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[This interview contains specific spoilers for the third season’s penultimate episode of Fargo and more general spoilers for the Leftovers series finale.]
Since mid-April, Carrie Coon has been in the midst of one of the great simultaneous two-show journeys for any actor in recent memory.
On Sunday nights, as Nora Durst on HBO’s The Leftovers, she dealt with unfathomable grief and confusion, trampolined to the Wu-Tang Clan and journeyed to strange hotel rooms pondering emotional mysteries.
On Wednesday nights, as Gloria Burgle on FX’s Fargo, she investigated a very different mystery, following clues and pounding the pavement from rural Minnesota to, for one memorable episode, the alien urbanity of Los Angeles.
Across both shows, she was stymied by modern technology, including automatic doors that refused to open and bathroom faucets and soap dispensers that refused to acknowledge her presence.
And across both shows she excelled, earned an unprecedented dual nomination for Individual Achievement in Drama at the Television Critics Association Awards.
The Spring of Carrie Coon almost passed without my interviewing the actress, whose natural Midwestern cadences have more than a little of Gloria Burgle in them.
Last week’s penultimate Fargo was a season highlight for Coon, featuring interrogation-room showdowns with Ewan McGregor and Mary McDonnell and an emotional moment at a bar with frequent scene partner Olivia Sandoval, and it was a perfect opportunity to get on the phone to discuss these past few weeks of television prominence.
Coon talks about last week’s big Fargo scenes, with high praise for Sandoval and director Keith Gordon, the overlaps between her two shows (and her own life) that she believes to be coincidental and the challenges of crying in an Australian hotel room when the camera is in your face and you’re being blasted by a water hose.
She also explained the challenges she faces finding scripts that will equal her Fargo and Leftovers opportunities and having the newfound luxury to say “No.”
The full Q&A with Carrie Coon…
First of all and be honest here, have your ears been burning the entire spring?
(Laughs.) It is kind of astonishing being on television twice a week. I have to confess, it certainly brings people out of the woodwork, but it’s funny. Tracy [Letts] said to me the other night, “Oh, what are we gonna do on Sunday when you’re not on TV?” I said, “I don’t know! I don’t feel like myself really.” Pretty weird.
Not just being on TV, but being on these shows that people wanted to be talking about so very much and so very complimentary, because you could have been on two shows that just happened to be kinda awful and no one would have cared.
Yes, well thankfully, I have good taste and people wanted me to do them, but you’re right.
The penultimate episode has these long two-handers for you, with you and Ewan, you and Mary McDonnell, you and Olivia Sandoval. For scenes like that, do you get to touch on your theatrical training at all? Or does it still feel like TV as usual?
It’s so funny you say that, because Ewan and I were shooting the interrogation scene and the way the magnificent Keith Gordon shot it, he had set it up so that he was on the other side of that two-way glass, so for the first number of takes of that scene, Ewan and I were alone in the room, which of course in television is very unusual. You’re normally surrounded by people who are doing their job. After we’d gone through it a couple of times, he turned to me and said, “It feels like we’re doing a play, doesn’t it?” I said, “It does.” He said, “It feels like we’re alone and we’re doing a play.” We were both so exhilarated by that feeling because of course, as I said, it’s very unusual and it really felt like an interrogation, a confession, two people alone in a room and we really enjoyed it. We really enjoyed doing that and it was similar, though a little more cramped in the bar scene with Olivia.
Mary McDonnell, who’s just a delight, we were so lucky to get her, but yeah it did. It felt like a play. You learn your lines in any case, that’s the preparation, right? For any of this stuff? But I love luxuriating in a longer scene on television and as a viewer I’m very gratified when I get to settle into a longer scene on television when I’m watching. It was fun.
I like how the first two interrogation scenes have those different paces, because Gloria and Emmit are kind of confessing to each other in these long monologues, but then Gloria and The Widow Goldfarb are kinda bantering, you know, they’re playing cat-and-mouse with each other. How did you build those energies, those different energies on set?
