In my mind, Carrie Coon belongs to a select group of actors that seem to make anything better. She combines Midwestern earnestness with just a hint of cool girl edge, and excels at characters who are somehow intensely thoughtful in a way that doesn’t read broody. Her steady presence has been the key ingredient in at least two acclaimed TV shows — Fargo and The Leftovers — with more presumably to come.
Given the kind of adoration Coon inspires, it’s hard to believe that most of us have only been aware of her since 2014. That was the year she appeared in her first film, for David Fincher of all people, Gone Girl, playing the sister of Ben Affleck’s character, a unique role that required her to be both sympathetic and slightly suspicious of her own twin brother. Would it work with anyone but Carrie Coon? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes Coon so appealing, but you can maybe imagine Robert Evans trying to: “Sparkle. Whatever it is… this kid had it.”
Coon’s first TV role was in 2011, on The Playboy Club, which only ran for three episodes. Before that, she was kicking around the regional theater scene in the Midwest — she received an MFA in acting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and later moved to Chicago. Mainstream success and becoming a familiar face seems to be something Coon never counted on, but has greeted as a pleasant surprise.
I spoke to her recently as she was promoting Motherhacker, a new podcast series from Gimlet and Spotify, with a voice cast that also includes Alan Cumming and Lucas Hedges. Coon plays a mother who gets drawn into the shady world of phishing scams as a way to support her children. She says voice-acting gigs are nice way to keep working without having to “get dressed up.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Carrie Coon is the type of person who unironically says things like “Oh gosh!”
I could hear her toddler toddling around the room while we talked. A phone call doesn’t usually offer such a lucid glimpse into a person’s life, but that kind of natural openness seems to be a big part of Coon’s appeal. Being able to paint that kind of picture aurally is also a helpful skill for an actor promoting a podcast. Another thing you should know going in is that when Coon refers to her husband, she’s talking about Tracy Letts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who you may know better as a grey-haired character actor who almost always plays an evil asshole (as in this month’s Ford V. Ferrari, in which Letts plays the tyrannical Henry Ford II). But he’s a big softy in real life, apparently.
Hi. How are you doing?
[talking over child noises in background] Good! Sorry, my toddler is yelling your name. I’m doing well. How are you?
Great. Busy morning over there?
Oh yes. It’s always interesting when you have a 19-month-old.
Is that your first?
It is. I love it. That’s why I’m doing podcasts, because I can be in my pajamas.
Are these voice acting gigs helpful when you’re a new mom?
My gosh, yes. Chiefly because, yes, you don’t have to get dressed up and there’s no extra time for frivolous things like hair and makeup. And because I found that when they asked me to do Motherhacker, the schedule was very flexible. They were able to work around me. Because you’re just in a studio, you’re not relying on locations or other artists or anybody else’s schedules. And then I was able to record a lot of it by myself, which, as an actor I always love having a scene partner. I prefer having a scene partner. But there’s also something very technical about voice acting. You can hear yourself do a line and if it didn’t come out the way you thought might be the most effective, you get to do it again three times in a row without messing up anybody else who might be in the scene with you. I wouldn’t do that on a film set. I wouldn’t be like, “Hang on everybody, I just want to go back and do that line one more time.” And you can’t do it in the theater. So that was really interesting, just from a technical standpoint, getting to reengage with the line over and over again.
What’s interesting about Motherhacker also is that the soundscape is such an important part of the story. So much of the podcast takes place over the phone anyways, you wouldn’t actually be seeing the person you’re talking to. And in fact sometimes they would take the person into another studio and actually have us patching in and talking over the phone so that they got the sense of what that aural landscape would really sound like to make it feel more authentically what it is.
Tell me about your career before your breakout roles on Fargo and Leftovers.
My career was, I was a theater actor in the Midwest and I was pretty happy to do that. I went to graduate school at UW-Madison in Wisconsin. My first job out of school was at an outdoor Shakespeare theater called the American Players Theater. It’s an 1100-seat classical theater in the woods of Wisconsin. And I was there for four seasons and that was about, gosh, I think at that time the contract was almost 10 months a year. So I was spending most of my time out in the woods of Wisconsin doing classical repertory theater. If they had made me a company member I probably would still be there right now. But I was also working with directors who were based in Chicago. I was able to audition and get a commercial agent in Chicago, and I started auditioning for commercials and for bit television parts that were shooting there. The first television role I landed was in a CBS show called Playboy Club. I had this guest star arc as a journalist who goes undercover in the Playboy Club like Gloria Steinem did, and yet very unlike what Gloria Steinem did.
It wasn’t until (the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s) play Virginia Woolf went to Broadway that I had an opportunity to expand beyond doing basically regional theater. The market in Chicago was small. I didn’t expect to get famous out of Chicago. None of us do. That’s what makes it such a great theater town, because everyone’s telling the story that they’re telling and not worried about where it’s going to take them. So, that’s what it was like. I was making my living in the theater, doing motion capture work for video games, and editing dissertations and sometimes living off of unemployment. But, pretty happily. This was a very unexpected turn.
