Jessica Biel Goes Dark in ‘The Sinner,’ a Knot of Memory and Motive

The partnering of Ms. Biel with a character capable of savage violence seems felicitous as she strives to stretch professionally.

Ms. Biel, now 35 and the mother of a 2-year-old, Silas, said she had been “desperately looking for something that would push me creatively to places that I have never been before.” To help find that role, she and Michelle Purple, her producing partner, signed a development deal with Universal Cable Productions in 2014. “Producing puts the power back into your own hands,” Ms. Biel said, “so you’re not sitting around waiting for somebody to deliver something amazing to you, which is very rare.”

Then “The Sinner,” the best seller by Petra Hammesfahr, considered Germany’s Patricia Highsmith, landed on their reading pile and struck the right chords: a darkly compelling psychological thriller whose protagonist was a complex woman, with a labyrinthine plot that could rivet viewers for eight episodes and wallop them with a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps just as attractive: It could be shot in three months.


Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman in “The Sinner.”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

Ms. Biel is not the only female film star developing novels into limited series; this sisterhood includes Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon (“Big Little Lies”), Julia Roberts (“Today Will Be Different”) and Toni Collette (“Invisible City”).

The limited series “is the new indie film,” said Mr. Simonds, a former writer on ABC’s “The Astronaut Wives Club” and “When We Rise,” who had been brought in by Universal Cable Productions. “It’s a better way to adapt a novel because you get to live with the characters longer, and you just fall in deeper.”

“I think this area of television is filling the hole of what we experienced in the ’90s with the Miramax film,” he continued. “When’s the last time we saw a film like ‘The English Patient?’ The big movie studios aren’t spending money on these kinds of big-range, highbrow movies anymore.”

Mr. Simonds transplanted “The Sinner” from a small German town to a fictional Hudson River village where locals and city weekenders converge and collide. He also fleshed out themes the book merely flirted with: shame, repression and the pain we hide.

Those emotional wounds are central to the relationship between Cora and Ambrose, and in casting Mr….

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