Amy Brenneman Is Thriving on ‘The Leftovers’

Amy Brenneman

Amy Brenneman talks to AwardsDaily TV about The Leftovers‘ Laurie Garvey.

Great acting comes from a few places through the creative process. An actor should first be matched with great writing (Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta. Check.). An actor should then be matched with a great director (Carl Franklin. Check.). An actor should finally be matched with the right material, something that truly resonates with that actor and gives them something to dig their teeth into (The Leftovers. Check.) Talking to 5-time Emmy nominee Amy Brenneman revealed a perfect collision of these events that resulted in her astonishing performance as Laurie Garvey, a survivor of the Guilty Remnants who uses her knowledge of their inner workings to successfully (and unsuccessfully) rehabilitate disillusioned members.

Laurie’s journey through The Leftovers season two – particularly her focus episode “Off Ramp” – provides an enormous range for the actress. She’s the vengeful spirit, resentful of the cult’s influence. She’s the proud and determined survivor, eager to share her remarkable story. She’s the concerned mother, realizing she’s pushing her son too far into her dangerous quest. She’s the former psychiatrist, helping her ex-husband Kevin (Justin Theroux) work through a psychotic break.

The amazing thing about Amy Brenneman’s performance is that it never once feels untrue. All of these wild circumstances, no matter how far-fetched they may be, feel remarkably grounded in the human experience. A lot of that is due to the fantastic writing, but you must recognize the extraordinary talent and commitment displayed by Amy Brenneman. As she says in our conversation, there’s nothing else quite like The Leftovers on television today. Logic would tell you that the Television Academy should flock to the series and reward its uniqueness. Yet, it’s a show that sadly struggles for recognition amidst the other great series on air. Should the Academy pay attention, they would be hard-pressed to bypass Amy Brenneman’s stunning work.

Amy Brenneman

AwardsDaily TV: You’ve built a healthy résumé of TV work over the years. How did you get your start in acting, and did your career go in the direction you wanted it to?

Amy Brenneman: You know, I was one of those kids that was in a play when I was 11 and never stopped doing plays. My soul found its home no doubt in plays and in collaboration with people – that’s also what I love. I come from a family of lawyers from New England, so the whole “profession” of acting was a little foggy to me. I always say the one deal breaker for my college/graduate school parents was, if I’d said at 18 I’m going to New York, they would be like, “No, you are not.” [Laughs] So, we all – my brothers and I – went to college. I went to Harvard, and they didn’t actually have a theater major at that point, which they just got one going a couple of years ago. However, there was a ton of theater going on, so we all majored in obviously different things. I was always doing plays, and the kind of plays we were doing were very influenced by The Wooster Group downtown, by theater collectives, and we actually ended up starting a theater company called Cornerstone Theater. So, I travelled around the country for about five years after college and did community-based work and loved it.

I feel like it was an organic progression. There was a moment where it was time to lead that group full-time, and there was also a moment where it was time to try to make a living. [Laughs] But the whole film/television/head shot/agent thing didn’t happen… I didn’t really think about it until I was in my late 20s. And then it was sort of a surprise, to be honest with you. I thought theater would want me, and Hollywood wouldn’t but it was actually sort of the opposite.

ADTV: Jumping forward to your tremendous work on The Leftovers. This show seems to be one of those series with critical acclaim but not broad viewership. It’s fans though are devotees of the material. Why do you think people form such a deep connection to this series?

AB: Well, there’s nothing else like it. I think about The Leftovers in a lot of different ways, and some of it is through my religion major lens. I’m very interested in spiritual systems both individual and collective. I think that Damon [Lindelof] is writing an elegy. It’s really about grief, and in the first season everybody was sort of stunned by grief, literally paralyzed. The second season, everybody gets very industrious. That’s why I love the second season. It’s the opposite of the 4-quadrant entertainment – “It appeals to everybody! Happy! Sad! Young! Old!” [The Leftovers] appeals to one pretty specific swath in the human spirit, but it’s the truth. A dear friend of mine had just lost her father very suddenly. The show came on a month or so later. She always watches everything I do… I was like, “Oh no, you are not allowed to watch it.” Anybody that’s tender, anybody that’s put off by the depth of it… I never try to convince people to watch it. I think it’s like going to church. For people that get it and need it, there’s literally nowhere else to go on television.

ADTV: As you’ve mentioned, you graduated from Harvard after majoring in comparative religion. Do you consider yourself a religious person, and how does that background help you navigate The Leftovers and, more specifically, the Guilty Remnant? 

