Why Carrie Coon Was 2017’s Best Actress
Forget the Oscars; 2017’s Best Actress Carrie Coon talks The Post, The Leftovers, Fargo, and More.
The 90th Academy Awards, honoring the best films and performances of 2017, air this Sunday. The results of the show will crystallize the most compelling and discussed art and artists from a talent-packed year for future generations and the history books. However, for those of us that consumed 2017’s pop culture in real time, the Oscars will not single out 2017’s most accomplished performer.
Though a part of the ensemble for the nominated picture The Post, 2017’s standout best actress is not individually nominated. Academy Awards do not honor the accomplishments of TV, otherwise maybe she’d be recognized for her jaw-dropping, highly affecting one-two punch performances in The Leftovers and Fargo. Though there’s a chance that, even if they did, an insane oversight or comedy of errors would result in her failing to be properly recognized for her insanely dexterous work, like what happened at this year’s Emmys. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will name a Best Actress on Sunday, but anyone paying attention will tell you that 2017 already has a Best Actress, and her name is Carrie Coon.
Den of Geek had the opportunity to speak with Coon about her breakout year, discussing the ending of The Leftovers, the theater-esque nature of Noah Hawley’s Fargo, the opportunities for women on television, and working with a living legend like Steven Spielberg on The Post. She may not hold a golden statue at the end of Sunday night, but she’s already much more than a winner in our book.
Den of Geek: You come from a serious theater background, earning attention and praise for your performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and this past year you made an equally big splash on some, let me use a buzzword here, “Prestige TV” shows. It may seem antiquated at this point, but for a while Stage vs TV was like a Highbrow vs Lowbrow debate.
Carrie Coon: Right.
Obviously, the quality of TV has changed quite a bit in the last 15 years or so. I was wondering what you thought…
I also would argue that theater is still superior. (Laughs)
Yes, definitely. Without a doubt. But I was just wondering what you thought about the state of TV in 2017?
Well as far as roles for women go, TV is offering much more to us than film is. And that remains true, unfortunately, as a woman of a certain age. Television is the place where women are flocking because, when actors are flocking to TV, it’s offering us parts that are challenging and resemble the women that we know in our lives, which has not been the case historically on TV, and very rarely in film. And I just got done doing a play in New York because of all the scripts that came my way, it was the most compelling script that I got. I’ll always go back.
That’s definitely true. I mean just if you look at the actresses that were nominated in the same category as you at the Emmys this past year, you know…
It’s crazy! And it definitely speaks to a sea change as to why there’s been this narrative about “Hollywood Movie Stars” coming to TV, but as you said there seems to be a wealth of roles available and women getting a chance to finally be showrunners and lead writer’s rooms…
And lead producers.
Coon: Yeah. And meanwhile the film industry has pivoted so far toward these large franchises. You know, they’re really a young man’s game. They really don’t have a place for women my age in these films, unless you want to play Spider-Man’s aunt. So that’s not particularly compelling for any of us, to be a prop in a story. And yes, these women getting into producing. You know, Reese Witherspoon is a great example of someone who has really taken control and acquired a lot of properties and developed some from the ground up, including Gone Girl, which was my first film.
That was Reese Witherspoon’s acquisition. She was a lead producer on that. So you know, there are women who are taken charge because they’re not seeing the kind of roles that they want to play. And I’m really grateful to them for leading the charge and I’m hopeful that it keeps getting better. We have some amazing executives over at HBO that are women and we’re just going to continue to see really compelling roles for women in TV and I suspect you’re going to see me end up back in television before you see me cropping up in a lot of film.
Well I hope we see you back on television soon.
Me too! So would my agent! (Laughs)
Now, I’ve heard that you auditioned for The Leftovers and read the book prior to beginning the show. Season 1 mostly follows the book, but in Seasons 2 and 3, the story is sort of untethered from the source material. Were you aware of Damon and Tom’s plans for Nora going in, even in a vague sense?
I don’t think Damon and Tom were aware of Damon and Tom’s plans for Nora going into the series. I think they knew that the first season was going to traverse the course of the book, which, as you mentioned, I had read because I’m a big reader and a Tom Perrotta fan, so I already knew the book when it came my way.
