When Indiewire sat down with “The Leftovers’s” Justin Theroux, we found out he doesn’t read episode scripts he’s not in, and he hasn’t read the book. Carrie Coon, it turns out, is the complete opposite.
A Tony award nominee for her work in the 2012 revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and a scene stealer in last year’s “Gone Girl,” Coon has become a major cornerstone of HBO’s intense drama. Below, Coon goes deep into the differences between doing theater, film and television, some of the show’s most exciting challenges and how the roles she plays affect the way she sees the world.
READ MORE: ‘The Leftovers’ Star Justin Theroux Doesn’t Want to Know What Happens Next
So I don’t want to harp on people finding the show dark and hard to watch because I don’t think that’s all there is to it.
Absolutely not. I hear that word “bleak” get thrown around a lot, and it doesn’t feel that way to me. And I’m inside of it. I think the real lesson of it is that the world always falls apart, but we always put it back together. And Damon is not cynical. Damon actually believes very deeply in the goodness of people, and I think ultimately that’s the lesson; these resources we have inside of us to keep us going against all odds, and we see examples of that everywhere. And also ambiguity everywhere. I think people get uncomfortable with the ambiguity of the show, but I don’t know just about anything in my life that isn’t ambiguous. Very rarely are things in my life knit up with a little bow. So I never minded it in my art, but apparently people get really frustrated by that. I think it’s a really hopeful message.
I interviewed Tom and Damon a little bit ago and they referred to it a couple of times as a post-apocalyptic show, and while I love post-apocalyptic narratives, I’d never thought about “The Leftovers” that way. Do you think about it that way?
I do, because we do have this supernatural event, and in some ways it’s just easy to talk about it that way. It’s easier for people to understand how this world starts out. But to me it’s so not about that. It’s not about the event, it’s about how people deal in the aftermath, psychologically. When Tom wrote the book, he wrote it shortly after 9/11 when people were collectively grieving, and he sought to examine that, and I think he did a beautiful job. Well, when you put that on TV you can’t have it be an intellectual satire, it has to go somewhere else, somewhere with more action and guns and things. And they really opened it up, I think they opened it up beautifully. It’s just so not about that event. Even the fact that it starts three years after the thing has happened, I think is a clue. It’s just about how people deal with grief and loss and change, and things we don’t understand.
It’s such an interesting question, especially in terms of talking about your character. Because Season 1 ends with this hopeful moment of finding the baby and then with Season 2, so far there’s this impression that you’ve put your life together in this new way. So what I’m really excited about seeing more of in Season 2 is the idea of, “Are the choices Nora is making in terms of making a new family unit, making this big move, are they healthy?”
And I think that’s the fundamental question of Nora in this season. The thing I love about where we’ve left her is that yes, she lost her family in Season 1, but what also happened is that her obligations disappeared. And in some way that’s an invitation to start her life over in some new way, which is actually startlingly liberating and something we never do. That’s something we could always do, is walk away from the lives we’ve made, but we never do it. And so there’s this tension inside of her where she almost had the ultimate freedom, but instead she chooses to reinvest in being a wife and a mother again. And I think the seed of that freedom — because of course she’s about to leave before she finds the baby — I think that seed is in her. And I think there’s a real tension in her about whether the choices she’s making are the healthiest choices.
So even she’s questioning it.
Absolutely, and she needs stability, and she needs safety, and whatever’s happening with Kevin is threatening that possibility. So the act of self preservation is a strong instinct in us, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see her leaning into that a little bit.
I talked to Justin before and we talked about the question of, “How much do you want to know about what’s coming ahead?” Where do you fall on that?
I love a surprise. I come from the theater, and, of course, in the theater you always know how the thing ends. You’ve already read the script and you’ve rehearsed it. TV’s very different in that way, and I’ve found it to be a wonderful adventure not to know what’s coming, and embracing the spontaneity of getting a script and then acting it out two days later. It’s been a great acting challenge. And sometimes it is useful not to know, because you might try to overcraft the moment before, and I don’t think that’s always helpful. Because we certainly don’t get to live our lives that way, we don’t get to plot out how we’re going to respond to something. So why let Nora do it? It’s been fun to do it.
In terms of that, your character at the beginning of Season 2 starts off in this interesting place where you, the actor, know what’s going on with Kevin, but of course it’s a huge secret for him. Is that at all tough to play?
