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Leftovers fans already know the name Carrie Coon. Pretty soon everyone else will too.

How choosing curiosity over fear kick-started the rise of one of TV’s most talented actresses.

Carrie Coon Justin Bettman
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“I didn’t want to be the person who messed up the new David Fincher movie,” Carrie Coon tells me.

She’s recalling a do-or-die moment early in her screen-acting career — a moment that came just four years ago, in 2013, which seems rather remarkable for someone who is now playing the lead female role on two separate TV shows debuting new seasons within days of each other.

Before landing the part of Margo (the main character’s sister) in Fincher’s Gone Girl, Coon had played a couple of small parts in films. But then a 2013 Tony Award nomination helped boost her from those bit parts to a major supporting role. And now, in what otherwise might have been an inconsequential shot, she just wasn’t getting it.

“[Fincher] was trying to get me to lift my head in a very specific way, because he wasn’t getting enough screen direction,” she says over a long lunch at the Nash in Calgary, where she is currently shooting the third season of FX’s Fargo. “I didn’t know what screen direction was, so I didn’t know what he was trying to accomplish.” (Screen direction is the idea that movement onscreen — usually by actors — can help transition between shots in the final film.)

Fincher, a twice Oscar-nominated director, is famous for his exactitude and for demanding many, many takes, which even actors who love working with him will occasionally groan about. But on this day, he couldn’t seem to get what he needed from Coon, and he finally just gave up. She couldn’t do it. Coon was shaken.

“I’m a good girl. I got straight A’s. I’m a rule follower, and I thought, ‘Well, of course I can do it. How do I deal with this?’”

The next day, she told Fincher that because this was her first film, she didn’t always know his vocabulary. Could he help walk her through it? He immediately began showing the stage-trained actress how her actions looked on camera, so she could better understand how to move. (It certainly didn’t hurt that Ben Affleck, her Gone Girl co-star, was an acclaimed director himself and could also help her learn.) She went from neophyte to seeming expert over the course of one movie.

Carrie Coon in Gone Girl
Coon in Gone Girl.
20th Century Fox

“David became a wonderful teacher,” Coon says, “and the fact that he does 50 takes, that didn’t bother me at all.” She relished the opportunity to get everything exactly right. “The only thing David and I shared [was] we were perfectionists.”

Her first role after filming Gone Girl was on HBO’s The Leftovers. “We did something in, like, three takes, and [the director said], ‘Okay, I think we got it. Moving on!’ I was, like, ‘Wait! I was just warming up!’ I had to very quickly adjust.”

It’s an idea Coon brings up again and again — adjustment to something else, some other possibility of how to act or how to be. She seems to maintain a kind of radical openness to her collaborators and maybe to the universe. Every situation, every acting job, is different, and how you react will determine what happens next. You have control, except when you don’t.

Coon’s rise might seem meteoric from the outside. It does to me. And at times, she suggests that rise was nearly accidental — something that just sort of happened. But the road to her growing fame was a long one, filled with deliberate choices to embrace roles that terrified her and try to see them as opportunities. But how does one actually make those choices? To answer that, let’s look at why Carrie Coon is possibly the most exciting actor on television right now.

The first time I saw Carrie Coon onscreen, I said, as so many people do, “Okay, who is that?”

It was early 2014, and HBO was hosting an early screening of The Leftovers. Coon’s character, Nora Durst, steps up to a microphone to speak. The Leftovers takes place in a world where 2 percent of Earth’s population simply disappeared, rapture-like. But instead of a Christian rapture, those who departed and those who were left behind appear to have been selected essentially at random, and that random selection included Nora’s husband and both of her children.

You might expect Nora to be weepy, or defiant, or terrified, or numb. But she’s none of those things. As the show’s first season unfolded — and as the series has continued (season three debuts Sunday, April 16) — Nora has unspooled in a series of endless secrets. It’s almost as if the character is playing hide-and-seek with herself, keeping her truest face locked behind every door that exists in her subconscious while masquerading as the smiling, ultra-capable person she seems to be.