I think Damon…when I had my first meeting with Damon, he never saw the show going past two or three years. So we knew it was going to be pretty limited, but at the end of Season 1, there was some speculation that they would uproot the show and just move it to another small town and start with a whole new cast. So we had all kinds of possibilities for how the show would pivot. And of course, as you know, we ended up changing the cast significantly between Season 1 and Season 2. We let go of some fantastic actors and we acquired another group of fantastic actors in their stead. We were really able to shift the energy of the show, because it was, you know, it’s sort of…Tom’s work is really satirical and very funny and our Season 1 was a bit humorless. I think Damon would come to admit.
And I think we recovered some of that humor in Seasons 2 and 3. That felt more truthful, ultimately. But I meet people all of the time where season one is their favorite season.
A lot of that humor, it seems, came from Nora, who in the first season, she’s sort of introduced…
I know! When you’re grieving woman is your class clown, you might want to take a look at your writing.
Nora sort of enters the scene as this symbol of grief, but she appears to be the most recognizably human character in that first season.
I feel like Seasons 2 and 3 sort of pivoted to put Nora more center stage. It’s not a stretch to say, by the end of the series, that she’s arguably the lead character, definitely the most interesting and the fan favorite.
Yes, I was really grateful to see that the Kevin and Nora relationship became the center of the show. I think that they found that fans were invested in that relationship and interested in the dynamic, which was unusual and honest, and I was very honored to be charged with the ending of the whole series. I mean – I like to work, so I was really grateful to have the show shift in that way.
It’s really special, there’s nothing quite like it on TV and it will be really hard for me to top, because Nora Durst is a very particular and unusual character and we’ve never seen anyone quite like her on TV and I’m really grateful for that. And I feel like there’s a lot of Tom Perrotta in her. There’s a lot of Tom, in Nora. Tom’s become a friend of mine.
In what way?
Just her sense of humor. Tom is very funny and very dry and very dark. I think the energy of Nora in the book even carried some of that humor and I really credit the source material with that aspect of Nora. I mean, it’s certainly in my wheelhouse. My people, that’s our sense of humor; we’re dry and sarcastic in my big family in Ohio. It’s not like it was a stretch for me, but yeah, but I find that when I think of Nora, I think of Tom.
That’s great. Something that I love about The Leftovers that could be frustrating to others is that there are no big answers or reveals. The show kind of mirrors life in the way that, a lot of time, you’re not going to get an answer to the question, “Why?”
Does that ambiguity help your performance or is it easier to know exactly where things are heading and why they’re going to unfold the way that they do?
I think in order to be satisfied working on a show like The Leftovers, you have to embrace the fact that you’re not going to know and go with the flow a little bit and know that the ambiguity is built into the piece. You never know from week to week where Damon and the writer’s room is going to take you, and it’s much more fun to embrace that and throw yourself into it than it is to offer resistance, because resistance doesn’t help anybody be free in their performance. So for me it was a lot of fun. I didn’t mind. I find the ambiguity resembles life, as you very rightly pointed out. How often do we actually get answers in our lives about anything? For some reason we really want that from our art, we want closure and we want it to be knit up very tightly for us by the end and we want to be told what it means and unfortunately, The Leftovers resembles life more than any other project I’ve worked on, in that it wasn’t going to offer those solutions and I think because of that open endedness, people were invited to have really interesting and serious conversations about their own beliefs and their own fears and their own spirituality and grief. Leftovers fans that I meet inevitably have the show come into their lives at a time when they needed it. I have such satisfying exchanges with people who love the show and love Nora on the street. I’m rarely recognized, but when I am it’s always by a rabid Leftovers fan and they always have a really compelling story about why the show was meaningful for them. It’s rare to be on a TV show where that’s the case. You’re never not going to have a substantive conversation about it. It resists triteness. As an artist, that’s so gratifying.
Undoubtedly. Now I’m going to ask this and I’m sure you’ve had to answer this question a million times, but it’s possible your thinking on it has changed over the last few months. Do you believe Nora’s story at the end of the Leftovers? Or do you just believe that she believes it?
I’ll say this and I’ve maintained this point of view: I won’t tell what I chose to believe in that moment, because I think it’s important for people to have their own experience. The whole point of that moment is that it’s very revealing to the viewer about themselves, about what they think about the world. For me, I think no matter what I decided, the performance wouldn’t have been different. In some ways the most important part is whether Kevin accepts the story at face value or not.
So in some ways it doesn’t really matter what I think, it really would rob our viewers of their own thinking about it and I believe that art should provoke that kind of inquiry and I don’t want to take that away from anybody. I can tell you that our set was really interesting, our set was split about 50/50, in the crew, between people who believed it and people who didn’t. Whenever we’ve gone and had Q&As or public viewings of the show and gotten to talking to fans, the audiences are inevitably 70/30, with 70 percent of people believing her and 30 percent not believing her. That seems to be very consistent for me when I meet people out in the world, most of them really want to believe that she’s telling the truth, which I find very interesting.
