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Carrie Coon, star of The Leftovers, explains this week's crazy episode

Carrie Coon.
Carrie Coon.
(Jesse Dittmar)

HBO's The Leftovers has been one of the most compelling television shows this summer. The series is based on a novel by Tom Perotta, who co-created the series along with Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. The premise is that three years ago, on October 14, 2 percent of the world's population simply vanished. The series follows those who have been left behind — the leftovers — in the small town of Mapleton as they try to deal with their loss and rebuild their lives. One of the most interesting characters is Nora Durst, a woman who lost her husband and both of her children in the Departure. This past week's episode was concentrated almost solely on Nora; it gave us an intimate look at her struggles.

Nora is played by the insanely talented Carrie Coon, a distinguished stage actor whose 2013 portrayal of Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? earned her a Tony nomination. I recently chatted with Carrie by phone to discuss her role in The Leftovers. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BA: What drew you to the character Nora?

CC: I read the book The Leftovers before I knew it was going to be series, and liked it very much. I think Tom [Perrotta]'s got a great sense of humor! I was intrigued by Nora before I'd read it. So she'd sort of been in me for a while before I got the opportunity to audition for the part. I just found the way Tom wrote her … she was one of the most compelling characters in the novel.

And, of course, we departed from that storyline quite a bit in the series, so I had no idea where we were going to go. Which is one of the things that's different for me about working on television versus working for theater. With the theatre, you know the ending, you know all the events that are coming at you. So it's been fascinating to watch Tom and [series co-creator] Damon Lindelof and the other writers expand on the Nora I knew from the book, and create these other complex parts for her that didn't exist in writing.

BA: How much did Damon Lindelof tell you when you first started filming the series? Like, when we saw Nora's gun in episode 3, did you know that she was hiring people to shoot her?

CC: That was completely new information! I asked Damon [back in episode three], "Are you gonna tell me what we're doing with this gun? He said, "I can tell you we don't see it again until episode 6, and that you don't kill yourself." So that was … reassuring. But I had no idea till I got the script for 6 what they were prodding. It was pretty shocking to read that opening scene. It was the first thing we shot, so it was a really intense day.

BA: How long do you think Nora's been getting shot?

CC: I think she's probably done it a few times. I mean, she had to go through a lot of trouble to acquire gun, to acquire a vest. But the curious thing is, where you acquire that particular coping mechanism. I think she's so numb and she hasn't been able to feel for very long time, and only extremes can make her feel anything right now. But I left that a little bit mysterious for myself. But the way I sort of found myself into it was: for every person, there is a way of grieving. For every person in the world, there are different ways of coping with trauma. For anything you can think of, someone is doing that thing, right? So there's somebody in the world right now with a vest on getting shot by a prostitute. I guarantee it! So as an actor, armed with the knowledge that people are capable of almost anything, you can go confidently into any television episode and try to be truthful.

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Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux. (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

BA: What do you think it is about her that makes Nora such a relatable character?

CC: One reason people relate to her, and certainly why I related to her in the book, is that she's been a wife and a mother. That's her identity, and that's been taken away from her in an instant. We all define ourselves according to the roles that we play. And if you can imagine all the roles you play being taken away from you quite suddenly — then the question is, who are you? On top of that, she now occupies her new identity, which is a grieving woman. And when she goes to the conference, that's taken away from her. So she really doesn't know who she is. I think that struggle for identity is the thing people are connecting with about her.

BA: Yeah, she did seem personally offended that her badge was missing.

CC: That response was masking fear. Because if she's not being clearly defined by a  badge, if it's taken away from her, then she has to sit inside of who she actually is. And that's terrifying for her. The loss she suffered feels completely unimaginable, and the exploration of that is not rational — it's sort of physical and in your body, and that's a really terrifying thing to come up against. That's why a hug is a kind of release for her, because she's holding all of that in her body. I think we hold a lot of trauma in our bodies.

BA: Really, though: was a hug all Holy Wayne gave to Nora? I mean, he cured her simply by hugging her?

CC: I don't think Nora's cured, but I think she's open to the possibility of some tiny, tiny glimmer of hope. I think that's what we get to see. There was a release in her that she hasn't had for long time. I don't think this woman has been touched — like literally, physically touched very much. Just that hug alone is a very moving experience for her, having isolated herself in this particular way. And because she's been through so much at the conference, she's vulnerable to the possibility of some release. But no, I don't think she's fixed.

BA: Speaking of touch, tell me about your, um, romp with Billy Magnussen's doll.

