Poor Matt Jamison. Once a content man of God, happily married to wife Mary (Janel Moloney), Matt’s luck has gone awry since the Great Departure, beginning with an accident that sent Mary into a persistent vegetative state and most recently ending with him in dire straits in Texas. Any time an episode of “The Leftovers” chooses to focus on him, as last night’s episode “No Room at The Inn” did, you know that things aren’t going to go well for Matt.
But when you talk to actor Christopher Eccleston about “The Leftovers,” his belief in the show and in showrunner Damon Lindelof seems as certain as Matt’s continued dedication to God. Eccleston spoke with Indiewire via phone from the Lakes district, in the far northwest of England (“It’s very different from Austin. Very different. Dark. Cold. Wet. Rugged. Rural.”), and told us about the surprises (and lack thereof) he experienced this season, the importance of the Book of Job in developing Matt as a character and just how personal Matt and Mary’s relationship is for him.
So, in terms of approaching the season, when did you find out you were going to get another standalone episode?
I think a couple of weeks before the script landed. I think somebody sent me a grapevine whisper that Episode 5, I was going to be very busy. A couple of weeks before, I had no idea, I didn’t expect it because I was one of the actors who got a standalone episode in the first series. So, I was quite surprised. But having said that, you know, for the rest of Season 2 I’m very light, so it all kind of makes sense. It all evens out. When you look at what all the actors contribute it tends to even out. There’re a few episodes that I don’t appear in at all. But yeah, a couple of weeks before I think somebody tipped me off to get ready for Episode 5.
Were you glad to have the extra time to prepare?
Yes. It’s useful. But that being said, I like the pace of television. I like being thrown things at the last minute. I think a great deal of interesting things come out of that. So, I’ll take it as it comes. I’m glad to be working.
I’ve gotten to talk to Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux, and they both have pretty different perspectives on what they want to know about the show versus whether or not they want to know more about the show than scripts they get handed every week. For you, what do you prefer? What’s your ideal way to approach a role like this?
I’m a theater actor. ‘83-’86, I was in traditional British drama school. The whole approach there is that you know the arc of your character and you make choices on what you know. You go into a show like this and all of that is thrown out the window. And I made a decision. I’ve watched a lot of American television over the last 10 years and read books like [Brett Martin’s] “Difficult Men,” and a couple other books that have come out about how writers’ rooms work. And I made a decision to embrace a new way of working because it’s drawn up some extraordinary television. So, my take on it is that whatever comes, I can handle.
But I’m not sure I would say that if I was working with any old showrunner. I have a very good relationship with Damon Lindelof. We had a key conversation when we very first met. He was surprised that I wanted to be involved with such a minor character, and there’s a bit of synchronicity between me and him. So, I trust him. I trust him not to suddenly turn Matt into a murderous psychopath. You know, to me, there’s discipline in him. He basically works off truth. I enjoy it. I can kind of predict what he’s going to do because we’re of the same mind with the character.
So have there been any major surprises for you in terms of approaching the season?
I mean Damon is always surprising us. The move to Austin — Miracle in Texas — was a major surprise for us all. Once I got there and understood how Austin fit in Texas, and what Austin is — because let’s be honest we’re basically dealing with Austin and how Austin is regarded in American culture — it’s a very special place. Keep Austin weird. I do feel that if there was a miracle going to happen, it would happen somewhere near Austin. That surprised me.
Damon is endlessly surprising, but I think my job as Matt is to provide a kind of anchor, an anchor which believes in God and faith and resilience. So, I kind of do what I did in the first season, and you need that when you’re in a second season and there are so many innovations and introductions of new characters. I think, for many, a face like Matt’s is very useful.
It’s so interesting because so much of the show is about faith and religion and your character is such an icon of that. By the end of Episode 5, how would you define Matt’s relationship with his faith?
Stronger. It gets ever stronger at the end of Episode 3, [Season] 1. Matt found a way — having gone through a major crisis of faith — to rediscover his faith and strengthen it. I mean, Matt will be a man of faith, unless Mr. Lindelof has some serious surprises in store for me, til the end of his life. He faith is strengthened and that continues at the surprises as [Season] 2 unfolds.
Matt is a believer. As am I actually, just not in a formal, religious way. I think you can have faith in life without formalizing it in deities.
