'The Leftovers' Star on Facing Down God and Those Massive Orgy Scenes

"I think there's a sense of rightness and peace for the audience," the Reverend Matt actor says about the HBO series' looming ending.
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for episode five of HBO's The Leftovers, "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World."]

"What's the difference between a pimple and a priest?"

Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) asks the jarring question and delivers an answer so filthy it does not need to be repeated here. But it's far from Matt's only shocking confession over the course of the fifth episode of The Leftovers' final season, and the closing chapter in what became an annual tradition for the mournful series: the yearly Matt episode, always an event, always involving blunt force trauma to the end, and often involving some form of sexual shame.

This episode was no exception, of course, as Matt, along with fellow apostles John (Kevin Carroll) and Michael Murphy (Jovan Adepo), as well as skeptical psychiatrist Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman), embarked on a journey to Australia to locate and bring budding religious icon Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) back to Jardin, Texas, before the seventh anniversary of the Great Departure. But the mission was not so simple, thanks in part to a world-altering nuclear explosion, not to mention an incredibly harrowing ferry ride from Tasmania to Melbourne.

While on the boat (of which there was only one, and no sign of any helicopters), Matt squared off against a veritable sex cult built around a sensuous lion, nearly becoming the lion himself in a scene so physically demanding it almost rivaled Matt being thrown naked into the stocks last season — almost, but not quite. 

Coming face to face with a sex-hungry lion wasn't even Matt's most important encounter of the episode. During the ferry ride, Matt meets David Burton, a man referenced throughout season two and glimpsed once or twice in the ethereal afterlife of sorts featured in "International Assassin." Except Burton now goes by the name of God, offering controversial hot takes such as denying paternity over Jesus and taking credit for the Sudden Departure. By the end of the episode, Burton becomes lion food as Matt watches from the sidelines. Depending on your interpretation, Matt's watching God die before his very eyes — and he can barely muster a shrug. Perhaps that's because Matt is on his own collision course with the great beyond, as he finally reveals that he's dying, with the childhood sickness that first pushed him into spirituality now making an ill-timed comeback.

Eccleston spoke with The Hollywood Reporter and pulled the curtain back on the hot-blooded episode, what we can expect from Matt moving forward now that his faith has been shaken and realigned, what it was like to square off against Frasier the lion, his view of how the series is set to wrap and more.

Every season of The Leftovers has featured an episode devoted to Reverend Matt. How did you feel this final episode of yours stacked up against the previous two?

It's hard to judge them. I've been very fortunate to have an episode to myself each season. The great news about this third one was that I was working with a director that I had worked with before in Nicole Kassell [who also directed season two's Matt-centric episode, "No Room at the Inn"]. I do think that one of the great "casting" choices of the series was in the directing, and being able to work with Nicole again was very important. She and I knew each other. We have the same take on the character. It was key. Apart from that, there was general excitement. It's always about the strength of the writing, and once again, we had great writing on this one. 

You have talked in the past about Matt as an "eternal optimist" and how he's been a joy for you to play. Does that side of him still remain after an episode like this?

I have to be careful. Without getting into spoiler territory...I would say it's renewed. "Optimism" is perhaps a simplistic word for it, but at the beginning of this episode, he's re-galvanized, if you like, with almost a new belief system and a new figure to focus it on. There's a similar passion and drive that we have experienced with Matt being in denial of the rapture. The drive is still there in this third [season], it's just focused on a different area.

Among the reasons why this particular story is compelling, Matt faces off against God in this episode — at least, depending on your interpretation and what you think of David Burton. Was it a powerful experience to play, having Matt come face to face with a man who is at the very least presenting as God?

Yeah. And very reminiscent, of course, of Job questioning God. The central story of the Book of Job prompts the legendary response: "Who are you to question me? I made the ocean, I made the sky, I made all of this." Everybody talks about the extreme nature of The Leftovers thematically and what the characters go through, but it's always seemed from within and inside The Leftovers world very naturalistic to us. It felt quite right for Matt to finally have God in the chair, as it were.

What was your interpretation of this conversation? Is there a point where Matt truly comes to believe David Burton, a myth-busting moment as it were?

I have to leave that ambiguous, for the audience to decide. I think it's very clear where Damon wanted us all to go with that. But as to its effect on Matt's belief system? I really do have to leave that to the audience. Otherwise, I'm spoiling it. 

But there is a tangible shift within Matt a few beats later, when he's asked if he has any pressing business in Melbourne, and he says no. It's a far cry from where we met him at the start of this episode, even, when he was desperate to get to Australia at all costs. No matter the interpretation, then, this was a heck of a boat ride for Matt.