The sixth episode of The Leftovers’ first season reveals that Nora has been hiring female sex workers to shoot her after she dons a bulletproof vest, in hopes of what — dying? Feeling something? Understanding what happened to her family? She rises from each gunshot less certain of herself and her mission. Yet she forges ahead, in a world where to go on living, to simply keep drawing breath, is the most radical action anyone can take.

Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof recalls the first time he saw Coon’s work, when she auditioned for the role of Nora with the character’s speech from the pilot. “People keep saying the show is about grief, but if you’re a survivor of the Departure, that’s not grief. Grief is, ‘My kids are dead. My husband is dead.’ We know what grief looks like,” Lindelof says. “But what does the other thing look like, where you’re not entirely sure what happened to them and if they’re coming back? And Carrie was just broadcasting at that frequency.”

Carrie Coon in season two of The Leftovers
The Leftovers, season two.

Coon’s work on The Leftovers — her major television debut — was almost immediately followed by her role in Gone Girl. (The production cycle of a TV series is typically faster than that of a film, so Coon filmed her short scenes in the Leftovers pilot, then all of Gone Girl, then the rest of The Leftovers’ first season, which premiered before Gone Girl.)

And now Coon is taking the lead role in the latest season of FX’s Fargo (which debuts April 19 and will run concurrently with The Leftovers’ third season), where she plays a police chief who’s simultaneously navigating a tricky murder investigation, the end of her marriage, and an unexpected family tragedy. Gloria Burgle has the strength and grace of any Carrie Coon character, but also a kind of sad tenacity, as if she knows that solving this crime will tear so much apart.

Coon is very good at playing characters who are very good at puncturing other people’s bubbles, at seeing through their facades to their essential selves, while simultaneously throwing up a facade of her own. (It’s not for nothing that her Leftovers character investigates claims of disappearances for the US government, in hopes of preventing fraud.) When I talked to people who’ve worked with her, they kept telling me how surprised they were to see such a sweet, good-natured human being turn on a dime on camera and become a wall of flame.

Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux in season 3 of The Leftovers
Coon with Justin Theroux in The Leftovers.

“She’s lovely and funny and kind, but when she plants both her feet in the ground and says some of the things she says, it’s completely unnerving. She can go still in this way that when you’re sitting across from it, and she’s bearing into you, she becomes seven times bigger, 10 times more powerful,” says Justin Theroux, Coon’s Leftovers co-star, who plays Nora’s love interest, Kevin. “She’s got that thing you want from all actors, where they have this kind of focus and direction that they can just burn a hole through you.”

Like all the best actors, Coon is terrific at selling the notion that she’s only one person, but also everyone in existence. She’s both herself and whatever character she’s playing, but there’s always another layer to a Carrie Coon performance, where that character is also playing some more palatable version of themselves, meant to obscure who she really is.

And you can trace Coon’s skill at playing the shifting layers of intensely complicated characters back to her childhood in small-town Ohio, before she had even the slightest inkling that she’d be starring in two major TV series as an adult.

“She is a Midwestern girl,” says Fargo creator Noah Hawley of directing Coon in the show’s season three premiere. “These people, this region, [are] very familiar to her; the taciturn, Lutheran qualities that we highlight are very much in her wheelhouse. ... In that first hour, when I was directing her, I would struggle to find a note to give her. All I could say was, ‘Well, we’ll try another one.’”

Coon grew up in Copley, Ohio, a small, unincorporated community near Akron. Her mother was an ER nurse who worked nights, while her father ran an auto parts store during the day. Between their conflicting work schedules and raising five kids, her parents barely saw each other. (Coon now half-jokingly suggests maybe never seeing your spouse is the secret to a good marriage.)

As a child, Coon recalls, she was “obsessed with the end of the world” — something that makes sense in the context of The Leftovers, especially.

She describes coming downstairs late at night to ask her parents when Jesus was coming back. “They would always say, ‘It’s not going to happen in your lifetime.’ I would say, ‘Well how do you know?’” They didn’t have an answer that satisfied her.