Of course you’re never building energy by yourself. You’re always accountable to your scene partner to create whatever that momentum or whatever that pace is. For me, it’s just a matter of good writing. When you have good writing, the rhythm of the scene is very apparent. What the scene demands is very clear. I credit the writing of those episodes with making the pace very organic for the actors. I think Noah’s writing is very accessible in that way. It’s very clear to me what he’s up to in the most brilliant way, because it’s really well written. It’s much harder to act poorly written material. It’s much harder to memorize poorly written material. So if you show up and you say the words and you take the pauses where you’re told to take them, some of those scenes will act themselves and you just have to get out of the way.
Winnie and Gloria became kind of the heart of the season to some degree to me [“awww,” she interjects] , because Gloria doesn’t have a love interest. I mean her love interest to some degree, it’s Winnie to some degree. How quickly did you guys feel that rapport together?
Immediately! Olivia Sandoval, who has been doing the work, pounding the pavement in L.A. for years, got her big break with this television show. It was the perfect marriage of character and person, character and actor. She brought such a wonderful energy to the set, because she brought the enthusiasm of someone who’s doing her first big job and doing it very well. She was so grateful for everything that was happening to her. That energy is really infectious. When you do this job for a few years, you can get a little smug about it I think, so it’s always a wonderful infusion when you have someone like Olivia bringing that every single day, that energy of the curiosity and the learning.
She’s such an infectious person in real life. She’s really funny and, interestingly, Olivia, she’s a very physical comedienne and she’s someone who will get into your personal space and I’m from the Midwest. We didn’t hug in my family until I was in my 20s, so our dynamic off-camera is actually quite similar to the dynamic that Olivia and Gloria have on-camera and we just have the best time. We were fast friends and continue to be. I really enjoyed having her, so I think everybody was delighted by the chemistry and I wonder sometimes if Noah had planned on that scene always, or if he was responding to the chemistry that we had and what Olivia was bringing to the table. I just think she’s delightful.
Speaking of planning and long-term planning, I had certainly been waiting for the eventual and inevitable payoff for the Android Minsky and all of that since the third episode and I love the epiphany that Gloria gets to have. Had you been expecting anything like this, or did you have an epiphany there as well?
Oh yes, no! Noah’s writing is very clever and occasionally you’re behind. (Laughs.) Noah can get ahead of you very easily, he’s very, very intelligent and he always has a plan. Nothing is arbitrary and I think that’s the most powerful art, when the artist, when the mastermind, isn’t making arbitrary decisions. It was lovely to have that be pulled together in a monologue where…I mean I understood Gloria’s impotence as the theme as it was echoed with the robot — with the android, rather — Gloria as Minsky is such a lovely simple grace note actually in our own show. Often that stuff gets left unsaid and it was so lovely to get to have a character comment. Right? I got to actually comment on what my theme and my role is in this particular story, which is actually an interesting way of dealing with the thematic thread in the show.
What was the advantage of having this big episode with, you mentioned him earlier, with Keith Gordon who had worked on some of your biggest Leftovers moments as well?
Keith and I have a very easy relationship and a very nice shorthand. Of course, the material on Leftovers is not easy for actors or directors. There are often really wild things where I have to execute in those scripts, so Keith and I had been through it together before. He’s a former actor, so he’s very, he’s really good about communicating with actors, at least I’ve always found him to be that way. I do think it gives us an advantage.
The television system is so unusual, in that we have these directors, the different director of the episode or every two episodes now. It’s a strange model, because everybody has a different way of working. They have a different vocabulary and a different rhythm and a different focus. It’s always nice when you bump up with a director that you’re familiar with and with whom you have a history. It just makes it easier because you have so little time to make a TV show and you have to put up some value that’s supposed to be, expected to be so high. I think the world of Keith. I think he did a great job on our last two episodes.
I interviewed him earlier this week and he had only the highest of praise for you as well, of course. [Another, “Awww.”] He said that he hoped that this got you all sorts of attention, so that he could develop things around you for the future.
Oh, what a sweetheart. So sweet! He’s become really a good friend of ours and we really like Keith. He’s a really special person, a really generous person. I’m not surprised to hear that, because he’s so lovely.
He was saying that one of the keys to playing that scene with Winnie and then in the bathroom, was doing it lots of different ways to find the right amount of emotion and sentiment, because of the sense that Noah doesn’t love emotion and sentiment, so there had to be the right balance. What was, from your perspective, what you were doing there, the variations you were giving?