Yeah! That's what I love about it. I really do feel with Matt that you get the journey of a life. But I suspect — and I'm not there yet — that if you live your life properly and fully, you're almost in some sense an entirely different person from the one who started it. Didn't Bob Dylan say that? He said recently about writing songs: "All those songs I wrote in the '60s, I can't do that now. Those songs came to me then, but I can't do that now. I don't even know who that guy is." I love that. I love that. I love that idea of, "I don't even know who that guy is." Perhaps Matt will say that at the end of his life. "I don't know who that guy is, the guy who denied the rapture." Of course, essentially he would recognize that man, at least the drive. That's the ambition of The Leftovers, really. It's very character-based. That's why I think the audience loves it. They're inside the characters' lives.

It's interesting that you bring up how Matt will reflect on himself at the end of his life, considering that we now know the end might be coming soon: he's sick, dying even, as he confesses at the end of the episode. We know Matt was sick earlier in his life. Did you expect he would eventually become ill again?

I think anybody who has experienced cancer and have it gone into remission, and I have not experienced it myself, will tell you that it's a life-changing moment. That was always an element of Matt, from the first season, when he makes his opening speech from the pulpit, when he first talks about that element of his life. It's always been a driving force. He went up against mortality at such a young age. It really thrust him into the arena of religious thought and wondering why we are here. I did feel it would figure into things again, yeah, as people and characters often experience things that come back. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but I was very satisfied with how they left us in terms of Matt. I felt it was organic and authentic and true. 

This episode takes place mostly on this ferry ride from Tasmania to Melbourne. There are some...let's call them strange inhabitants on the boat. What was it like to shoot these massive orgy scenes with the Pride of Frasier?

First of all, I love your first sentence there. This episode takes place mostly on a ferry from Tasmania to Melbourne. I love that. Classic Leftovers. (Laughs) But again, it made perfect sense! You identify with the characters so strongly that whatever happens to them, you embrace it. In terms of The Leftovers, there's a fantastic logic. But the shooting of it? It was really cold on that boat, and so many people were naked. When you're in the background of so many foregrounded scenes and you're doing what you're doing — and in this case, it's f—ing, basically, again and again and again. Their contribution for the show and their enthusiasm for the show really was marked. We applauded them, the main cast. Our first AD made it a point for us to applaud them, because their commitment was just superb, really. Of course, I as Matt, he was in Sodom and Gomorrah, wasn't he? 

He agrees to the Pride's terms and promises he won't cast judgment on the sin and sex, because he's so mission-oriented at that point. So much for that!

Absolutely mission-oriented, and eventually it brings him into the temple. It was an amazing experience, making that.

The moment where Matt almost becomes Frasier...how did that compare to getting thrown naked into the stocks last season?

(Laughs) It's a great parallel, isn't it? Yeah, he's found himself in some pretty extraordinary circumstances! I had to help the supporting actress there. She was a little bit overwhelmed by what she had to do with Frasier. I had to encourage her and I had to make her free about what she had to do. That's what's always very funny about filming scenes like that, the practical realities always take over. Everybody stood around naked, I'm playing a reverend facing off against someone who says he's God...but actually, you're just trying to get it shot, and that's where the surrealism happens. I was in a lot of photo bombs. (Laughs) I photo bombed a lot of naked continuity shots, just to keep the crew's spirits up.

Matt is asked to tell the filthiest joke he knows, which brings us to the difference between a priest and a pimple. Where do you think this came from for him?

I would think he heard that in seminary school. But I defer you to our glorious creator Damon Lindelof, because that's his. (Laughs) I told myself that maybe Matt heard that one when he was a kid. Maybe he was bullied, by somebody who wasn't in the priesthood and training for the cloth. 

There are only three episodes remaining before The Leftovers ends, and you yourself have been finished with the character for a little while now. Was it difficult to say goodbye to the show?

Yeah. The reality hasn't kicked in yet. Only in the last few months did we finish shooting it. It's very hard to think there will be no more. We had a great time together. We were not received with open arms by the audience or the critics with that first season. Then critically, we exploded in season two, and it's happened again with the third. We feel vindicated, and we also feel...I feel a little bit cheated that we can't do more. But there's some integrity to the way we're going out, really. I don't think we've done an episode that compromises the entire vision. I think in ten years, The Leftovers might be cited as an argument for boldness and bravery. It's both satisfying and unsatisfying to let go. 

But as far as Matt's journey, you feel it ended on a satisfying note?

It's filmed with great subtlety. We meet a very different man from the man we got to know. I think there's a sense of rightness and peace for the audience, and for him. We hear something, and when I read it, I thought, "That's right. That's right." It was sad, but I was able to play that. I think he had some knowledge about where it was all going to end for him. It's a beautiful resolution to his relationship with Nora, I think. The relationship between him and Nora, and his involvement in her storyline, as brother and sister, was very moving. 

What did you think of the latest Leftovers episode? Let us know in the comments, and keep following along for more coverage of the final season.