I think you just embrace the moment. Again, in the theater you always know how it’s going to end, you have to sort of relive that arc every time so it’s a new thing. So it’s certainly a thing I’ve had a lot of practice doing, that sort of forgetting the circumstances, so it just feels like my job a little bit. And with people like Justin who are just great actors and are always in the moment with you, it’s very easy to embrace that because he’s so generous with himself, as are all the actors on our show. It’s fun to act on our show.
It sounds like it’s been a slightly lighter set this season?
Yeah, I sometimes think the lightest sets are the heaviest shows because you have to have levity in between the heaviness. So I think we’ve always had a good time. There’s something about the energy and spirit of Austin, Texas that has infused the set a little bit, because a lot of our crew are from there and it’s such a fun town. And they’re such easygoing, hardworking people. Our crew is fantastic. So I think that’s definitely part of the ethos this year, is this kind of laid-back southern thing even though we’re building this tremendously complicated world that can sometimes get really heavy. But we always try to keep a good sense of humor about it. Certainly, Damon and Tom, they’re really great funny guys, and they set the tone for the thing and so we have a good time.
One of the things I really loved about Season 1 is the way it experimented with structure. I feel like a lot of people pointed to Episode 6 as a key turning point. Did you have a consciousness of that when you first opened up the script?
Oh, I had no idea it was coming. It certainly wasn’t in the book. I had never worked that long on a television set. I had never made that many minutes of TV in one go, and certainly never executed an entire episode of television, so I was terrified, of course, but I was so humbled by the fact that the writers had embraced Nora’s story so fully. I mean they basically wrote me a short film. And as an actor I learned so much those 10 days with Carl Franklin, who’s a great director, and about my own stamina and about the challenges that face actors that make 22 episodes of TV a year. I just have this newfound respect for what they’re doing, so I was just really humbled by the fact that they trusted me with that story. It was just a great episode of television. And I was so afraid to screw it up. And I got so sick during that episode, too. I got so ill because the hours are so long. So it was a very surreal week. I kind of felt like I was in a fever dream all week, which is the best way to do that episode probably.
It has that surreal quality to it.
Totally, I mean humping a mannequin? Come on. Please, do that in your sleep.
Normal actor request you get all the time.
[laughs] All in a day’s work. It’s so silly. It’s really fun.
I remember hearing a story about how when Viola Davis was cast in “How to Get Away with Murder,” she talked to Kerry Washington about her experience doing “Scandal,” and Kerry Washington was like, “Look, you are now a marathoner, you have to take care of your body.”
That’s totally right. Actors have to be very healthy or else we won’t make it.
Long days, a lot of physical activity.
And you have to deliver when they’re ready for you. You don’t get to pick when you get to execute your emotional high point. You do it when they tell you. And it might be two in the morning, and you might’ve been on set all day. And of course everything’s out of order, and you rely on the director so much to make sure you’re on the right point in that arc, and you have to let go of a lot of control.
How sequentially were episodes being shot?
We would shoot one episode at a time. But yes, as far as the scenes go, they’d make an effort to shoot in order, but it’s impossible. It’s all dictated by money and location so we never win that fight. We’re always going to end up shooting things out of order. And it’s very disorienting I’ve found as an actor — as I’ve said many times during this conversation — I come from the theater, where you tell things in order, and you rehearse them. It’s very disconcerting at first, but you lean into it. You lean into the chaos and eat healthy. [laughs]
Just talking about the differences between television and theater is really interesting. Theater has this ephemeral quality where you’re just creating moments every night, but then TV you do it once or twice and it lives forever. Is that something that appeals to you?
I’d take that one step further and say theater is ephemeral. It sort of disappears after the moment. Television you do it one or two times and it’s there forever, but I think television is in some ways more disposable than film. I think so often people don’t go back and watch television again. Every now and then something iconic comes along that people will watch three times, or there’s certain people that will watch things three times, but by and large people are only going to see television once. And then film has a kind of permanence the two of those don’t have, so all three are different in terms of the legacy you pass on, whether it’s a moment or a season or 30 years. I guess the responsibility is always the same, but I guess you hope you screw up on the stage and not on the screen. [laughs]
The other thing about television, though, that’s such an interesting experience is that you get to grow a character over a dozen hours at this point, maybe more.