I think Keith is right on and one thing Keith is really good at, is giving an actor permission to lean into one thing and go really far. You’ll have the take where Gloria’s utterly despondent and weeping on the bar, and you’ll have the take where Gloria is still feeling very repressed and unable to communicate and unsure of whether or not she actually does have a friend and so she holds everything in and barely reveals anything to Winnie. Then you have everything in between. I love Keith because he’ll say, “Great, now that we did that and we went all the way that way, let’s pull it back 50 percent and let’s add sarcasm.”
He’s really good about calibrating the emotional journey in a scene. I really like working that way, because sometimes you have to feel the big feel before you can pull it back, and Keith always gives actors permission to investigate those emotions really fully, even though they’ll never make it into the episode, right? But it creates that space for you, because then you know what it feels like and then you know what you’re resisting. What is the thing that you’re holding back? Now that you’ve done it, now you know how to hold it back. So I find working that way very useful and so Keith and I always have a nice rapport.
In a scene like that, what is your own personal, natural acting instinct? Is it to go toward the emotional side or toward the sarcastic side?
That’s interesting. Gloria is someone who tries to hold it together and you could look at that scene as an opportunity for her to break down. I certainly was willing and able to embrace that version early in our work on that scene, but I think ultimately the balance we found was right. Sometimes you do it because you can, because in an audition as a woman, you sort of always have to prove you can cry. Then they figure you can do everything before crying. I don’t know, I suppose that’s maybe in us a little bit. [I laugh] It’s true, we have to cry a lot.
Certainly on Leftovers this season, you did it quite a lot. Does that become easy or is it still hard every time?
I don’t know. I think a lot of actors, a lot of actresses, maybe I should say, have that ability, but the crying part isn’t hard, but it should be specific. You can’t cry the same way every time. You can’t cry because you can, you have to cry because it’s required by the story. If your acting partners are as great as the ones I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, you’re getting so much from the other person, because a scene can’t really be about you, it has to be about the other person. Inevitably, when a scene isn’t working for me, it’s because I’m being self-conscious and I’m not putting enough of my focus on my fellow actor. As soon as you make that shift, that’s what unlocks the emotional availability I find. Again, the writing takes care of you as well. If the writing is good, it makes it apparent what the scene requires and then of course you have a director who’s going to shape it from the outside and then you have an editor who’s gonna take over and make everybody look better than they actually are.
And I assume there’s probably no amount of crying in an audition that can prepare you for the different kind of crying that’s say, for example, like crying as a hotel sprinkler goes off and you’re sitting in the middle of it.
Right. Yes. No. And so much of that stuff is technical, too. That shot was such a technical shot. And freezing cold by the way. Really, it’s such a collaborative effort to get something like that. I’d never seen that shot before the episode aired, I just was blown away by what Dan [Sackheim] and Chris Cuevas, our first camera, are able to accomplish there and I was just sitting there freezing and trying to keep my eye open. That’s not even something I did, that’s all Chris and Dan and then an editor who puts that piece in the exact right place for the storytelling. It takes my breath away what they’re able to do, because my memory of that is sitting on a piece of plastic on a bed freezing, trying not to let my teeth chatter while they got this one final shot so I can get into some dry clothes. It’s not glamorous.
How close was the camera to you in that scene?
Oh it was so close, I mean that was a really close shot. You can see, it’s right next to my face. They said to me, Chris said, “Carrie I need you to keep your eye open in this shot.” I said, “OK hit me.” They call action and then they spray me with this fire hose, basically. I said, “Guys, can we turn the water down so I can keep my eye open for you?” They did, they pulled back the water, then I was able to keep my eye open while water was hitting me in the face so Chris could get his very artful shot. It’s all worth it. When you see it in the end, it’s all totally worth it, it was so beautiful.
Everybody I’ve talked to this season from Fargo has maintained that all of the little overlapping notes with The Leftovers this season had been wholly coincidental. Do you believe it, or do you suspect some sort of cosmic conspiracy?
