Carrie Coon speaks with AwardsDaily TV about film, theater, television, and The Leftovers
Carrie Coon burst onto television screens in HBO’s critically acclaimed and enigmatic drama The Leftovers. After a divisive first season, the drama took on a new dynamic, expanding its appeal and story threads into its second term. Critics responded in kind, and, as a result, Coon picked up an unexpected, but well deserved, Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series for The Leftovers.
Having heavily advocated her terrific big screen turn in David Fincher’s excellent Gone Girl then ploughing through two seasons of The Leftovers, Robin Write finally gets the phone call from the super-talented, delightful, and theater-bred Carrie Coon.
AwardsDaily TV: So, Carrie Coon, it’s great to meet you.
Carrie Coon: Thank you.
ADTV: When I first heard about The Leftovers I actually thought it was referencing the Oscars’ treatment of the movie Gone Girl.
CC: Oh! [Laughs] That’s funny!
ADTV: We were quite disappointed, really, with the Gone Girl awards reception, because we all love it.
CC: Aw, thank you for that.
ADTV: Did you read Gillian Flynn’s book?
CC: I did, in fact. I read it well before. My husband and I are both big readers so we had picked it up, because she’s a Chicago-based writer and we always read the book reviews in the New York Times. So we had a copy of it, and when we were doing (Who’s Afraid of) Virginia Woolf in New York, in Broadway, is when we read it. We kinda passed it back and forth and just had a great, entertaining time. I really liked the character of Margo even when I read the book, and incidentally, when I was cast for the film, Gillian was one of the only people who knew who I was because she had seen Virginia Woolf in Chicago.
ADTV: Oh, right! That’s good!
CC: Yeah, so she knew my work and nobody else did. [Laughs]
ADTV: [Laughs] Small world! Well, I loved “Go,” as she’s called in the book. I think you nailed it, to be fair, brilliant casting.
CC: Aw, thank you!
ADTV: Was Margo easy to become? Was it something you read and thought “I could do that”?
CC: Yes, I mean, there was something about her rhythm that was very familiar to me. I come from a very dry, sarcastic family and the script was very intact with the language of it. She was so quite verbal in the script which is like the characters I tend to play. I tend to play women who are intelligent, pretty dry, you know. Also the fact that I have three brothers and there’s that sibling dynamic, I mean, I’m the middle of five kids so the whole dynamic of siblings is very familiar to me and the rhythm of it I recognized immediately. You know, Gillian is a mid-westerner and I think I just totally understood the ease of where we were when we read the book, and I was relieved when that was still intact when I read the script. And she’s so important because you don’t see a woman trusting Nick. I think it was very intelligent of both Gillian and David (Fincher) to keep that role intact the way it was.
ADTV: Fantastic. So, can you describe David Fincher in three words?
CC: Oh, my goodness. Exacting. Intelligent. And, oh gosh, a perfectionist! He and I get along great because we are both perfectionists and I did not feel intimidated by the fact that he likes to do long takes because I’d never made a film before. And I needed all the takes I could get. [Laughs] And you know what? He’s a great teacher. He taught me a lot about being on camera. He recognized very early that I didn’t have a lot of experience, he knew what he was getting into and he went out of his way to show me what he was doing because he knew if he showed me, then I could do it.
ADTV: What do you find distinctively different about TV and film, then?
CC: Well. [Laughs] I went from Gone Girl immediately to The Leftovers with no break. I was working on the first episode and we did three takes and the director said “Oh, we got it! Moving on!” I thought “Oh, no! I was just warming up!” [Laughs] In TV you only get that time and either you get it or you don’t and they’re moving on regardless. You hope the editor can save you – so you have to learn to work more quickly on TV.
ADTV: I obviously know a little bit about you, you got the Tony Award nomination for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – is it fair to say theatre is your first love?
CC: Yes, that was all I was doing. Since I graduated from graduate school in 2006 I worked almost exclusively in the theatre back to back, really making my living in the theatre in Wisconsin and Chicago. So I didn’t really know much about TV and film besides from the commercial work I had done, and I had also done a couple of guest star stuff by the time The Leftovers rolled around. But, you know, I married Tracy Letts, an extraordinary play-writer, and an extraordinary actor, and it’s interesting because he’s been a theatre actor most of his life. He tried to do L.A. in his 20s, and it’s only now at 50 he’s experiencing this incredible film career, so he’s kind of in the same place, experiencing TV and film work for the first time and figuring it out. And then, you know, I’m doing his play right now so I think theatre will always be a part of my life and it’s certainly more forgiving to women. [Laughs]
ADTV: Yeah. So what would you say it is about acting that gets you out of bed in the morning?
