The actor remarks on the challenges and joys of playing the ever-serious Nora Durst, and why The Leftovers has always been a story about hope.
HBO: What’s been the biggest challenge working on this series?
Carrie Coon: Before I started doing television work — The Leftovers was my first series — my experience had been in theater. On stage you have the opportunity to tell the whole story each night, which means build up to the emotional climax and come down from it all on stage, in full view of the audience. If you’re not fully present that night or you’re distracted, you have time to get into the story before you hit that moment. In television, it’s two in the morning and they come knock on your door and tell you, “OK time to come out and go do the emotional climax.”
HBO: Were any scenes particularly difficult?
Carrie Coon: The emotional moments for Nora are some of the hardest ones to repeat. I had to do that Holy Wayne scene from Season 1 [Episode 6, “Guest”] probably 12 times, and it’s really hard to hit the reset button. The nature of a catharsis is it’s just that — it’s a catharsis. Your body has a release, and then it’s over. But in TV you have do it, stuff it all back in, and start over. Which is very unnatural. It’s part of that mysterious process that is to be an actor.
HBO: What moment has been the most freeing?
Carrie Coon: To do stunt work in Season 3 was a lot of fun. [In the finale] I have that scene with the goat on a hill. That was a very rainy, muddy night — they were having biblical rain in this small town it hadn’t rained that much in 30 years — and there was a question of whether or not I would do my own stunt because I had knee surgery earlier that year. There was this rocky hill and this lovely stunt women had rolled down the hill a few times so they could find all the rocks; they had prepped the space for me, but no one thought I was actually going to do the stunt all night, full on. But I was an athlete, I’m pretty reckless, and I take great pride in trying to do my own stunts. I ended up rolling down that hill so many times. It was really hard, and I hurt myself a little bit, but to have real circumstances was really satisfying to me. The first time I ran after my surgery I was sprinting after a bus [in “G’Day Melbourne”]. Both things were very challenging and exhilarating. I really recommend rolling down a hill as an adult if you get the chance to.
HBO: What was it like filming Matt and Nora’s final scene?
Carrie Coon: There’s different ways of making meaning and there are different beliefs in the world, but these characters really come to an understanding. I love their acceptance of each other. The beautiful part about doing that scene [in “The Book of Nora”] is Chris Eccleston [who plays Matt Jamison] and I were saying goodbye to each other. I got to be very present with Chris, my pal, and really look at him and say goodbye. It was one of those rare circumstances when your life circumstance works in tandem with the show’s. It feels like a really serendipitous moment of life you get to experience very fully because your art is inviting you to do so. I was so grateful that scene was written for us.
HBO: Is it difficult for Nora to walk away from everyone?
Carrie Coon: They are the only obstacle. Because Nora does not fear her own annihilation. She is not afraid to die. She’s already been to hell and back when she lost her own family. That’s why we see her engaging in that behavior in Season 1 with the prostitute. One centimeter and she’s dead. She’s totally willing to entertain the possibility of death. The only thing that kept her alive was the love of people. I really think that’s what the show is all about: You actually can’t make a meaningful life in a vacuum. Making meaning requires messy interaction with other human beings. If you want to live with courage and chaos, the only way to do that is with other people. The pull of that love was strong enough to keep her on this earth, and always was.
HBO: What was your first reaction to your final monologue?
Carrie Coon: What was really shocking was how people reacted to it from just the scripts, before we had even shot it. The crew was really divided. There was really a 50/50 split on if Nora had made this story up to justify being there and living the way she was living. People were passionate in their defense on whatever side they took.
HBO: Did you have a strong feeling one way or another?
Carrie Coon: I didn’t have an instinctual, “Oh yeah, it’s definitely this.” I had to sit with both. It’s open to interpretation to whether or not she’s telling the truth. What’s beautiful is whether the viewers thinks she’s lying or not it says more about the them than Damon or me or our story.
HBO: Do you find the end of the series hopeful?
Carrie Coon: I’ve always found the show hopeful. I’ve always felt it’s a testament to how resilient we really are. Collective grieving is really powerful, but it’s a process we move through all the time. We have so many examples in our country right now, unfortunately, of entire communities grieving losses. To me the show has always felt very real because of that.
There’s a tenacity in striving for meaning that the show really represents. It’s part of the human condition — we are desperate to find our purpose and understand what we are doing here. And we keep looking for it. Flying in the face of science or chaos or the inevitable decline of civilization, we keep trying every day, and to me there is nothing more hopeful than that.
Watch every episode of The Leftovers on HBO.
More from “The Book of Nora”