'The Leftovers': Christopher Eccleston on His Character's "Endless Resilience"

Christopher Eccleston - H
Van Redin/HBO

Christopher Eccleston stole the spotlight in this Sunday’s episode of The Leftovers.

It'd been a while since the HBO drama from Damon Lindlof and Tom Perrotta had narrowed in on the British thespian. The last time Eccleston’s Reverend Matt Jamison was front and center was the third episode of season one.

Now in its sophomore year, the critically acclaimed show about a mysterious event that saw 2% of the world's population vanish is exploring life after tragedy and the possibility of starting over. For Eccleston’s unwavering character, that looks like relocating himself and his invalided wife (Janel Moloney) to a special town — Jarden, Texas, the only place spared from The Departure — where he's hoping a miracle will wake his wife up from her vegetative state.

“He’s a wonderful character to play because he is endless resilient,” Eccleston tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting more of his character’s qualities on display throughout the hourlong installment: “He’s dogged and determined and passionate.”

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the London-based actor ahead of his episode’s debut to discuss being the center of attention, the “endless, rewardless drudgery” that is caring for someone and whether or not he trusts his character when he says his wife woke up.

The Leftovers has been championing this segmented style of storytelling — where entire episodes are devoted to different characters — in a way that most other shows are not. What do you think about that format?

I love it. I come from a theater background and theater is all about ensemble. I think it’s very rare in television to have what we have on The Leftovers where actors step forward and then step back. It creates a great feeling among the actors, and I think it’s a refreshing change for the audience to not know who they are going to be with week to week. But obviously, if they gave me my own episode for all ten, I’d take it — because I’m an egomaniac like everybody else. (Laughs.)

How does it work with Lindelof and Perrotta — do they give you a heads up that you’re going to essentially have an episode to yourself?

I just heard through the grapevine. When you work on a show of this scale and one there’s a writers room, we all talk among ourselves and try to find out stuff. I think I was tipped off a couple of weeks before.

What was your first thought when you heard the news?

Panic. Well, panic and joy, which is pretty much the way we all go through life. It’s great to have that kind of opportunity, but the question we always ask ourselves is, “Am I going to pull it off?” It’s what we do. So, a mixture of fear and joy.

But you’d already had the experience of having all eyes on you early on in season one. What did you learn from that episode that you were then able to implement this time around?

Relax a bit more. Obviously, I felt more familiar with the character and more familiar with the aesthetic and the themes of the piece with which we were dealing. I also felt much more ownership of Matt and his journey. I had a very strong sense after season one of [who he was], and that this was essentially a very optimistic man who would have a profound spiritual crisis in season one. In season two, for Matt and a lot of the characters, as well, there are more practical obstacles.

Challenges like actually getting into the town, which has become essentially a holy land and is strictly guarded as a result.

And what we see in episode five of season two that I thought was particularly interesting was the burden of care. We’re increasingly a society dealing with the fact that family members become carers as we live longer with things like dementia, etc. I think what the episode deals very well with is that burden of care because Matt is a carer for his wife. It’s a strange love affair, a romance, between this very articulate and physically active man and this immobile woman.

That’s something we see right off the bat in the opening montage.

Yeah, the opening sequence in particular deals with the burden of care — how frustrating it is and how dark and isolating it can become when you’re caring for someone who gives you no reaction or thanks. I thought it was a very brave piece of writing by Damon and Jacqueline [Hoyt] because to a certain extent, he’s abusing her when he screams and shouts at her. It’s an uncomfortable few minutes.

Right, and there’s then a long pause and he takes a look at himself in his laptop screen, almost like he doesn’t recognize the man he sees.

It’s a moment of realization, isn’t it? It’s the kind of thing that does happen when you’re involved in the drudgery — the endless, rewardless drudgery — of caring for somebody. He breaks the surface. I do think that the travails of the first season helped him in that. In season one, we were dealing with a very immediate reaction to The Departure — and he passed through the initial reaction, as all of the characters do. They survive when we met them in season two, and life has to go on. Life for Matt is the fact that his wife is apparently in a vegetative state.

You worked with a different director for this episode (compared to the previous episode in which you starred), correct?

Yes, I’ve been very fortunate both with Keith Gordon in season one and Nicole Kassell in season two. I had two directors who were very, very focused on performance and had great visual flare. Damon and Tom admirably trust and respect their directors. They give them the job and then they stay away. And same with our overseeing producer-director, Mimi Leder. We’ve taken ownership of the piece, and we get on with it. What we relish as a cast and crew is the fact that different directors bring a different sensibility, a different personality, and that informs our show.

Did you have any specific conversations with Lindelof or Perrotta ahead of time regarding the episode?

I had an experience in episode two of this season, where I had a very specific scene with my onscreen wife, Mary (Moloney), and sister, Nora (Carrie Coon), in the church. In between takes, it occurred to me that there was a particular poem that W.B. Yeats wrote called, The Song of the Wandering Aengus, that would have been Matt and Mary’s poem when they were young romantic lovers. I know that sounds very pretentious, but it’s just a thing that actors do — and it came out of absolutely nowhere. Knelt down by her wheelchair, I said, “Do you know this poem, Janel?” She’s very interested in literature, as am I. She said, “Oh no, I don’t know that.” And I said, “Oh, well I think that would have been their poem.” And for some reason, I emailed Damon about it — with no intentions. He then incorporated that into episode five. He ended up giving me that poem to say to my wife in the boot of my car. (In Britain, we called the trunk of a car the boot of a car. Not the bootie, but the boot. [Laughs.] Two very different things.)

Surely that was a fun surprise when you first read through the script.

There’s a strange thing that goes on in these long-running shows where sometimes you feel like the writers have read your thoughts, and vice-a-versa. There’s a strange kind of synchronicity that sometimes happens where you end up thinking, “How did they know that?”

Matt is trying to start over in Jarden, and he seems to think that it’s truly a place where miracles do happen.

Matt is pivotal in that he is the one that led the exodus to Miracle. His sister and Kevin (Justin Theroux) follow on the promise that he can give them somewhere to live. Matt was full of hope and determined that God would reward him if he kept his faith. And, of course, what led him there was a friendship with somebody within the faith. And this man is a carer. He’s absolutely fixed on caring for his wife, and a conviction that eventually God will bring her back to him. That’s it — it’s that simple. I think what is also interesting is that later in the episode, Matt puts down his burden of care and does give Mary up for a time, which is a very complex thing for somebody to do. But I think he finds a lightness in that, and he finds a congregation. He’s always looking to a congregation, and he finds one in the encampment. He also finds his personality and his calling.

Interestingly, the reason that Matt gives up Mary is because it’s revealed that she is pregnant, which he claims is the result of their first night in Jarden when she supposedly woke up. Do you believe him?

What you’re actually asking me is, “Do I believe Damon Lindelof?” Because he is controlling this. Yes — I believe that Matt believes it. That is a clever answer, huh?

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