Storytelling and artists are ultimately the keepers of history. I hope that we value the vitality we receive from the arts and that it’s reinvigorating—that we feel how important it is again.
Two episodes into the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers, the beleaguered suburban police chief Kevin Garvey faced an existential crisis because of a bagel. He placed its two halves onto the conveyor belt of the office toaster, but no bagel materialized on the other side. Where the hell had it gone? Kevin, the viewer could guess, was considering two possible explanations. One was that he had lost his mind, and would soon join his delusional father in a mental hospital. The other was that the bagel had supernaturally vanished—in the same way that 140 million people, two percent of the Earth’s population, had inexplicably disappeared on October 14, 2011. This bagel saga did find a rational resolution: eventually, he took a power drill and opened up the toaster to find two crispy circles stuck in the back of the machine. Nevertheless, he unraveled, and the scene was typical of The Leftovers’ three-season run. Critics, it turned out, were hungry for things like this. They came to love the show. Yet, the audience remained small. Like the Tom Perrotta novel it was based on, the little-watched but deeply beloved HBO series didn’t concern itself with explanations most of the time. What mattered was that something devastating and inexplicable had occurred in the recent past, and that life has been strange, dangerous and charged with possibility ever since.
The Leftovers has found new relevance in our quarantined world, as we grieve for lives lost and the loss of any sense of normal. The series was very prescient about the coronavirus, right down to depicting two percent of Earth’s population disappearing. The show can also be comforting because it is ultimately hopeful. It remains one of the most sadly overlooked shows ever produced, and Carrie Coon carried a huge part of it on her shoulders as Nora Durst. A lot of people would watch anything Coon is in simply because she’s in it, and not surprisingly, she delivers another awards-worthy, career-best performance in Sean Durkin’s domestic psychodrama The Nest, which world premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s been nine long years since Durkin burst onto the scene with Martha Marcy May Marlene, and his latest is an equally chilly affair set in a spooky old mansion and centered around a family with serious communication issues.
Set in the mid-‘80s, Jude Law is smarmy as Rory, a former commodities broker driven by an ambition to do and make more, who uproots his family from their woodsy, modernist bungalow outside of New York City to his native England in order to capitalize on some new business opportunities he simply can’t afford to turn down. His horse trainer wife, Allison (Coon), is less than thrilled about the move, not least because she’s heard it all before and is rapidly losing patience with Rory’s constant get-rich-quick schemes. But they make the move regardless along with their children, son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) and Allison’s daughter Sam (Oona Roche) from a previous relationship. On arrival, it transpires that Rory has put down rent on an old country manor in Surrey, replete with secret passageways and creaking stairs, which is clearly out of their price range. As Rory desperately tries to make the move a success, fissures begin to appear within the clan. Allison becomes disillusioned with the man she married, exacerbated by Rory’s increasingly desperate, delusional efforts to make it all work. A battle of wills develops between husband and wife, with Rory’s sales pitch of a better life going down like a lead balloon once reality starts to bite. Again, Coon steals the show here. With electrifying dexterity, she gathers the film around herself, in a turn that crackles off Law’s reckless Rory, to create its own weather system.
Next up for Coon is the HBO’s series The Gilded Age, which is now heading into production after delays. The actress is tapped to play Bertha Russell, who’s described as “an ordinary middle-class woman” in a fictional story revolving around the millionaire titans of New York City in the 1880s.
The Nest opens in select theaters today, and goes On Demand on November 17.
You’re about to head into production on The Gilded Age. How have you been feeling about returning to set with all the unpleasantness that’s been going on?
I feel that we’re in very good hands. There’s nothing but transparency and goodwill and solid, science-based information. The unknown is of course such that we can put all of these protocols in place, but we won’t know where the holes are until we’re actually on set and doing the work. I’m very confident that our producers are on top of it. I’m feeling as safe as I can feel being part of the first production back in New York.
I think we are going to be the first. I hope that what we figure out can contribute to the opening back up our industry, but I don’t want to do that at my own or my husband’s [playwright and actor Tracy Letts] expense. Because none of this is worth dying over. I’m cautiously optimistic.
Have they gone over the safety protocols with you already?
Oh Kee, that’s all we do! All we do is talk about safety. Before I flew to New York, they sent me a package of PPEs that has a face shield and N95 masks and hand sanitizers and a scan thermometer. Everyone that I encounter is tested every day. I was tested twice before I was allowed to travel. So there are a lot of protocols in place. In fact, it’s all about protocols. My hope is that, if not protocol at the expensive of art, we can still find our way into building community. I think we’re all prepared to do that as long as we have a good sense of humor and we prepare.
I’m really looking forward to this show. The ensemble is just off the charts.
It really is. Those are all great New York theatre actors that aren’t going to be back in the theatre for a long time. We’re being put to good use.
Not that I needed any more evidence of this because you always perform at such a peak level, but you’re that always-reliable actor directors purport exists. You can tell when directors love their actors and performances, and I would wager that’s the case with Sean [Durkin] as well. How did you first meet?
