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Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon) try to start over.
Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon) try to start over.
HBO

Leftovers star Carrie Coon tells us why it's actually one of TV's most hopeful shows

"Don’t we have to choose how we’re going to live?"

The hotel room felt too big, too ornate before Carrie Coon walked in. She approached with a warm smile and a firm handshake, and just like that, the outsize room felt exactly right.

Coon did much the same for The Leftovers, HBO's adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel in which people struggle to cope after 2 percent of the world's population vanishing into thin air. The series drew both high praise and weary eye rolls for its solemnity. But through all the divided opinions, there was always admiration for Coon's portrayal of Nora, a devastated woman grappling with the disappearance of her entire family.

Her guilt, fury, and compassion drove some of the first season's most telling and startling moments. She even recognized a kindred spirit in Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), whose anger and helplessness reflected her own. Nora grieved in fits and starts, struggling against her newfound role as her town's most tragic figure even as she clung to it, for fear of falling.

The first season ended with Nora, Kevin, and Kevin's daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), finding an abandoned baby on Nora's doorstep and banding together as a makeshift family. This is also where Perrotta's book ends. With no further road map, Perrotta and his co-creator, Damon Lindelof, decided to change the scenery completely for the second season.

In "A Matter of Geography," the second episode of the second season, Nora and the Garveys move to Miracle, Texas, the only place on Earth that didn't have a single disappearance. I spoke with Coon about Nora's changing role, the newest theory on the Departure, and the constant strength it takes to withstand tragedy. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Framke

This past week, I watched 13 episodes of The Leftovers, and I have to say, it messed me up a little bit.

Carrie Coon

Oh good, it’s working!

Caroline Framke

How is it to act in that place, just, all the time?

Carrie Coon

The kind of wonderful thing about being an actor is that we get to go through something and have a catharsis. At the end of doing something emotional, I usually feel great. It’s like having a good cry, you know? You almost feel better when it’s over. So it was actually really fun to do, because you get to exorcise all of those things inside of you that need to come out. Sometimes I feel like actors are the healthiest people, because we actually are fully expressed.

Caroline Framke

This season, Nora goes to Miracle and tries to start over. How much of this is actually a way to start over, and how much is just not processing her trauma?

Carrie Coon

I think it’s both, absolutely. I think she thinks this is a great way to start over, but if you haven’t dealt with the things that are simmering inside of you entirely, they’re going to come with you wherever you go, and so she’s brought them with her to Miracle. While she’s doing a beautiful job of embracing — or re-embracing — this role as wife and mother, it’s in these complicated circumstances.

"Even the mundane things are magnified, because of the kind of damage they’ve sustained."

Kevin and Nora have been thrown together pretty quickly in this intense crucible. They haven’t really lived together day to day for very long. So all those mundane relationship things come up, but of course it’s Kevin and Nora. So even the mundane things are magnified, because of the kind of damage they’ve sustained. So I think it’s 50 parts escapism, 50 parts not dealing with the things that are going on, which of course are going to come up as the season goes on, and they’re going to have to deal with themselves, in addition to all the external things that are happening to them in Miracle.

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Nora and Kevin meet their Miracle neighbors (HBO)

Caroline Framke

Nora’s one of the very few characters who doesn’t engage with the mysticism or supernatural-ish … whatever is going on. Now that she’s so closely linked with Kevin, is that something she’s going to have to deal with?

Carrie Coon

I think it’s much easier for Nora to say that whatever’s happening with Kevin is not supernatural, that it’s his own mental health issue, which she has said she’s willing to take on. That may prove harder than she initially thought. She thinks she’s been through so much that she can probably handle anything, but she’s bitten off more than she can chew with Kevin, because of course we know it’s probably a little beyond his control.

They started from a very authentic place, but they very quickly have gotten off that path, and that’s really the only way that relationship is sustainable. So she’s going to have to get on board with some of that supernatural stuff, maybe, before it can go forward.

Caroline Framke

There’s that really amazing moment of honesty in the second episode, where Kevin lays out exactly what’s been happening to him, and he thinks that’s going to be the end of it —

Carrie Coon

And she's like, "and prostitutes shoot me. So? We can handle it." I know, I love that. Whatever you think about the supernatural elements of the show, I think it’s so grounded in reality. Because the only relationships I think can be successful over time are the ones that start from this honest place, or that eventually get to this honest place, by accident or by choice. I love that that’s where Kevin and Nora are starting this season: "Here’s everything, on the table. Can you handle it?"

