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.
Amy Brenneman has talked about the physicality of this job compared to other things she’s done. Did this feel comparatively physical to you, too, or not, given what you just said about the theater?
It felt more physical than any other script I read. It asks more of an actress than most scripts ask of us. From that standpoint, it felt pretty vigorous. Nora, she’s been getting shot, she breaks things, she chases people, she’s very angry. She jumps on a trampoline. It’s probably the most physical experience I’ll ever have on a TV show.
How long were you two actually on the trampoline?
We were waiting for magic hour, so we were on the trampoline for maybe an hour waiting for the light to be just right. They had the music playing for us, and it was a lot of fun. What I love about that scene is, Damon invited someone who is grieving into the possibility — your body is a very important part of how you’re holding emotion, and the joyful expression of your body is a therapeutic way to deal with that kind of grief. I love that he worked that into our show.
Were you a Wu-Tang listener at all before?
I was aware of them, as I was aware of all genres of music. But I was this freaky person growing up who’d only listened to The Beatles until I was 17. My father plays guitar, so I grew up on folk music and ’60s rock. I’ve always been behind the popular music movement. I knew of Wu-Tang, and the songs are familiar to me, but I don’t know the lyrics. It was so fun to throw myself into it, and get to talk to Regina about it while we did it.
How long did it take Dan Sackheim to get that shot of you in this year’s fourth episode with the water pouring off your brow?
It takes a lot more water than it would in real life to show up on camera. So that shot was a deluge. It was like getting hit with a firehose. And they couldn’t warm the water up, because it was cold water, and you can only do it a few times because the room gets wet. So we soaked the room for the wide shot, and then I sat there in my cold clothes and wet hair while they set it up with the stand-in, and they put me in a warming tent. And then we did another medium shot with full water, and that tight shot was the last one we got. Chris Cuevas, our wonderful cameraman who loves the show, he said, “Carrie, you have to keep your eye open when we do the shot.” I said I would try, but I’m freezing. You can see it when the water hits me; my body sort of jolts. They turn on this water, and it’s the firehose again in my face, so I said, “Guys, guys, if you want me to keep my eyes open, you have to turn the water down a little.” So they brought the level down, and he was right there. I didn’t know what they were getting, so I was so shocked to see that shot. It was so beautiful. He’s such an artist. Between Dan and Chris, they worked it out. I was just trying not to die.
Having done mostly theater before this, how long did it take — between this and Gone Girl — to feel like you knew what you were doing in terms of interacting with the camera?
One of the great benefits to me about the timing of these projects is I shot the pilot, and then went off to Missouri to do five months of (David) Fincher school for Gone Girl. And Fincher taught me so much about being on camera. He would pull me over and say, “Carrie, take a look at this frame. See how tight this is? That’s why I need you to glide in on your right foot.” And Ben (Affleck) would say, “Carrie, this is going to be super-tight in profile, and you can’t move.” So I was very lucky to have all these men and women, who were so thrilled it was my first movie, to teach me. By the time I got back to The Leftovers for the rest of season one, I had learned so much. But what Gone Girl didn’t prepare me for was the pace of television. David Fincher does 50 takes of a scene. My first big scene of this show was the fight Matt and Nora have in her kitchen, and we were done with it in three takes! I was just warming up, so I had to get used to the pace. But the two things came out in reverse order, so when I look at the first season and Gone Girl, I can see my development, but it looks to everyone else like I got worse. I just see myself making faces in Gone Girl.
The slow-dance scene in the finale, where the camera is in so tight on your face and on Justin’s, that’s both extremely emotional and extremely technical. What was that like to film and stay in the moment?
Chris and the cameramen did a lot of that work in terms of where they were catching us. But it really is a marriage of the technical and the emotional. But what was lovely about the finale was we were also ending something after three years. So much of the emotional life of the show was commensurate with the emotional life of what we were experiencing as we said goodbye to each other. So the scene in the finale with Chris Eccleston was our actual goodbye, because he was going back to the UK. Justin and I are great scene partners, and we love working together and are good friends. We’re not romantic, but Nora and Kevin are, and when you’re aware that you’re carrying the dreams of the viewers into that scene, we’re aware of how romantic it is for them. As we did that dance scene, it was quite emotional every time we did it, it was very easy to access the emotions of the scene. We were lucky to have those things dovetailing to make it feel real.