The first time I met Sean was at a brunch the day after Brexit, the first time he left his house with the new baby. We met under very vulnerable circumstances, which is actually a wonderful way to meet an artist. We had more formal meetings later about various projects he was developing, but ultimately, Rose Garnett, who now runs BBC Films, I think really championed me for The Nest. And because Sean I knew each other, we knew we were a good fit already. Then Jude [Law] and Sean came to my apartment in New York and we discussed some of the backstory for the couple. We had a really great time sussing out their psychology. All three of us are interested in that angle, and Jude and I come from the theatre where you get a lot of time to do rehearsals and think about your character from a psychological standpoint. So we had a lot of that time. Ultimately, what’s wonderful about Sean is that he does love actors, you’re absolutely right. Everything that’s happening on set is very actor-driven. He wants to make sure we feel that we got a scene. He will always make time to do another take no matter what’s happening. Even if we’re losing light or we have to move on, he’ll always protect the actors in the scene and that’s something I really love about Sean. And it really felt like working on a play with Jude.
There’s not one but many scenes in The Nest that made me rewind, again and again, because of your performance—the choices, the delivery. Even something as innocuous as Allison driving, smoking, listening to Heart grabs you. That scene not only situates the viewer in that temporal space in America, it gives you some idea about who this woman might be without being so explicit. It’s just great stuff.
The scene you’re describing is in the script. The thing about a good script is that the writing will always support your performance. When the script is well-written, it’s much easier to act. Sean is very, very specific. The writing in the movie is such that the character relationships are all very specific. I always use the example that, so often in a movie, kids are just collateral damage in a marriage. But when I read Sean’s script for the first time, the relationships between each parent and child were so particular, and that’s really rare to see. Sean enters into shooting it in the same way. He has a very specific idea of what he wants the film to look like visually and he had a very good partner in Mátyás Erdély, who’s our magnificent DP from Hungary. They had an almost wordless communication. They would both stand and look at the frame, look at the frame, then a decision would get made completely silently, and they would start shooting it. I found that eventually we were all enrolled in this telepathic communication. Mátyás would say, “Carrie,” and I would say, “Yes?” and he would just look at me and I’d say, “Oh okay.” [laughs] I would know what he was asking. I’d never seen anything like it. So there was almost a quiet irreverence for the process while we were shooting, and yet, we also laughed a lot and had a wonderful time.
It’s still crazy to me that The Nest is Sean’s only second feature.
It’s hard to get a movie made! And it’s not for a lack of trying. He’s really tried. You know, that mid-level of film has really gone away. It peaked in the ‘70s and ‘80s in America and then once those franchise films took over the movie industry, there wasn’t money for that mid-level of film anymore. So many of those filmmakers are moving to television because you just can’t get those movies made anymore.
I have a favorite line from the movie—you’re almost howling this: “You’re all strangers to me right now, all of you!” I want to ask you about that scene where Allison breaks down in front of the children because it really felt like the only moment in the film that strikes a different tone from everything else. Like for Allison, you don’t know whether there’s an intruder in the house or if the children are playing tricks on her. How did you end up playing that scene the way you did?
It’s so funny that you pinpoint that scene. I actually found it really hard, and the reason I found it really hard is because I am not constitutionally an angry person. To yell at them the way the script was calling for was very challenging for me, which is odd because I actually yelled at my little brothers a lot growing up. [laughs] We ended up having to reshoot it due to a script change, and I was grateful that I got to do it a second time because I never felt that I had nailed what Sean was looking for the first time we did it. In fact, there might’ve been a little change in the language when we went back and did it again. It is absolutely the choice of a great filmmaker because what you see in this scene is a very grounded woman. Allison is earthy and centered and she’s authoritative as a teacher, but quite warm as a mother and partner. She has the solidity that anchors Rory, who’s quite a dreamer. You can’t have one without the other. So for Rory to start spinning out, it’s very destabilizing. That’s so intentional of really great filmmaking.
There’s of course something really terrifying about the idea of suddenly having to live a life that wasn’t yours to live, too, either because of somebody else or just circumstance. I think this is something that a lot of people are going through right now. The displacement, not to mention the isolation, that all of the characters in The Nest struggle with when they get uprooted are things that feel really timely.
Absolutely, and I’m sorry that the world is rising to meet us with that particular theme. But here we are. I hope people find some comfort in it—that they can sort of examine their own isolation and their uncertainty from a distance by watching our film. I hope it gives them some space for that contemplation.
Usually when you read a script, do you definitively recognize the things you know how to play well and things that might require some more scrutiny on your part?
Inevitably, I think I know what they are and then something I thought was going to be really easy, or that I have a lot of access to, turns out to be the hardest moment. Every single time it turns out to be the hardest moment on a project. Then something I was really nervous about turns out to be the easiest thing for me to do. It happens every project. For example, that scene you were talking about where I’m yelling at my kids looked really simple on paper, but in the doing of it I just found myself coming up against some limitation that was really unsatisfying. But then the vision of a horse on the ground I can do standing on my head, so… [laughs]
I would imagine that you want it that way. If it was so formulaic and predictable, maybe it wouldn’t be interesting to you. So much of your job would be done already.
