Prolific television, film and stage actress Maura Tierney, 50, was born and raised in Boston and studied acting at New York University. First known for her work on the sitcom NewsRadio, she starred on ER for eight seasons and had roles on The Good Wife and Rescue Me before her current turn as cheated-on wife Helen Solloway in the Showtime drama The Affair. On the big screen, she has appeared in Primary Colors, Nature Calls, Baby Mama and Liar, Liar, while her extensive stage work includes her 2013 Broadway debut opposite Tom Hanks in Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy. She divides her time between Los Angeles and New York.
Maura Tierney: The first thing that comes to mind is Rescue Me, because I really, really liked the character that I played on that show. It was after doing ER for so long, and it was really nice that somebody cast me as a completely different character than the one I’d played for eight seasons. She was snarky and irreverent and funny, and I wore awesome clothes. I guess I judge the shows I like by how much I like my wardrobe.
Role you didn’t get but wish you had? You kinda can’t think like that, because you have to move forward. But early in my career, I really wanted to be in Say Anything. I read for that movie, I’m not shitting you, four or five times. I desperately wanted to be in it. I also read for Jerry Maguire and got really far down the line with that. I read with Tom Cruise. But Cameron Crowe just won’t put me in a movie.
Hardest role you ever played? Hmmm. Lucky Guy, the play I did with Tom Hanks, wasn’t quite finished before Nora Ephron died. It was a struggle every night to see if I would land it. It wasn’t entirely there, so I had to sweat it, because it was important that it be good.
Broadway and Tom Hanks. Isn’t that just being greedy? Listen, I throw deep, as Tom Hanks says. I know. Can you imagine? No, you can’t imagine. Our audiences were so dying to see the show. We were sold out every night. The play was wonderful. Every night the audience would leap to their feet the moment it was over. It was something I’ll never experience again.
Did being treated for cancer affect the way you approach acting? Well, I don’t know. I guess it affected everything, so if you look at it that way, yes. But not really. An interesting thing, though, is that as soon as I finished treatment, the first job I got was with the Wooster Group, which is this very avant-garde theater company in New York, and that experience changed my whole approach to acting.
With all those seasons on ER, did you learn any real medicine? Absolutely not. I don’t even know how to take someone’s pulse. Although I know all the lingo, so I could talk to a doctor about a procedure. But I couldn’t actually do anything. The most might be stitching someone up and leaving them with a really bad Frankensteiny scar.
Would you ever have an affair? Yes. I don’t mean to say that eagerly. But life is really complicated. I was married for 15 years and never did, but I could never say never. I don’t know. That’s why I like the show. It asks a lot of questions.
What would you do if you found out your husband was cheating? I did find it out with a boyfriend, not my ex-husband, and it was hard. But I remember talking to my mother like 15 years ago. There was someone we knew who had an affair, and the wife took him back. I remember saying, “I would never, ever do that.” And my mother paused, then said, “You know, when you get older, you’d be surprised by the shit you can put up with.” And she’s right. Everybody’s human.
You’ve had such a run of great luck with hit shows. To what do you attribute that? Hard work. And talent. [Laughs] Seriously, there were times when I really didn’t work for, like, two years. But I did get lucky, and I think that a good part of that was that I happened to work with really good show-runners. The beginning of my career, I worked with Norman Lear. NewsRadio was created by Paul Simms, a really unique voice and a very strong show-runner. John Wells and then David Zabel on ER. I’ve been very fortunate to work with super smart and talented show-runners, as well as great writers.
What do you look for in a script? If it’s unique. If it’s a perspective I haven’t seen before. If the female character is not two-dimensional. And I really do think it’s important that there’s humor. Nothing works without some humor.
Comedy or drama? I’ve been doing drama for so long now, I would love to do another half-hour comedy. I’d love to do a multi-cam half-hour, which is something that’s disappearing.
Anything you want to erase from your resume? Dead Women in Lingerie. [Laughs]
What was the movie you did with O.J. Simpson? That was my first job. Student Exchange. It had O.J. Simpson, Lindsay Wagner, the Bionic Woman, Captain Stubing from The Love Boat, Gavin MacLeod, Heather Graham, Moon Unit Zappa…
Was that movie unfairly overlooked by the Academy? Ahh, no. O.J.’s work might have been. You know what Jim Carrey said to me? We were making Liar, Liar right around the time of the trial, and I told Jim Carrey, “Y’know, I worked with O.J. Simpson.” He said, “Oh, really? Did he try to cut your head off?” [Laughs]
You’ve worked with him, John Travolta, Richard Gere. Who was your favorite leading man? Hmm…I’m going to go with Richard Gere, because that was sort of the first big movie I got. I remember walking onto set at Paramount with him, thinking, “I’m walking onto a movie set with Richard Gere!” He was such a movie star. A lovely, charming man and super foxy.
Anyone you would never want to work with again? Al Pacino, because he just didn’t like me. [Laughs]
Weirdest thing you ever read about yourself? Probably from my time on ER, stuff about fighting on the set that just never happened. But I escape the tabloids for the most part.
Weirdest fan encounter? Well, there was one guy who used to send me so many letters. They were very nice, but really hundreds of them. Anyway, he suffered from severe agoraphobia, and he was convinced that if I would just meet him somewhere, he would finally leave his house. He also wrote a script for me. It was actually pretty funny.
Red carpet awkwardness? Well, it’s always funny when people won’t let you go because they can’t figure out who you are. And it becomes an interrogation. It’s kind of amazing when people start getting annoyed at me because they can’t remember who I am. I’m like, “Just IMDB me. I have to go.”
Red carpet secret? I should take a class. I feel dorky. I remember going to the Golden Globes and being voted one of the 10 worst dressed, which made me sad, because I liked my dress. But there is nothing natural about that whole experience. It’s so awkward to stand there and hold your body in a way that’s completely unnatural, but that’s what you have to do to look good. It feels really phony and self-conscious.
Thing you miss most about Boston? Oddly, my grandmother’s apartment in the projects. She lived there for 55 years, in Southie, and I went there my whole life. It was just so full of life and stuff from childhood, and I can never ever go back there. The other places I miss I can still go back to.