Later, she turned her attention to less all-consuming ends: mummification and the local cemetery. She would comb headstones for stories — taking note of a bunch of children who died in the same year, or a woman’s grave off by itself. Even then, she was imagining the inner lives of people she had never met.

Carrie Coon in the third season of Fargo
Fargo, season three.

She was not someone who always knew she wanted to be an actor. Indeed, while talking to Coon, I occasionally got the sense that acting is just a thing she’s trying out for a while, and if it doesn’t work out — oh, well. Though it’s not like failure is a risk she’s currently facing. She’s been incredibly successful as of late, and she greatly relishes talking about the work of preparing for a role, of figuring out how she’s going to find the core of Nora Durst, versus the core of Gloria Burgle.

And yet she is, in some ways, an accidental actor. She had thought about the profession when young; as a child, she saw a stage production of Babes in Toyland and realized that people her age could be up there, onstage. But she never really pursued the thought further because of her parents’ hectic schedules. Still, it remained present, just dormant.

She drifted a bit in high school, trying a little of everything. (She was both homecoming queen and part of a group dedicated to the Star Wars role-playing game.) She acted in the high school play, but it wasn’t until graduate school that she considered taking on acting as something more serious, applying for and landing a spot in the acting program at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

“They took 10 actors every three years. All their first choices had gone elsewhere, so they were left with me. They admit as much, that I was kind of this desperate last choice for them,” she says.

But Coon thrived. Her first major role was Emily in Our Town — a part she had already played in high school and one that, in retrospect, seems like a signifier of everything to come. Emily, like Nora, like Gloria, like Margo, is a part of her community but also marked by her outsider status. When she, in the play’s moving final act, dies and reflects on all of the pieces of her life she didn’t pay enough attention to, it is, Coon says, an “invitation to presence.”

“What Emily is reminding us is how little time we spend being present to the circumstances of our lives, the minute details of our lives.” She gestures to the charcuterie board we’re sharing. “Relishing the blue cheese, and the paté, and the pickle. More often than not, we are thinking about the future or the past.” It’s not hard to see echoes of that role in Coon’s most recent work.

She attributes this sense of presence, too, to her hometown of Copley. Her family adopted her sister from El Salvador as a 4-year-old — young enough to become an integral part of the family but old enough, Coon says, to know “that some part of her was always going to be missing, and there was no cure for that.”

That double-sided sense of self that she witnessed in her sister — of knowing exactly who you are but also questioning everything about your place in the world — comes through in every one of Coon’s performances. Watching her sister navigate Copley also gave Coon’s work an innate decency.

“My husband [the playwright and actor Tracy Letts] always laughs that I’m obsessed with justice — even the tiniest injustice,” she says. “I think that partially comes from defending her right to be there and her right to be in my family.”

Throughout our chat, Coon and I keep coming back to the Midwest — both as a physical place and as an idea, an ethos that hangs over the region like a shroud. It’s synonymous with a certain code of propriety, an idea of how to behave, and that code animates both the comedy and tragedy of Fargo (which is, of course, based on a film made by the Coen brothers, both of Minnesota).

Sometimes we return to the topic because I want to ask about her experiences as a Midwest transplant who’s settled far from home. Sometimes she returns to the subject on her own, talking about how her parents grew up one mile apart and still live right by their childhood homes, in a place where quiet little towns dot the landscape and it can occasionally feel like a sin to want something too much.

It’s not a sin to leave, of course, just as it’s not a sin to want to stay, or to long for the kind of ties that can only come when people remain in the same place for generations. Coon describes her experience as an actor as one of being open to possibility, to the idea that some new way of looking at the world, or at her work, is right around the corner. And possibility has carried her this far, perhaps unexpectedly. Her rise might seem rapid or accidental to an outsider looking in, but she increasingly sees that rise as the culmination of a long string of choices, of always making the decision to step into something she might not immediately understand.

And yet Coon doesn’t see being an actor as some great destiny of hers. Instead, she suggests it’s a more of a temperament, a choice to embrace one value over another. She brings up her sister again.

