ABOVE: CARRIE COON IN NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER 2014. DRESS: ALTUZARRA. PHOTO: WENJUN LIANG. STLYING: CHLOE HARTSTEIN. HAIR: RHEANNE WHITE FOR SEE MANAGEMENT. MAKEUP: AKIKO SAKAMOTO USING CHANEL FOR SEE MANAGEMENT.
The Leftovers (HBO) is not a forgiving show. Set two years after the sudden and seemingly random disappearance of two percent of the world’s population (“the Departure”) every character—major or minor—is suffering. There is Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), a reluctant police chief and newly single father to a surly teenage girl (Margaret Qualley), whose wife and son have left him, and whose own father has gone on the lam following a mental breakdown. Kevin’s son, Tom (Chris Zylka), is a college drop out working for a cult. Kevin’s ex-wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), is one of the leaders of another cult, the Guilty Remnant, who smoke all day, wear only white, refuse to speak, and terrorize their neighbors into “never forgetting.” Regarded as the worst off of all, however, is Nora, who lost her husband and two young children.
Played by Carrie Coon, Nora carries her grief with a solemn dignity: she goes to work every day and attends public engagements to speak about the day her family disappeared. Yes, she carries a gun, hires prostitutes to shoot her while she wears a bullet-proof vest, and continues to grocery shop for her children, but she does it all with a stiff upper lip.
Coon was cast as Nora after receiving a Tony nomination for her first role on Broadway in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Leftovers is her first-ever television show as a series regular. Today, Gone Girl, Coon’s first feature film, comes out in wide release—in fact, Coon’s callback for Gone Girl to meet the director David Fincher was her first trip to L.A. The Wisconsin native portrays Margot, the sister of Ben Affleck‘s character and his one ally after his beautiful wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing. Excluding her grandfather, a former community theater performer, Coon is the only actress in her family. “To hear him tell it, he was quite good,” she laughs.
EMMA BROWN: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in The Leftovers?
CARRIE COON: I was here doing Virginia Woolf on Broadway. My husband [actor and playwright Tracy Letts] and I both got nominated for Tonys, and we were hanging out waiting for those even though our show had closed in March. I had an audition in Ellen Lewis’ office for a couple of parts. I had read the book almost a year previously—my husband and I both read it—so I felt connected to Nora then. A couple of weeks later, they set up a meeting for me with Damon [Lindelof], and I found him to be intelligent and passionate and smart. We had a great chat. I expected I’d be jumping through some hoops for the network, but they just offered it to me; I didn’t have to do anything. All the horror stories I hear from my friends during pilot season, none of that came true. We shot in July [of 2013], that hottest weekend in the year. I only had those one or two days because I’m only at the end of the pilot. You don’t know that Nora comes back for a lot of interesting, troublesome moments. Then we got picked up and by the time we started shooting I’d already finished Gone Girl—they overlapped by about a week in February.
BROWN: What had made you read the book?
COON: My husband and I are huge bibliophiles. He’s always reading The New York Times Book Review and then ordering 20 books online. I think that was one he stumbled across first and then passed it to me, which we often do. And I’d read Tom [Perrotta]’s other work. I think he’s great.
BROWN: Did you know how closely the series would follow the book?
COON: No idea. I didn’t know from week to week how closely it would follow the book. We had very few conversations before starting. For example, I didn’t know Christopher Eccleston was my brother until that episode came out. That was something we hadn’t discussed. I didn’t know Episode Six was coming until I got it. I sort of knew they were going to end it in a similar fashion, but how we got there, I had no idea.
BROWN: I read the writers told you, “Don’t worry. Nora doesn’t kill herself.”
COON: Yes! When they put the gun in Nora’s purse in Episode Two, I said, “You guys, what’s happening? Are we going to see this again?” And that’s when Damon said, “You’re going to see it in Episode Six, but Nora doesn’t die.”
BROWN: Do you think Nora and Kevin would have found each other if the Departure hadn’t happened? Because Nora’s marriage wasn’t going particularly well and neither was Kevin’s.
COON: Yes, that’s true. I know that I, Carrie Coon, and Justin Theroux probably wouldn’t have gotten together. [laughs] I think the profound impact of that event on the world is what clears space for that. I remember Justin saying one time, “They’re the darkest motherfuckers in this place.” They naturally gravitate towards each other. That gallows humor brings them together.
BROWN: Do you think Nora had “gallows humor” before she suffered such a great loss?
COON: I do. I don’t think it’s a new development. What’s interesting to me about Nora is the ways we lose touch with the person we are once the roles we play take over. As she became a wife and a mother, I think she lost touch with who she is and that little inner voice. Certainly she’s a mom and she appreciates that and she’s trying to be a good wife, but as far as her personality goes, I think it’s been suppressed. Once those obligations have been taken from her, she has to rediscover that person that she was and who she is now and how that’s changed.
There is a lot of history in the book. I love research, so I did read the book again and I pulled out all those little life details and imagined more of them to fill in the blanks. It was really wonderful to have the book as a guideline for that backstory, because it gives you a jumping-off point and then anything wild that happens later is actually grounded in something.
