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Consider This: Carrie Coon on ‘The Leftovers’ Season 2 and Playing the Opposite of a Wife and a Mother

Consider This: Carrie Coon on 'The Leftovers' Season 2 and Playing the Opposite of a Wife and a Mother

Carrie Coon had one helluva 2014. Between stealing scenes in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” as Ben Affleck’s supportive twin sister, and stealing an entire episode of HBO’s “The Leftovers” with her portrayal of Nora, a woman who lost her entire family on October 14, Coon became a name everyone was talking about. Nearly a year after she debuted in Damon Lindelof’s latest series, Coon is in the heat of the Emmys race. 

And for good reason. Coon’s embodiment of a woman on the edge was free from any traditional characteristics or actorly tics associated with women suffering tremendous loss. Her portrayal of Nora demanded balancing extreme reactions, and she did so with the confidence and command of a true talent. Below Coon discusses the challenges (and fun!) of playing Nora, finding Nora’s sense of humor in the darkest moments, what she wished was included from the book and what’s to come in Season 2. 

READ MORE: What the ‘True Detective’ Release Date Tells Us About Season 2, the Emmys and ‘The Leftovers’

All people are talking about is the Season 2 teaser that just dropped last week. [See above] I was curious what your reaction was to that twist — when you first read about it or heard about it.

I just saw [the trailer] like everybody else, and I thought, “Where did they shoot that? None of us are in it. Huh.” [laughs] But I was actually really glad to see that they were putting out teasers this early into the process because I think that’s really exciting — to build some interest in the new storylines, since it’s such a departure from where we’ve been. Pun intended.

[both laugh] So where are you at in shooting Season 2?

I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that! Am I allowed to say that?
I’m not sure.

Is anybody from HBO listening to me?
If you’re not sure, you probably shouldn’t. I’ll say that much.
Yeah, I’m going to abstain from answering that. You can call Damon Lindelof and ask!

I’ll definitely do that. I don’t know if you can do this either, but maybe you could tease what’s to come with one word?

Surprises! [laughs] That’s as explicit as I can get.
I understand. I remember reading an interview with you — I believe it was in Vulture — where you discussed how you were very worried that Nora was going to die, especially when we saw the gun in her purse and the overall tone of the show. After you got through Season 1, did you ever worry about coming back for Season 2?
Absolutely, mostly because we have such a wildly creative showrunner. I believe that Damon will go wherever his instincts will take him in the most wonderful way. And if his instincts were to take him far from us, it wouldn’t have surprised me. I was prepared for anything, really. I was prepared to go through pilot season. [laughs] I’m just grateful to be back, and I’m grateful that Nora gets to be part of the journey still. That was exciting. But sure, you’re always scared. There are no guarantees in this business, honey.
I promise this will be my last Season 2 question, but — considering that they’ve kind of used up a lot of what was in the book for Season 1 — how does Season 2 compare with the new scripts?
Being a big Tom Perrotta fan — I’m a big reader — I read the book well before I knew it was being made into a series. And the series was so different from the source material, in so many ways, that the sky kind of already felt like it was the limit. It already felt like they were willing to go far outside of the bounds of that material, and Tom Perrotta is a really generous collaborator. He recognizes that once he gives up his writing to another medium, it’s going to change, and he is sort of fascinated by those changes. So he’s a wonderful guy to have around because he’s not precious about it, and he doesn’t hang onto anything. He lets it go. That’s a really exciting place to be because Tom is still around. He’s still on board the show, so we know we have his wonderful literary mind in that room with everybody, and that’s a comfort. But it’s also just really exciting to break out of that construct and know that they really can do anything they like. And I have no doubt that they will. 

Coming from a place where you’d read the book first, was there anything that you were particularly attached to about Nora that was altered — not necessarily about her personality, but maybe a scene or a choice that she made that was altered to serve the show over the novel?
Oh, sure. I was hoping we were going to get some of her maniacal bike riding because I thought that was a really soothing, interesting, aggressive, solitary choice that she made in the book. But instead, she was shot by a hooker, which is another bold choice. [laughs] Just a very different direction. Just a little more bold for television. And likewise, I think a lot of readers of the book were pretty taken by her obsession with “Spongebob Squarepants” because it’s a really fascinating psychological detail — that she’s watching these episodes to jog her memory of her son’s and daughter’s behaviors and using it sparingly and methodically. It’s a really interesting character detail in the book that’s not really explored in the series. So I missed that.