I was the last actor on set at the end of it, because of the order we shot in, so I was saying goodbye to everyone one by one. That was such a gift to us to get to do it onscreen. We were using the language of the show, but the language of the show is beautifully written and it’s easy to give yourself over to it.
What was the very last thing you shot?
The LADR, the machine. My last scene on The Leftovers, I was naked in a bowl of water. I was naked as the day I was born. Just me and Nora Durst and a bunch of cameramen in a little tiny set.
Mimi said that there were many ways she could have done the nudity, and asked if you were comfortable with full frontal nudity.
Yes, and she explained to me the shot that she wanted. She described it as “Kubrick-esque” — it’s the sci-fi shot of our episode. I’ve had some nudity onstage; it’s a rite of passage in Chicago theater that you’re nude onstage. I try to be judicious about it, because I feel if you’re going to do it, it must be for the purposes of storytelling. And Mimi really sold me on the fact that it was important to the story. And I agree. The incredible vulnerability of that moment; it’s a kind of birth, or renewal. It’s nerve-wracking, but you just have to accept it and stay off of the Twitter, and tell your brothers to close their eyes when the robes come off and let their wives know when to open them again.
I can’t imagine that as being the last scene of the experience for you.
The most vulnerable scene, really. Again, it felt like a very ritualistic way to say goodbye to Nora. And it was followed by me at a wrap party with a bunch of crazy Australians. I was the only castmember left, so all that wrapping energy was mine to enjoy. I almost didn’t make my plane, because I tried to go home, and they literally picked me up and put me on a cab to continue the party. It was so much fun. But it was sad. Justin left earlier in that day. Our last scene together was the bathtub (in the previous episode). So we had this very tender, lighthearted moment, and then he was off. It felt like a peeling back of all the layers before going back to my life. Like I left it all in Australia.
And you almost had travel problems, like Nora Durst.
Yes, exactly. Every time technology doesn’t go my way — which happened many times today — I think of the curse of Fargo and The Leftovers.
Clearly, there is something about you that invites this.
My father will tell you that I used to sit down at the computer and it would stop working. He wanted to sign me up for a study at a university, because he swore stuff malfunctioned when I was around. And I do have that Luddite’s innate resistance to technology.
Some actors hate watching themselves. Do you?
I think I have to, because that’s how I get better. You start to realize what’s working, what’s not working. You also start to see your habits, and the only way to undo those things is to see that you’re doing them.
So what has it been like these past two months: Sunday night, one show, Wednesday night, the other?
Oftentimes, they’ll show “previously on” clips, and you’ll see how much we’ve aged in three years. Aging in HD is very humbling, I’ll say that much. And I’m starting to understand why older actresses learn a lot about lighting, and what a DP is doing for, or to, them. I have a lot of respect for that education now. I used to be, “Oh, I don’t need to know that stuff,” but now I’m thinking, “I should learn that so my career doesn’t end.” I guess I’m hoping to take a stand for, “I look the way I look. I’m the age that I am. If Hollywood doesn’t like it, I’ll stop, and I’ll go do theater in Chicago, and that’s fine with me.” It’s important for women, where if we don’t accept who we are and keep trying to make ourselves be other than what we are, then the world can’t change. And I love that the shows I’m on are very real and unvarnished. It feels truthful. That’s the kind of art I’d like to make.
What’s wonderful is, I am watching myself, but I also get to watch all the other people. And The Leftovers has such a deep bench that I’m always moved and surprised by the work of my castmates. And sometimes I get jealous, like of the episodes where Justin goes to the underworld, because he’s doing extraordinary work, and he and Ann Dowd have such great chemistry. I go, “Why can’t I do that scene with Justin?!?!” I get really possessive of him, which is a testament to how good the show is, that I get sucked into it.
Is there a moment from the run of the show that someone else did that you wish you had gotten to play?