CC: That's one of the more bizarre days I've ever had on any set. There aren't many days when you're humping a mannequin. That doesn't happen very much. Also, I was very sick while we were filming that episode, and I was already deliriously ill while shooting that scene. So I felt like I was dreaming. Here's Billy Magnussen, who's a wonderfully charismatic actor, and here's … Billy Magnussen's body, which had to be very strange for him. It all felt like a dream, quite frankly, which is probably good.

BA: I think Marcus [Magnussen's character] is a hunk, but he's also just a tad creepy, right?

CC: I mean, he's a man who's capitalizing on tragedy. Show me tragedy and I'll show you somebody making money off of it. That is a little creepy, I think.

BA: Let's go back to episode 3 for a minute. When Nora and Matt were arguing over, among other things, Matt's request for a huge loan, the question of God came up. That seemed like it was a hot-button word for Nora. What are Nora's thoughts about God, specifically as he relates to the events of October 14?

CC: I think Nora's point of view is, if there is a God, he wouldn't punish people this way. What kind of God would take her family away without some explanation? Or without her having committed some egregious sin? Also, I think she had a complicated relationship with her parents: her father was a Methodist preacher, and they burned to death. So her parents are affiliated with religion and they were lost. I don't think Nora has a positive idea of God: she finds him very punishing. So anything that smacks of religion, she's a little skeptical about. Religion certainly hasn't brought her any comfort.

BA: Did something change with Nora's relationship with Matt when he blurted out the information that her husband was having an affair before he vanished?

CC: Do you think something changed?

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Paterson Joseph, Carrie Coon. (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

BA: I mean, sure. But it's complicated, right? I think she's mostly angry at Matt, but also slightly relieved to know such a heartbreaking truth.

CC: I think you said it: it is a complicated situation. Here she is grieving this thing she lost, and it turns out she didn't lose what she thought she did. So not only has she lost something — then she finds out that thing doesn't actually look like what she thought. I think she has a lot to process after that information. Certainly it's a cruel moment for Matt: he uses that information as a weapon to get back at her in that moment. So she's angry at him for that. But yes, I think the reception of that information is a much more complicated thing. When you find out your spouse is cheating on you, they're usually there to yell at and talk to and fight with. But Nora doesn't have anybody to have that conversation with because Doug's gone. So that is complicated information she has to process in a vacuum, which is hard.

BA: But she did decide to keep Doug's last name.

CC: I mean, that's her children's last name, too. She made those children with her husband, and just because that happened doesn't mean she doesn't love him. She has to confront the life she built in a stark way because the life she built was taken away from her. Normally we're examining the lives we built while we're still experiencing them. She's kind of starting from scratch: she's standing outside of this life she made, with the possibility of remaking it entirely, should she find the will to do so. That's not a position we often find ourselves in — or, at least, we don't think we are there. I suppose anybody's in that position at any time. But we have too many obligations to consider, and she doesn't have those.

BA: Does Nora's government job give her any insider information about what really might have happened on October 14?

CC: I don't think so. People doing her job are just bureaucrats. They're executing a series of tasks that were given to them. The reason she's doing it, I think, is that she was subjected to that questionnaire three times, one for each person she lost. She was probably put through it with a punishing, clumsy, poorly-trained government employee. I think she's very proud, and so she's determined that somebody that went through something extraordinarily traumatic like her, wasn't going to suffer what she suffered. She was going to handle that in a sensitive way and make the experience more positive. Now, on the other side of that, she's also indulging in grief all the time. So it's complicated.

BA: A big deal was made over how Nora was delivering question #121: "In your opinion, do you think the Departed is in a better place?" What changed about Nora's delivery of that question after her moment with Wayne?

CC: What do you think about it?

BA: My turn again?! I'm not too sure. Maybe whatever it was that he did to unlock her helped her to deliver the question in such a way so as not to elicit sympathy?

CC: I'm not sure, either. I don't know that Nora's even sure about what was going on there. I can tell you she didn't like being accused of influencing people during the interview, and she was bound and determined to prove to herself that she wasn't doing anything to influence them. Now that's just Nora's point of view, whether or not objectively that's true. But I think she got the answer she was looking for: that it wasn't her. But that doesn't mean it wasn't her. Does that make sense?

BA: So it seems like we hit a major turning point for Nora Durst. Can you give us any idea about what we can expect from her in the last few episodes of the season?

CC: [really long pause] I can't. I'm not allowed. Hopefully … more surprises? I think you're right: we have hit a turning point for her, and I think … you should expect some things to change for her. And that's all I can say.

BA: I should have known not to ask for any spoilers from an actor on a LIndelof show!

CC: No, no, you're fine. I'll just get in trouble. They'll fire me, but they'll leave you alone.