One thing is for certain: if you’ve heard anything about HBO’s series The Leftovers it’s that it is a very polarizing show. People either love it or hate it for its heavy sadness and search for answers that may never come. Y’know, typical Damon Lindelof-y stuff. (I mean, the man did create Lost and all.)
Sunday night’s episode, “Guest,” was a particular bright spot and turn towards hope, particularly for one character: Nora Durst. The one who lost, well, pretty much everything (except her brother, Reverend Matt), including her family, her identity as a wife and mother, and has been left with nothing more than the label of Ultimate Victim thanks to the rest of Mapleton. So we stopped to chat with the very gracious Carrie Coon who had just gotten off a plane from South Africa and still managed to find the time to talk with us about the issues people have with the series, why the series is purposefully trying to challenge you (and maybe even change the conversations we have about life and identity), and what’s worthwhile about telling dark stories on television.
It should go without saying but there are spoilers from Sunday night’s episode. If you haven’t seen it, turn away now lest you be spoiled forever.
So! Without further adieu…
Nerdist: The Leftovers is a very bleak, dark show.
Carrie Coon: Yeah, and I guess I’m sort of inclined that way. I’m inclined towards projects that have a bit of a dark side… or a very large dark side [laughs]. I actually think Tom Perrotta’s book has a lot of humor in it and I think [his] writing has a lot of humor in it and he’s working on the show with us. Particularly in [this episode]: I actually think it has a lot of beautiful, hopefulness in it. I think there’s a little bit more of that coming for those that feel like they’re going to kill themselves watching the show.
N: Haha, yes, there’s been some of that out there.
CC: Most people feel they watch television in order to be entertained. And I don’t watch a lot of television because I don’t just want to be entertained I want to be challenged and that’s why I read a lot of books. Which is, perhaps, a snobby to say but there you go, I’m a snob, Alicia.
N: Nothing wrong with books! If that makes you a snob then you’re in good company.
CC: I’m just thankful to be involved with something that’s provocative and literary and ambiguous. I also really like ambiguity because frankly, my dear, how often do we have the answers in front of us? How often do we actually get the answers to our questions in our lives? Which is, I’m sure why we cultivate that sort of desire for entertainment. But life is not satisfying in that way, and I don’t know why we expect our art to be that way, but our show is trying to emulate life and I think our show admirably does that.
N: Well, I think too often in life people feel a need for there to be an answer, which is why you see all these cults popping up on the show. That to me feels very, weirdly, spot on, in my mind.
CC: We have a lot of situations in the world right now … and I think the question of “What if everyone was grieving at the same time?” is sort of a fascinating way to examine that phenomena. Like a school shooting or a terrorist attack or a plane going down somewhere. It’s like these events happen to us all the time and I think it’s very brave to ask some of the questions they’re asking.
N: I think it is important. If you don’t ask those questions, otherwise, people think there’s just a singular way to do things rather than thinking and deciding for themselves.
CC: Absolutely. It starts a conversation and hopefully invites people to exercise a little bit more empathy.
N: Did you read the book first?
CC: Yes I love Tom’s work and I read it before they announced it would be a series, actually. And I was very connected to Nora when I first read it. … And when I sat down and talked to Damon [Lindelof, the series’ co-creator] and realized what a passionate, intelligent, engaging person and artist he is I really was just so grateful to get the part and get to work with him, because despite whatever opinions people have about his work he’s a truly committed artist trying to reach the most people he can and television and film is how you do that. … Damon is working on a level where he is trying to create conversations with as many people as he can and I think he’s genuinely committed to that and I really respect him for it.
N: I imagine the conversations surrounding this show, more so than your plays and film work, are very polarized.
CC: [Laughs] They are! They really are. You know, episode 105 had some real brutality in it — it was really intense — and the rest of it sort of developed a little bit more slowly so it kind of led off. Which is not usually the structure of things: usually there’s a build to some climax or some cliffhanger at the end of the episode. I think they’re taking some chances.
From week to week you never know where the story will go or who it’ll follow and I think, like anything on TV, some moments are more successful than others. And because f the nature of the story and dealing with grief, which is highly, highly personal. For every person there’s a way of grieving. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people in the world and that’s sort of a remarkable thing and I think that gives them license to say anything goes. I mean anything you think of someone has done or is doing right now. So it’s interesting how people have very personal reactions to it and they filter it through their own experiences. One thing might register very strongly with one person and be completely looked over by another. So it’s fascinating!
N: It must be really rewarding because you’re causing so many disparate emotional reactions that aren’t often brought up by television.
CC: Listen, as a woman of my age, most of the scripts I read, you’re often given the opportunity to play a sort of bitchy, long-suffering wife, end of story.
N: That’s so frustrating!
CC: Yes, it’s very frustrating. And so to have something that’s got some character to it and a strong emotional narrative arc, is very satisfying. And I wouldn’t do television without that opportunity. I would very easily say no to a lot of things. There just aren’t a lot of very good parts for women sometimes, and they come along very rarely and you have to be, sort of, in a very small club to have access to them and I just can’t believe this came into my life when it did. If it’s the only television show I ever do I will be very, very grateful to have had the experience.
