Christopher Eccleston discusses HBO’s The Leftovers and how the Book of Job inspired his preacher character on the hit show
It’s the weekend, and Christopher Eccleston is in town ahead of a panel for HBO’s hit drama The Leftovers. He’s reading A Childhood: The Biography of Place by Harry Crews and is engrossed in the book after just flying in from the UK. Then, he’s about to go to Austin after which he’ll head to Australia to shoot the final season of The Leftovers. He will continue to portray the recurring character of Reverend Matt Jamison which has already nabbed him two Critics’ Choice Television Awards in addition to a plethora of Emmy buzz.
Christopher Eccleston and I caught up and bonded over being Brits in Los Angeles as well as his love of running around Santa Monica. He’s also a massive Manchester United fan, so we got some football talk in while reflecting on season two of The Leftovers. We also discussed what lies ahead for the drama.
AwardsDaily TV: How is The Leftovers season three going?
Christopher Eccleston: It’s the final season. I think it’s been announced that this is the third and final season. We’re doing eight episodes instead of ten, too. Two in Austin and six in Melbourne, Australia. Everybody is getting ready now, some are already out there and some are due to go shoot the final six.
ADTV: Did you read the book before?
CE: I did, yeah. Julian Farino, a director I worked with, gave me the book and said that he thinks HBO is going to do something with it. I read it and really enjoyed it and when the auditions came around, I asked to meet Damon about Matt Jamison, who’s about two pages in the novel. I think he was a little like, “Why that character?” I thought that if it was going to be a biblical rapture and a reverend had not been taken, there’s a dramatic character. We met in London and he’d probably started on Star Trek 2. We ended up having this huge religious conversation, and he wrote him into it and made him Nora Durst’s brother, which is not the case in the novel. He’s been a great character to play.
ADTV: He’s an interesting character. You got almost an entire episode dedicated to you. Do you like the format of the show?
CE: Me and Carrie [Coon] have been very fortunate because we’ve both had a standalone episode. I think coming from a British theater background, the idea of an ensemble is not new to me and I’ve enjoyed that. Obviously, sometimes, you get frustrated because you want to be doing more. But I’ve enjoyed it very much.
ADTV: How does that challenge you as an actor with this format?
CE: I don’t particularly see it as a challenge, I just relish it. Obviously, when you get a standalone episode, I love that responsibility.
ADTV: What’s it like working with the two directors? In season one, you had Keith Gordon and in season two you had Nicole Kassell. How does that compare on those two episodes?
CE: This job, for me, has been a little bit magical. We actually started off with Keith because they told who the director was and then he walked on set and I realized that he was a former actor who had given a performance which I had seen when I was about 18 that made me decide to be an actor. He was the lead actor in a film called Christine with John Carpenter writing the script from a Stephen King novel and Keith played a nerd who becomes a psychopath. That performance had a huge impact on me. I was very fortunate because, having been an actor, he’s very interested in process and he’s very good. Actors can be very fine directors. I was nervous surrounded by an American cast and I was very, very fortunate to get Keith and then it was the same with Nicole. Nicole is a director, she’s never acted, but we clicked because she was all about performance and knew exactly what she wanted. I feel like I got the pick of the directors.
ADTV: Do you know your full character’s arc yet?
CE: No, and that’s been interesting because, obviously theater trained, you always know your beginning, middle, and end. And, in British television, you know your beginning, middle, and end. I think there’s an area there where you can get neurotic and paranoid. I’ve studied American television for a few years and read the book Difficult Men, which goes into detail about how shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos were made. It goes inside the writer’s room and talks about the entire process. What I thought was that I wasn’t going to be hassling Damon Lindelof for what I’m going to do because I trust his intelligence. I know he’s not going to ask me to do anything stupid. I know he’s not going to ask me to do anything that doesn’t come from the character and I’ve enjoyed finding out as I go. I think it’s a new way of working, but you have to have an intelligent showrunner on hand. If you’re in the hands of someone who’s just making it up then you’re going to have problems. Some of the things I’ve felt the character might do, Damon’s ended up doing them. There’s a strand kind of intuitive process that goes on.
ADTV: So you’re on the same page? That’s incredible.
CE: It is. And I think it happens a lot. If you look at something like The Sopranos, the writer looked at that lead actor and they understood each other and nudged each other in a certain direction. Damon is really good at reading the actors who are playing these roles and understanding their preoccupations and strengths. It’s a fascinating process. The book is called Difficult Men, if you want to look it up.
ADTV: So how did you research for the role of Matt? Did you base him on anyone?
