Just wait until you get a load of The Sinner Season 4 when it airs on USA Network tonight.
As Harry Ambrose, Bill Pullman leads another extraordinary cast setting up the latest mystery, and the very talented Frances Fisher plays a significant role.
Frances plays Meg Muldoon, the matriarch of a prominent family in the fishing business on the island where Harry and Sonya (Jessica Hecht) are taking a restorative vacation to flush away the horrors they suffered from Jamie Burns.
Unfortunately, it’s not going to be that easy, and Meg will go head-to-head with Harry, and that means Frances knows all the good stuff about the upcoming season.
But don’t worry. While Frances was kind enough to chat with us on the phone, she didn’t reveal anything that would spoil your enjoyment of the season.
Frances was calling from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she’s filming a movie titled Rust with Alec Baldwin. After that, she returns to Atlanta to finish another film, Reptile, with Justin Timberlake and Benicio Del Toro.
Frances has always been a busy woman, whether on stage, where she started or with film and TV roles, which have been plentiful. Her resume is abundant because it doesn’t look like she’s ever taken a significant break.
“Time off is usually just not being able to get a job. But that’s the life of an actor. You have the rich times. You have the lean times. The time off that I took, I would spend in other ways, like taking a class, or traveling, or spending time with family and friends. There are always other things to do besides work that would enrich my life experience,” Frances said.
She considers herself fortunate that she’s never had to supplement her income in ways other than acting since starting her career.
Despite the roles that have made her so familiar to us — Ruth Dewitt Bukater in Titanic, Strawberry Alice in Unforgiven, or Jane Crawford on Watchmen — Frances would make a living on stage if she could. The working conditions and wages make it difficult.
“You have to have a different mindset to have a complete career in theater and not be seduced by doing television and movies because you actually can get a paycheck.”
But it was in the theater that Frances found her love of acting. “The ability to rehearse for four weeks on one piece of material that is either new and you’re trying it out, or is a classic, and it’s been tried and true, so you know it works. To have all that time to marinate in the material before you present it to an audience.”
Frances loves the whole process from rehearsal to stepping on stage night after night. “knowing that you’re going to be presenting the work you’ve done to a live audience where you can get an immediate response with that particular audience night after night, eight times a week.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful way of really communicating directly to your audience because when we do films and television, there’s no audience there. The audience is the crew. We’re playing to the crew. It’s an adjustment, that’s all.”
Frances’s last role was as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, a “great piece with a lot of language,” She had a great time doing it. Although Frances finds being live in the moment incredibly satisfying, she also enjoys watching other performers exercise their craft on stage.
On TV or in film, the director drives the perspective of the audience. “The director literally directs your eye as the audience to what she or he thinks is an important moment,” Frances said.
“In theater, you see the whole stage the whole time. You can create your own closeup. You can watch somebody who’s not saying a word and spend your whole time watching someone who’s not the center of attention. You can move your eyes wherever you want. You are your own director as an audience participant. It’s a completely different experience.”
As a theater audience participant, Frances found Al Pacino to be a master of living in the moment. As every live performance elicited something different from Pacino, Frances would go early in a show’s run, midway through, and toward the end to see where those moments took him.
“I saw him do a play, Orphans in New York, and he got the biggest laugh on a line that he said. It just rocked the house. I thought, ‘I’ve got to come back the next day because I want to see if he’s going to go for it again. He’s going to go for the laugh, right?’ Because it was such a huge laugh.
“I’m sitting in the audience, and here comes the scene. That moment passes. He never went for it. He never tried for it because he was in a different place with the actors he was working with at the time.”
Frances continued, “But the whole point of it is that he’s not an actor who goes for the laugh. There are actors or directors who think, ‘This is a laugh line. You got to go for it. This is how you’re going to get it. You got to set it up and do it because that’s the laugh line.’
“I’ve never understood that way of thinking, to go for the laugh. I’ve always thought you should go for the authentic moment in the moment. Pacino exemplified that to me.”
All of that was a roundabout way leading into the latest actor who has blown her away.
“Bill Pullman … Oh, my God. Bill Pullman. My first couple of days working with him and the character he’s playing in this particular piece, The Sinner, Ambrose, we’d be doing this scene, and I would just watch him. I’d become mesmerized by what he was saying and doing because I wanted to know what was next.
“It was my line. He would go, ‘Ms. Fisher, it’s your line. We can’t go on. You’ve got to say your line.’ I would be so taken by him. I would say that he’s the latest person I was blown away by because he’s so authentic I just forgot I was in a scene with him.”
Like many busy people who have so little time, Frances doesn’t have much time to watch TV, so she had a lot of catching up to do when she got the part. Initially, thinking that she’d just watch one episode to get a feel for it led to three late nights of binge-watching.