It’s more just wanting to have been in the room with it when it was happening. I remember being so struck by the scene in the well, with Justin and Ann. I also really loved the scene with Kevin Carroll and Justin after he shoots him. To see two masculine men sharing that kind of vulnerability and fear was very powerful. I was really proud that the show was doing that.
The beach ball scene is another great monologue. What was it like that day?
It was wonderful, because I don’t get to act with Amy very often, and Amy and Chris and I had been doing some great scene work on that episode. It felt like the three musketeers. We were all starting to feel pretty nostalgic at that point. Carl Franklin had done “Guest” with me. I have a great rapport with Carl, because he shepherded me through that episode. And he helped me make sense of how to deliver that monologue, because it’s an odd anecdote. But it was also a really fun day. There was a lot of lovely easygoing energy to those days, even though the material was intense.
Was it generally like that on the set? Or were there times where the energy of the material made it a hard set to be on?
Not at all. I think we all recognized the delicacy of it. Because the scenes are that, when they’re done, they’re done. The Holy Wayne scene, when you’re doing 12 takes of it, the crew was really great about staying with us. There wasn’t a lot of talk in between takes, they just reset the lights and waited. But then when it’s over, it’s over. And the set was always like that. Justin’s a very easygoing leading man. He’s not a fussy or narcissistic guy. He’s always joking around. Really funny and unflappable. We all knew to leave it on the field.
You said before that Nora has lied to herself many times, including to herself. I’m curious when — either during the trip to Australia or before she went there — Nora decided that she wanted to go through the machine, as opposed to trying to bust these frauds?
I think that decision goes all the way back to when you have the phone call in the parking lot and he says her kids names. It happens there. She’s lying to herself from the first. We’ve already seen that Nora was not capable of taking her own life, even at the height of her grief before we meet her, but she clearly is not afraid of her own annihilation. In some ways, that is the least frightening thing for her. Living is harder than dying. So her death was never an obstacle. The obstacle, of course, was Kevin, and what you see at the beginning of the season is her creating distance from the one person who could be her tether there and keep her from making what in some ways is the inevitable decision. I think it starts that early. The rest of the time, she’s telling herself what she’s up to, and this is not true.
There are a lot of moments, in both the finale and elsewhere, where Nora is not only looking at the camera, but walking directly at the camera, like she’s about to smash through the fourth wall. How do you find yourself playing that?
Well, usually I hit the camera a few times first, and we have to start over because I’ve knocked the guy.
Seriously. I’m so clumsy, and I don’t have very good depth perception. They go, “Oh, get real close to the lens,” and then I get too close. What helps is, we always had a really extraordinary camera crew. Chris Cuevas, the nearest equivalent is dance partners. Because Chris and I had done so much together in seasons two and three, and he loves the show so much and has so many opinions about what happens, we got to the point where, in the hotel scene where I’m fighting with Justin, and we’re shooting Justin’s coverage, Chris could just grab me and move me around, like a rag doll, or knock me over and drag me. And that was just part of the work day. You make the cameraman your scene partner. I had never experienced that before, but it was really like dancing. You have to build up to that.
Looking back on the experience, were those knockdown brutal moments like that hotel fight the hardest things to play, or was it something that people wouldn’t necessarily expect?
Well, for example, there’s a moment after the Pillar Man falls out of the pillar and I go to Christopher Eccleston’s house and demand to know what happened. We had a really hard time finding the tone. The big emotional fight scenes, the tone is very clear. When you’re weeping on the floor, it’s very clear. It’s those in-between scenes that are hard to navigate. Even the scene with Regina in “Lens” in season two, we didn’t know Damon’s intention in that scene. I thought that Nora felt she might be dangerous, whereas Damon figured she walked away from that scene figuring, “This is not my fault; I’m completely in the right.” So I had a completely different idea in my head from what Damon intended, but he edits it and the scene became something else. That was really hard, because nobody knew where that was going to land. So then you just have to be present in a scene with Regina King, thank God.
What was your reaction to reading the scene in the script where the prostitute shoots you?