And then the scene that I missed the most is when she confronts Kylie at the dance. There’s this wonderful scene in the book where she has a confrontation with her husband’s mistress. Of course, you get the atmosphere of that scene when we’re in the high school, but we never actually get to see that confrontation. I think that would have been really fun to play out, and I think the actor playing that role in our series is actually really beautifully cast and is a really smart young thing I would have liked to play with. Those are the things I missed, but the things I got in return are pretty extraordinary, like Episode 6. 

Absolutely, and speaking of the scene where you hired someone to shoot you — how do you prepare for that as an actress? How do you try to get to that mental state where this is something that your character is really wanting to do?
I think as an actor and as a person, I try to live out the belief that human beings are capable of anything. I believe anything you can think of right now, that somebody might be doing, has been done or is being done right now. Once you wrap your head around that — the capabilities of human beings — then pretty much anything is fair game. While I didn’t see that detail coming from the Nora in the book — I had started building my character from that source material — that felt like a big shift to me in the kind of actions the Nora I knew and had started building would engage in. But it was pretty easy to take that turn and just say, “Well, let’s push some boundaries with this activity.” And also knowing that there are no boundaries to push, because people do everything and anything, and have forever.

That’s a very good point! Back to Episode 6, when did you find out that you were going to have your own episode, essentially?
I think there were some hints, but the script actually came to me probably three days before we shot it. I didn’t have a ton of time to be scared, which was probably good. It might have been four days. And of course, I was very humbled that they trusted me with that undertaking, and they wrote me basically a short film. And I had never done that long of a shoot in my life on television. I had just finished shooting “Gone Girl,” which was about three months of my life. But TV moves much faster, and so I was really intimidated that I would be on a television schedule for 12 days and basically in every scene. I had never done that before, so I knew it was going to be a real test for me and I would learn a lot. That certainly proved to be true.

Coming from a viewing perspective and someone who at least tries to gauge audience reaction, it really felt like a breakout moment for you. I was curious what kind of reaction you got from it, and also what you just started to talk about a bit — how you felt after you were done.

I can’t speak for every actor, but whenever you finish something like that you think, “Well that was just terrible. I’m just the worst actor in the world. I hope I’m not too big of a ham.” You just second guess every choice that you made. Luckily for me, and I’ve said this in several interviews, I was really sick during most of that shoot, which I think was a blessing. I couldn’t overthink things or get in my own way. It sort of felt like some fever dream I had for 12 days, too, so my recollections were also maybe a little fuzzy. But I had no idea — I didn’t know about any of the critical reaction for a long time. I didn’t realize it was being scrutinized in this way, so when some of those lists started coming out at the end of the year, I was really shocked. I was really shocked and happy that the show itself was getting some attention, because I choose things very carefully and I choose things that I believe in — that I think are compelling. Those things are sometimes very hard to come by, especially as a woman and a woman of my age. I was just happy to do the job. The rest of the stuff is just bonus.
What was it about Nora in the beginning — whether it was in the book or whether it was in the first script that you got or the discussion that you had about her — that made you feel really connected to her, and want to take on that role?
I found her one of the most compelling characters in Tom’s book. Probably, partly because I’m a woman, but also because she has this sense of humor. Tom has a great sense of humor. He writes great satire, and Nora Durst, even in Tom’s book, had this really interesting outlook that was laced with this sort of sardonic sense of humor — which is something that I possess and relate to and is very much in my family’s ethos. So I connected with her immediately. It was a show on HBO and it was an unconventionally written character. I wasn’t actually playing a wife and mother, I was playing somebody who was not those things anymore. Which is the opposite of what I’m generally asked to audition for. You jump on those opportunities when they come, my friend, because they don’t come along very often.
I can’t put myself in your shoes, but I can definitely look at “The Leftovers” now and say that’s something you definitely want to be a part of if you’re an actor. 
Absolutely. And once you meet Damon and you hear him talk about what he wants to do, he’s very enrolling and you just get on board. He’s so smart and he’s so passionate, and he really is trying to make something that has something to say. Boy, is that nice.