“The first night I watched the entire first season with Jessica Biel, who was amazing also. Then the second night, I started earlier because I knew I’d probably get caught in those. I did. I started like 5:00 in the afternoon, cleared my schedule, and watched all of season two. The third night I watched all of season three.”
Events from The Sinner Season 3 change Harry, so he’s a much different man from The Sinner Season 1 to the beginning of The Sinner Season 4. But Frances didn’t let what she knew affect her performance as Meg.
“Of course, the whole part of it is that I know that as an audience, as a human being watching the series, but as the character of Meg Muldoon, I don’t know any of that stuff. To me, he’s just this stranger coming, saying that my granddaughter jumped off of a cliff. It’s like, ‘Who the fuck are you, telling me this shit?’ Frances laughed.
While filming the series, the cast and crew were relatively isolated during the height of COVID. That meant they had limited enjoyment of their surroundings and each other, but they made the best of it.
Frances and the other members of The Sinner’s Muldoon family — Michael Mosley, Alice Kremelberg, and Neal Huff — used Zoom sessions to create their on-screen family dynamic.
“We all had a good time doing it. I’d wrangle them. I’d say, ‘Okay, Mama Muldoon, we’re going to have a zoom at eight o’clock, and we’re just going to talk about this stuff.’ Yeah, everybody was game.”
It was also how they got to know each other off-screen, which is typically done with face-to-face visits, dinners, and exploring their home away from home during filming. “But because of COVID, the only way we had it was to do it by Zoom. So we set up those meetings, which were really good, productive,” she said.
Using scripts and their family-building sessions, Frances has a good picture of Meg Muldoon and the family.
“She’s the matriarch of a fishing dynasty that has been in a position of authority for the last four generations. Her great-grandfather built the Muldoon fishing dynasty, and she has been keeping it up even though her husband has passed. She has two sons. [she paused]
“There’s a lot of backstory that’s not spoken about that I’ve said as an actress. She’s tough. She’s a businesswoman, and she doesn’t take any guff from anybody because she’s had to do it on her own.”
It’s hard to imagine a woman like that will believe what she’s told regarding her granddaughter, Percy, when she goes missing, especially if it’s coming from an outsider like Harry Ambrose.
“I don’t want to give anything away, but I think that the relationship between Meg and Harry is so complex. Oh, my God. I would think I knew where it was going, and it was like, all of a sudden, boom. There’s another scene that flips it.
“In terms of Meg believing what Harry has to say, she’s going to push back. She definitely pushes back because she just doesn’t believe that this is possible.”
Again, Frances was careful not to reveal anything that would give away the story, but she offered her broader perspective.
“So in terms of what I think the Sinner is about is you think you know what’s going on and then you go into a flashback and then more is revealed about the circumstances and the characters. And I mean, that’s what got me about the first three pieces of the Sinner, that you think you know what’s going on. And then, the more information you have, the more you realize you don’t know.
“And I think it’s the same with this season, and therefore the characters are the same way. I think Meg is so ingrained in her religion and the way things are because she’s had to survive in her life. She’s had to survive. And so she’s confronted with the flaws in her family because she’s been taught to ignore what’s going on and just go forward.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone confronted with tragedy wouldn’t push back in shock after being blindsided by the seemingly impossible.
“Because sometimes people live in denial. They just ignore or say, ‘Oh, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it.’ And just, they don’t address it ever. They just move on and hope for the better later on. But then when something like this is happening, and she’s confronted by what may have happened to Percy, yeah, it’s an awakening.”
Before talking with Frances, I had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Mosley and Alice Kremelberg and asking them both for a tip on what to ask Frances.
Alice suggested asking about Meg’s favorite son. Frances didn’t hesitate. “The dead one.” But there is more to that story.
“That was birthed because I create biographies for my characters when I work so that I can really fill them in. Otherwise, every character you play would kind of have the same vibration, and I don’t want to do that,” Frances explained.
“The fun of creating characters is using your imagination and filling in the blanks. Because I always thought, in this large Catholic family, why do I only have two boys? That’s a little strange.”
So during their Muldoon family Zoom sessions, they filled out the family history. “We would sit and just talk and answer questions and figure out, how old are the kids when so-and-so died? What was their father like? And just to fill in that, which is the fun of acting.”
Michael wanted to know something a little more personal — what his bald head felt like. Frances laughed when asked. “Oh my God, that’s a good one. That’s a good one. When he got his hair cut with a buzz cut, because of the me-too thing, I was always very careful. I wouldn’t just go over and touch his head. I would always ask permission.
“Because his head felt so good. It was so soft, like a little stuffed animal. It was so cute. It was the best. So he was my favorite son in that moment in the makeup chair or the hair chair. I could just rub his head.”
Describing The Sinner Season 4 in three words, Frances said, “It’s a mystery.” That it is, but it won’t be to you for too much longer.
The Sinner Season 4 premieres tonight on USA Network at 10/9c.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.
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