But you also have to do it in bits and pieces. I’ll go two weeks without working. So you’re always coming and going. And if you’re doing a play, you’re playing that character six nights a week. So you’re in this interesting emotional groove, and in TV you’re starting and stopping. And when you take a break between seasons, I always say it’s like putting on a wet bathing suit: When you come out, it’s a little uncomfortable. [laughs] You have to remember where you are a little bit. So hopefully it’s a little deeper in you, but who knows.
You hear about people like Kyle MacLachlan going back to “Twin Peaks” after 20 years, and Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny going back to “The X-Files.” It’s going to be interesting to see how those things play.
Because it may be that something essential about it is even more entrenched in them, or it may feel very far from them. I’d be curious to hear what they had to say about that. That’s very interesting. I’ve revisited a play after a year, but that’s very different from 20 years.
Do you still feel like you learned something from that?
Oh, I think you learn tremendously. Whatever you’re working on always changes how you hear the world. You always hear the world through the lens of the thing… I guess lenses and hearing don’t go together but…
The filter, exactly. It’s the way you’re filtering the world through what you’re working on. Because you always learn something, because you’ve changed, so you’re bringing something different. Even if it’s the same thing you’ve done, you’re hearing the world slightly differently. You’re filtering it in a little bit of a different way. It’s a wonderful job, when you can do it. [laughs]
I want to go back a little. I’ve already asked you about what’s coming up for you, but I know in terms of the structure of the season, a lot of episodes this year are more stand-alone. Did you read the script for Episode 3?
Oh, I always read everything that comes to me.
How does that affect you?
Oh, it’s just fun. It’s fun to see what my fellow actors are going to be up to, and frankly I’m a little jealous if I’m not going to be around. So when you have a stand-alone episode that I don’t get to be a part of, it makes me a little sad. But I can’t wait to see it. Because then there’s this wonderful element of not having been around when it’s made, so it’s such a surprise, and you can almost take yourself out of the show and pretend like you’re not on it and watch it like a fan, and that’s a really fun way to watch my friends working.
How does watching “The Leftovers” affect the way you, say, listen to the news?
It’s more about when I’m working on it than when I’m watching it, but I think you tune in a little more to the tragedies, the events. I have a greater awareness of how these seemingly random events might impact the communities they’re happening in, like when there’s a shooting or a plane disappears, or even a devastating economic reality, I’m thinking about the collective mind and how the community is responding. And your ears– You hear the word “leftovers” more, even if it’s about food. It’s even little things like that, simple things. It’s hard to describe. It can affect the way you’re living. When I was doing “Virginia Woolf” I found I was so obsessed with the terrible things that were happening in the world and feeling very powerless because the character I was playing was very powerless.
You played Honey in that, right?
Honey, yeah. So you start to take that on a little bit, and it can feel disempowering for a little while, and then you realize that’s not actually you and that’s not actually true. It’s not psychosis, it’s just some aspects of your personality get dialed up, and some aspects get dialed down.
I’m just playing this game now because it’s fun, but let’s compare that to “Gone Girl.”
In “Gone Girl” [the movie]? Maybe reading Gillian Flynn is better…
Because that’s such an engrossing book.
It is, totally. It obsesses one, and I was so aware of my own relationship dynamics, how I was relating to my husband and that sort of “cool girl” speech that everyone responded to. I certainly also had a visceral response to that speech, having been a woman in the world for expectations of what that means, I don’t think any woman escapes that. And now I’m in a profession that compounds that sort of messaging, and so I was hyper-aware of if I was ever putting something on or if I was actually being authentic, and I found myself checking in with myself a lot more about that. And my husband, I think, was checking in with me more, too, about that people-pleasing impulse that I certainly have and a lot of women I know have and that I have to actively fight against. I think he was actually checking in with me a little more when that was going on, and I think that was interesting, too.
Because he knew you were reading the book?
Yes, and he had also read it. We pass books back and forth a lot, my husband and I. We read the same things a lot. So it always affects our conversations with each other.
And you bring your own experiences to everything.
