'The Leftovers': Scott Glenn on His "Unpredictable, Subversive" Character

The 76-year-old actor who portrays Kevin Garvey Sr. in the HBO drama breaks down his stand-alone episode.
Ben King/HBO
Scott Glenn in 'The Leftovers'

Sunday's episode of The Leftovers went down under for the first time.

The HBO drama from Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta made its move to Australia as it turned its attention to a character who hasn't had much screen time: Kevin Garvey Sr. played by Scott Glenn.  

The stand-alone installment followed the former police chief as he sets out understand what's happening in the world, exploring the local aborigines and their religion along the way.

"I get to play a part that goes from such raw emotions to laugh-out-loud funny just like that," says Glenn, who describes his character as unpredictable, subversive and crazy.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the 76-year-old Glenn, who is also in Netflix's Daredevil, to talk about his deep emotional dive in the drama, what conversations he had with Lindelof, and whether he thinks his character is a true prophet or completely insane.

When did you hear that you would have a stand-alone episode?

Damon and Mimi both told me that there would be an episode that I was going to be fairly heavily in, and then before I got the script Damon called me up and said, "It's going to be basically all you, Scott." I asked him at the time if there was a script ready, and he said no. This was probably a month and a half before we went to Australia. So I just said, "What can I work on?" And he basically told me the bare bones of what I, as [Kevin Garvey] Sr., was going to be going through. He gave me a bunch of books to me, too. I asked him what else I could do, and he said, "I don't know. Learn to play the didgeridoo." [Laughs.]  Then I got the script about a month before I got to Australia. The one thing he did tell me is that the longest monologue he'd ever written in his life was going to be in the script, so I was ready for that. When I first read the script, I yelled for joy.

What about it made you yell for joy?

It went into such depth with a character, and you never know whether you're dealing with a mad man or a true prophet. There were so many colors that I got to look into. And I love Damon's writing. I've accused him at times of hiding mics in my bedroom. As off-kilter and unpredictable as his writing is, I just open my mouth and the words fall right out. I've only had that experience two times before acting. One was doing a play that Tracy Letts [co-star Carrie Coon's husband] wrote called Killer Joe and the other was years ago doing a script of Jim Bridge's Urban Cowboy.

What have your conversations with Damon about your character looked like?

Back in season one, I asked Damon to give me a clue, and he said, "Well, you hear voices. When major traumas happen in the world, it gives rise to prophets, and prophets create religions." I remember him saying that in his mind, there are three kinds of prophets. There are crazy people — people who have been broken by the trauma and can't get back (the Guilty Remnant). There are false prophets — people who want power, sex, money and will use that (Holy Wayne). And then there are real prophets. And I said, "Well, what am I?" And he said, "You're a real prophet." And I said, "Name me other real prophets." And he said, "Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha." I said, "Which one am I?" [Laughs.] He said, "You're none of them but probably closer to Moses."

Did you have any more questions about the voices?

I wanted to know how many of them there were. He said, "I'm going to leave that up to you. You cast the voices. But one thing you have to know about the voices is that they never lie. They have never told you one thing that isn't true. And then at a certain point, they go away."

How do you relate to your character?

As someone who has been given a purpose outside of themselves in life and then the purpose is taken away, but when you have a purpose that gives meaning to your life, you get addicted to that. From when you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed at night, you have a direction. It's not that you don't want to have fun and love and passion and giggles and wealth and toys and whatever — but above and beyond all that stuff, you have a direction that you want to go and that you have to go. That's kind of what I see myself as Senior doing. It's such a hard character for me to talk about in that … I was talking to a friend of mine at home and he was saying, "When I hear you talk about different characters you play, you usually refer to them like, 'he would do this,' but with The Leftovers you never do that. You say 'I'." I thought about that, and I think it's really true. I don't feel a separation with him. It's completely me.

What surprised you most as you filmed the episode?

Normally what I do is I read the script and then I plan in my mind what I'm going to do with it. But I remember waking up in the morning the day we shot [my seven-page monologue] and saying out loud to myself, "Scott, your job today is not to let yourself get in the way of what's going to happen. Don't try to do anything, just dive into it and see where it takes you." I did one take and at the end of it, Mimi Leder said, “OK now when you picked up the tape recorder and put it on the desk ..." and I couldn't remember that. She said, "What do you mean?" And I really couldn't remember what just happened. It wasn't like I was in a trance. When she said “cut,” I was there on the set. So she said to go again and we did another take and the same thing happened again. I could barely remember what went on in the scene because the scene was playing me more than I was playing it. And that happened again and again and again all day long. We did seven takes. I remember Mimi at one point saying, "You're telling me right now that you're at a point with this where you really can't direct yourself." I said, "Yeah, and it's really never happened before." And she said, "Are you really to climb into this scene and watch yourself a little bit because if you can't direct yourself, no one else can either." And I said, "No, I'm not willing to do that because this hasn't happened in 40 years of acting, and artists live for this." And she said, "Well, what do you suggest that we do if I'm not getting what I want?" I said, “Just go more takes. You won't wear me out.” And most of that episode went like that.

Why do you think the experience was so "other?"

I'm not a New Age mystical kind of guy at all, but I think that part of it was being around that ancient culture of the indigenous people of Australia. I sang with them and danced with them and hung out with them through that whole episode. There was something about being around the oldest culture on the face of the planet, to be around that kind of wisdom. Judaism and Hinduism sort of have the ongoing argument about which in the oldest religion — the Vedic texts or the Dead Sea Scrolls. And that's give or take between 8,000 years. The indigenous people of Australia have an ongoing continuous cavitation that's 150,000 years old. It's so far and away the oldest single culture on earth, nothing else every comes close. These are people who discovered agriculture 40,000 years ago and rejected it because it meant you had to stay in one place, and you feel that the proper way for a human being to live their life is by being nomadic. So we had this sense that we were surrounded by a very deep and ongoing wisdom.

Do you think Kevin Sr. is divine prophet or is utterly insane?

My answer if I'm in Australia playing the part is absolutely not, that these signs that happen make sense to me as divine intervention, as weird and off-kilter as they may be like a chicken discovering things for people. Looking back on it, I don’t know what the answer to that is. I know that famous prophets in the world — from Moses to Mohammed to Christ — when they first heard their voices, they walked away from them. They said, "Wait a minute, this can't be happening." And they eventually came to accept them. But from my point of view, I'm not crazy. What I think is that my purpose for existence changes. I think the real answer to that question is that it's up to the audience to decide.

What can viewers look forward to in the series finale?

For me, Damon wrapped things up perfectly. But my perfect may well not be other peoples' perfect. What I can say is that if the show works at the highest level, it doesn't so much answer questions as it leaves hopefully each individual person in the audience asking themselves those questions.