Carrie Coon on Why 'The Leftovers' Is a Story About Hope

"The real lesson in 'The Leftovers' is that the world falls apart, but then we put it back together," she tells THR.
Van Redin/HBO
Carrie Coon in 'The Leftovers'

Carrie Coon is at it again.

The Leftovers breakout star, who made a name for herself in the first season of the HBO drama, is already stealing scenes in the series’ sophomore run as the grief-stricken yet determined Nora Durst.

In the series, Coon explores life after tragedy when her character loses her husband and two kids in a bizarre event that saw two percent of the world’s population mysteriously vanish. Though it may seem bleak, Coon has a different response to the material.

"The real lesson in The Leftovers is that the world falls apart, but then we put it back together. I think that’s actually so hopeful," she tells The Hollywood Reporter, acknowledging that co-creator Damon Lindelof is anything but a cynic. "It’s hard for me to believe in that inherent goodness, and actually the show strangely reinforces that for me because I see people being very resilient and I admire it."

The actress, who on the heels of her Leftovers success played Ben Affleck’s sister in 2014 thriller Gone Girl, continues to keep herself busy during the show’s off-time with features. She recently signed on to Blumhouse’s supernatural love story, The Keeping Hours, opposite Lee Pace, and she’ll also star alongside Holly Hunter in an upcoming indie directed by Katherine Dieckmann.

But before production wrapped on the HBO drama, Coon sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the "lightness" about Nora this season, how her character is dealing with the move to Miracle, Texas, and what’s in store for her complicated relationship with Kevin (Justin Theroux).

After the season opener, we wondered whether we’d be seeing as much of you this year — but after episode two and four, it seems you’re back in true form.

Yeah, I had sort of been warned about that first episode, if you will, by Damon before the season started. I knew that we were going to be moving, and that we were going to be adding these extraordinary actors that would probably take some attention away from us. So I was expecting that we were going to start on the periphery, I just didn’t know when we would move closer to the center of the story — or if we even would. Maybe they couldn’t take their camera off of Regina King, and they would be totally justified. (Laughs.)

Did you assume Nora would get out of Mapleton in season two?

I thought it was a possibility. But for all I knew, they were going to move to another town, leave us all behind and start over in a new city. Because they had already outrun the source material, they were at liberty to do whatever they wanted. I felt so humbled by the fact that I got to come along. I actually think it’s a very bold artistic choice, and I think HBO is one of the only places it could have happened. That’s a crazy vision to take your whole show and relocate it, but I love the ambiguity. It’s artistically risky and therefore very satisfying.

You weren’t concerned all the changes would throw viewers?

Not at all. Water finds its own level. People who respond to that — the big questions that Damon is asking — are going to come along with us. I don’t believe in pandering to an audience because I believe that audiences are really smart and that they rise to the level of what you give them. I think that if you make demands, they will demonstrate their curiosity and understanding. That’s the only kind of art I want to make. I don’t want to be safe in my choices. I didn’t get into this to make lots of money and play the same character forever. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s just not the thing that I envisioned for myself. This is the best place for me to be and the best show I could be on.

How do you think the tone of the show has changed this season, if at all?

Well, I didn’t see Tom’s book — which was sort of a metaphor for collective grieving — as bleak. He wrote it shortly after 9/11, examining the impact a major tragedy would have on a group of people, a country really. We certainly have many examples of that happening in our world — shootings and planes disappearing — and there’s a group of people that is left to deal with the fallout. For me, the show, although there is a supernatural element, examines that state of mind beautifully and I think the lesson in it is actually very hopeful. Damon is not a cynic. Damon believes deeply in the goodness of people. So the real lesson in The Leftovers is that the world falls apart, but then we put it back together — and that’s a choice that we’re making all the time, even when it’s really hard. I think that's actually so hopeful. It’s such a balm for me because I actually can get very cynical. I read the newspaper, and that will take you down in the morning if you read The New York Times. It’s hard for me to believe in that inherent goodness, and actually the show strangely reinforces that for me because I see people being very resilient and I admire it. I hope people can embrace that message.

When we met up with Nora in episode two, it seems like she is ready for a change.

Right, we initially find Nora having abandoned her plan to leave town, tethered to this baby, embracing her relationship with Kevin, taking on the role of pseudo-stepmother to Jill (Margaret Qualley). And Kevin and Nora have decided to sit down and start in a very authentic place and put all their cards on the table because, of course, they haven’t known each other very long. Their relationship was forged in this dramatic crucible. Now, they begin the process of really getting to know each other, which I think is a relatable thing in our show — where that relationship starts and then the kinks that have to get worked out as they find out what they’ve actually gotten themselves into. They’re two incredibly damaged people trying to be honest with each other, but as we’ll find as season two goes on, it’s very difficult. But I love that we start with this energy of hope. There’s a lightness about Nora as she takes on being a wife and mother again, but always underlying that is the tension of her jumping back into those roles when she could have walked away from everything. In theory, we could always almost walk away from our lives, but we never do. There’s this tension inside of Nora between freedom and what’s familiar to her, and she’s leaning into what’s familiar — but that doesn’t mean that tension is gone.

Also in that episode, Nora sells her house to MIT researchers who think that there may be a geographical explanation for The Departure. Do you think she’s still trying to make sense of it, or has she given up on asking "why?"