I suppose so. It certainly pits you against yourself in a useful way, and you’re not always successful so it’s very humbling at the same time.
What can you tell me about Steppenwolf Now, your theatre company’s “first virtual stage”? That must be a strange proposition for you since there is no live audience.
Well, the performances are not theatre. It’s me in a closet with a microphone so, for me, the experience is not theatre. The reason to generate that content is to keep a toehold in our community. We have an astonishing staff at Steppenwolf that has managed to keep our theatre solvent in a way that a lot of the theatres are not. I think we’re actually going to survive this pandemic. I don’t know what the percentages are, but many, many theatres will close their doors forever. Because we’re not in that position, we have a responsibility to the subscribers who are being loyal to us, and to our support staff who are working so hard to maintain contact with those subscribers who are equally as eager for us to come back to the stage. We have to give something to them in return for their continued support. We’re in the middle of a capital campaign in our community—a brand new building that we hope to inhabit once this all goes away, so we have a responsibility to our attendees to provide them with some content. It is different from what we’re used to, but it’s something. It’s really gratifying to see my fellow company members on a Zoom call. It’s really satisfying to get to do a play by Rajiv [Joseph, Steppenwolf ensemble member], even though we don’t get to be in a room together. Just to be in language, which is partly what we do, is at least something.
The percentage of unemployment has always been high, but they are catastrophic right now. Company people will be forced to leave the theatre because they can’t sustain themselves. Because their other jobs are gone, too, you know? There’s not a lot of support for theatre in America—from the government. We always had a joke: unemployment is how the government supports the arts. It’s not the same in other developed countries. Actors I speak to in other countries can’t believe the way that we live. So I hope it forces a reckoning. I hope one of the conversations that comes out of this is how vital those sources of entertainment are, and that storytelling and artists are ultimately the keepers of history. I hope that we value the vitality we receive from the arts and that it’s reinvigorating—that we feel how important it is again.
I’m currently covering a film festival right now that’s entirely focused around films by women, about women, from around the world. I know you’ve worked with female helmers on films like Strange Weather and The Keeping Hours. Have you had many opportunities to work with women directors in television and theatre?
Well, the theatre in Chicago doesn’t suffer from the same bias as the film and TV industry. We’ve always had very critical and highly regarded female directors in theatre in Chicago. Now, Broadway is not the same. It’s much harder for women to practice in the New York theatre scene. So I think it’s very different. TV and film—that’s an entirely different matter. I worked with some incredible female television directors. I just can’t believe that most of them made one film that didn’t make any money and they were never able to get money to make another film, even though the films are good. You really see female filmmakers emerging I think more readily in other countries, like Lucrecia Martel and Céline Sciamma. They were able to crack into the mainstream in a way that’s often more challenging in the American film industry. I don’t know enough about it to say exactly why the dynamics are the way they are, but it’s a big problem. It’s a big problem. It’s harder and harder to get movies made, and I think you’re going to see female directors getting more accolades for television, which then allows them to hopefully transition into making films. But the franchises have taken over the film industry so you don’t have a mid-level of filmmaking. It’s very hard for a new filmmaker to crack into the industry.
Céline Sciamma is incredible. Even before Portrait of a Lady on Fire came along, Girlhood blew me away. What female director do you want to work with? Let’s shout them out here.
Umm! Her?! [laughs] I said this on Twitter. I was going to buy a t-shirt with her name on it. I think Lucrecia Martel is doing some amazing work. Greta Gerwig has my number—I’m just waiting for her to call. Oh, and my friend Regina King. I adore her as an actor and I would love to be directed by her.
You recently gave a great answer when asked what piece of advice you’d give to your younger self. I think it’s worth repeating here because it will help people, especially in the social media landscape, which can be wonderful but also completely heinous. Was there a key moment when you made that breakthrough?
It has been a gradual unfolding. Our 20s tend to be tumultuous. I think for women at least—I can’t speak for men’s experiences—age 30 was a really big transition for me. I met my husband around that time. I just started living more authentically. I also had a couple of mentors in my life. I had a director say to me once: “I don’t want to work with Carrie, the good student. I want to work with Carrie, the artist.” Because I was always trying to guess what other people wanted so that I could do that thing and get their approval. Their approval meant everything to me. It’s a really fruitless exercise to be worried about other people’s approval. What I said is true. If you’re sitting in a room and there’s somebody to your left and someone to your right, they’re not thinking about you! [laughs] The person you’re sitting next to is not thinking about you. It’s such a ridiculous waste of time to put your energy into.
It’s completely illogical. Think about what you’re thinking about—are you thinking about other people all the time? The only rubric that matters is, how are you measuring up to yourself? If you think about all the striving that’s being done on social media, it just comes out of insecurity. The biggest bully is the most insecure person in any room, and it comes from their own damage. The only power you have is how you react to other people. You can’t change them, you can’t stop them, you don’t have any power over people. All you have power over is how you react and how you respond to other people. There’s a lot of comfort and empowerment in that once you embrace it.