He may be starring in The Sinner on USA Network right now, but Neal Huff was a part of another show that hit the cultural zeitgeist this year, too.
On Mare of Easttown, Neal got to work with Kate Winslett and Jean Smart.
Now he’s cozying up to Bill Pullman and Frances Fisher as one of the Muldoons of Hanover Island on The Sinner.
As we’ve been capturing time with the entire Muldoon family, we’re pleased to get additional insight into Sean Muldoon, Neal’s character. He’s the least explored to date, but Neal assures us that it’s only temporary.
We’ll soon find out a lot more about Sean, beginning with The Sinner Season 4 Episode 3, which airs tonight on USA Network.
Conversing with Neal was easy-going and informative. We chatted about everything from Covid to listening to Russell Brand’s podcast and how enlightening and well-balanced it is.
Covid and other things may have taken the world by surprise, but Neal has been steadily entertaining us. He’s grateful for the opportunities that have allowed him to perform side-by-side with other greats in the field.
Of course, the cast was incredible, but nobody outside of the production could have projected how HBO’s Mare of Easttown took the industry and viewers by storm.
From the inside, though, it was an impressive piece of work from the onset. Neal said, “Just right off the bat, the scripts are mind-blowing. And HBO, Kate Winslet, and then you start to find out more of the cast, and it’s just one illustrious, mega-beast after another.”
But still, despite the pieces fitting so well together, Neal didn’t see it coming. “For a show to hit that quickly, that definitely took me by surprise. I think it took a lot of people by surprise because, sometimes, shows, even with that kind of pedigree, usually take a season or two for something to really hit the zeitgeist.”
It all started with great writing. “Brad’s scripts were so deep that each [small] plot, or character, or setting was rooted so deeply in him that it went to a very, very active living source. It was like, boom, the little things went all the way down to some molten core. And when stuff feels really rooted deep in the viscera, deep in the human experience, that to me is a sign of really great writing.”
Neal shared his thoughts about working with two of the most talented women in the business.
“Well, Kate Winslet is, beyond being a brilliant, brilliant actor, also has a work ethic that is just so unbelievably well developed. And she literally just rolls the sleeves up. Like, ‘Let’s get this done,’ kind of thing — a very, very blue-collar approach to her job on set. And then she also is a phenomenal leader. She’s just a great leader.”
“And then Jean, I basically spent the whole time just trying to make Jean Smart laugh because I felt like, ‘If I can make Jean Smart laugh,’ and I’m not even talking about after action, but before or after. I decided that’s all I cared about was having fun and teasing Jean Smart.”
Mare of Easttown came out while Covid restrictions were still blazing a path across the world, but The Sinner is coming as the worst of it seems to be behind us.
Like Michael Mosley, when Neal got the opportunity to audition for The Sinner Season 4, he was reminded that he’d auditioned for the show before — twice!
He didn’t make it to the Sinner Season 1 or The Sinner Season 3, but everything comes in due time, and he’s perfectly suited for the enigmatic black sheep of the Muldoon family.
Neal doesn’t watch mysteries like Mare or The Sinner hoping for the next twist in the whodunnit. With The Sinner, he said, “I just love how the why of it as much as the who.
That the whole idea, that I think Derek Simmons talked about before the show began, about how unexamined trauma, how that can present in a normal person to do something so horrific or radical or damaging to someone else or themselves, that The Sinner kind of always comes back to. These are normal people; these are not expert criminals. These are people dealing with unexamined stuff in their own histories.”
Neal says there’s a magic trick to Derek’s writing. “It’s like these epic kinds of things that happen. And then, yet, how is this horrible thing relatable? And it is extremely relatable.”
He was able to offer some insight into Neal. “Derek said it best at the very beginning. Well, Sean is an outsider. Sean is an outsider on Hanover Island. Sean is an outsider in his own family.”
“Derek said this amazing thing. Sean’s a nomad who never left home. And if you think about the description of Meg’s character, my father, Meg’s husband died when Sean was maybe 14, and he was an alcoholic, a great fisherman, but with a serious temper. And Meg took over brilliantly.
“And what that meant for Sean, in all likelihood, is that he was pulled out of high school and put on the boats to work. And you never really, really see this explicitly in the season, but you can definitely tell, you can intuit, that Sean didn’t want this business; Sean would have left.
“And Sean, in fact, did try at one point to leave. Well, actually, that might not be, totally, anything that’s rooted in the script. But he would have left. He would have wanted to be away, but he got kind of sucked into the business and because he didn’t love it, and it was kind of his dad’s thing.
“And I think he was probably treated very, very harshly by his father, whereas when Colin came along, Colin was the kind of the golden child, and Dad was no longer quite so tempestuous and rage full, and Colin also happened to be a genius at the business, at fishing. And then he kind of slowly evolves into the favorite son.
“And I think Sean was fine with that, happy to be in the background because he didn’t want it. But yet he didn’t have the ability to just cut fully and leave, for all kinds of reasons, which you’ll hopefully see throughout the season.”
