Breakout Star

Carrie Coon on ‘The Leftovers,’ That Wild Finale, Her Apocalyptic Visions, and ‘Gone Girl’

The breakout star of the bewildering rapture-themed HBO series opens up about Nora Durst’s fate, why women need better roles, and her journey from theater actress to rising Hollywood star.

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

To say it’s been a crazy year for Carrie Coon would be a vast understatement. In the past year alone, she earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in the revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; married her co-star Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of August: Osage County; starred in her first TV series, the HBO drama The Leftovers; and, last but not least, will make her film acting debut as Ben Affleck’s sister in David Fincher’s Gone Girl.

On The Leftovers, created by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Tom Perrotta, and based on Perrotta’s novel of the same name, she plays Nora Durst, a tormented woman who lost her husband, son, and daughter in what people are calling the “Sudden Departure”—a Rapture-like event that caused 2 percent of the world population to vanish. And it’s been a wild ride for Nora during Season 1. We’ve seen her pay a prostitute to shoot her in the chest, straddle and make out with a life-like dummy, embark on a burgeoning romance with the hunky chief of police, Kevin (played by Justin Theroux), and have her identity stolen at a New York conference. Coon’s fearless performance was, in this writer’s opinion, the highlight of the series’ intriguing first season.

During the Season 1 finale, Nora was startled to find her family back at the kitchen table—albeit in dummy form. And, whereas the townspeople start rioting and attacking the chain-smoking cult the Guilty Remnant, Nora is at peace. Later, just as she’s about to leave Kevin and start a new life, she finds one of Holy Wayne’s babies on his porch and, as Kevin and his daughter, Jill, return from the melee, seems to have finally found the family she’s been searching for.

Let’s talk about The Leftovers’ finale. Why do you think Nora reacted to the life-like dolls of her family that way? She’s seated at the kitchen table with them in a very serene place, whereas the rest of the town is going all fire and brimstone on the Guilty Remnant.

I think Nora’s exhibited quite a bit of rage, and it’s just where it catches her that morning. Holy Wayne may be a charlatan or a real thing, but having that conference experience she had, and then having actual physical contact with another human being opened up some space inside of her. We’ve seen her tiptoeing into that new possibility, and I think all of that leads up to this moment—where instead of completely shutting down, something has the opportunity to open. She has to forgive her husband because she didn’t have that confrontation with him, and she wasn’t able to say goodbye to her children, so whatever moment she’s having is very personal, and individual. Also, she’s the town pariah so she’s not going to jump on the bandwagon with whatever the townspeople are doing. She doesn’t’ care. She’s like, “Fuck you guys!”

Between her moment of peace at the table and finding the baby, which we’ll call Lil Wayne, it seems like Holy Wayne’s hug actually did have healing powers when it came to Nora.

Yeah, Lil Wayne! I think that’s going to be a very popular joke. [Laughs] I think I have to turn that question back on you, and the viewers of the show. That’s what good art does—it provokes you to ask questions like that.

I feel like you’ve had lots of scenes with creepy dolls this season.

[Laughs] There were a lot of dolls in that particular episode, and those dolls were really expensive to make. I’ve gotta give it up to our makeup department, because they had to put the hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, etc. on all those realistic-looking dolls, which is really hard work. They’re kind of creepy, man!

By planting dolls of people’s lost loved ones in their homes, the Guilty Remnant intended to start a riot. Why do you think they went this far?

They know they’re going to provoke violence, but they also know that they’re sacrificing themselves in the face of that violence. They’re there to be the receptacles for that violence, so they’re empty vessels that people fill with whatever they have inside of them. They want people to feel, and to not just walk away. We have that experience all the time, where something awful happens in the world and we’re talking about it constantly for a few days, and then we go about with our lives. That, they feel, is unacceptable given the Sudden Departure.

When Nora’s dictating the goodbye letter to Kevin in voiceover, you initially think it’s a suicide note. But why do you think Nora wanted to divorce herself from the situation and drive off?

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I think she thinks she’s too cowardly to kill herself. She thinks she’s a coward, and thinks that the strength to take her own life isn’t something she possesses, so instead she’s running away. I don’t think it’s something she’s proud of, but it’s something she’s resolved to do. We have roles we play in our lives, and Nora’s role—of wife and mother—were snatched from her so suddenly, and then she didn’t know who she was so she became the grieving woman, and that role was snatched from her at the conference. She’s confronting this colossal question—“Who am I?”—in the face of losing all these roles that we typically define ourselves by. That’s a deeply existential thing that she’s going through, and it’s something every person faces at some point.

How about you? Do you struggle with that existential dilemma often?

Are you kidding me? I’m an actor, and a middle child. I have that every five minutes—especially as a woman. I think women have long been defined by their roles as procreators and wives, and we’re expected to serve, take care of, say yes, and not ruffle any feathers. Women, in particular, are sometimes not allowed to consider who they are outside of the roles that they play. I think women are very constrained by the roles that they play. So, in some ways, what’s wild about what happens to Nora is that she actually has a kind of freedom, and gets to remake herself without obligation.

Speaking of gender roles, the great thing about the character of Nora Durst is that she, unlike so many female characters on film and television, isn’t just there to service the men’s storylines and prop them up and propel them forward.

