Maura Tierney Knows Where They Keep the Life Jackets

Posted July 20, 2018 8:22 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Maura Tierney has a favorite seat on the New York City Water Taxi: upstairs, near the stern, on top of some metal storage lockers. “If anything goes wrong, you’re very close to the life jackets,” she said on a recent Sunday, as she watched the crowd board from the Wall Street dock. “When this boat gets really full, it looks like there aren’t nearly enough.”

Sensible, no-nonsense, lightly pessimistic. These have been Tierney’s television go-tos, first on the underrated sitcom “NewsRadio,” in which she played a reporter and producer, and then on the medical drama “ER,” in which she played an obstetrics nurse and then a doctor.

On screen she has specialized in “the compassionate wife, the straight woman,” Tierney said. Still, her personal style isn’t quite so conventional. That Sunday, she had accented a no-fuss chambray shirt and raw-hemmed jeans with blood red nails and several necklaces, one of them dangling a silver skull. “A memento mori,” she said.

And now, as a star on “The Affair,” Showtime’s prestige infidelity wallow, and as a performer with the experimental performance collective the Wooster Group, her straight woman routine is finally starting to zigzag.

The water taxi sped toward the Dumbo docks, slicing through a rumpled East River, swirling Tierney’s loose brown hair. “These boats go kind of fast and it’s fun,” she said. “Well, it’s not too fun in January.”

A fan of the city’s waterways, Tierney chose a West Village apartment that overlooks the Hudson, a river she finds “instantaneously calming,” she said. She rides the Circle Line for kicks and recently she and 30 others celebrated a friend’s 50th birthday by rushing onto the Staten Island Ferry and toasting with beers.

She disembarked, then made a beeline for a cobble-stoned street near the water, arriving at the Brooklyn Flea, a weekly market held below the Manhattan Bridge’s archways. A flea market enthusiast since her New York University days, Tierney used to scour ones in Chelsea and SoHo, but now, she noted, they are mostly gone from Manhattan. Tierney wasn’t looking for anything particular. After quickly pawing some silk kimonos, she flipped through boxes of vintage prints and photos, deliberating over a painting of a German shepherd named Fritz.

“Do you know in some country like Denmark or Sweden it’s illegal to name your dog a person name?” the woman who ran the stall asked.

“Really?” Tierney said. “I had a pug. Her name was Rose Kennedy.” She put Fritz back.

She idled over a vintage Mad magazine with a pregnant Madonna on the cover and a sleeveless motorcycle jacket from the Indian Valley Chapter of Pennsylvania Harley Owners. She went looking for a button she had just seen on a woman’s backpack at a gun control march that read “I Am Stevie Nicks.”

She did not find it. Briefly, Tierney considered a slinky green slip. “I wouldn’t wear that,” she said as she replaced it on the rack. “I liked the color, though.”

On “The Affair,” she occasionally wears less. In the first season, Helen, the uptight wronged wife she plays, seemed like a typical Maura Tierney character: virtuous, levelheaded. But the second and third seasons have revealed a more layered, and occasionally nude, character.

She did not expect to shoot so many sex scenes in her 50s, but then again she did not expect to shoot many sex scenes at all. “I wasn’t an actress that was cast and celebrated for her sexiness,” she said. She stopped at a stall called the Thea Grant Outpost, admiring trays of vintage pendants. Tierney eyed a saw-shaped charm and a pocket watch before trying on a small looking glass that hung from a chain. “It’s so odd,” she said as she tried it on. “Does this make me look like I’m a docent at a folk art institute?”

It did. But in a good way. Tierney bought it for $150.

The necklace made Tierney happy. Will anything ever make Helen happy? “Don’t get your hopes up,” she said.

Filming this new season of “The Affair,” which is set in Los Angeles, was hard. “Sometimes it’s just demanding to be so sad all the time,” she said.

To cheer herself up, she is about to head out on tour with the Wooster Group, first to England and then to Japan, in “The Town Hall Affair,” a show based on a 1971 debate on women’s lib. She began working with the company in 2010, just after she had finished treatment for breast cancer. She had lost her eyebrows. She was bald as a cue ball. Still she climbed right back up onstage. “They saved me in a lot of ways,” she said.

Strolling past the food stalls, she seemed tempted, or as tempted as anyone can reasonably be, by a bag of chocolate beet doughnuts. But she was due to meet a friend for lunch. That friend turned out to be her former husband, Billy Morrisette, who arrived early and underdressed.

“I’m freezing,” he said. “But I’m too old to wear vintage clothing.”

“No, you’re not,” Tierney said.

“Watch me come back with a fur coat,” he said as headed back under the arches.

“A long one,” she called after him. “That’s white.” Tierney doesn’t buy fur. She doesn’t advocate fur. But she loves a man in a fur coat.

It’s hard to imagine the characters on “The Affair” bantering so casually. But luckily Tierney’s life is less fraught than Helen’s.

“We’re very friendly now,” she said, once Morrissette had disappeared. (He would return a moment later, holding up a leather jacket with a fox collar before finally opting for a flannel shirt.)

“It’s about love,” she said. And she hopes that’s what any future seasons of “The Affair” will focus on. “What kind of love matters, what kind of love lasts, what sticks,” she said.

And then she went to look at some boots at Finger Licking Vintage.