Did you have a vision for your career when you were doing theater in Wisconsin?
Oh gosh, I don’t think I aspired beyond… I was ambitious as an artist. I wanted to be the best artist I could be, but I didn’t have a template for what that looked like. So growing up in a small town, I didn’t go to the theater. I didn’t know about Juilliard. I couldn’t actually dream beyond what I knew. The only reason I started to think that I could have a career outside of Chicago was because (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) moved to New York City and suddenly I was sitting in casting directors’ offices who were taking me seriously. My first film I ever made was Gone Girl with David Fincher. And I booked that off of a self-tape I made in Chicago. Again, a tape where you think to yourself, I’m going to do the best I can and nobody’s going to watch this tape.
So my dreams were always tempered by realism. I’m a very practical Midwesterner, so I never assumed things would go beyond where they reasonably could, and I always told myself that I would keep doing it until they stopped asking me. And that’s kind of the attitude I’ve maintained. I think if it went away, I’m getting a little attached to it and further away from any other marketable skills. So I could say that I would be fine if it all disappeared tomorrow but that’s probably not entirely true. But I’ve never tried to hold onto it too tightly and I’ve just tried to have a good time and appreciate what’s coming to me cause it won’t always be like this.
Do you think that that helps you as an artist to not have expectations of success?
I think in my own experience, I have found that if you have a very specific idea about success then you might miss opportunities that are opening up around you. I’ve been able to pivot — I’m a middle child, so I’m very adaptable. I just said yes to everything for a while without knowing where it would lead. And yeah, that has been a really important attitude that’s helped me stay healthy inside of the business that can be very punishing. But also when I did my first professional play after graduate school with Andre De Shields, the great song and dance man, I said, “What’s your advice for me?” And he said, “It’s other people’s blessings.” He said, “If you don’t get something, it’s because it didn’t belong to you, and your blessing is coming, but that wasn’t yours. And the more you fixate on what you didn’t get, the smaller and more envious and more closed off you become.” And that was the best advice I ever got because it’s just so much easier to let something go when you think, “Oh well that just wasn’t mine. That was hers. That was her opportunity.”
You seem like you became a recognizable face in a fairly short timeline, what have your encounters with the public been like?
My life has changed almost not at all. I’m rarely recognized. Sometimes — for example, The Sinner is on Netflix right now — when a show is airing, like when my husband’s season of Homeland was airing, we got recognized. But when those things aren’t on the air, my husband and I never get recognized. In fact, they all think he’s John Lithgow. That’s a whole other thing. But most of the time people see me and they assume they went to high school with me or something. They can’t place me.
But I have to say the people who do recognize me are almost exclusively Leftovers fans. And it’s typically because they encountered the show when they were going through something in their lives and the show became a real balm for their spirit in that moment. And so my exchanges with people when I do get recognized are very meaningful and not trite, and often involve learning a story about a person who was moved by the work. That’s very gratifying. And otherwise I just get to move freely throughout the world in my sweatpants and not brush my hair and nobody gives me a second look, and I love it like that.
Did you grow up in Wisconsin?
No, I grew up in Ohio, actually. My parents met when they were in fourth grade and my grandparents live about a mile apart. And my parents’ siblings all went to school together. So it’s all very tight knit and hard to leave. All my siblings, I have four, are back home now. So I have three grandparents in their nineties and four siblings all living within a few miles of my parents. It’s unusual to get out.
Do you spend most of your time in New York now?
My husband and I still make our home in Chicago where the Steppenwolf theater is. But I have to say in the last five or six years, we spend about a third of our time in Chicago, a third in New York, and a third on the road in varying ratios. Yeah, a lot of time in New York, much less in LA. Nothing shoots in LA anymore.
What’s it like being married to a guy who’s such a recognizable villain? Do you think he’s going to be able to use that as a parenting tool?
Well, that might be true if I didn’t know what a terrible softy he is. My husband’s just the sweetest, least imposing man, and he walks into a room and he’s six two and he plays all these assholes in suits and people assume he’s going to be a particular way. And inevitably on every set, people are surprised by how shy he actually is. And he’s a really good listener and he asks people questions and he just becomes everybody’s favorite person by accident.
He has to be one of the most consistently typecast people.
Exactly. Yes. If anybody ever offers him anything that’s not a man in a suit ordering a drone strike, he will most certainly say yes because he gets that offer three times a day. He’s been offered Dick Cheney, Donald Trump, all these guys, but he’s actually quite sweet. You know what’s funny is that when people do recognize Tracy, because he’s such a big guy, they invade his personal space and punch him in the arm and he just couldn’t be more opposite of whatever that energy is that he’s getting. It’s very funny. Disconcerting for him, I think.