How Maura Tierney learned to identify with a "monstrous" torturer

The star of "The Affair" and "The Report" on living in the post-truth era: "We need to know what's true"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 15, 2019 5:00PM (EST)

There's a telling moment in "The Report," the new drama based on former Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones's years-long inquiry into the CIA's post 9/11 "enhanced interrogation techniques." It's when a character cynically quotes Winston Churchill, obseving that "History is written by the victors." Except, as he's soon reminded, Churchill likely never said any such thing.

Starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson and Golden Globe winner Maura Tierney, "The Report" is a tense political thriller that's also a twisty meditation on the nature of truth. It's a subject Tierney also had ample opportunity to explore in her five years on the acclaimed Showtime series "The Affair." And though her character in "The Report" is a composite, it hauntingly reveals the brutal sangfroid and rationalization of the real men and women who oversaw the torture tactics that shocked the world. The actress stopped by "Salon Talks" to discuss how she found her character's heart of darkness, and why she won't shop on the Internet.

Watch Maura Tierney's "Salon Talks" episode here, or read a Q&A of the conversation below.

This conversation has been lightly condensed for clarity.

Let's talk about this movie, because it is based on true events.

It's a story about Dan Jones, who was on Dianne Feinstein's staff, and his six-year investigation to uncover and expose what the CIA was doing. That happened, all of that stuff. The movie's so powerful, I think, because of that. Don't you think it's a really strong film?

The way that it goes back and forth in time and between the very sterile office environments and scenes of torture keeps you as a viewer off your footing. When you first appear on screen, I'm not the only person in the audience who surely thinks, "Maura Tierney is here; it's all going to be okay. She's such a reassuring figure.” And then you go in unexpected places with your character.

I want to ask you about how you see your character, how you came to her, what you think her motivations are. The film very beautifully doesn't tell you a lot about anybody's backgrounds, their personal lives, their private motivations. It's nice to be challenged as a viewer like that to fill in those blanks. What were those blanks for you?

I was helped a great deal by the director, Scott Burns. I play a woman who implements and oversees these enhanced interrogation techniques, torture, that the CIA was practicing and not telling the government they were doing it. [My] character oversees this and oversees the torture and keeps on doing it. The CIA continued with this program covertly for four or five years, and it didn't work. They were getting no results.

I said to Scott, "How conflicted do you want her to be? Because she has to watch people get waterboarded." He said, "Not at all. Not one bit. She's not conflicted." Which was hard, because even during shooting I'd be like, "Yeah, but she's a human. Isn't there a crack?" He'd say, "No." He was right. He was right, and I'm glad I listened to him; it helped me a lot. His clarity on who she was was very helpful.

How do you get to that place of being that person?

There's a line towards the end of the film that Adam Driver says, and I thought about this too. He says these people who were in the CIA during 9/11 , they missed some stuff. So 9/11 happened on their watch. Post-9/11, there was a lot of . . .  he uses the words "fear and shame." That's what I used. This woman, I think there's a tremendous amount of shame and [she’s] tremendously affected. She's a woman who was being of service, but was not going to let that happen again, no matter what, at what cost. That's how I resolved the monstrousness of her.

One of the things that the film does very well is it also makes it explicitly clear that all of the things that presented in it happened under two different administrations, happened under very different congresses. This is not a story about one side. It's really also ultimately a story that makes the case for bipartisanship.

One hundred percent. I don't think [writer/director Scott Z. Burns] set out to blame any one administration or the other. He was telling this story, Dan's story, which spanned two administrations. I feel the film is political, only in the fact that you get to watch what happens in the Senate. You get to see the discussions that are had among senators. In the sense, that's the only way you would call it a political movie. Otherwise, I think it's more of an investigative thriller.

It's political without necessarily being partisan, and that feels very important right now. I'm sure you remember where you were on 9/11. Did you come into this feeling, "I know this story”? Did that change? Did you discover a whole new aspect of this tale? 

I knew about it because I read about it in the paper. That was the extent of what I knew about what was reported. What I think is really powerful about the movie is you see the personal journeys of Dianne Feinstein and Dan, and the complications they had in presenting this material. I think even if you've read about it, this is what makes that movie powerful and really interesting.