N: Well Nora is just — oh my gosh, I get very emotional when I see her because she’s just this sort of, raw nerve that’s reaching out for any experience that’s outside of this idea people have of her because of all that she’s lost.
CC: Aww, thank you so much for saying that. I think a lot of us can relate to the idea that, as our lives go on, we sort of become the roles we play. And as women we may someday relate to the world as wives and mothers, and you can imagine sort of building up your identity around that for years and years, and then to have that taken away from you. The question of who you are becomes, really, a sort of life-shattering, identity-shattering question. And now she’s given the identity of pinnacle of grief, the grieving woman.
What I love about 106 [Sunday night’s episode, titled “Guest”] is that even that identity is taken from her. So she keeps getting stripped and stripped down and she has to confront ‘Who am I?’ without these things. I wonder if people don’t respond to Nora because no matter what the circumstances of one’s life, that’s a question I think everyone can relate to. How we relate to the world is sort of what Nora’s right in the middle of: just like a teenager is, all the time.
N: Well it feels like, in this day and age, that those sorts of things are happening all the time, and with more frequency, just because things are moving so fast and changing so rapidly. We constantly have to adjust our perception of ourselves.
CC: [Laughs] Yes. Absolutely.
N: And it was so devastatingly poignant to watch Nora stuck in those moments. Like with the milk and the eggs and, throwing it all away week in and week out. You could see her identity had been taking from her and yet, here she was, still holding onto those last vestiges.
CC: Oh, that was a beautiful detail, wasn’t it? It wasn’t in the book originally [and] I don’t know which writer it was that came up with it, but I just thought it was a beautifully visual way to illustrate her hanging on to something.
I mean, that script, when it was handed to me, I couldn’t believe they were doing this episode that was just about her and I would have the opportunity to do [what felt like] a mini-movie. It felt like a little mini-movie and to give Nora that time … because it’s hard to really get in there and relate to what she’s going through unless you’ve experienced that sort of loss. And you want to dignify that journey for someone who has been through it, you never want anything to feel trivial.
N: I feel like you and Christopher Eccleston [her brother Matt on the series] have had these beautiful episodes about how this has really affected them.
CC: Chris is a wonderful guy! He’s so fun to act with he’s so present and lovely. I was so happy when I found out we were going to be related! Which is another thing that is different from the books and it complicates things and compounds their loss. I mean, they have no parents! Laughs] I can’t believe Nora’s still alive.
N: Seriously. It’s amazing that she can carry on despite everything that she’s been through. There are probably so many people out there in this Leftovers world, that lost so much less and just fell totally apart.
CC: Yeah, it’s incredible to see what sort of spirits get crushed and which ones carry on. It’s a really perplexing question to me, in my life, when I look around at all the different people in my life. How someone who’s had a lot of hardship could end up being a truly extraordinary and generous person and someone who might have half that hardship is sort of half the person they could be. When and where that spark is present in a person is a really interesting question to me and certainly something I was exploring when I was working on Nora.
N: Well, I know I have to let you go shortly but I have to ask you about that incredible scene with Holy Wayne! Oh my gosh!
CC: [Laughs] Ahh, really? I haven’t seen it yet!
N: When Nora walked into the room it was sort of the culmination of a lot of things. It was a connection, finally, to some of the more disparate parts of the storytelling but also just to see something — anything — work to bring her some peace.
CC: Ooh, yes! In TV, it all moves so fast and when you’re doing a scene that’s cathartic like that it’s really hard to repeat because by nature catharsis is a purging of something. … Playing Nora, it was nice for me to get that sort of catharsis because of course she’s been very tightly bound and we’ve only really seen her in tiny snippets.
N: Do you think Nora necessarily believes Wayne’s stuff?
CC: I think Nora’s intellectual curiosity and her natural sort of resistance to what Matt is doing and where they came from with her parents makes her very skeptical about that kind of, uh, magical guru business.
N: [Laughs] Yes, let’s call it that!
CC: But the episode is structured such that she’s been put through this crazy, wild obstacle course and her foundation has been shaken. So if there was ever a time she’d be susceptible to this kind of action it would be on this particular day after having the experience she had at this conference. That’s the only way I think we could get Nora to that place and listen.
Because what happens when she lets go of that grieving: who is she then? I think that’s really terrifying. Or maybe she’s nothing, you know? There’s this kind of nothingness, and the scary part of that is hope. Hope is a really terrifying possibility for her. To entertain hope is really scary and that’s the very vulnerable place she’s in right now. Maybe that scene with Holy Wayne has opened the possibility of a little hope for her which is very dangerous. I think it’s very dangerous for her. And it’s also very brave! I think it’s very brave to hope.
What do you think of Nora’s change of heart? How about the changes made from book to show? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!