CE: I was entirely lead by the script. I’m not really a research junkie. Damon tells me that after our first meeting, I said to him that if an Episcopalian reverend was not taken in the biblical rapture that that would make a religious man more religious. He claims I said that, but I don’t remember saying that. What that clicked into for him, though, was the book of Job, so I know that inside and out. That’s been my touchstone for the character and Damon has run parallels with that character throughout. I’ve had a couple of weird experiences, too, with that. About two years before I’d even read The Leftovers, I was asked to go to Westminster Cathedral for the anniversary celebration of the publication of the King James Bible and I was given a section of Job to read. I read it in front of the, then, Archbishop of Canterbury and it was the section when God turns on Job. Then, a year later, I took my mom to Cornwall on a holiday, my dad had dementia and she having a break, and we walked into this tiny, deserted church and a Bible was open to the book of Job [laughs]. I read it out and my mom’s religious and told me I read it very well and I told I had rehearsed it. Then, The Leftovers happened.
ADTV: That’s a crazy coincidence.
CE: Job is fascinating. He’s the first existential man. I remember being stunned by it. I had never read the Bible. So, I read Job and I quietly in the back of a couple Episcopalian churches when we were in New York for the first season and just observed preachers. But, really, it comes from the script.
ADTV: Were you a religious person growing up? You said your mom was.
CE: I said this to Damon actually and he said that was a very difficult question. At the time, I would definitely have said I was an atheist, but in the intervening years things have happened, good and bad, and I have had more difficulty with absolute Atheism. What about you?
ADTV: I grew up Catholic because my parents are Filipino. I went to Westminster Cathedral, when I was in London, every Sunday. For me, I just needed to be grounded and just have a moment of refocusing.
CE: I was raised Church of England, but was never confirmed, which my mother dislikes to this day. My mother has a very strong faith. We used to go to church. I’d watch my dad say his prayers, but I never really had a conversation with him about religion. My mom’s faith seems to have grown more important and deeper as she’s moved through life. I admire it because it’s a very practical, working class area and the church targets people in the area who are poor. There’s a very practical and social function that my mom’s church fulfilled.
ADTV: Let’s talk about that episode, episode five, which is your dedicated episode. Those scenes with his wife are, would you say, it’s a great love affair that they have?
CE: Yeah, I’ve always thought of it in very romantic terms. I watched my mother care for my father with the dementia and there were parallels there. I thought it was very brave in the opening scenes to see the abuse because he’s verbally abusing her, but it’s all too human and all too understandable. I’ve always seen it as a very romantic story. The whole thing is reinforced by Matt’s faith and Matt’s identification with Job and that this is a test and God is testing him, his faith, and his belief. She is the center of his world.
ADTV: How did the whole of season two just challenge you as an actor?
CE: I think there was a slight change in tone, there was more humor. What we experienced there was Damon, who is very loyal to Tom’s vision in the first series, but I think there’s a sense that Damon could throw that off, and Tom as well. Tom is being faithful to his own novel, but once that was done, there’s a slight change in tone in season two. Damon was doing what Damon’s great at: creating original television. Tom Perrotta, I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago, and he said that this has changed his life. The challenges were just to get inside the thoughts and emotions of the character, but it’s not that much of a challenge when it’s that strongly written, I mean a monkey could do it [laughs] with the writing I’ve had. You just have to be present and be as truthful as you can. There’s no anguish on my part about acting.
ADTV: You’ve got quite a background. You’ve done theater, you’ve done TV, you played Doctor Who for a year, you’ve got this, and then you’ve done film as well. Do you have a preference of one over the other?
CE: It’s interesting because I never imagined it. I have to say that a lot of my years at the Central School of Speech and Drama, 1983-86, all we thought we’d have was a career in theater. It honestly never occurred to me, even though I watch television drama more than I went to the theater, I never thought I would be a television or film actor. Very naively I thought I’d get a job at the National, theater was my first love. You get the edit as an actor and you get a complete experience when you perform the show, but it’s very difficult to make a reasonable living as a theater actor so we do television and film. I would say television over film, I like the immediacy of television and the fact that certainly the television I absorbed as a young man was addressing social issues, for instance I was in Hillsborough, that was an ambition fulfilled for me because I was a piece in British television that actually had some import. I like the pace of television when you’re making it and immediate response and broad audience you get.
ADTV: That’s the one thing I miss about London that you don’t get here, the theater. I’m surprised that there’s not a bigger theater culture here.
CE: A lot of the ensemble in The Leftovers are New York theater actors. Ann Dowd and Carrie’s from Chicago, and we’ve had a lot of people with a theater background.
ADTV: I love theater. So what’s next for you? You’re going to go off back to London then Australia?
CE: End of July I go to Australia until October first and there’s a show that I did late last year/early this year called The A Word, which is going on Sundance in July. It was broadcast in Britain in the last couple of months. And I’ll be doing a second series of that when I get back. There’s two possibilities that I can’t curse by mentioning them, but they’re not nailed up.
