Amy Brenneman on 'The Leftovers': "It's Dream Logic"

"You get to experience it the way you would a symphony or a watercolor," she says of the HBO drama.
Ryan Green/HBO
Amy Brenneman

[Warning: This article contains spoilers from "Off Ramp," the third episode of the second season of The Leftovers.]

The Leftovers has seen a lot of changes for its characters in its second iteration, but perhaps the biggest transformation has been for castmember Amy Brenneman.

As mute cult-member Laurie Garvey, the former Judging Amy star uttered very few words in the first season of the HBO drama. But now that she’s left the cigarette-loving, white-clad gang, the enigmatic wife and mom is finally speaking up.

In episode three, which took a break from the Garveys and the Murphys in Miracle, Texas and focused exclusively on Laurie and her son (Chris Zylka) back in Mapleton, New York, Laurie utilizes her past experience as a psychologist and hosts a support group for fellow defectors. She's also writing a book about her experience in the Guilty Remnant.

The series, from Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, takes place in a world where two percent of the population has mysteriously disappeared, a tragedy the GR won't let anyone forget. After losing her unborn baby in the "Sudden Departure," Laurie saw her marriage to Kevin (Justin Theroux) fall apart, and later her relationship with her daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley).

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Brenneman to discuss her character’s vocal transformation this season, that rape scene and what’s in store for Laurie and her ex.

You finally have some lines this season.

Right? Acting is so much easier when you get to explain yourself. I was really excited to see that I have words. I mean, I loved what I did last year as well, but this is sort of an answer to that, like a little bookend. I finally get to explain my actions.

Did you know at the end of season one that’d you'd left the GR for certain?

No, we never know anything. [Laughs.] I’m serious. I mean, it’s been a real wonderful surrender working on this show because I tend to be either producing or just a bossy know-it-all, so I always like to be in there. It’s just been this beautiful surrender of, "Damon, I will go where you lead me." But I had intuited that I had left the Guilty Remnant, just based on where my character was at in the finale. But we didn’t even really know if there was going to be a season two.

When did you start getting answers from Lindelof and Perrotta?

I actually get a lot of my intel from [director] Mimi Leder to be honest with you. I think it was maybe December when we were told we were moving production to Austin, and that there was a really new, super cool idea. It was a long gestation this season though — it was about ten months from when we wrapped to when we started season two. It’s something I’m still getting used to because I’m such a network baby. I’m used to there being a clock, and starting in July and wrapping in April. HBO is like, "No, we go when we’re ready to go." Eventually I knew I wasn’t going to be in Texas for a little while, and I knew that it was going to be me and [Chris] Zylka for the most part, which thrilled me. But I just loved when Damon finally plotted out the season with me because it just made so much sense.

The show has reinvented itself a bit in season two, though Lindelof has said he sees it simply as "the next chapter," not a reboot. Did rearranging the furniture take you by surprise at all?

Listen, this isn’t a regular procedural TV show where it’s going to be the same office and the same job; it’s chapters in the story  — and each episode and each season is a chapter for as long as we tell it. Last year, the characters were literally frozen in grief. Since it was closer to the Departure, they just were stunned — and shooting in the Northeast had that quality. Season one was really an elegy to grief. But in actuality, people respond in a variety of different ways to despair. I love that this season everyone gets busy. Everybody has an idea of how they’re going to make it better: Nora (Carrie Coon) buys a house, Kevin (Theroux) says, "Let’s move!" and I’m writing a book. It’s kind of that human impulse of, "If I do the thing, then things will get better," which I think is so universal. It gives the show a different energy and a certain dynamism compared to last year.

And the tone is almost a bit lighter, too.

There is more variance in each episode. There’s more humor, but also the patented Leftovers violence and dread. We have a joke if a character gets happy — we’re like, "Well, it’s The Leftovers, it’s not going to last." But I think, overall, it’s just more varied. You now have Regina King and these amazing new characters. The source of all the narrative is still the Departure, but we’re just looking at it from a different facet. It’s like a diamond that we’ve turned a little bit. It’s like, "Oh, or it could look like that." I think it’s really ballsy on Damon and Tom’s part to allow it to unfold and not say, "What makes The Leftovers unique is this town or these characters." It’s really this central idea of the Departure, and then from there, we go anywhere.

The opening title credits have also been revamped to convey that added variance this season. Were you sad to see the old ones go?

It’s really 180 degrees from the original. I mean, I love that [Max] Richter score, and I’m always happy to hear our little musical theme because I do think at the center of all of this is loss and deregulation. That’s always going to be true, but people don’t always feel that. Maybe they cover it up, or maybe they feel that and they feel anxiety. It’s just adding spices to the stew that we cook.

