Carrie Coon has a habit of making the impossible look routine.
Take, for instance, a scene early in Sean Durkin’s fraught marital drama, “The Nest.” Having just been told by her status-obsessed husband, Rory (Jude Law), that they need to uproot the family and move to England, Allison O’Hara (Coon) drives to her cherished job as a riding instructor with a lot on her mind. Heart’s “These Dreams” blasts out the open windows, and Allison absentmindedly takes a drag from her lit cigarette as she gulps down her morning coffee.
The thing is, she drinks and breathes at the same time. She raises the lidless mug of coffee to her lips just as a whiff of smoke emerges, swallowing the liquid and the gas simultaneously, wholly, and without thinking twice about either. Meanwhile, Coon is steering the car with only her knees — an act of nonchalance both instantly familiar yet rarely performed on command.
“She was actually driving the car,” Durkin said in an interview with IndieWire. “The Canadian A.D. department was not happy with us.”
“These are my people, you see?” Coon said, separately. “In fact, I seem to recall my Aunt Lee, who I spent a lot of time with growing up, showing me how to drive with my knee. They’re just my people.”
Such a humble explanation befits the Ohio-born star, whose Midwestern modesty has a way of twisting compliments into self-improvement ideas. (“Maybe that’s a weakness,” or “Maybe I should think about that more — maybe I’d be better.”) Still, it hardly covers the breadth of her performance. “The Nest” makes the most of Coon’s known strengths: her chameleonic ability to command a room one minute and shrink into the crowd the next; her spirited rage cut with heartbreaking fragility; her courage. But it also showcases some lesser known attributes of an actress oft-cast as an overburdened Everywoman, like her staggering glamour and delectable sense of humor. (A no-holds-barred dinner scene stands as the year’s pillar of acerbic glee.)
“She’s hilarious,” Durkin said. “Everyone who’s seen her knows she’s a great actor, and obviously capable of very taxing, enticing, dramatic work, but she’s so funny. I always said when we were shooting, ‘I can’t wait for your ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Throughout it all, Coon channels every bit of Allison into a tiny, multifaceted prop: her cigarette. Both a crutch and a weapon, Allison’s bad habit has become an unexpected focal point of the film, with fans ooo’ing and ah’ing over her evocative flares — even though to both writer and star, it was just a practical choice.
“It’s so funny the conversations that come out of it because I didn’t even think about it,” Durkin said, who wrote every cigarette Allison uses into the script. “It’s so normal in my mind that this character smokes.”
“I’ve been really surprised by the number of questions [about smoking],” Coon said. “Sean and I, we grew up in the same time, and there is not a photograph of me from ages zero to six where there isn’t someone smoking in my face. For me, it was just, ‘Yeah, of course [she smokes].'”
That Allison smokes may be of note to younger viewers, who’ve grown up on movies heavily policed against tobacco use, but how Allison smokes is what resonates with everyone. She smokes at dinner, the gray fumes billowing around her like thought bubbles and completing her impossibly elegant ensemble. She smokes at work, the burnt ash building up as fast as the bills, while she mentally balances the books after riding lessons. She smokes in a divey dance bar, lighting up between her back-to-back vodka tonic orders. She smokes anywhere and everywhere, and that says far more about Allison than an addiction.
Courtesy of IFC Films
“I think there’s a big misconception for people who don’t know any horse people, that think of horses as this glamorous, expensive thing that people do in a leisurely way,” Durkin said, adding that many of the trainers and stablehands he worked with were smokers, as well. “Obviously there is that, but most people who own and work with horses are very grounded, earthy, animal people. That was a really big part of Allison’s character and her truest self. But also, I wanted her to be more than one thing. She could also love going to parties and getting all dressed up. The two things don’t have to be separate, as they so often are portrayed in movies.”
Cigarettes may be the only thing Allison holds onto during a magnificent sequence when she goes from making an honest day’s pay doing grubby barn work to striding into the fanciest restaurant in London looking like a million bucks. In a matter of hours for Allison and seconds for the audience, she’s traversed an unbridgeable spectrum for so many of her onscreen peers.
“One of the things I loved about her character is that she can bale hay and muck stalls, but she can also get dressed up in her glam outfit and go out with her husband and pretend to be rich,” Coon said. “So to occupy those spaces felt very complex in a way that women aren’t typically written.”
Allison uses cigarettes as a way to delineate her territory. They add to the confidence she carries, but they’re also a tool. She can take a drag to collect her thoughts, or she can excuse herself as way to get away from Rory, who doesn’t smoke.
“[Smoking] is just so the core of Allison’s character,” Durkin said. “It’s such a part of her pace and her tone and her emotion, her timing, and Carrie just knew what that was and fell right into it. We didn’t need to talk about it or think about it in that way. It was just an extension of her.”
“There is something about the ownership of a space that is private, and I think for women that’s probably more of a need, especially in that time,” Coon said. “Allison is in an ostensibly more egalitarian marriage than average. She’s at least working outside the home and a bit of an entrepreneur in her own right. But that really crumbles when they get to England because those more traditional structures start to be reinforced in an overt way because the class system in England is more overt. So she’s really suffering under the oppression of those divisions being much more codified.”
Allison won’t stand for it. As soon as Rory’s facade cracks, his financial mishaps and personal insecurities exposed, she smashes through the remnants.
“Carrie is the perfect Allison [because] she can give you the smallest, most natural detail in the subtlest way — with a facial expression or whatever — and she’s physical, and can move through a space while loving the technical side of it,” Durkin said. “Well, she never told me she loves the technical side of it, but you can just feel it when you’re working. You feel the dance at play.”
Courtesy of IFC Films
Whether it’s swigging wine right from the bottle in rebuke of Rory’s dismissal or calling out her husband’s lies at a business dinner, Allison refuses to accept the role of doting wife and mother, and Coon appreciates the way her character could inspire modern viewers to do the same.
“Look at how 5.5 million women have been forced out of the workforce because of COVID — because of the responsibilities they have in the home,” she said. “I don’t know, there are just some ways that her struggle feels so relevant to what’s happening right now in our country.”
Despite a coping mechanism as unhealthy as the relationship she’s fighting through, Allison finds what Coon sees as a “hopeful” ending.
“I know a lot of people haven’t had that experience of it, but when you hit the reset button like that and you can start from an honest place, then you have an opportunity to move forward and remake your agreements in a way that’s functional, as opposed to continuing to live unexamined,” she said.
“The Nest” is far from the first time Coon has had to smoke onscreen. Arguably the most iconic shot of “The Leftovers” features the star sitting in a hotel, clinging to a cigarette as the sprinklers rain down through her tears. The Emmy- and Tony-nominated star’s next role is in HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” a period drama set in 1880s New York City, when cigarettes went from a high society vice to a mainstream addiction. But, to be clear, Coon doesn’t need to smoke to deliver a magnetic performance. She doesn’t smoke personally, a fact that should only elevate her natural depiction in “The Nest,” even if it sparks a bit of anxiety for the actor.
“My family gives me a lot of shit about smoking poorly,” Coon said of her parents’ reaction to past roles. “So I was a little concerned, but only because of criticism coming from the home front.”
It’s safe to say now, with a Gotham Award nomination already in hand, that’s the only space from which it could.
“The Nest” is now available from IFC Films to rent or buy.