My only suspicion is the fact that the writers’ rooms are in the same building in Los Angeles. Is there a glass to a wall somewhere? I couldn’t say. I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist. I’m sort of sick of conspiracy theorists right now. I did warn the writers every time I read a script, I would text my writing staff and say, “Here’s another one guys!” but nobody seemed to care. I don’t think they believed me, I don’t think they believed that the number of parallels was so significant.
Did you come up with your own separate theories for say, for example, why Gloria was having these troubles with technology?
As a person who has had the troubles with technology, I didn’t question it at all. In fact, I remember my mother saying how gratified she was to see a scene where the faucet didn’t come on. She said, “That happens to me all the time.” She felt so recognized in that moment. My father used to say he was gonna sign me up for a study, because every time I sat down at our computer, something would go wrong and he insisted that there was something wrong with me, that I had some magnetic, some something, some scientific explanation for why things would break when I was around. That’s really just anecdotal, I don’t really have any proof of that.
And then it was just a coincidence that these two shows decided to feed off of that energy of yours?
I don’t know about it, but as far as I could tell, everyone was very genuine in their ignorance. It’s funny isn’t it? I think it says more about the world we’re in than anything else, it says something about a deep distrust of technology and a deep distrust of its promise for building community. I think maybe what’s going on is that the artists in the world always filter the experiences they’re having in the real world and they put it into their art. It’s possible that both Damon and Noah are responding to some wavelengths in the universe that have people feeling suspicious of technology.
Nora and Gloria are obviously these very different characters, but did you immediately see the commonalities between Nora’s last monologue with Kevin and this conversation with Winnie? How they both come from this need to be believed and seen and kind of recognized in those moments?
That’s interesting, I think I never made an explicit connection. I think only because I think that’s every human being’s deep need, to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be recognized. I think a lot of scenes, monologue or no, actually have to do with that. Most of the time when people are having an argument, or missing each other, it’s really about one or both of them not feeling acknowledged or seen, or recognized. I think that’s really fundamental to the human condition. It’s inevitable that that theme crops up in scenes all the time, I just happened to be in two of them.
I just liked in both of those moments the need to be believed is so great and then in either of those two cases, Kevin could have laughed and stormed out or Winnie could have laughed inappropriately, but in both cases what the character needs is just this recognition more than anything.
Right. I think that’s interesting how you put it, because again, I point to the fact that these two artists, Damon and Noah, and my writing staff are the alembics for the world we’re living in right now. I think there are many people feeling impotent in the face of the futility of making a rational argument, the futility of using facts to convince someone that you’re right and they’re wrong, because in fact we’ve arrived at a place in history where it doesn’t appear that there’s any objective truth anymore. I think it’s interesting that we’ve seen a lot of characters struggling to make themselves heard and like you say, convince someone that their side of the story is valid, because I think people are really struggling to find validity in a world where that effort feels really futile and really frustrating. Without agreement about the truth, what do we have? From where are we arguing our position? It’s uncertain. It’s unnerving.
As a sort of last, and predictable last question, after you have a one-two punch like these two shows, what are the challenging things that…
You retire. (Laughs.) Oh sorry, go on.
What do you see when you look at subsequent scripts and how do you look at other scripts through the filter of what you’ve done?
The bar is very high as you can imagine. As I said to you earlier, it’s much easier to act good writing than bad writing and it’s not that I haven’t read some very good scripts. I have, but sometimes they don’t ask of me something different, or they don’t challenge me in a unique way, or they’re asking me to commit for a long time. I’ve been spoiled by doing one show for three years and one show for a year. The limited series model is really interesting to me, because I don’t know that I’d want to play the same person for seven or eight years, which is a standard contract. I’m really stimulated by the possibility of changing and being challenged in a new way more regularly than that.
Also, I’ve arrived at a place in my career, which is very luxurious in that I get to be picky and I get to say no to things. That’s just not something…. As actors, we have to say yes to everything for a really long time. You say “Yes” to anything you can get. There’s a 90 percent unemployment rate in the acting industry, so the luxury of “No” is the thing I’m enjoying right now, knowing that some day it’ll all disappear and I’m just trying to enjoy where I am. My parents are getting a kick out of it. It’s easy come, easy go.
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