I read an interview you did last season about the Book of Job, which of course comes up again this week. How do you feel like the conversation with that particular book of the Bible has evolved?
Well, Damon said that the first time we met, that I said to him, “An occurrence like The Departure, the impact on a man like Matt Jamison would be to make him more religious.” And I can’t remember saying that. I think Damon might be crediting me with more intelligence than I actually owe. But that has basically been our touchstone with Matt. What’s true is for some odd reasons shortly before meeting Damon, I’d collided with the Book of Job in the Bible and it did have an extraordinary effect on me because he was kind of the first existential man who kind of questions God. God turns on him, he renews his faith through that…
I think it’s become more complex in the way that life becomes more complex for us all because as life goes on we’re thrown more and more challenges, and we make decisions whether to engage with life or not. And that does not have to be, as you know, in a religious sense. Job does not have to belong to God. Job is man’s endless denial of death, if you like. To quote Ernest Becker, Job is someone who will go on. Matt definitely has that, and he attributes that to God.
I don’t have that. I don’t attribute that to God. I just see life as a gift, and it’s one that I must keep taking in all its forms. And I don’t think I’m answering your question, but I think it’s very difficult to answer. Job, to me and Damon, is key to Matt. We both have a take on Job, which I think we share. I think we both have a huge admiration and awe for that Biblical creation, and he’s inspired this character endlessly. He will keep pushing the rock up… Which is what we all do, whether in a religious context or not.
So, that’s the engine for me, when I play Matt. In any situation, Matt is always looking for hope. Always. And I think if you always look for hope, it turns up. And you see that. Moments of despair in the episode, and they look ’round, and he sees the cross. And the cross can be anything. It can be a religious symbol to you, if you like, or it can be Matt’s imagination; an imaginative way of dealing with a situation.
You and Janel Moloney have such a beautiful chemistry. In terms of working with her, how tough are your scenes together?
It’s tough for Janel because she says to me, “You all get to show off, and I don’t.” And I argued with her about that. I had strong views about that. I think it’s an extraordinary role. I feel like it’s the ultimate cinematic role because everything has to be internalized. I think the longer you act, the more you realize that it’s about stripping away. And I would imagine that every scene she is in, in that episode, if she’s in any scene she steals it because she is the mystery. Mary is the mystery for the audience. For Matt, what is going on there?
And she’s a very, very clever actress, and she works very hard at making decisions for when she moves her fingers, giving her an internal life. I think it’s a fascinating experience for an actor to go through. To play a role like that.
We get along great. I just drink a lot more than Janel does, fortunately.
When you have moments when you feel you’re connecting with Mary, which is such a big part of the character arc this season, is that in your interpretation a real sign of hope? Or is that Matt’s imagination trying to find a sign of hope?
When he thinks he’s connecting with Mary?
I watched my mother care for my father for 13 years. He had dementia, so this was a big thing to me — this role of playing a carer. And who am I to say that my mother, at a certain point, did not connect with my father? And who am I to say that Matt did not connect with Mary? I think it’s a mystery. I think possibly there’s a connection, or possibly it’s a way that the carer finds a way to continue doing what they do. Does that make sense? I’m really trying to answer this question.
I really appreciate that. It’s a tough one. I know. What I think is so beautiful about those moments is that, because this is a show slightly outside reality, they can be heightened for the purpose of drama.
They can certainly be heightened in the way that they’re shot and presented. But the way you act them has to be absolutely grounded, you know. For me, there is no way you can act supernatural. You have to ground it. So, I think Matt believes that he is connecting with his wife. But I would suggest that the reason he believes is so he can go on. Or maybe when people are in that state, maybe when people are suffering dementia or they’re in a vegetative state there are glimmers, there are moments where they resurface. And somebody who cares so intimately knows those signals and seizes them with a hunger.
I think that’s what Matt is doing. He knows. You can have a person that sits in the corner and does nothing, but you are aware of their mood because you are so intimate with them. You know when they feel good or they feel bad. Even though there are no obvious physical indications of that. That’s the extraordinary thing about how we relate as human beings. And I think that’s what Damon and Jacqueline [Holt] are trying to write about. Matt knows when she feels good and when she feels bad, even though she just sits in the same old position. He knows.
“The Leftovers” airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.