Yes, exactly. Oh boy, you’re telling me. I read a lot of scripts. I’m not interested in playing characters like that, because those aren’t the women I know. The women I know are smart, interesting people who aren’t just there to service the men’s stories, so I don’t know why our art continues to do that. I think it’s getting better, but I’m hopeful in my career that our images of women will continue to be complicated in our art, and if they don’t, I guess I’ll just have to write some. Don’t you get sick of women onscreen going, “Oh, marry me, marry me!” “Don’t leave me!” “Look at my lipstick, and my beautiful hair!” Come on! Who looks like that?

Did you and Justin do a chemistry read, or something? You have great chemistry on the show.

I think we just got lucky. One of the great things about the show is that we all actually like each other. Justin is a writer, he’s very smart and funny and generous, and that’s the kind of person I’m attracted to. I’m attracted to someone who’s going to create space for other people in the room, and he does that. Dude, I’ll have chemistry with anybody who does that! Including my husband [Tracy Letts], who’s also handsome, generous, and a writer.

As far as your big Episode 6 goes at the conference, is straddling and making out with a life-like dummy the strangest thing you’ve ever had to do as an actor?

[Laughs] Well, at the beginning of the week I was shot by a prostitute, so I don’t know that it tops that. But, it was a pretty weird day at work. During those 12 days that we shot, I became really ill, so I was having that delirious, waking dream feeling anyway. It felt like a weird dream I was having. At one point, [director] Carl Franklin said, “OK, now we’re really going to go for it,” and then we did it, and then he came up to me and said, “OK, I think we’ve taken it as far as we can take it.”

Lots of the characters on The Leftovers are plagued by dreams, and visions. Have you ever had any recurring dreams of your own?

I have a lot of them. Oftentimes, my middle brother knows something very deep and wise that I don’t know—for example, that someone is on their way to kill me. He always gives me a little hint, and he’s always seven years old in my dream, even though he’s now an adult. And I also have lots of apocalyptic dreams, including warfare. I’ve had those since I was a little girl. I’ve been obsessed. I used to wake up in the night and go downstairs where my parents would be watching Johnny Carson and say, “When is Jesus coming back? Am I going to get married, and have children? Is he coming back soon?” I was so horrified and obsessed with the end of the world since age 4. The Leftovers spoke to me, Marlow. [Laughs]

How were you cast on The Leftovers?

Well, I was finishing up my run on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, and I don’t think the Tony awards had happened yet. My husband had gotten the script and auditioned for the part of Kevin, because they were still thinking of him as the mayor, instead of police chief. He told me to read it because he figured it’d come my way, and in a couple of weeks, I had auditions for Meg and Nora. Ellen Lewis [casting director] really championed me as soon as I got to town, because I had never worked in New York until Virginia Woolf came. I put the audition on tape, and then a few weeks later, had a meeting with Damon.

How does it work on The Leftovers as far as the time in between receiving scripts and rolling?

I think on a lot of TV shows, including The Leftovers, you’re getting the scripts pretty late—especially with Damon, because he likes to take into consideration what the actors are bringing, so we would get the scripts maybe a day or two before we started shooting.

When do you start shooting Season 2?

No idea. If you hear something, will you call me?

You’re back though, right? I don’t know. I can’t officially comment on that, because Damon’s been out of town on a much-deserved vacation, so as soon as he gets back I think that will get figured out.

How did you book Gone Girl? David Fincher is said to audition a lot of people before deciding on actors.

Yeah, that’s true. I was in Chicago, and my agents sent me the script. I was on my way to a wedding in New Orleans, so I had 24 hours to prep the 18 pages of text that they sent me. My buddy came over and we made a tape in my living room, sent it off, and then went to the wedding. Then, I got a call that said, “Can you be in L.A. on Monday?” So, when I flew out there I had to buy new clothes because I’d packed for a wedding, and it took about a week for me to meet with David because they were concerned about my Leftovers schedule, but then he met and read with me for like an hour, and then said, “Great,” shook my hand, and had no idea what was going to happen.

Fincher’s known for doing a lot of takes. What’s the most number of takes you had to do for a scene in Gone Girl? I think the most was maybe… high-twenties? Or high-thirties? Well, don’t get me wrong, there will be days where you’ll be doing fifty takes of something, but there are also days where you’ll be doing just five or seven. The thing about David is he has a strong point of view, and he knows what he wants, and as long as you’re not crazy, he’ll work with you as long as it takes to reach that.

Did you and Affleck have any bro/sis bonding?

Of course! He doesn’t have a sister in real life, so his inquiries into what it’s like to have a brother or sister were really sweet, and by the end of the shoot, he was giving me a punch in the arm or we were wrestling. He was very brotherly. He reminds me a lot of my own brothers who are funny, smart, and sarcastic dudes.

What’s next?

Right now, I have something I can’t officially talk about yet, but what I get to do right now is I’m going to go visit my husband, who’s shooting Homeland in Africa, and I get to be really picky about the material that I work on next. There was a time in my life where I said yes to everything, and I’d encourage every actor to do that at some point, but I’m in a place now where I get to say “no” to some things, so I’m looking for those things we talked about—really interesting, complicated female characters to play.