The Leftovers‘ Carrie Coon Discovers Miracles in the Midst of the Apocalypse
Carrie Coon has always been obsessed with the apocalypse.
“When I was 5 or 6, I used to wake up during Johnny Carson and ask my parents when Jesus was coming back,” she says with a laugh. “They’d assure me that Jesus is not coming back in my lifetime and [tell me to] go back to bed. I was kind of a little freak.”
So when she learned that HBO was developing Tom Perrotta’s bestselling novel The Leftovers into a series—which tells the story of the mysterious disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population—the 34-year-old theater actress from Copley, Ohio, was definitely eager to be a part of it. Luckily for Coon, her Tony-nominated performance in the 2013 Broadway revival of the classic Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? caught the eye of executive producer Damon Lindelof. “She just knocked my socks off,” he says. “There’s an incredible authenticity to Carrie in that she feels so much like a real person. She has an amazing strength that we should all aspire to.”
That strength was on full display during Season 1 of The Leftovers as Coon played Nora Durst, a grieving resident of Mapleton, New York, who lost her husband and two children during the global event. “She was enigmatic and dark, but she also had a sense of humor,” says Coon, who read Sonali Deraniyagala’s firsthand account of losing her entire family during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in preparation for the role. “Human beings are incredibly resilient; as an actor, you want to illuminate those circumstances without being trite or phony.”
Nora started out as a peripheral character, but Coon finally got her moment in the spotlight in “Guest,” an episode depicting Nora’s visit to a departure-related grief conference in New York City—where she attended a drug- and alcohol-fueled hotel orgy and experienced a profound spiritual encounter with healer Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph). “The first feeling I had was abject terror, because I had never been on camera that long,” Coon says. “I was also deliriously ill during shooting, so the scene where I have to hump a mannequin felt like a fever dream. It was the weirdest day of my working life.”
Nora’s trip is not included in Perrotta’s book, but Lindelof was so impressed by Coon’s performance that he expanded what was originally going to be a couple of scenes into an entire standalone episode. “The question was: Could this character carry her own episode? Once we saw Carrie start working, the answer was yes,” Lindelof explains.
As Season 1 progressed, Nora found a common ally in the town’s chief of police, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), and the two began a romantic relationship that quickly accelerated when they found a baby on their doorstep in the finale. When the series returns, Nora and Kevin decide to start anew and move to the small town of Jarden, Texas, which the locals have dubbed “Miracle” because no residents were lost during the Departure. “It’s this weird Disneyland of desperation,” says Coon, who relocated to Austin for filming. “Nora and Kevin are being pretty cagey because they’re running from their lives, but other people have secrets too. You can feel in the air that there’s something sinister going on in that town that they can’t quite figure out.”
While Nora and Kevin attempt to adjust to their new surroundings, they start a friendship with their neighbors, the Murphys, headed by volunteer fireman John (Kevin Carroll) and doctor Erika (Regina King). “Nora is putting on a really good show with them,” Coon says. “But she can only keep that up for so long before things start bubbling to the surface, as we’ve seen happen to her in the past.”
But the doom and gloom that overpowered Nora during Season 1 has been replaced by a newfound lightness thanks to her role as mother to this young child. “A sense of renewal and positivity infuses the beginning of the season,” Coon says. “Nora has entered into this new family with some vigor and hope, and it has that feeling of novelty that can be so titillating and energizing.”
There is also an energy surrounding Coon’s career, which has flourished over the past two years thanks to The Leftovers, her Tony nomination and her high-profile film debut in David Fincher’s Gone Girl as Margo “Go” Dunne, the supportive twin sister of Ben Affleck’s maybe-murderous husband. “I keep telling my agents I’m going to retire because I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do!” Coon says.
But even though she’s had success on TV and film, Coon insists her heart will always belong to the theater—and she’d love to return, Leftovers schedule permitting. “There’s just nothing like the experience of a live performance and telling a story in order from beginning to end,” says the actress, who married Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts in 2013. “I’m open. I hope people call me and ask me to be in things!” As long as there’s not an apocalypse anytime soon, that shouldn’t be a problem.
The Leftovers, Season premiere, Sunday, Oct. 4, 9/8c, HBO