“She was one of the first Latinas in our school district, and people not knowing where she was from and being very vocal about that — it made me very sensitive about putting someone in a category, about the limitations that were placed on her by people who didn’t understand and were afraid of the unknown, versus curious about the unknown,” she says. “That, to me, is the biggest change in my life. I think when you are someone who leaves a town like that, on some level, what you’re choosing is curiosity over fear.”

This choice is the core of Carrie Coon, I think. It’s why she doesn’t wilt from a challenge like making sure she nails how to lift her head in Gone Girl. It’s what allows her to fearlessly tear into the biggest, meatiest, most emotionally challenging material that some of TV’s best dramas can offer. She’s always open, always ready.

Despite the fact that Coon is playing major roles in two different prestige cable dramas right now, she won’t be as of June. That’s when The Leftovers concludes its third and final season, and Fargo — an anthology series that tells a new story with a new cast in each installment — will finish the story of Gloria Burgle shortly thereafter. It seems unlikely to me that Coon, who is 36, wouldn’t go on from there to plenty of other richly satisfying roles, but that’s part of the life of an actor: having to say goodbye to a role you’ve loved playing, and reembracing the uncertainty of finding the next one.

I suggest that working in theater has helped Coon learn how to say goodbye to a character, and she agrees, at least somewhat. After all, the role that would open every door for her is one she lived with for nearly three years: the drunken young wife Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Carrie Coon in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Coon (right) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

After moving to Chicago in the late 2000s, Coon was cast in the Steppenwolf Theatre revival of the play, which received sufficient critical acclaim to eventually travel to Washington, DC, and finally, to New York. Her performance would ultimately land her a Tony nomination and the attention of Hollywood casting agents. It also introduced her to Letts, her future husband, who already had a Pulitzer and Tony for writing August: Osage County and would win a Tony for his Woolf performance.

“Tracy respects and encourages my ambition,” Coon says of their relationship. “As a woman, we are not necessarily encouraged to embrace our ambition. We're taught that it's a little crass for us to reveal our ambition. Because Tracy's a guy who will jokingly tell you he wants to take over the world, there is so much more room for mine. He's my greatest champion.”

The two married in late 2013 — right as Coon was saying farewell to Honey after what seemed to her like an eternity, and embarking on her film and TV career. Of course, staying in the same role for three years is only a blip in television, where a successful series can run for more than a decade. But Honey had been part of Coon’s life for so long — especially with the 18-month gap between the show’s DC production and its eventual Broadway staging — that the character remains a part of her today. Coon and her fellow cast members would gather every few weeks to run their lines, and she would put on the accoutrements of Honey when she was alone in her apartment, trying to turn the role from something she performed to something that simply lived in her bones.

This, she says, is what’s wonderful about being an actor. All the ghosts of old selves stay with you. Honey is still with her, and The Leftovers’ Nora has given her something intangible.

“Nora does not suffer fools. In that way, she walks differently than me. She stands differently than me. She makes more eye contact than me. Playing her, I feel, has given me that more grounded version of myself that’s willing to take up space and stand by my opinions in a way I couldn’t do as a younger person,” she says.

Both The Leftovers and Fargo take place in universes where some force beyond understanding makes itself known in sometimes cruel and sometimes compassionate ways. I’m going to call it “God,” for ease of use, but it could just as easily be a UFO (on Fargo) or the staff of an otherworldly hotel (on The Leftovers).

So it’s only natural to ask Coon: Do you believe in God?

Her father, she says, was a Catholic seminarian who very nearly became a priest, until he met her mother and they got married. He took the kids to church, made sure they learned the basics and received their catechism.

But her mother was not a believer, not really. She had been raised vaguely Protestant, but no longer attended church as an adult. And yet Coon’s father viewed her mother — who was big and open-hearted and ready to take in anyone who needed help (she worked as a nurse, after all) — as the best Christian he had ever met.

“When I was confirmed,” Coon recalls, “my father wrote me a beautiful letter about the rituals of the church and having that be a part of my life. My mother wrote me a letter that said, ‘I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, but I treat my patients and my kids and everybody I meet the same, and I try to treat them with respect and dignity. If that’s not enough, then I don’t really know what to tell you.’”