I did have a moment of wondering if we could pull it off convincingly. And then that was the first day of episode six. So I was getting to know Carl, too. And then I thought, “Okay, what the hell.” The thing that Damon’s writing always reminds me to keep in mind is, if you’re going to be an actor, the thing you have to sign up for is the idea that human beings are capable of anything. Literally anything you can think of, someone is doing right now, or someone has done. Who am I to judge that coping mechanism? Tacitly, what you’re saying is, “I’m capable of any of those things.”
You’re in every scene of the finale, but you’re barely in the first five episodes of the series. What were your expectations for how big the role might become? Had you read the book?
I read the book. I’m a big Tom Perrotta fan. Nora Durst is not very present in the book, and I left the book wanting more of her and being interested in her. I was number seven on that call sheet, maybe. It was my first TV job. I didn’t have any expectation that it would turn into what it did. After episode six, when they gave me all that responsibility, I was proud of it. And I was really pleased to grow into one of the leads on the show, and to be entrusted with that storytelling. Especially to be surrounded by a cast where any one of us could be given an episode. I wanted to see Kevin Carroll’s standalone episode this year, and we just ran out of time and space. I’m very humbled that they allowed me to grow into this role on the show.
How did the transition from Hastings-on-Hudson to Austin to Australia each season change the experience of making the show for you?
You have a new crew every time, so it felt like a new show every time we restarted. And we always had Biblical conditions. We had Biblical show up in Hastings. We had crazy hot weather but also flooding in Texas. Two weeks after we wrapped, the entire tent city area was wiped out. The water was up to the bridge. It was astonishing. And then we got to Australia, and again, this town we were shooting in had the most rain it had had in 30 years. It was always extremes, no matter where we were. Like we had to go through this trial in order to make this thing we were making. But really stimulating to be in a new place. Certainly put ourselves in the mindset of our characters.
Were you a Mark Linn-Baker fan before you got to work with him this season?
I watched Perfect Strangers when I was young. It was great fun. I love that he was game, that he was such a good sport about the joke. And he’s a delightful man. All those degrees they list in the episode are real. He’s incredibly intelligent. He’s a theater guy. We had a wonderful time at three in the morning alone in that hotel talking about theater and what’s next for us. He was delightful. And I had watched that show as a girl. Seven-year-old Carrie couldn’t have imagined what 35-year-old Carrie would be doing in 2016.
Hey, he’s acted opposite Peter O’Toole and Carrie Coon.
That and a dollar’ll get you a cup of coffee!
You’ve really been spoiled here, having this as your first TV job.
Completely spoiled, in so many ways. The acting, the writing, the great physical stuff I’m asked to do. And such a complicated woman. I’m telling you, I read a lot of scripts, and it’s just not out there. It’s hard to find.
Well, from both the time the show started, and then from this spring when you’ve had two shows on at once, how has the material you’ve been getting changed?
I’ve been offered a lot of cops and a lot of grieving mothers. That’s the first thing that happens. The film industry has not caught up with television. All of the film stuff, when you’re a certain age, is the stoic wife character who’s supportive of her husband. A lot of that. I have to say, there have been a couple of television projects that came my way after Fargo wrapped that were interesting. But one of them was an eight-year commitment, and having worked for three years on a character and one year on a character, the idea of playing the same person for eight years at that moment did not appeal to me. It didn’t feel like the most stimulating, challenging thing I could do. I’ve turned down TV. I’m mostly getting TV offers. I still have to fight for film work, and most of the jobs aren’t really there; the parts I’m getting are good, but they’re small. And I don’t sell a lot of tickets. I’m not a high-dollar actor. I’m a character actor. I don’t know what having these two shows on will yield. I guess I needed some time away to be with my husband and think about what I want to do next. I’m going to go to the theater and touch base with that before I sign onto something big.
Allison Tolman, who had your spot in Fargo season one, said she had to wait two years to find a new series she wanted, because everyone just wanted to cast her as the heroine’s plucky best friend.
Exactly. There’s no imagination in an industry that’s supposedly all about imagination. Again, I’ve been so spoiled. To start off with Damon Lindelof and David Fincher and Noah Hawley and to play all these roles. I should just quit. I should just retire to a cabin somewhere.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org