AB: Yeah, I definitely have a spiritual practice that’s sort of eclectic as most Americans are. I am a theist. I do think about God a lot. It’s really funny too… I’m pretty unstudied formally in terms of acting – I never went to acting school – but I realize that the way what I studied in college and the way that I naturally think, the way that fits in, is that I literally look at a character and, I didn’t realize this until after the fact, but I’ll think, “OK. What is Heaven to this person. What is Hell? What are they striving for? Where is their soul at peace?”

The Guilty Remnant is interesting because all of us, especially in the first season, were like “What do they believe? What are the tenants of their belief?” But it’s really like the Occupy movement. It’s less about what they coalesce around and more what they’re collectively rejecting. I think for Laurie… And again I think this is Tom Perrotta’s absolute parallel to post-9/11… The people were saying, “Go back to normal!” You try to do that, but then you realize the foundations have entirely changed… I think she was about to crack up. I think she was not doing well by her family. She’s a shrink, so she realized she had to remove herself for a while. She realized it’s sort of extreme, but it’s what she had to do. I think Laurie’s journey in that first season is sort of like MLK versus Malcolm X. I think she really saw what she was doing was… confrontational but in a gentle way if you will. Just by their presence, they make people realize things, and people get upset and people do all sorts of things. But [the Guilty Remnant] doesn’t strike back, and I think that, as Patti [Ann Dowd] took over as the season progressed – the ending of the first season when she’s realizing that it’s not what she signed up for… The whole second season is basically revenge.

Amy Brenneman
Chris Zylka as Tom Garvey, Amy Brenneman as Laurie Garvey. Photo: Ryan Green/HBO.

ADTV: Yeah, that’s very interesting. In “Off Ramp,” you have a few (what I like to call) “Breaking Bad” moments – breaking and entering, running over the two Guilty Remnant members, choking the publisher. Was it challenging for you as an actress to play those scenes so that they felt real and truthful given how out of character they were for her?

AB: They didn’t feel that out of left field for her. The stealing of the computer certainly didn’t. She has a goal. She’s fierce. She’s going to get that goddamn computer, and then the hitting of the guys in the car… I did sort of have to talk to Damon about that, talk through it. Honestly, in Laurie’s mind, she gives them a chance. It’s a game of chicken, right? It’s like pressing the button on the atomic bomb. She gave them a chance. You can judge Laurie’s thinking, but, if she’s trying to wake these people up for them to realize they’re being duped just like she was – that they’re in this cult and being used like cannon fodder, she gave them ample opportunity. She slows that car down. There is a definite face-off, and then it’s just a matter of power. She’s desperate to show them that she’s more powerful than this system they are involved in.

ADTV: There’s also something somewhat obnoxious about the Guilty Remnant standing there just staring and smoking. 

AB: Yeah. Well, it’s like she’s not intimidated by them. She comes from them. She gets the whole thing. I think that probably what the audience might have been thinking in season one is that this creepy cult has taken this woman’s family… I think that was the big passing in the night moment between me and Meg [Liv Tyler] because she’s a novice and she’s delicate and [Laurie’s] showing her the ropes, but then she’s the one who becomes the jihadist. Maybe because Laurie has kids or because she’s not very good cult material in the end… Meg just lapped it up.

ADTV: Absolutely, and the parallels between those two characters are fascinating, but I want to get into that in a minute. First, tell me what it was like working with Carl Franklin, who I think is one of the great directors working today.

AB: Ohh, I agree. I agree. It was great. I think we just did a smudge of stuff in the first season. He was a great director for me. He really was. Maybe because he was an actor, he put a lot of confidence in us. He was really lax… There were a couple of moments where he would say to me, “Yeah, I didn’t believe that.” And then I’d laugh because that’s my number one job as an actor – to make you believe it! [Laugh] Have another take there… He was fun. He was playful. There’s a sneaky feminist agenda in this where the women are just really allowed to fly and, in a way, as misguided as they are they have a very, very clear sense and a lot of agency in the world…. I think he’s one of those good directors where it’s not about “action scene,” “love scene,” whatever. It’s all relational. It’s basic stuff. What are you trying to get from the other person? He is a 4-quadrant guy. Male. Female. Young. Old. Black. White. He’s interested in humanity. I loved it. I really, really loved it.

ADTV: So, I want to go back to Laurie’s relationship with her son. I go back and forth on this question of whether or not she is using him in the second season. She pushes him into the Guilty Remnant. She pushes him to take the Holy Wayne mantle. What are your thoughts on her relationship with him?

