Of all the characters whose lives were shattered and changed by the events of “The Departure” in The Leftovers, it was Nora who had the most fascinating, and at times harrowing, story to follow. She lost both her husband and two children in the blink of an eye, and spent the better part of the first season of the HBO drama trying to pick up the pieces and move on, while also dealing with the psychological fallout of her loss (paying prostitutes to shoot her point blank, for example).
Luckily for the creators and writers of The Leftovers, this complex role was in the capable hands of Carrie Coon. Before joining the cast, Coon was a respected theater actor, treading the boards in Chicago and Wisconsin, and eventually earning a Tony nomination for her performance in a new production of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Coon has since brought that brilliance to bear on TV roles and in a much-lauded turn as the sister of Ben Affleck’s character in the 2014 thriller Gone Girl.
It is her work on The Leftovers that has brought Coon her biggest accolades to date, and for good reason. She commands the small screen by refusing to turn Nora into a histrionic mess. Instead, the widow is haunted, but also somehow liberated by this supernatural turn of events. And when the show spent an entire day with her, during the best episode of the first season “Guest,” Coon revealed even deeper shades with some intense and hilarious moments at a conference in New York. Now, in Season Two, Nora is reckoning with her seemingly impulsive decision to start up a family with Kevin and the baby that his son Tommy left on his porch. And by moving to the town of Jarden, where there were no departures, she starts to exhibit both a calm and some deep fears about her future.
Paste caught up with Coon as she took a break from filming the final episodes of The Leftovers, to get her take on this complex character and how she was able to move from stage to screen with such ease.
Paste Magazine: What inspired you to take on the role of Nora?
Carrie Coon: I was inspired when I read Tom Perrotta’s book. I read it well before I auditioned for the show. I was so intrigued by her, by her psychology and her very dark sense of humor. I have that same kind of satirical, dry, dark humor. So when the opportunity came up to audition for the series, I went in for both Meg and Nora, knowing full well I was really trying to get Nora. It was thrilling to have her come back to my life like this. I’m not a mother yet, so I was very sensitive about playing someone who had lost their children. I didn’t want that to feel pretend. I had the lovely gift of reading Sonali Deraniyagala’s book Wave about losing her family in the 2004 tsunami. It’s this beautiful, spare meditation on grief. It was a great resource for me to prepare to play Nora. Thankfully, I haven’t had to experience that kind of loss, but being able to portray it has been challenging but ultimately rewarding.
Paste: I feel like the most interesting wrinkle about Nora is that conflicted feeling she has about her loss. It’s horrible, yes, but at the time, it’s almost like she willed it to happen.
Coon: That’s what’s fascinating to me about her, that tension. Just as you said, the moment her family disappears, all of her obligations and responsibilities disappear. It’s devastating, but it’s also the most freedom one could ever have. It forced me to ask myself, “If I had the opportunity to walk away, would I do it? What would my new identity look like?” Most of our obligations are imagined. We put them on ourselves. Very rarely are they coming from outside. Like the pressure to get straight A’s in school. You think it’s coming from your parents, when it’s really the expectations that we’re putting on ourselves by what we think they want. What we saw at the end of the first season was that she was preparing to walk away when she found baby Lily on the porch. That forces her to accept that mantle again, but the seed of freedom has been planted. I don’t think she’s going to give it up that easily.
Paste: As everyone knows at this point, the first season ended where the book did. Did you have any indication of where Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta were going to take things for this second season?
Coon: Not until very late. Damon was very thoughtful going into Season Two, and very candid in saying, “I need to know if there’s more story to tell and something to say. If I don’t, then we should let it go.” He really wants to connect with it passionately and for the right reasons. I believe he does want to tell a good story and explore powerful ideas as an artist. So, we didn’t know until very late if the series would continue, or if we’d all be invited back because some of the cast didn’t come back. And we didn’t know where it would take place. It was really close to the time to start that I found out that we would start the season on the periphery. A couple of weeks later, I found out I was moving to Austin. It was pretty last minute, but as an actor, that’s not unfamiliar.
Paste: And what did you think about where Damon and Tom were taking your character this season?
Coon: What I love about the beginning of this season is that we see Kevin and Nora embracing the idea of cobbling together a family. There’s a sense of hope and a lightness about throwing herself into this new beginning. I don’t think Nora does anything 50 percent. She really commits. She’s really determined to make this work. But what Nora needs above all things is safety and stability, and Kevin is not really in the position to offer up that support. They don’t know each other very well. They have to backtrack and get to know each other, even though they retrofit a family into this.
Paste: It was interesting too to see how she and Jill seemed to get along almost immediately.
Coon: I really loved that choice. I feel that Nora would be a really cool stepmom. The trope is that the child is pushing against the stepmother and you’d see them figure out what the boundaries are—how much she is a friend and how maternal she is. There’s an extra layer of complexity, too, because Nora is respectful of Kevin’s relationship with her. Jill has very conflicted feelings about her own mother. Not that it’s Nora’s place to step into that position.
Paste: You made your name primarily as a theater actor before you took on roles in The Leftovers and Gone Girl. How was it for you to make that transition from stage to screen?
Coon: I was fortunate, I suppose, that I didn’t set out to transition to TV and film. I was very happy doing theater. I was lucky that I’ve had these opportunities directly created by me being in the theater. Chicago’s a great market, so I could do auditions for commercials. And I was really terrible at first. It took me a couple of years to figure that stuff out. So, I would do a guest spot here and there, but I hadn’t been in front of the camera consistently before I booked The Leftovers and Gone Girl. And I got a lot of practice doing that film. David [Fincher] does many, many takes. It was a concentrated time to work out some of the vocabulary and learning how to use your voice and body properly.
Paste: What comes next for you?
Coon: I have a project in the works that I can’t talk about. It’s a very small film that I’m very passionate about, and should be very fun for me. Then I’m going to rev up for fall and spring, and snap up a few more projects before Season Three. I’m also trying to find ways to get on stage. It’s tough for me to work out with a TV schedule, but I’m trying to make that happen.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter.