Created by Damon Lindelof and acclaimed novelist Tom Perrotta, the HBO series The Leftovers, about what happens after 140 million people vanished from the face of the earth, is back for its final season. And with the seventh anniversary of the Sudden Departure approaching, Nora (Carrie Coon) wonders whether to actively seek closure for the disappearance of her family.
Having seen seven of the eight episodes of Season 3 (they were understandably withholding the last episode of the series), I was excited to sit down with Carrie Coon for this 1-on-1 interview to discuss all things The Leftovers, and the show’s big themes and questions. During this interview with Collider (which kicked off with talking about how she used to do Star Wars role-playing in high school), she talked about what originally drew her to the series, how satisfied she is with the way things end, why Nora is unraveling a bit this season, having someone like Justin Theroux to go through all of it with, and going straight into working with Noah Hawley on Season 3 of Fargo. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
CARRIE COON: I love your purse! (I carry an R2D2 purse) I used to do Star Wars role-playing in high school. In fact, one of my role-playing buddies from high school is coming to the premiere [of The Leftovers].
Collider: That’s so cool!
COON: I know! I love it! It’s fantastic!
What did you role play?
COON: It was pre-Clone Wars Star Wars. We had a great game master in Akron, Ohio. That’s how me and a bunch of boys would spend our Friday nights.
COON: I’m a big fan! Clearly, you are, too!
What was it that originally drew you to The Leftovers and this character, and could you ever have imagined that she’d have taken the journey she took, or that she would have ended up where she did?
COON: No, absolutely not! I had no idea! I read a lot, and I read Tom Perrotta’s book before I knew it was going to be made into a television series. And in fact, my husband got the call to audition for Kevin. In the book, Kevin is an older man and a little less fit, so my husband was much more appropriate. He was actually really excited about the project because he had also read the book. Of course, they went another way, and luckily we ended up with Justin [Theroux] and he’s thrilling. So, I knew about Nora in the book. She’s a much smaller part, so I didn’t know how she would develop over time, but I knew that they were basically following the shape of the novel. It’s an ensemble show. You just don’t imagine emerging from that, but they really went with that story. No, I couldn’t have foreseen where it was headed. Who could have?! Could you?!
Were you personally satisfied with how the show ultimately ended?
COON: I was very satisfied! I can’t really imagine it ending any other way now. It could have been something explosive, but I thought, instead, they went a deeply personal way. Ultimately, Damon [Lindelof] is always asking questions about love and human beings having to make that choice, every day. I just love that they took it to that deeply personal place. I still think the ending is open for interpretation in a way that’s really interesting, that still reveals more about the people watching it than it does about Nora, or about Damon Lindelof. I think that’s why it works for people. If The Leftovers comes into your life at the right time, I think it can spark an important examination of what we believe in, why we’re here, or what we’re struggling with. I think it’s illuminating, if you let it be illuminating. It’s not for everyone. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it.
Because you had read the book before the show, were you nervous about how that would translate?
COON: I was nervous because, as you may know, this was my first television series and I’d just come off of making my first film. I was more nervous about having no idea what I was doing. Story be damned, I didn’t know anything about the vocabulary or the pace of television. I had never shot 12 days in a row. I had never worked that many days, in my life. So, I was certainly more preoccupied with the learning curve than I was with the story. I was just grateful to have the job, and to have a job that felt so literary and so smart. That’s the only kind of work I’m really interested in doing. Lord knows, my first television job could have been something very different than that. Now, I have some street cred because of my resume. I was mostly just afraid, in general, but to have it be such an interesting story was just icing on the cake, really.
A project like this has to completely spoil you, as far as finding the next thing.
COON: I am completely spoiled! I went from this to a Noah Hawley project (Season 3 of Fargo), and started with David Fincher (on Gone Girl). I might as well quit. I might be done! We’ll see. The bar is very high.
You went from The Leftovers to Fargo. How was the experiencing of joining that show and working with Noah Hawley?
COON: I work with these towering intellects. It was so gratifying to know that was next. I knew I was doing Fargo when I was on my way to Australia. That’s when the deal got made. As an actor, it always feels more secure when you know what’s coming next, so it was very reassuring to know that was coming and that it was something equally as smart and highly regarded. And then, to also know that I was about to work with another creator that’s interested in women being complicated, having depth and having a real story arc. After you do it, like I had with Damon, you don’t want to give that up. And Noah’s women are so fascinating. When you look at the work that Kirsten Dunst did last season, the discovery of Alison Tolman out of Chicago, or bringing Jean Smart in and giving her that grounded and powerful presence in the series, that’s the only kind of work I want to do, as an actress. The other stuff has been done. I’m not interested in doing that. I’m not interested in being an angry girlfriend, a bitchy wife, or a prop for a story. I’m just not interested in that. I’m spoiled rotten, completely.