Also, I did a lot more research on what the CIA was doing pre-9/11, the work they were doing at that point, which there was research on. That was helpful. I didn't know anything about that.

It's a movie about politics., it's a movie about history. But watching it and watching you in it, Maura, I also think how very much it is about the stories we tell, and about who gets to tell the story. At one point two characters are discussing whether something was "stolen" or whether it was "moved," and who gets to decide. This is also something that comes up a lot over the TV series you just came off. Do you feel that we're in a moment where we're looking for stories that have that kind of ambiguity, and maybe there is no one central truth? That's part of what "The Affair" did so well and so beautifully.

I might have a slightly different thought. When I talked about "The Affair" in the beginning, people would say, "Well, which side is true?" I would say, "They're both true. There is no truth; they're both true." People would really want to know what really happened. I think we'll both leave this discussion with a different experience and remember probably different things about it that will both be true. I loved the show for that reason.

In life right now, I think we need to know what's true. I find it very disturbing that untrue things are being allowed to go unchecked. I feel just so dismayed, in terms of what's happened to the truth. We almost need a new word. We need to make up a new word because truth, it seems to be not mattering at all.

There is such an impulse, particularly now in the news media, to present all sides, even though one side might be completely false. There are certain things that are factual. But then there’s an ambiguity of the reasoning behind making certain choices. The film makes it clear your character really believes that what she's doing is going to be effective.

Is going to work, yes. But my question with her is, she sticks with it. They just kept sticking with it when it wasn't working. There's one scene in particular in the film that I think is really interesting, when they're talking about what is torture. There's one word in there, that says you can't inflict something that will sustain permanent damage. That word “permanent” was what they were like, "Well, we're not going to permanently hurt anybody, as long as they don't have organ failure or whatever." That word "permanent" was what a lot of what they hung this on and they were hurting people. As long as it wasn't permanent, it was legal. According to them, which as we know, it wasn't.

Then one of the characters says, "So if the prisoner dies, we've done a bad job.” That's another thing about this story, is it's a very dark movie that has a lot of humor in it as well, because there is a lot of absurdity in politics and in history and in the human condition. Even though it makes it very clear that this is a story about absolutely atrocious war crimes committed by the United States in defense of a war that we're still fighting.

We're still fighting. To go back to your point about the nonpartisan tidbit, they didn't tell the president. The administration didn't know, so they were really flying below. Certain people knew, but most of the Bush administration did not know. You can't go after the president if he wasn't being told what was going on under his watch.

Now it's been roughly 10 years since the events of the film. We are obviously in a different country now and in a different world. Even though so much of it is so dark and terrible, when you watch this story, there is also this sense of cooperation, this sense of a searching for a truth. Do you feel that is even possible now? The movie ends with a Republican speaking, ends with the case against torture being made by a conservative.

Politically, I'm a liberal. But I think this movie, what's interesting about it is [that] it's about an individual who won't stop. Two individuals, regardless of what political peril might have been. They threatened to put [Dan] in jail. I do believe there are still people out there committed to uncovering the truth. I don't feel so cynical about that. All it takes is one person. Dan Jones is one person who kind of made this happen. I think there are there other people out there, for sure, yes.

Speaking of truth and fake news, Maura, in my research, I couldn't find much of a social media footprint. You don't even like to shop online. What's that about?

No, I don't shop online. That's my one kind of pure form of protest. I don't want people knowing, and I also think we should go to the store. I'm not on any social media, which is perhaps stupid. It's part of the game these days, right? But I think I would go a little crazy. It's crazy out there. I'm sensitive. I think that would be hard for me. I'm total lurker tendency. But it's the currency right now, so I don't know. Can I keep this up forever?

Do you feel any pressure? Does anybody behind the scenes say, "Look, if you're going to promote this movie, if you're going to be out there, we really need it”?

They want you to, yeah. I was on a show for five years, which is just now over. So whatever my next endeavor will be, it does seem like it's selfish of me not to do it at this point. I work with this avant garde theater company, and they were doing a crowdfunding thing. There are ways I could use it for good. I'm sort of loath to do it, but I might. If I thought about it that way, it might be easier.

"The Report" releases in theaters on Friday Nov. 15 and will be available to stream on Amazon on Friday, Nov. 29.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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