As adept at psychological drama as she is at broad physical comedy, Maura Tierney has fashioned one of the more enviable careers in Hollywood, moving with ease between lead and supporting roles on both the big and small screens. The daughter of a prominent Boston politician and a part-time real estate agent, Tierney was born and raised in the city’s affluent Hyde Park district. She moved down the coast to attend New York University in the mid-’80s and quit just shy of receiving her diploma in order to join the neighboring Circle in the Square performance school. Despite her love for the city, the burgeoning actress decided to relocate to L.A. in the late ’80s to find work. Although her first parts were dead-end bit roles on failed sitcom pilots, Tierney did meet her future husband, actor Billy Morrisette, when they were both fired from the set of a doomed Ralph Macchio series.
It was Circle in the Square alumnus Richard Shepard who would give Tierney her first small film role, in his Manhattan-set screwball comedy The Linguini Incident (released in 1992). A lead role in a B-movie parody, Dead Women in Lingerie, did little to advance her career — the actress has since purged the title from her official CV — and she continued to toil in minor roles in low-profile TV shows and films before a last-minute casting choice landed her the lead in the sitcom pilot “The Station.” Renamed NewsRadio for its March 1995 premiere, the ensemble comedy proved to be Tierney’s breakthrough. As the over-achieving news producer Lisa Miller, the actress got a chance to showcase her heretofore unseen comic abilities: sly and ambitious but with a self-deprecating good humor, Tierney evoked a sort of late-millennium Mary Tyler Moore.
Her buoyant work in NewsRadio won her meaty supporting roles in the hit comedies Liar Liar (1997) and Forces of Nature (1999); meanwhile, her noteworthy turn in the sleeper Primal Fear (1996) convinced casting directors that she could play heavier roles in films such as Primary Colors (1997) and Instinct (1999). Also during the series’ four-year run, Tierney landed the plum role of a single mom who falls for hockey player Bruce Willis in a romantic comedy titled “The Broadway Brawler.” After just two weeks’ shooting, however, purported “creative differences” brought the project to a permanent halt.
A signature leading role still eluding her, Tierney leapt at the opportunity to join the cast of NBC’s flagship hour-long drama E.R. in late 1999. As Abby, the OB-GYN nurse working her way through med school, the actress began to nurture what she hoped would be a deeper, more complex character than afforded her in previous vehicles. Meanwhile, Tierney began work on her husband’s directorial debut, an independent comedy titled Scotland, P.A. (2001), in which she plays a would-be fast-food matriarch who will stop at nothing to get to the top. Soon after, the actress landed a prime role in Insomnia (2002), director Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated follow-up to his twisty art-house hit Memento (2001).