Nora seems to really be unraveling this season, and keeping it from everyone else. What was it like to take her there?
COON: What’s great about good writing is that it feels like life, so it’s not hard to relate to her circumstances. And when the writing is specific, like it always is in Damon’s case, all you have to do is be present with what’s on the page, memorize your lines so that you’re not thinking about them, and then be with the wonderful actor that’s across from you. So when you come in with a speech about getting a tattoo, and you’re giving it to Regina King, it really becomes about Regina King. When you’re working with somebody who’s that present and that lovely, everything you need is in the other person. That’s the thing. When the writing is good and the actors are good, it’s actually easier and a lot less work. And of course, I have to give credit to the director who’s charting that journey because we’re shooting out of order, and then the editor who’s selecting from what you give them. Inevitably, it’s Mimi [Leder] or whomever that’s making me look better than I actually am because they’re shaping that story. This show is a lot of fun, and so weird. I like weird. It’s my thing.
It’s more human, that way.
COON: Right! That’s how I’ve always felt. It doesn’t feel supernatural. It feels very grounded in reality to me. I love ambiguity in my art because it resembles my life so much more than something that’s neat and clean and logical. Our lives are not that, at all. That’s why I think some people really respond to this show. The twists and turns feel very real.
This season, Nora is presented with a supposed offer to see her kids again. Do you think she really believes that could be possible, or is her need for closure all that matters?
COON: I think so. We’ve been here for centuries, trying to understand why we’re here and where we go, if we go anywhere. When you don’t have the opportunity to have a physical death and to be close to someone in their physical death, you’re that much further removed from their disappearance. That’s real. Look at the business of death. We are now, in this culture, so far from death. It’s so anesthetized and taken from us that I think it makes our fear even greater. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who wouldn’t at least have some tiny curiosity in having the opportunity to see someone again that they had lost, whether it’s real or metaphysical or otherwise, and I think that speaks deeply to the experience of being human. Of course, she wants to know! Even when she tells herself that she doesn’t or that she’s come to terms with it, do we ever really come to terms with loss? My grandparents are about to turn 90 and celebrate 70 years together. We lose a part of ourselves when we lose someone because our lives are made in shared space. Though no one can really know us entirely, our experiences are mostly shared. When somebody is taken away, half of that is gone, and our memories are so fallible that we are not complete. So, how could she not want to know what happens? Even though she’s telling herself that it’s to break up this operation that’s hurting people, it’s really about some deep need to rediscover a part of herself, I think.
As everyone is telling Kevin that he’s going to be the one to save the world, is Nora buying into any of that?
COON: As you pointed out in your last question, I think she’s inherently a skeptical person. She had parents who were in the faith community, she has a brother who’s preaching, and she has very consciously chosen not to be a part of that. So, absolutely not! I don’t think she believes that about him. I think she thinks there’s probably some scientific explanation for everything that’s happened. And also, of course, she doesn’t know everything that’s happened. He hasn’t revealed to her the true nature of those experiences for himself because he doesn’t really have the vocabulary to talk about them.
What’s it like to have Justin Theroux to go through all of this crazy stuff with?
COON: Great! Our actors are uniformly some of the best on television. As a leading man, you couldn’t have a more generous person. The thing about Justin is that he’s very accessible and open, and he’s very present with everybody on the crew. He’s just beloved by the crew. He’s unflappable. He doesn’t get bent out of shape when things are outside of his control. And when you’re playing in a world that’s so out of your control, it’s so nice to have that energy and room. He’s a stage actor. He was trained in the theater. He’s always had that in him, and I’m glad he’s been given the opportunity to show his range. He’s known for his comedy writing and acting. I think he’s a great example of how sometimes actors are pigeonholed for how they look, and yet they’re still human beings with a full range to give. None of us want to be pigeonholed. He just is so brave in our show. He goes fully into what Damon asks of him, and he’s been mightily abused for three years. How many times has he been drowned? And he just does it with alacrity and such trust. That’s what it is to act with him. It’s all trust. It’s really, really magnificent.
Now that you know how it all ends and where your character ends up, looking back on the series as a whole, does it change your perception of any of it?
COON: Huh. I certainly never knew what I was doing. Season 1 was so much the story of the book, with a little bit of departure from the original plot, so that was a known quantity. And then, for Season 2, we went head-long into the Damon Lindelof imagination. And I couldn’t have anticipated where Season 3 was headed, but looking back, it adds up. She was always headed there. She was always headed for an opportunity to have closure that you can’t actually ever have. And I love that the question of what actually happens is up to you to decide. The truth is very elusive. As a human being, I think the truth is very elusive anyhow. There’s your experience, my experience, and then what actually happened, and they will never be the shame. I think that’s a very interesting question for a TV show.
The Leftovers airs on Sunday nights on HBO.