I did in the beginning, but in the end it sort of became more working with Alan [Cumming] and Chris [Noth]. But it was very nice to catch up with her.
AVC: You worked with not one but two Academy Award-winning actors on Instinct.
MT: Yeah! I thought that movie was good, too. And you had Cuba [Gooding Jr.], and then you had Tony [Hopkins], also an Academy Award winner. That was great. The part was kind of hard, though. But I loved working with the director, Jon Turteltaub.
AVC: You sounded amused by the fact that you can refer to Anthony Hopkins as “Tony.”
MT: Well, that’s what he goes by! I didn’t mean to be pretentious!
AVC: No, you didn’t sound pretentious. If anything, it almost sounded like there was a little giggle before you said it.
MT: [Laughs.] Well, he’s lovely!
AVC: Is there anyone that you’ve worked with who’s really intimidated you?
MT: Oh, my God, so many. Are you kidding? There was Sally Field, like I mentioned. I was intimidated by Gene Hackman. I was intimidated by everyone in the beginning! [Laughs.] And then John Travolta, Emma Thompson—I just think that what happens is when you work with these people, there’s a reason why they are valued members of the acting community, and you can be intimidated by that at first. But then, once you start doing the work, it gets fun. Or serious. And usually, hopefully, the intimidation goes away. But intimidation used to be my baseline. I’m getting a little better, though, I think because of my age.
AVC: Well, now that you’ve mentioned Travolta and Thompson, let’s talk Primary Colors.
MT: Oh, my God, and not only them, but also Mike Nichols! It was crazy. And Elaine May wrote the thing! Again, that was a long time ago, but Billy Bob [Thornton], Kathy Bates—it was crazy, that cast. But it was wonderful. I loved that book, too. That’s a book where I read it and I don’t usually do this, because I’m a hard worker but I’m not the most ambitious person, but I was like, “If that turns into a movie, I want to be in it!” Then a year later, it did. So I went in and auditioned for Mike Nichols, and then I went in again and auditioned for Mike Nichols again, and then I got the job. It was thrilling, because it was something I wanted to be a part of before I ever knew it was going to be a thing. Also because my dad was a politician [Joseph M. Tierney, a longtime city councilman in Boston].
MT: I loved Chris Nolan. I liked that part, too, but this was right before Chris blew up. His movie Memento went to Sundance the same year Scotland, Pa. did, so I had seen the movie there, met him a little bit, and it was great, but—I don’t think Al Pacino liked me very much. [Laughs.] Something happened. I don’t know what. I was a little isolated, because we were up in Vancouver, and all of my scenes were with Al. There was a whole other group of actors who had been together and had scenes together, so we were just kind of isolated. But I thought Chris Nolan was just a fucking great director. Al Pacino, there’s another one you can’t help but be intimidated by. But once I realized he didn’t like me, I kind of got over that.
AVC: Now, you say he didn’t like you, but are you sure? I mean, why do you say that? Was there something in particular he did?
MT: Yeah, he stopped talking to me!
AVC: Well, that’d do it.
MT: Yeah, I don’t know what it was. But the director of photography for that movie, his name’s Wally Pfister, and he’s now a huge DP and directed his own film [Transcendence], was also the DP on Scotland, Pa., so there was a comfort level with him. And you know who else was great? Robin Williams. I didn’t get to work with him, but I saw him on the set. He was a lovely man. And he gave me a foot massage.
AVC: There’s a memory to cherish.
MT: Yes, it is.
MT: I really am always the straight guy. I told you! [Laughs.] But it’s okay. They think I’m good at it, and they think it’s a skill to be able to do that. But that movie was—I think that movie’s hilarious, and I think I’m almost recognized for that more than anything else I’ve ever done. Which is shocking to me. I mean, that’s an old movie and I’ve aged! It’s weird to have someone come up to me as recently as yesterday and have them say, “Liar Liar, right?” It’s just weird.
AVC: Come on, it’s not that weird that they’d recognize you. You don’t look significantly different.
MT: I guess, but—if I feel significantly different… [Laughs.] I mean, what year was that, anyway?
MT: Oh, come on! [Laughs.] I mean, how long ago is that? But I think it’s a very funny movie. And kids still like that movie. So that’s nice. Even though I’m the mom and the wife in that, which is just boring. I mean, it was much more fun to play Kelly on Rescue Me, but I understand the appeal of that movie.
MT: Oh, my God, that’s another one! Richard Gere. Can you imagine? You know, I was on ER for such a long time that I was just doing TV, so most of the movies I did were longer ago, but I do remember that I was young—maybe I was even still on NewsRadio—and we were shooting it on the Paramount lot. I was walking to the set behind Richard Gere, we’re on the soundstage, there’s the backdrop, and I just remembering thinking, “I’m walking behind this movie star! And I’m on a movie!” [Laughs.] It was pretty exciting! And I was maybe 29 or 30. I don’t remember how old I was. But he was really lovely. Edward Norton, too. That was one of his first gigs, and we had a great time together. I mean, my part was sort of just sitting next to Richard Gere and holding a pencil, but—that’s nice work if you can get it!