AB: I think he’s her mirror. You know, it’s funny, early on in the first season… Tom and Laurie were always positioned as seekers. They always had that questing quality. They were interested in different ways of living. Different ways of thinking. The Departure really just exploded your natural tendencies, and Laurie and Tom were the ones to seek out some big new idea. Kind of what we talked about, which you never really see, Tom committing to Holy Wayne – like really going off on this path – probably emboldened Laurie to make a big choice as well. Temperamentally, they’re actually very, very similar. And, you know, you think about Orthodox families… Yes, there’s something very bullying about indoctrinating someone, including a child, but you really think you’re doing it for their own good. There are certainly a lot of religious traditions where children follow because they want to please their parents… They are coerced into the family religious practice. I think there’s a little bit of that where [Laurie’s] like, “We agree that the Guilty Remnant has to be stopped, and I happen to have this beautiful, sensual, smoking-hot, charismatic son, so let’s use that!” [Laughs] I do think it’s genuine. When Laurie realizes that it’s gone too far and she wants to pull him out… I think that actually is genuine. I don’t think she’s a sociopath. So I think it’s very complicated…

ADTV: Yeah, in that episode, he did not disclose what happened between him and Meg – the rape scene. What do you think Laurie’s reaction in that moment would have been? 

AB: Well, I think that would have been the tipping point if for no other reason than to prevent this woman from having any access to him. However, even without knowing [what actually happened], that’s the moment Tom brings up Meg’s name, and my “Spidey-sense” goes up. I think [Laurie] would have absolutely changed the game, which is ultimately what happened because [Meg’s] tentacles go really far…

ADTV: Laurie’s book undoubtedly describes her break from the Guilty Remnant, but we don’t know much about that period in her life. Did you generate a backstory for this to influence your performance in “Off Ramp?”

AB: We don’t get into that, although that moment at the end of season one where I almost let my kid burn up in the fire because of their crazy/loco thing. During the first hiatus, I would have been shocked if I was still a part of the Guilty Remnant, so I think the assumption is that… Jill is my precious Achilles heel. When she shows up at the Guilty Remnant headquarters at the end of season one, it’s like Laurie is a crackhead, and her kid is seeing her in the crackhouse. You don’t see her detach from it, but I think it’s really pretty immediate – “These people are crazy and they led me astray” kind of thing.

What I love about Laurie in the second season is that she reclaims all of her knowledge and awareness as a shrink. The way I kind of lay it out for Kevin about his psychotic break and she lays out her own journey. I told Damon that it’s very rare that you have a character that does sort of an inexplicable thing, a strange thing like joining the Guilty Remnant, and then the next season I have a 4-page monologue where I explain exactly why… in very shrink-y language, in very grounded and undeniable language, I am just laying bare. It’s like in [Going Clear] and Scientology. I’m telling the truth about this secret society, and I think [Laurie’s book] was a good book and was about to be published but she just wasn’t ready for prime time.

Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman as Laurie Garvey, Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.

ADTV: Oh no. Especially not after receiving that call about Susan’s death… So, in closing, I’m not even going to ask about season three because, whenever I do, no one knows or isn’t saying. Instead, what is next for you professionally? 

AB: Before I go to Australia to film season three, I’m writing a theater piece, which I’ve never done before. And then, my husband [Brad Silberling] and I are going to set up a production deal somewhere… I have writers and other people coming to me with ideas. I created a show in Judging Amy and to have that come out of my head… that was a lot of work. [Laughs] I kind of feel like I love working in these different venues, and I feel sort of wide-open to whatever comes next. I am interesting in producing a show that I’m in again because I like that.

ADTV: Yes, and it seems like a really are at time in television history where there are opportunities for women to take that ownership of a series. How are you benefitting from that now? 

AB: It’s amazing! I have a few different writers I’m working with, and one of them can work on spec which is amazing because… there’s a version of that idea that can work on network, there’s a version that could work on cable. It allows us to produce the thing and then find a home for it.

I think I benefited it way back in 2000 when I created Judging Amy.  Because television is not based on the impossible model of movies (seeing what a performer is “worth” in Japan to secure foreign sales, etc), there is more opportunity for everyone who has a good idea and is ready to work hard.  Because of the explosion in streaming, premium and basic cable — all outlets needing material — there is even more opportunity.  Sadly, I think film (at least the business model) is still in the dark ages, which is why all they seem to be able to churn out are Marvel movies!

It’s also important to contextualize “opportunities for women” with opportunities for ANY voice which has been historically marginalized — folks of color, LGBTQ, the disability community, older artists of every stripe.  Sadly, women are not the only group underrepresented!  But the expansion of venues will no doubt mean more opportunity for all of us.

Amy Brenneman and The Leftovers can be seen streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now. Season three is now filming.

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