ADTV: It’s so weird how TV and all that has changed now because when we were growing up, we had like three channels and then channel four came in.
CE: When I became an actor for television, there was four channels.
ADTV: Now there’s so many channels, especially with cable and satellite, and now you’ve got the opportunity to binge Netflix, which changed everything.
CE: My binge watch was The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. They have been my two ambitions to work in long form American television. They’re great shows.
ADTV: I think The Sopranos is one of the best, if not the best show.
CE: You’ll enjoy the book [Difficult Men] then because they get right inside the making of that and the whole culture of the writer’s room and how it’s changed drama.
ADTV: People don’t appreciate the creativity or the process that goes into the final product.
CE: I think there might be a documentary about the writer’s room and that’s what I like to see. There’s great stuff in there where the head writer, say Damon Lindelof, and all these writers have to, to a certain extent, become his brain so they find themselves analyzing aspects of his character. Imagine all those alpha male and female writers in a room having to throw their own voice a little bit. There must be huge tensions in it.
ADTV: Is it something you’d like to do?
CE: Oh yeah, but I don’t think I have the discipline or the talent to write, but I do find myself reading again and again about the writing process. I’d like to be a fly on the wall in a writer’s room.
ADTV: It’s hard work. What about directing or producing?
CE: Working with Keith was very interesting because it made me believe, certainly for a performance point of view, that I think I could help actors. I think I’d know how to talk to actors and there’s a desire in me to do that. I think if I want to do that, I’ll do it, but I’m busy acting at the moment. One day, I would like to take responsibility for a project because I’ve got a lot of experience now and you learn more from the directors who can’t do it than you do from the ones who can.
ADTV: Does Matt catch a break in season three? When will he?
CE: Oh, Matt in season three [laughs]. Obviously, I don’t know the whole story. I don’t know where he’s going to end. I can’t imagine Matt [laughs] catching a break any time soon. He’s obviously knit up with the whole journey to Australia and has some kind of a relationship with Kevin, Sr. which was brought up in series two, so I’m sure Matt will be enjoying himself.
ADTV: How do you shake him off when you’re done?
CE: Very easily, really. He’s suffers a great deal, but he’s got this remarkable durability which comes from his faith and also from his personality. The fact that he can always, always reinvent himself and always find hope makes him a very rewarding character to play. He’s an example really because we all face stuff, don’t we.
ADTV: He’s a tough guy.
CE: He really is. I’ve loved him and playing him. I’ll miss it.
ADTV: Now, you’re off to Australia to film. Have you been before?
CE: I haven’t. I shot in New Zealand when we did a film called Jude. I did that 24-hour flight. I’ve been told Melbourne is a superb city. I think it’s going to be really interesting for us to build up a relationship with an Australian crew and see what that dynamic is like. We’ve had a different crew each time because we were in New York, then Austin, and now Melbourne.
ADTV: Did that move to Austin come as a surprise?
CE: Yeah, and a very welcome one because I fell in love with Austin and the people. It’s a great place.
ADTV: It’s taking you on a journey.
CE: We shot the pilot in New York summer of 2013 and it was like 90 degrees and we had extras and people fainted. And then we shot through one of the worst New York winters on record the first season. Then, last year, we were in Austin in the summer. We were out in the camp where Matt did all his business in the scorching heat. Now, we finish in Australia in the winter.
ADTV: Well, we love it at AwardsDaily TV. There’s a lot of interest in The Leftovers.
CE: It’s interesting now that we’re ending. I think it’s changed the dynamic on set. In an odd way, we’ve all relaxed because we know the end is in sight. Justin and I had a drink the other night and we were both saying how sad we’re going to be. We’ve all got on and it’s been a great example of an ensemble.
ADTV: Do you all hang out together, as well, when you’re not working?
CE: It’s odd because people are in and out. I think what has been set up is that Justin has set the tone as the leading man. I think his performance hugely underrated and he’s a fantastic fellow to work with. When people come in and are nervous, he relaxes them. He really leads us well. That’s one of the main things I’ll remember, watching him set the tone. When we get a chance, there’s a few drinkers and a few non-drinkers.
ADTV: Is there anyone you do want to have a massive scene with?
CE: I think every actor on The Leftovers will name one person in common that we all want a scene with: Ann Dowd. The only exchange Matt and Patty have had is a glare at each other in season one. Everybody wants to work with Ann Dowd. Damon makes jokes about how everybody on the production is in love with Ann Dowd.
ADTV: Something in season three needs to happen where everybody gets one scene with Ann Dowd [laughs].
CE: Me and her have talked about wanting to do theater together and I always want to direct her. We should make it happen.
HBO’s The Leftovers season three is currently filming.