Caroline Framke

They’re coming from two very different places but ending up in the same overwhelmed place.

Carrie Coon

Yeah, [is it] too much of the same thing? I don’t know. Because there’s something lovely about seeing someone across the same room and saying, "Oh, I see you over there. I recognize you." But "Can it work?" is a great question for season two.

Caroline Framke

Nora sells her house to MIT researchers, who have the latest theory about how the Departure happened: that it’s "a matter of geography." That she was in the kitchen, her family was in the dining room, and that was it. Why do you think she latched onto that theory versus anything else?

Carrie Coon

Well, if it’s about geography, then it’s not about her. If it’s about geography, then it’s not her fault. It’s not something she’s done or didn’t do. Because of course, she wasn’t taken, which is as big a question for her as the fact that her family was taken from her.

So if she can accept that it’s geography … that seemed like a very practical, scientific explanation. It’s not spiritual. Come on, it’s MIT! They have a reputation! And it’s not her fault. It’s much easier for her to sort of eschew that responsibility, if that’s the explanation. So it makes perfect sense to me that she latches onto that, sort of buys into it, wholesale.

Caroline Framke

From what I understand, Nora was not a huge part of the book.

Carrie Coon

Yeah, you always wanted a little more of Nora. She was definitely more prominent in the series. I read [The Leftovers]; I’m a big Tom Perrotta fan. So it was wonderful when it came back around as a series, and I happened to be in New York. One of my first auditions after my Broadway play [Coon's Tony-nominated turn as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] was for Leftovers, and it was such a wonderful thing to get.

Caroline Framke

Were you surprised as to how much bigger Nora's role got [in the series]?

Carrie Coon

Certainly, when I was handed episode six ["Guest"] from last year, which is of course not a part of the book. To be entrusted with an episode of television, which I had never done in my life. I had never been on television that many minutes; I had never shot that many days in my life. It gave me a new respect for what television actors go through, especially the ones making 22 episodes a year.

But I felt so … scared to do it. I also felt so moved that they had entrusted me with that story, and that they were embracing Nora in this way. That the writers had sort of gotten on board with her and given her these extraordinary things to do. Because of course, as a woman, you might get to play a long-suffering wife or an annoying girlfriend. You rarely get to plumb the depths of the things we’re looking at in this series. It was very gratifying as an actor to be asked to act.

Caroline Framke

In a lot of other series, maybe Nora giving the [Heroes Day] speech and smashing the mug would’ve been it.

Carrie Coon

She would’ve kind of gone away, or she wouldn’t have smashed the mug. That’s such an odd detail.

Caroline Framke

That’s the first one that really grabbed me in the series.

Carrie Coon

It’s really strange. I love it. Pete Berg directed it in such a way that there’s something about it that is amusing to her. I mean, I found it amusing that she did it. She’s just testing everyone around her to see how they respond, and also just affirming that identity of Grieving Woman in this town and how she can kind of do no wrong, which is a very strange way to live, if you’re sort of above reproach. But not because of anything you’ve done — because of something that happened to you. You’re very passive in that. So I love that she was always testing those limits and reaffirming that little dark core.

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Nora in her new Miracle home (HBO)

Caroline Framke

Is it going to be a harder transition than Nora thinks to move to Miracle, where no one knows her story?

Carrie Coon

Absolutely. I mean, we see her with this lovely lightness at the beginning, embracing the new role with this new baby, and of course taking on Margaret Qualley's character [Jill] as a sort of stepdaughter — pseudo-stepdaughter, anyway. We even see some lightness in the way she’s dressing and the way she’s carrying herself. It was really fun to explore that side of Nora, before things go haywire. Because she’s not just one thing. None of us are.

Caroline Framke

Nora never had a daughter who was as old as Jill.