You do, and I actually think– It’s funny to put these two together, but people always used to say “Gone Girl” was a terrible date movie and I thought it’s not, because the lesson of it is that you’d better know who you’re marrying. There’s a push toward real authenticity, not something that’s put on. Can you put everything on the table, can you drop all your illusions and can you survive? And I actually think that’s the world Kevin and Nora are playing in right now. They’re trying to drop their illusions and be honest with each other and see if it’s sustainable. And it’s only sustainable if you follow the rules, and if one of them isn’t following the rules it’s not going to work. I think actually “Gone Girl” and “The Leftovers” have that parallel.
Kevin and Nora find each other in the first season and they build a relationship, and Season 2 they’re continuing that journey, but I wrote this down as a question: “Is it really a love story?” From your perspective do you see it as a romantic relationship?
Sometimes I think everything is a love story. Sometimes I think almost everything can be boiled down to that. People talk about “Virginia Woolf” being very vicious as a play, but that’s a love story. Those people aren’t that nasty to each other without loving each other that fiercely and fighting to get back to something that they lost, or that’s elusive to them. So sure, it’s a love story.
That’s a lovely way of looking at it. What from this season are you most excited for people to see?
Oh boy, can I even talk about what that might be?
I guess more in broad terms.
In broad terms, I think the cast members we’ve added are really incredible. I think Kevin [Caroll], Regina [King], Jovan [Adepo], Jasmine [Savoy Brown] have just added a depth to this year and they’re also great artists to be around, so our dynamic didn’t change. It just got bigger. They came in seamlessly. And I think the actors on the show are great, I think there’s some great acting happening. In general, whether you appreciate the storyline and where Damon takes us, I think you can appreciate some really great acting moments, because they give us such meaty things and actors thrive in those circumstances. So maybe just the pleasure of watching us relish it I hope will be enough for people, because it was certainly a lot of fun for us to do.
Do you feel like it pushed you farther than Season 1 did?
I think it pushed me differently, which is always better. So many of the roles I read for women do not ask anything of me. “The Leftovers” always asks something of me, and it always asks something a little bit different from what it asked of me yesterday, and that’s all I can wish for as an actress.
Something that came up when I interviewed Tom and Damon is the fact that Nora doesn’t have a job in the book, and that’s something they added for the show. Did you also bring your own sense of the world around her, the person she was beyond her family?
Yes, I did. I had used the book as source material. I like to do that kind of work. It reminds me of working on a play, where you’re pulling out the details about the biography and sort of looking at that person’s given circumstances and where they come from and how they got here. So I was very interested in that stuff, and of course after working with the book and then getting the scripts some of that had to change because of the way they had shifted Nora’s reality, but actually the biography Tom has built for her works really well even though there are some details that are different. Her personality is very much something Tom made, I mean she definitely starts in his book, and I first started relating to her when I read that book, I was intrigued by her even back then. So I feel like he planted a root, and everything that’s grown out of it is definitely grounded in his initial vision of her. I hope I get to play her a little longer. I hope there’s more there. [laughs]
I know they’ve said they’re not thinking about Season 3 right now.
They’re just trying to finish up [the finale]. [laughs]
Have you been nagging them about it?
Oh no, I know that doesn’t get us anywhere. You just have to let them have their process. I have a process, they have a process. I have to let them take their time, and they’ll do what they think is right for the story. I trust them. They’re passionate and smart, and it’s about trusting. They trust me with Nora, and I trust them with the story.
Is there something you’d like to see her do?
Go to Miami Beach and be in a sitcom. I think Season 3 is Nora in a sitcom.
That makes total sense.
It hasn’t been done yet. I just gave away my million dollar idea: a show that starts as a drama that ends up as a sitcom. You can’t print that, because when I make it… [sighs]
People are complicated, and if us actors are trying to make people, then our characters will always be complicated. And I think Damon invited complexity and if the show moves forward to a Season 3 and if Nora is in it, I expect that she will only get more complicated, and that is thrilling.
From what I’ve been told the big theme of Season 2 is learning to let go. Do you think that’s something she’s even capable of?
Sure. Sure she is. But it’s going to take a lot of work. I think anyone is capable of letting go. I think that capacity exists in us. Some of us just have more obstacles or more noise than others. And some of us have more tools. But I think it’s possible. Maybe that’s the ultimate goal, why we’re here. Maybe that’s the lesson we have to learn, but yeah, it’s possible for her. We’ll see how close she gets.
“The Leftovers” airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.