Rules complicate. Dogma attempts to simplify the mysterious. Coon doesn’t go to church, not anymore — although, she says, she likes the act of grappling with eternal questions. But she recognizes what’s tempting about the idea of a simple answer. We talk about the allure of fundamentalism, of believing you know how things will play out, of never indulging curiosity enough to even peek behind the door.

Carrie Coon in season three of The Leftovers
The Leftovers, season three.

“My family motto for everything is, ‘We’ll handle it.’ No matter how terrible things get, somebody always says, ‘We’ll handle it!’” she says. “There’s this belief that we can wrestle any circumstance as long as we’re practical and we adhere to the Judeo-Christian principles we’ve been taught. We believe that bad things don’t happen to good people, but if they do, they happen for a reason. That helps us impose order on the chaos.”

That, I suggest, must be why she’s drawn to projects like The Leftovers or Fargo — where some unseen force animates the universe, but good luck getting it to talk to you. She thinks for a moment.

The Leftovers and Fargo speak to the heart of that thing,” she says. “These good, practical people are trying to find meaning, and actually they don’t have any control over their circumstances. They’re imposing order where there is no order, and when it doesn’t take the shape they expect, then they have to deal with their own meaninglessness and purposelessness.”

Several times during our chat, Coon talks about how much she learned from her grandmother, a woman who lived and died in rural Ohio and set an example for Coon both through what she said and did — the actress says she’s still wrestling with a letter her grandmother wrote to her that contains the phrase “pity is not the same as love” — and what she didn’t say or do.

Coon thought of her grandmother as strong, even feminist, for her era. “She was wearing pants at school, getting in trouble as a science teacher for taking her kids outside and launching rockets out of the 3M plant or the old quarry,” Coon says. “She always had a voice in her marriage. She didn’t seem like anyone who was cowed or mousy.”

And yet she didn’t feel as if she lived up to her granddaughter’s image of her. Coon recalls a conversation they had while Coon was in college.

Her grandmother had been struggling to cut back on the time she was spending with someone who was demanding too much of her attention, and the thought weighed heavily on her. Finally, in the middle of a lengthy phone call, she hung up on her friend, saying she couldn’t talk right then.

“She said,” Coon recalls, “‘It was the first time I have ever done that. If you can learn to say no now, you will be so far ahead of me, because I didn’t learn to say no until I was in my 70s.’”

We think of the American small town — especially the Midwestern small town — as fixed, as a place out of time, increasingly slipping away from everything else. Coon brings up the decline of the area she grew up in, and she becomes animated when we talk about the 2016 election. She hopes art can reach across the divide, even in a world where that seems unlikely.

And she believes things can change, even in small towns in the Midwest, even among her parents.

“We grew up on iceberg lettuce, and my mom’s idea of a vegetable at dinner was either a tomato or applesauce,” she says. “Now my parents buy fancy vinegar and olive oil and eat spinach. That’s a huge change, actually, those forces. ... Even these parts of the country which you’d think would be really isolated are not isolated from the changes that are sweeping through.”

Nothing is fixed, not really. Carrie Coon learned how to lift her head on camera, and her grandmother learned to say no, even in her 70s, and nobody is what we assume they are. All of us are weighing fear and curiosity against each other every day.

“I’m not interested in living a life of fear,” Coon says. “Of course, the opposite of that is not, ‘Oh, and then there are answers to everything.’ The opposite of that is, ‘There aren’t any answers for sure, and if you’re not going to live in fear, you have to live inside of possibility.’”

She thinks about that for a bit as we finish our lunch. “I think that’s what’s allowed me to have the career I’m having right now. I haven’t been overly attached to this particular journey of being an actor. I’ve just been open to the possibility of being an actor,” she says. “Often, we are limited by our vision and what we think [our life] is supposed to look like. The beautiful thing about an acting career is there’s no one story that’s the same. Everybody comes to it differently. Possibility is much more interesting.”

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