The Leftovers took place in a world where two percent of the world’s population vanished without warning or explanation. Its most powerful performance came from an actress who seemed to appear in our world just as suddenly and unexpectedly.
Carrie Coon didn’t literally pop out of thin air to play the role of grieving wife and mother Nora Durst — she was a Tony-nominated stage actress who had done a handful of small TV guest appearances — even if the sheer force and versatility of her performance tended to leave viewers asking, “Who is that?”
The longer the series lasted, the more it seemed to turn to Coon to deliver both the harshest of emotional blows (Nora breaking down at the sight of mannequins representing her lost family, Nora in an emotional duel with next-door neighbor Erika) and the most welcome and surprising emotional highs (she delivers the final line of each season, smiling through tears). Tonight’s series finale (which I reviewed here) leans on her more than ever before. She is in every scene — often the only person in the scene — and has to play a wide and deep range of emotions as Nora reckons with the choice she made about pursuing (or not pursuing) her family to another reality. Even by Leftovers/Coon standards, it’s a tour de force. (Finale director Mimi Leder told me, “She is one of the bravest actors I’ve ever worked with, and she’s one of the greats.”) And, appropriately enough for a show where she played a woman who suffered a greater loss than anyone else, Coon was the final Leftovers castmember standing, as her co-stars said goodbye to her one by one, until she was literally naked and alone for the final day of production.
The day before the finale aired, I spoke with Coon (who is married to actor and award-winning playwright Tracy Letts) about the story Nora tells Kevin — and why Coon doesn’t want to tell anyone if she thinks it’s true — about the strange overlaps between Nora Durst and her concurrent Fargo season three role as cop Gloria Burgle, about the very Leftovers-appropriate experience of losing her co-stars one by one, about that last day of filming, and a lot more, coming up just as soon as I show you on the doll what to do…
When you got the script for the finale, what was your reaction?
The first thing I thought was, I was impressed and surprised that it went quiet and personal, as opposed to explosive and apocalyptic. And the second thing was, “Oh, no! What a long monologue.” If I’m being honest. But I got that script much earlier than I got any other script, so Damon (Lindelof) gave me more time to sit with it, which I needed. It’s like doing a one-act play. So I immediately commenced learning the speech in the few weeks I had to prepare.
The speech concerned you more than the nude scene?
Yes. My boobs are already on the Twitter. There’s nothing I can do about it. And I knew that I would be able to talk through that nude scene with Mimi. That’s more about editing and camerawork. The other thing is more my responsibility. Nude scenes, it’s not easy, but it’s also part of the job, in a way.
Damon and Mimi have both said that you didn’t ask them much about the monologue in terms of whether it is true. When you initially read it, did it even occur to you that it might not be?
Yes. It occurred to me that it might not be because one of the first lines of this episode is, “I don’t lie.” And I thought there are many times Nora has lied. It’s the knights and knaves conundrum in logic. We took a straw poll in the crew, and they were split about 50-50 as to who believed it and who didn’t. And the only thing I knew is that I would never tell anyone what I believed. Because it would rob the viewers of the experience for themselves. We do want answers. We are built that way, and I am not supplying an answer to that question. The whole point is, it reveals more about the viewer than me. But I certainly weighed both.
But I assume you played it one way.
Yes, I did. However, the human capacity for self-delusion is very strong. And so regardless of whether the experience is true or not true, the brain believed what it believes. If you tell a lie enough times, you start to believe it. For me, I felt that no matter what I chose, it wouldn’t matter. It would play the same.
You not only have this very long monologue, but it’s the monologue that does or does not explain the entire series, and you’re in every scene of this episode.
(laughs) Yeah, it’s a lot of responsibility.
Mimi said you’re one of the bravest actors she’s ever worked with, but did you get worried, thinking about all this?
You can’t get worried, because then you get in your own way. You have to accept that it will be one day at a time. Plus, it’s thrilling to be asked, to use yourself in that way. I had stunts to do, I had old age makeup to wear, I had nudity to get ready for, I had a huge monologue. What else am I doing in Australia, except working on The Leftovers? So I was so grateful to have a place to put that energy. At that point, Tracy was gone after coming with me for the first six weeks. So you’re alone, on location, finishing a story. That’s all I wanted to do. I was so happy to be a big part of it like that. It was a tremendous responsibility, but that’s why I’m there. I got knee surgery last year, so chasing the bus in episode four, that was the first time I’d sprinted since my knee surgery, that was one of a lot of things this season that was asking a lot of me. The scene with the goat on the hill, I rolled down that hill so many times. I spent hours on that that night, it was raining.
Did you hurl yourself at the bathroom door, or was that a stuntwoman?
I hurled myself at it and at it and at it, and then they dropped me from two feet after the stuntwoman did the actual fall. However, I gave myself a black eye! Just falling two feet, I hit myself in the orbital bone with my own hand. Luckily, I was wearing old-age makeup, so they could just stipple into it, but I had a black eye for most of that episode.
In the theater, have you done much stuntwork?
I suppose the theater feels more like a full body experience in a way that TV and film don’t. A lot of TV actors can get away with acting with their faces and not using their bodies, and then you see them onstage and realize they don’t know how to walk. I feel like the theater is vigorous, no matter what. And I had done motion capture work (for a video game company) in Wisconsin, which was quite physical: martial arts and kip-ups and getting dragged around by your hair, and doing handsprings in high heels. I’ve always been an athlete. I played soccer and ran track in college.