Will we soon see you in Texas, where the rest of Laurie’s family now lives?

You don’t see it in the near future, and you don’t really see me, in fact. The storytelling of this season is that we’re deeply involved with certain characters and then we leave them, so I think after this episode you don’t see me for a little while. Chris Eccleston [Matt Jamison] has a big episode coming up, and I think Carrie is in there, too. However, my family continues to be this vortex that pulls me toward them. I never know what I can say, but I think that’s where I’ll leave it.

Do you get a heads up ahead of time about which episodes you’ll be featured more prominently in?

Yeah. Because I’m barely in one and two, I was like, "Ok, so when am I going to be in the show?" [Laughs.] Damon was like, "Episode three is all yours." It’s funny because of Zoolander 2 [which Theroux wrote], we shot episode four before three, so what that meant for me is that I did a little bit of something at the end of April, and then went back to California to raise my kids. It’s a very different kind of TV show because when you’re not on, you’re completely not on.

Playing with narrative point of views in television is a bit in vogue at the moment. What do think of the device?

I like it, and I think for this piece it works really well. I know Damon got super excited last year. The Nora Durst and Matt Jamison episodes were probably his favorites in season one. I think he freed himself from this idea that normally you have in television, which is that you have an ensemble and you have to service everybody to some degree every week. This year, he said, "Not everybody is in every episode." Including Justin, he’s not in every episode. Damon is a big lover of The Wire and he’s said that he loved how the first season you were with what were considered the leads, and then the next season, their secondary character was suddenly prominent. And there’s that great line that Ann Dowd [Patti] says to Justin, "Oh, these new people. Are you a part of their story or are they a part of yours?" It’s such a great idea to get you out of a certain predictability and a certain narcissism. And it’s really good for binging.

But since the episodes don't go up all at once, the audience has to adjust to not seeing all the major characters every week.

I know that my little twitter followers sometimes are like, "We want to see you every week!" You’re not going to see me every week, but you’re going to have an experience with this thing as a whole. We’re all pieces of the mosaic. It may not be for every project the way to go, but I think because The Leftovers is so about perspective and isolation, it’s great for it.

In episode three, Laurie’s son, Tom, gets raped by Meg (Liv Tyler). What does that mean for your character?

I think it’s a war. I think that the Guilty Remnant and Meg are like ISIS to her. Laurie’s whole thing is that she’s a cult deprogrammer. With enough love and psychological support, these people can see that the Guilty Remnant is a buggy cult that’s going to use them for canon fodder. So I think that when her son comes back and asks about Meg, chills runs up my spine. Like, "Oh, this isn’t going to go away very quickly." They are still gathering support, and I think it’s a real slap in the face — and also just the fact that she has had contact with my son, even though I don’t know the extent. That’s just the momma bear in me going, "Oh my God."

What about your relationship with Kevin? He's with Nora now, but could that relationship be mended now that Laurie has left the GR?

There is some great stuff between us. It’s probably the relationship we were supposed to have all along. I got the shooting schedule for episode seven before I got the script, and most scenes in film and television are two pages. A four-page scene is quite long. I look down at the shooting schedule and it had me and Justin alone in a room for nine pages. I was like, "Oh my God, what are we going to talk about for nine pages?" Damon makes you wait for it — that’s the thing about his storytelling. It really builds up that anticipation, and it’s the opposite of film and television these days that's very speedy. In network TV, you have to tell the whole story in 42 minutes. I mean, God. He makes you want it.

That, and there’s an emphasis on mystery in his writing. Is that ever challenging to work with material like that?

I mean, yes and no. It’s dream logic; it’s myth. You don’t look at Odysseus and you’re like, "Why is he doing that? It makes no sense." You receive it as this mythic dream, and therefore we can access our own understanding of that kind of storytelling and quiet down that ego-driven, "I don’t get it." You get to experience it the way you would a symphony or a watercolor. Our chatty little, "I have to makes sense of things,” that part of our brain is pretty overworked. So I think what Damon does is he brings back in dream logic and myth the stuff that our little nonverbal selves understand, even if we don’t like it and even if we’re bored. And it’s also the beauty of the storytelling, too. The filmmaking is just so stunning that on an aesthetic level you can take a ride, be patient and let it unfold. The storytelling over the ten episodes is so meticulous, too. It’s like nothing is wasted. People are going to geek out through this season. It’s like Damon is making a scarf and he doesn’t miss any stitch — he just goes back and back and back. He is rigorous but he is also free in terms of time, so he can go back or go forward. I love that because he’ll give you the information when it’s time for you to be given that information.

The Leftovers airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO. 

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