BROWN: When did you get involved in theater?
COON: I remember seeing a play when I was about 10—I saw Babes in Toyland with a friend. I’d never gone to a play before. I think I asked my mom if I could audition, but there just wasn’t time for that—they couldn’t be shuttling me around when I was young. So I was waiting for soccer practice to start my senior year of high school and they were having auditions for the school play. I auditioned and I got the lead—I played Emily in Our Town. Then, when I got to college, same kind of thing: I hadn’t settled on a major and I was playing soccer and I saw a posting for auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I auditioned and I got the role of Titania in Midsummer as a freshman. I ended up doing four or five plays in college and being an English major with my thesis in language acquisition, which I was planning to study in graduate school. My professor in the theater department said I might consider going to MFA auditions in Chicago that year. So I did, with my mom and my grandmother and my aunts—they had this great Bloody Mary weekend in Chicago while I auditioned for graduate schools. At the 11th hour, I got into UW Madison in Wisconsin. I was their last resort. They took 10 actors for three years and I guess everyone else turned them down.
BROWN: I know you have brothers, do you have other siblings?
COON: I have my three brothers and then I have my adopted sister from El Salvador, who is actually the oldest. My brother and I were already born, and then my parents adopted my sister from El Salvador during the war and had two more kids.
BROWN: What were you like as a child?
COON: I have this idea of myself as this quiet, observant, thoughtful child, which my parents roundly contradict. They claim that I was loud and bossy and dancing all the time. I think they must be wrong… But I certainly enjoyed having my sister, because when she came I felt a certain responsibility to help her fit in, and help her learn English. I wanted her to play with all my toys. I was actually, I think, really scary to her, because I had so much energy. I sort of felt like a big sister even though I was actually a little sister, and was probably very aggressively friendly. Though I don’t recall that.
BROWN: How did you meet your husband?
COON: I met Tracy at my callback for Virginia Woolf. When I was working in Wisconsin and I first heard the name Tracy Letts and the play Bug, I thought it was a woman. I assumed there was this fantastic female playwright that had just come out of Oklahoma. But it’s just a good, old Southern name. So I didn’t meet him until my callback and I was terrified to meet him and Amy Morton.
BROWN: But obviously it went well.
COON: Yes, it went great. The one thing you have on your side as an actor is preparation, so I felt prepared.
BROWN: Early on in your career you did some commercial work—what was the worst commercial you did?
COON: I remember the day I got the role of Honey in Virginia Woolf I spent the morning waiting for some beer company commercial. I was in this waiting room, and I was in my bikini with my clothes over, just feeling really pale and really bad about myself, and waiting for them to call my name. When they called my name to go in my phone was ringing and it was my agent, and I had to leave my phone and go through the whole thing—the whole giggling bikini audition. I came out and realized I’d gotten the role of Honey and I couldn’t do any of that work anyway. But I’ve been in rooms where they’re actually talking about you while you’re standing there. I remember I was clearly the “normal” choice out of all the models—pretty, but not model-pretty choice, which is the breakdown I would always get. There was this model wearing fluffy boots and the guy was like [loudly], “She needs to take off those boots! She looks like an Amazon.” They talk about you like you’re not there, like you’re made of cardboard. It was just the weirdest experience. Really disconnected from what I know.
I played a lot of moms. My first kid when I started playing moms—and you’re always too young when you’re playing moms—was about six months old. And then a month later I was doing another commercial audition and my kid was two, and then about eight months later my kid was 11. I was like, “What is happening? Why do we insist that women are cast 10 years younger than the role they’re playing?” Men don’t know what a 30-year-old is supposed to look like because on TV she’s always 20. It’s pretty weird that we do that.
BROWN: When I first started reading Gone Girl, I thought, “This is a horrible story about a horrible man, why am I reading this?” I took it at face value, and of course there’s much more to it.
COON: My husband and I had both read it before because Gillian [Flynn] is a Chicago writer. She’d actually seen our production of Virginia Woolf, and there are several literary references to Virginia Woolf in the book, so we were having a great time sussing that out. After finishing it in three days, and feeling sort of guilty, it felt like sort of an indulgent summer read, I realized what Gillian was doing in her examination of marriage and what people do to each other in a relationship—whether or not they’re sociopaths—is actually pretty profound. The “cool girl” speech she writes, about how women are taught to behave in this inauthentic way to get what we want, what we think we’re supposed to have, is really psychologically complex. It’s this disturbing examination of our psychology draped in a fun thriller. Also the female characters are intelligent, complicated, and unlikeable, which is not something you often get. So I have a really profound respect for Gillian, and Rosamund [Pike] knocks it out of the park. It’s very true to the tone of the book. And David [Fincher] makes everyone look great.
GONE GIRL COMES OUT TODAY, OCTOBER 3. SEASON TWO OF THE LEFTOVERS WILL AIR ON HBO IN 2015.