What’s it like to work with him on the day-to-day basis? I’ve spoken to a lot of showrunners who talk about handling actors differently or working with actors differently, where sometimes they’ll keep bits of information from them or they’ll only tell them a specific thing or they won’t let them go ahead in the scripts. How much of that do you encounter when you work with Mr. Lindelof?
Damon keeps his cards pretty close, I think because he’s always in process. I think he’s always taking in the information that he’s getting, which changes what’s coming out. So I think he reserves the right to change direction, which I think is really exciting and interesting. It means you’re not going to get a lot of information early in the process. He is very good about responding to questions or, if there is something you feel like you need to know as an actor, he’ll definitely tell you. But he’s not going to volunteer information, in case you’re the kind of actor that doesn’t want to know things. That, to me, is deeply respectful of an actor’s process.

I don’t have a lot of contact with Damon while we’re shooting because he’s in L.A. — our writers’ room is in L.A. — and we’re shooting in Texas. He comes to set sometimes as a supportive presence. Every now and then, if a line stands out — this happens so rarely because our show is well-written — but every now and then, there will be a line. You’ll say, “That doesn’t quite feel like what Nora would say right here.” I might write in a one-line email that says, “Hey, question about this line. Can we shift this?” He’s always really responsive because he feels like the actors know the characters better than anybody, and I think that’s just a deeply respectful way of handling us and our processes, various as they are.

One of the words I kept encountering when I was talking about “The Leftovers” was the word “bleak.” Was that your reaction when you read the book? And did you have the same reaction when you read the script, and after you actually saw some of the final product?
Interesting. The book, I would say, is much more intellectual, in a great way. Like I said, it’s almost more of a metaphor. It’s a very intellectual exercise in terms of its examination of grief. It’s very poignant and very touching, but there’s a distance in Tom’s work. So I don’t think the book was very bleak. And I think, like I said, Nora had more of a sense of humor in the book than we ever see her having in the series. When I read the series, I only got to read it bit by bit, so I was discovering it in the moment, from moment to moment as we kept shooting since we weren’t getting scripts very far in advance. I didn’t really have time to think about the tone while I was inside of it. I was just trying to be truthful episode to episode and scene to scene, as much as I could be.

It’s always a wild thing to see your work cut together, and we see it when you see it. I don’t get to see the series before the public sees it. I get to watch it with you, and I guess I had the extra layer of also watching myself perform, which makes me another level removed from the thing, because by nature I’m going to be scrutinizing my own work while I’m watching that thing. So it’s really hard for me to be objective about it, even tonally. I guess it did seem quite dark, but I wouldn’t choose the word “bleak.” I would choose the word “ambiguous,” and I like that sort of thing. It’s my taste in music, it’s my taste in literature, it’s my taste in what I watch. I guess I found it ambiguous, and I find that my life is very ambiguous. This hunger for people to have things wrapped up or happy, I don’t really understand. I have a lovely life, don’t get me wrong. But the space I live in, I guess, is a darker space. That was a really long answer to your question.

No, that was great. I’ve always felt that the show is one that just wanted to deal with bigger questions, which is an appealing thing at least for certain audiences — for me, in particular — to watch and to delve into. Especially via a television series that can explore anything they want. I guess those bigger questions are ones some people want to address and some people are too afraid to address.

Yes, some people want to be entertained. Some people want to be provoked. I like my art to be something that’s active in the world, not just something disposable.
Did you have a scene or maybe even a moment or a line that summed up the first season of “Leftovers” for you? Or that you were just particularly proud of to have been a part of?
It’s so funny, because the thing that comes to mind is when Nora says to Kevin in the hallway, “Oh, fuck your daughter.”
Oh, great choice!

It’s such an awkward, odd moment. I feel that the show in some ways is about people being uncomfortable wherever they are. That sounds like it could be the description of a sitcom, I suppose. It’s not like it’s “Veep.” It’s not that kind of awkward! But everyone is unmoored. No one is tethered, and they’re all feeling the ground is shifted in this profound way and everyone’s still trying to find their footing. I think that moment encapsulates that feeling. Also, it was kind of funny. I think any time something is purely sad or purely happy, I’m very suspicious of it. I think tonally, it’s important that we find humor in moments that are desperate. I think that’s a good example of a moment in our show that does that because I think that’s actually a more realistic depiction of grief. 

[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmys contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners or somewhere in between. More importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]

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