Neal continued, “But one of the big things that happens to Sean is that he has a child at 18, which is Percy. And again, I’m Percy’s father, but you get very early on that Meg kind of swooped in and knew how to take over and manage things. And Sean was a kid, and it just was like, what initially was probably a little bit easier, like, ‘Just let Mom deal with it. She knows what she’s doing. I’m a kid; I’m overwhelmed.’
“And all of a sudden, the mother wasn’t there, after about a year. What was that about? Why couldn’t she stay around? You learn that throughout the season.”
So there is a lot ahead for Sean, including his reckoning with how leaving Meg to raise Percy could have affected his daughter.
“I think there was kind of a laziness in there. And a fear of being able to step up. And what happens for Sean at the beginning of this season is, I think, probably in his mind, he played over, over the years, ways he might get closer to his daughter. And all of a sudden, at the top of the season and then throughout, he slowly realizes that he might not get that chance anymore.”
All of that adds up to the point that Sean gets hooked on alcohol and drugs, which isn’t uncommon in the island environment. How Percy took to fishing and became best buddies with Colin didn’t do Sean any favors.
“I think it does bother Sean immensely, but he doesn’t quite have the tools to — like I say — bridge that gap because everything’s going so well with the business and stuff, and Sean’s kind of content to at least take this background position. Until what happens to start the season happens. And I think the story for Sean throughout the season is a gradual waking up.”
It’s easy to put things off when you’re relying on tomorrow to make things right. But Covid taught us that life could change in an instant, and tomorrow may never come, or you might not be as free to act on your wishes.
It makes Sean’s story especially poignant in The Sinner Season 4. “That is literally the fire in Sean’s belly, throughout. And another thing is when Harry comes on the scene, his brother and mother see Harry as this outsider. But Sean naturally feels like an outsider.
“So if you watch, they’re very convinced of what’s happened to Percy. And Harry is convinced of what happened to Percy, or at least, leaning in one direction. And for Sean, he’s much more open to what Harry is saying than the other two.”
Neal says that Sean looked at Percy and wondered if the fishing gene skipped him because Percy was such a genius fisherman, which made him wonder how he could connect with someone different from him.
“And I think one of the things Sean realizes in this season is how similar he and his daughter really are, and in a way, his worst nightmares are realized, in terms of the way he thought about his own life. I think there’s a lot of depression in there.”
“You see evidence that he knew this about his daughter. And I think heading into the season, one of his worst fears is like, ‘Oh, I guess I did pass something on my daughter.’ Like, ‘It looks like we are more similar than I thought. There’s real wrestling with inner demons there that it’s very similar in her and Sean.”
Like the Muldoons who came before — Frances, Michael, and Alice Kremelberg — Neal couldn’t be happier about their experience together building a family in real time behind the scenes.
He says it starts with their phenomenal location. “It was like I was literally on set. Do you know what I mean? I lived in this amazing little cottage on this cove outside of Lunenburg. It is exactly where Sean would have lived. The thing I looked out at every day is exactly what Sean would have been and looking out at it.
“It was just like, ‘Here you go, four months, boom. Here you are in this world, completely.’ So there was no traveling to work, getting adjusted for work. It was; literally, you were just in that environment of Hanover Island.
“It was unbelievable. It was unbelievably helpful. It was like, full immersion, method, whatever you want to call it. For four months, whether you like it or not, this is where you are. And you don’t have any of your regular context around you, other than FaceTime in the mornings with your kids … So it made us so, so tight as a family.
“And we would have those Zoom meetings. The only reason there were Zoom meetings was that stuff was still being figured out, with respect to protocols, COVID-wise. And we just couldn’t wait for that.
“And I came up a hair later, so I wound up being quarantined in a hotel for two weeks, and we just kept building and building and building. And it’s made Zoom very easy now, because of COVID that it’s very easy to just go, ‘Oh, we can get together at 11:00 at night. We don’t have to leave our homes.’
“And it was incredible. Absolutely incredible. And we built this bond, the four of us, that I think is very, very palpable in the first episode already. And Alice wouldn’t come on set on some days, and she really missed us. And it was the three of us, basically, dealing with the fact that she’s missing.”
Neal said Alice wouldn’t come on set when the family was dealing with Percy’s disappearance, so she wouldn’t interfere with their perception that she was missing.
That kind of immersive experience was creatively inspiring, Neal said, and while he didn’t do any fishing, he “ate nothing but incredible fish for the entire time.”
We laughed over Harry walking away from his first lobster roll after arriving on the island with Sonya. From my point of view, nobody is that out of sorts to walk away from a fresh lobster roll.
Neal laughed, “It’s complete bullshit! [laughs again] No, it just shows you how troubled Harry is. That’s the biggest clue of all. Not only does he walk away from the potential love of his life in that moment, but he walks away from an untouched lobster roll. That’s a man in pain.”
After chatting about a few other things, Neal reminded me that every other Muldoon got describe the season in three words, and he wanted his opportunity.
“Guilt makes ghosts,” he said, proving that the time Neal, Frances, Mike, and Alice spent together was well worth it as they, hands down, delivered the best three-word answers ever.
Make sure you tune in to USA Network at 10/9c tonight as we begin to learn more about Sean Muldoon, bringing Neal’s incredible talents to the foreground.
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.