Carrie Coon

She has to be sort of the "cool stepmom." Jill’s mom is still in the picture somewhere, and obviously Jill has a very complicated relationship to her mother. [Nora] has to tread very lightly. It’s so very new. You don’t earn those rights to weigh in as a parent right away, I don’t think. So it’s a fine line she’s walking. And she wants to be cool! She wants to be the best pal.

I also think there must need to be some distance, because of course, her daughter never got to be that age. Whenever she sees Jill, there must be some longing for what her daughter might have been. There’s this layer of sadness always in that. And yet here’s this beautiful young woman, embodied by Jill, who is alive and in the world.

Caroline Framke

Was there any storyline that you wish you got to interact with more?

Carrie Coon

Oh, always. The thing about my part in the show is that I very rarely see the other women. Ann Dowd, Amy Brenneman, Liv Tyler… I don’t get to act with those women, which is the part of it that’s a little sad to me. They’re extraordinary.

carrie coon regina king leftovers

Carrie Coon and Regina King (HBo)

I had a little bit of stuff with Regina King this season, and that was so fun. She’s an extraordinary actress, and we have some great stuff together. It was so satisfying to work with another actress. I love Justin, and I love Margaret, but there are so many great actors on our show that I never get to work with.

Caroline Framke

When The Leftovers first came out, the word that first described it was "bleak." But when I was watching it, I didn’t think that was totally fair.

Carrie Coon

I’m glad. Because I don’t see it that way, either. I think people were quick to judge because it was a bit of a slow build, [but it] was ultimately satisfying.

Because when we look around us, aren’t we surrounded by bleakness? Don’t we have to choose how we’re going to live? You’re watching these people struggle to make that choice every day, and I think that is actually wonderfully hopeful. It demonstrates a kind of resilience that doesn’t get explored that fully in television very often. So often we get these glancing blows in television, and everybody’s fine. You never see the actual cost of our decisions or the events that happen to us.

I think The Leftovers was hard to watch because the actual cost is very present, which I think is rare. There’s something very real about it, even though there’s a supernatural element. I love that about it, and I love the ambiguity. My life is full of ambiguity! Art that’s ambiguous resembles my life more than things that tie life up with a little bow. I just don’t think life is like that.

Caroline Framke

Just like the Departure, at some level, maybe [the supernatural element] doesn’t matter. What matters is how people react to it.

Carrie Coon

Right. The impact matters. [Like] any town that’s had a shooting … you know, Tom wrote it after 9/11. It was a metaphor for a collective grief. So I think the message of the show is that though things will fall apart, they also get put back together.

Caroline Framke

Nora’s reputation was passive — she received it, through nothing she did. But every day since then has been an active choice.

"What would happen to any of us if our obligations suddenly evaporated? Would we know who we were?"

Carrie Coon

It has. What gives Nora her edge, in a way, is that almost no one in our lives ever has this moment where their obligations disappear. Think of all the obligations that are driving our little choices we make every day. Suddenly, hers evaporate. She’s sort of sitting in this moment of incredible freedom. There’s this tension between hanging on to what was before and actually kind of having permission to go forward to some completely new life. She doesn’t take that road, she doesn’t leave and start over, she kind of … stays. It’s this tension that’s inside her.

What would happen to any of us if our obligations suddenly evaporated? Would we know who we were? That question of identity is so central to the show, and I think that’s what sort of gives Nora this great tension, this great edginess, is because she really could go there. She could really dye her hair blonde and leave town.

Sometimes I would love to see what would happen if that’s the choice she had made, but that’s not the choice we get to see play out. But that possibility is inside of her. That possibility is actually inside of all of us. We actually could all walk away from our lives. We just don’t. So "why don’t we?" is a great question.

Caroline Framke

And in the second season, we see Nora taking on this new set of obligations.

Carrie Coon

Exactly. So how different is it, really? It’s an interesting question for me, to be asked if I could walk away from my life, who would I be? Would I survive that? It’s a really fascinating question for art to be asking.

Caroline Framke

I hadn’t thought of it like that. I’m just going to walk out of this hotel and away from everything…

Carrie Coon

You could! I mean, in theory. It might be very hard. You might fail. But you could really do it. [Laughs.] I hope I read that story tomorrow — that you just disappeared.

[Caroline Framke did not, in fact, disappear forever, despite Carrie Coon's obvious attempt at witchcraft. —ed.]

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