I think it would be impossible to abandon that question. I think anyone who has lost someone in a mysterious, ambiguous, extraordinary or particularly distressing way probably would have a very hard time doing that. For Nora though, she’s very practical and logical. I think she’d prefer a neat scientific explanation if there was one. Perhaps the idea that it is geographical is comforting to her because it takes away her responsibility. I don’t think she accepts any of that easily. I think she’s skeptical of anyone coming along trying to tell her what’s what. But wouldn’t it be nice if it weren’t her fault? But I don’t think she believes that. [Viewers] are seeing her reaction in different ways and I love that because I think there is an underlying tension about, "Well, what do I want it to be?" Can she tell herself convincingly enough that she actually starts to believe whatever explanation it is, or is she always going to feel a little complicit?

She still harbors guilt, doesn’t she?

Oh sure. What if she didn’t go because of some choice she made, or somehow they were better than her? She knows they weren’t worse. So what is it, you know? It’s a much more complicated question if it’s a spiritual one than it is if it’s a physical and scientific one. I think she’s really hoping that it’s less complicated because that just opens this whole other psychological reality that she doesn’t really have the tools to go into right now. She’s been so depleted. It’s much easier to just pick up and start a new life somewhere and just forget all that stuff, which, of course, is impossible.

How’s Nora handling the move to Miracle, Texas?

I think she’s trying it on so earnestly. We still see glimpses of the old Nora throughout, but like I said, there is a kind of lightness of being — she’s dressing differently, she’s moving differently, maybe even speaking a little differently. She’s trying on this new life, but that’s not the same as wearing it or owning it. So, of course, there will be complications in that because wherever you go, there you are. You can take the couple out of Mapleton, but you can’t take Mapleton out of the couple. They have to deal with themselves, and they have to do that within a relationship, which is two times more complicated.

And like you mentioned, she and Kevin don’t really know each other all too well.

Their recognition was very visceral and the nuts and bolts hadn’t really come along.

We see a strain on their relationship now, too. Will that tension only continue to build?

Yes, because I think in some ways those are almost fundamental personality differences. Aside from all the other events that are happening that are putting pressure on them from the outside, I think when Nora does something, she’s not going to do it fifty percent — she’s going to do it one hundred percent. I think she’s that kind of person. I think she was that driven in her previous life and I think that’s something that has come with her, whereas I think Kevin has been uncertain for a really long time and hasn’t quite figured out this new path. Of course, he’s dealing with some additional psychological pressures that he’s not being completely honest about. So while they’ve started this relationship under the guise of complete honesty, they’re not actually doing it. Of course, that’s not sustainable. You can’t put this model in place and then not actually live by the rules that you’ve set. When they figure that out, that’s going to be complicated. And like everyone else, she has a sense of self-preservation and that’s threatened by the instability that’s around her. She’s so desperate for stability and safety and it keeps eluding her, so she’s going to do whatever she can to protect herself. Also now, this baby that she’s responsible for has made her, like it or not, a mother again, and that’s going to be hard.

It’s kind of refreshing that your relationship with Jill isn’t the typical stepmother-daughter one.

I’m cool stepmom. It’s totally fun. It’s so much more interesting to me than the obvious choice, which would be them not getting along. I think that’s an easier thing to embrace. I love that there’s this girlfriend dynamic, and yet Nora is still kind of an authority figure but can’t really overstep her bounds because she’s not her mother. Clearly, Jill has serious mother issues because of what happened with the Guilty Remnant, so it’s very tenuous, this relationship, but I do love the way that they explore it early on. And it’s been really fun to do more scenes with Margaret because, as you probably can guess, I don’t actually act with the women on the show very often. I see Chris Eccleston and I see Justin. And every now and then, Jill will come in and unpack a box for me in a scene, but all these extraordinary women — Amy Brenneman, Ann Dowd — I never get to work with. So it’s been fun to get that sort of interaction on set. It’s quite separate when you think of it that way.

At least you have scenes with Regina King.

She is my spirit animal. She’s such a fantastic actress and I’ve admired her always, so to get to work with Regina has been just wonderful.

Speaking of her, what’s Nora’s take on the Murphys?

From the outside, they seem very together and they seemed pretty welcoming. But I think Nora has learned to trust the tiny panic voice because it’s been going off for a whole season, so I think she senses something sinister underneath so she’s so desperate for it to not be true. She’s looking to embrace Miracle and looking for signs that it is safe and it is real and it is what they think it is, but everything in her body is telling her that’s not true, and that’s stressful, to say the least.

Presumably equally stressful is the fact that your brother, Matt Jamison (Eccleston), appears to be hiding something from you.

Yeah, there’s definitely a secret. They were not brother and sister in Tom’s book. That was in addition to the story that Damon and Tom made when they were creating tension, as you must do when you adapt a book for TV — you have to add more action and more drama. So they made them siblings, and they also made them siblings who lost their parents, so they have this very weird relationship where Chris kind of raised Nora. He was her father figure since she lost her parents so young. And yet they’re still brother and sister. There are still things she thinks she knows better than him. He’s a boy, and she thinks that girls know better than boys. My husband always says that women are smarter than men. There’s that weird sibling rivalry thing happening too. She’s also turned away from religion and he’s gone and embraced it, so there’s that tension too. He’s also the reason that they know about this place, so they’re kind of relying on him to guide them in how to fit in, and he’s hiding something. He’s being really cagey. Whenever you can’t be honest with your family, there’s going to be an obstacle. So they’re not communicating well right now.

So then, what exactly is Nora hoping to find with this move?

Nora wants to believe in the possibility of rebirth, of safety, of possibility that she has some ground to stand on to start over because once that identity has been taken from her — and Wayne took a little of that grieving woman away — and then leaving Mapleton, nobody knows who she is, so she gets to really start over in that truest sense that no one is immediately ascribing this event to her. She wants to believe that that’s real and possible and that you can change, that you don’t have to carry all your things with you — that you can put them down. I don’t think it’s maybe as easy as picking up and moving. It’ll take a little more work — maybe some therapy.

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