'The Sinner' star Carrie Coon on the dangers of fictional (and real-life) motherhood

Kelly Lawler
Carrie Coon as Vera Walker and Elisha Henig as Julian Walker on "The Sinner" Season 2.

Carrie Coon is no stranger to the darkness. 

The actress is best known for her critically acclaimed role as Nora Durst on HBO's "The Leftovers," but she also has appeared in FX's "Fargo," the "Gone Girl" film and as a computer graphics-enhanced villain in this summer's smash hit "Avengers: Infinity War." So she's in pretty familiar somber territory with USA Network's second season of "The Sinner," playing mysterious (and possibly villainous) community leader Vera. 

Working with the motion-capture technology she used in "Avengers" is "lonely. It’s much more fun to be a villain than to be by yourself," Coon tells USA TODAY. But she acknowledges that shows and movies that make you cry, or at least make you very uncomfortable, are often her specialty. 

Bill Pullman as Detective Lt. Harry Ambrose, Natalie Paul as Heather and Carrie Coon as Vera Walker on "The Sinner" Season 2.

"It’s funny because it’s a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing," says Coon, 37. "I feel like I’m offered those projects more than I’m offered the light comedies. It’s very funny for my family because they don’t think of me as dark at all. I'm actually quite light-hearted.

"But I am comfortable with ambiguity," she adds. "And I am interested in darkness. I do believe that we all possess it. I think it is part of the human condition." 

The new season of "Sinner" (Wednesdays, 10 EDT/PDT) examines the darkness of the human condition in eerie detail, after a 13-year-old boy murders his parents at a small-town motel.

Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who investigated Cora Tanetti's (Jessica Biel) beachside murder in last summer's first season, visits the town to help out with the investigation, as authorities try to grapple with the child's motives for the heinous crime. Vera, who shares a past with the boy, shows up to complicate the situation. 

Coon appreciated working on such a morally gray series at "a time when we’re dealing with a public discourse that feels very black and white, very much about picking sides."

The series also deals with motherhood: how people view mothers and how responsible they are for the actions of their children. Coon is a new mom herself (to a 4-month-old son with "Sinner" co-star Tracy Letts), and is worried about how society judges moms, both in the series' fictional world and the one we live in.  

Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon
arrive on the red carpet at the 69th Emmy Awards in 2017.

"We’ve so accepted this news cycle that has to do with fear, and I think fear is such a powerful motivator.  Mothers, in particular, are always going to be (judged)," she says. "The bar is so much higher for us than it is for a father."

That the new "Sinner" is a child ups the creep factor but adds another source of parental fear.

"I’m terrified, not just of screwing up my child, but also of who he could end up being," she says. "I wonder how much control we have over the outcome. That nature-versus-nurture argument is old and unsettled for that very reason, because kids act out all the time. We can never say with 100 percent certainty whether the sins of the father have actually created the person that they become." 

Although Vera initially appears as a villain, Coon says there's more to her than viewers see at the beginning. 

"It's fun to ride that line with Vera, because her story gets more complicated, (and) her motivation gets more complicated by the circumstances of the show as it goes on." 

Her early antagonism toward Ambrose marks a departure from last season. "Cora Tanetti was a victim of her own psyche, and Ambrose was helping this woman who was pretty helpless in the face of her own lack of understanding," Coon says. 

This time, she says, "it’s not so simple."