CC: Oh, my! Well, you know, what I love about it is that it is a profession that invites one to be very present and I don’t feel that many professions require that of a person – and ours most certainly does. And that reminder in your work that is that to be present is to do the work well is a great rule book to your life. To be present in your life. And to me that’s very fulfilling, and I know what it feels like, so I can make those distinctions. I don’t know that everybody is in a position where they even know what that means. I feel grateful to know what that means.
ADTV: Well, I will say that the wife and I were glued to The Leftovers, because there’s nothing quite like it on TV at the moment.
CC: I agree!
ADTV: There’s a lot of zombie things, people coming back from the dead, Les Revenants, but this isn’t just about that first reaction, what happens in the first five minutes. It goes three years on.
CC: Exactly. It’s about what happens when the foundation is shaken.
ADTV: Like a bomb has gone off and this is the fallout.
ADTV: So what vibes or emotions did you get from the script, before you started filming it? As an audience member, as you’re watching it, it’s all quite chilling and you wonder how you would react, but did you get that when reading it?
CC: I had read the book, again, my husband and I are big readers so I already knew Tom Perrotta’s novel that it was based on. And I didn’t know how closely they would adhere to his story, and it turns out we deviated pretty extravagantly from his original story. But the tenure of the book I understood, and I think, at least in the first season, we were very faithful to at least that atmosphere that Tom creates in his book. So I kinda felt like I knew exactly what it was, and much like Margo, when I initially read the book before I knew it would be adapted into a television series I quite related to Nora, and connected to Nora, so I felt like I had some understanding of her – who she was, what she was up to, and what she wanted before that script even came to me. It was almost like she was already a part of me before I got to go into that room and, it’s very rare, but every now and then you encounter a role that you think “Oh, no one else should, no one else can play this! I can’t imagine anybody else is going to play this, I have to play this!” It felt that with Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf too.
ADTV: Congratulations on the Critics’ Choice award.
CC: Oh thank you. It was such a wonderful surprise.
ADTV: Well it was about time you got recognized to be fair.
CC: Oh thank you. It is so hard when there is so much content, and frankly, the viewership was not that high, if we did not get the critical response for season two I am not sure we would have been allowed to continue. So I am grateful for the attention, so our show could move forward, and end it the way we wanted to end it.
ADTV: Nora Durst is not really a character you forget. I remember the first season, I think that is still on people’s minds, like Emmy voters, and whoever else is going to be voting. The big conference episode which was all yours. And that big scene in the final episode, which might be the most famous moment of the two seasons. So how did you have to develop Nora going into the second season, she was a little bit different, with what was happening, how did you dive into it the second time around?
CC: Well what’s wonderful about Damon (Lindelof) and our creators is that they do not ask us to do the same thing over and over again. An actor can get pigeon-holed and asked to perform the same tropes, you know the hurt wife, the nagging girlfriend, the sad divorce, you would have to play the same things over and over again. It was interesting to me they were pursuing other threads in Nora’s personality, and I credit Damon for his curiosity about actors. He sees things in us, and he pursues them. Sometimes forces us to confront our own fears, on camera, which is not really fair [Both Laugh]. There were moments were I was like “I don’t know if I agree with that,” but you have to trust where it is going as the story-telling is intrepid, sometime even brazen. And the wonderful thing about doing TV versus theatre is that you don’t know the ending. We read the scripts just days before shooting, Damon keeps his cards very close. There’s something very liberating about throwing yourself in the maze even though you don’t know where it is going. And I enjoy working with him that way, trusting him, and I will miss that adventure when this is over.
ADTV: Nora is, well, I don’t know if she is the strongest character, or if she is the most grounded, but because she has lost the most perhaps she is, a really strange paradox I think.
CC: Yeah it is, because there is something very grounded about her, even though she is rather untethered, it’s a very interesting thing to play. There is always a fundamental tension in her, which I think is left over from the book, where towards the end of season one Nora is considering leaving her life, forever – just walking away and becoming someone else. And in some ways we are all free to do that at any time, we just never do. I just love that incline in her that she can walk away at any moment, that people can disappear, so why can’t I? That is always alive in her, and I love that about her. Being weighed down by grief is not interesting, but the struggle to come out of it is. Everybody grieves, everybody goes through it. And our show navigates through it in a way that is very true to me.
ADTV: Nora seems to be on the brink of all kinds of states and emotions, was that intentional – perhaps a bit of you, a bit of Nora, or a blend?
CC: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting question. There is something elusive about the process, where sometimes you are not sure how much of it is you. The thing about acting of course if that you have to consider yourself as capable of anything as a human being, and that’s a difficult thing to acknowledge, as what you are acknowledging is all the dark things humans are capable of, not just the joyful, light things. So I suppose it is a mix of the two.
ADTV: How open minded are you to that kind of unnatural, supernatural thing happening?
CC: I suppose if something supernatural happens all we have to deal with it are the tools we have, whether supernatural or not. That’s why I think the show feels truthful in terms of the scope of human experience – especially in season two when we recovered a bit of our sense of humor [Both laugh]. To me that is even more truthful because of how people deal with the circumstances. It’s never purely one thing, and I am deeply mistrustful of the response of only one thing, that does not feel very real.
ADTV: You touched on your brothers earlier, with Ben Affleck and Christopher Eccleston you have two troublesome brothers, in very different ways. Anything from your own siblings that you consciously or unconsciously brought to the roles?
CC: I suppose like I said earlier, I am a sister to three very different brothers, and also the middle child, so I am the harmonizer a bit – the traditional middle child, the peacemaker. So I love that I have been thrust into dealing with these hapless and difficult boys, in a relationship that is not romantic – which of course is a very different dynamic. Chris Eccleston’s character was not my brother in the book, that was something they added, so that was an interesting shift for me to make. Sometimes having to remind myself of our biographies. He is very fun to work with, I find him very compelling as an actor. He and I just like to throw things around at each other, the material allows a lot of room for interpretation. I was surprised to be considered in the category in lead, I felt a lot of balance in the season, and I did not have a stand-alone episode this year. I am flattered to be considered, I am just so blown away by so much of the work of my cast mates on the show, so I feel like a small cog in a very big machine.
ADTV: Yeah, especially that second season there was quite a lot to choose from – like Regina King.
CC: Oh gosh, she is so extraordinary. We just had the best time working together.
ADTV: That scene you did, were you start the questionnaire, and then she flips it back on you. Great stuff. And one of the best scenes I think.
CC: We have not worked together before. I rarely get to work with the women on the show. Think about it, I am often working with Justin (Theroux) or Chris, or the babies (both laugh). So it is very satisfying when I get the opportunity to act with the women we have cast, so rare for me. And that day with Regina was just sublime. I’ve always admired he work, I got to do something with her, and I was really looking forward to it, and apparently she was too – I am so flattered that she cared to be in the room. So we look forward to more things. We could try to encourage a spin off, a cop show maybe.
ADTV: Yeah, that would be good, like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat. You could do a female version of that.
CC: There you go, I’ll take that. See. Come on, pick this up!
ADTV: Is acting everything? Was there a plan B?
CC: When I was an undergraduate, my degree was in English and Spanish, I was doing my thesis in language acquisition, I thought I was going to be a linguist. I have always been interested in language specifically, and am grateful I have a job that is still in language. And also the voice work, the actual physiological production of a human voice I find really fascinating. And I think I would have ended up being some sort of voice coach or voice teacher maybe. I make a terrible waitress. Worst waitress you have ever seen.
ADTV: Well we will call that plan C, or plan D [Both laugh]. Just a couple of questions, female directors is quite a big thing at the minute, anything you can tell us about the Katherine Dieckmann project?
CC: Yeah, I have finished a film with Holly Hunter, directed by Katherine Dieckmann, called Strange Weather, and that’s in its final throws of post-production – so hoping to see some festival play for that. And of course working with Holly Hunter was just a dream come true. And then I have a film coming out with Lee Pace, that was a lot of fun to do, called Keeping Hours. I also have a tiny part in a movie called The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter with Josh Brolin, directed by Jody Hill. And The Leftovers season three. I am just waiting to see what the next thing is that is challenging to me, I like to be challenged. If that’s the theater, great, or a television show, a film, fantastic. But like you say, I have an interest in supporting women writers and directors. I try and be conscious of what I am putting out to the world.
ADTV: Last question, every October 14th now, do you wonder, just for a minute?
CC: Oh that such an interesting question. Trying to think where I was last October 14th. Frankly, my year was so crazy I rarely even knew the dates. I bet once The Leftovers is over it will bring a pang of nostalgia.
ADTV: Thank you for talking to me, a real pleasure.
CC: Thank you Robin for watching the show and being interested enough. Really appreciate it.
HBO has renewed The Leftovers for a third and final season of eight episodes which began principal shooting in May 2016.