Now, I also want to talk about Fargo.
Was it difficult transitioning from playing Nora, who’s kind of like an open nerve in that last season of The Leftovers, to going to someone like Gloria on Fargo, who’s definitely more restrained? How does the process of preparing for the role change?
First thing that I’ll say is, I think what sometimes people don’t realize, that’s the rhythm of an actor’s life. We’re always moving from project to project. We’re constantly having to make that transition between every role that we play, and if we’re fortunate enough to be working, we’re making that shift all of the time. You know, if you’re doing a play you come together with a group of people very intimately, you do the run the of the show, and then you fly apart and you move on to something else. So rhythmically, that’s not unusual for us.
I will say that in terms of preparation, preparing for Gloria was much more of a, I would call it an “outside in” process, because once you add those heavy boots, that police belt, a uniform, a dialect, a puffy coat and a hat with flaps on it, suddenly you’re already in the world of that piece. It’s very specific. You know, it’s cold outside and you talk a certain way and all of that is very available to you immediately. It’s very tangible. So in a lot of ways, preparing for Gloria was less about her emotional life and more about her physical body, and that was very fun to do. And also, I grew up in the Midwest. Those are my people. My people are emotionally restrained and not fully expressed, so that’s the world I come from, which is very familiar to me. And I went to graduate school in Wisconsin, so that dialect is quite close as well, because the Minnesota dialect and the Wisconsin dialect are not far apart at all, so those sounds were easy for me to hear. It was just a lot of fun to embrace it. It felt more like honoring where I’m from than anything, whereas Nora’s world was quite far from mine in some ways.
I would hope.
Also, I knew the story. Noah Hawley gives you scripts ahead of time. I think I had 5 scripts before we shot, so I also knew where the story was going, and that was really different about playing her vs Nora. From week to week, we never knew what was going to happen on The Leftovers, and in Fargo you knew what was coming so you could sort of prepare ahead of time what that tract was going to feel like for yourself and make some decisions about how you might play a scene because you know what’s coming. You know the colors that are going to be required of you in some scenes, so it changes your decision-making or your calculus when you’re doing your scene. In a great way! In a way that’s like doing a play. When you do a play, you always know the ending and you have to pretend that you don’t, so in some ways the process in Fargo was very familiar to me.
I was actually watching and reviewing both shows simultaneously and found it odd that both Gloria and Nora have difficulty being recognized by electronic sensors. Was that a strange coincidence for you as you were getting into Fargo?
Completely. Yes, I remember two of our writers were on set and I said, “Do you understand that this is a major plot point in my other show?” And it had never occurred to them, even though they claimed to be fans of The Leftovers, so either they were lying or they really just hadn’t thought of it. And interestingly, I have that problem in my own life. Some people speculated it was written into both scripts because technology doesn’t actually work for me, and while that’s not true, it’s also not very far from the truth because I really do have some trouble. My husband is always threatening to take my phone and throw it out the window because it never does what I want it to do and my Dad used to get frustrated cause I would sit down at the computer and suddenly it wouldn’t work. Nothing would print. So it was hilarious for me to have that theme come back into my life. My mom said, “Oh faucets never turn on for me! I just couldn’t believe that I saw that on TV.” It was an odd coincidence. And there were several. Did you think about the hug? The hug from Holy Wayne [in The Leftovers] and then there’s that big scene with Winnie where Winnie hugs Gloria into a release. There’s the fact that she’s getting a divorce…
Another coincidence is that in both shows you get your own spotlight travel episode.
Which is significant in these sort of big ensemble series. Is there a pressure that comes with having to shoulder “Nora’s very own episode?”
Oh sure. Well, when I was given the episode, “Guest” in Leftovers, I had made Gone Girl by then. The productions overlapped for about a week. We shot the pilot of Leftovers, I went away to shoot Gone Girl, I came back to do Leftovers Season 1, and if you go back and look, you’ll see that I’m not really in that many scenes until episode six. So I had only worked one or two days a week on the whole show, and suddenly I was working 10 or 12 days in a row, which I had never done in my life. I had always been a guest star on TV. I had a very short resume before Leftovers, so there was a tremendous amount of pressure because it felt like I was making a short film starring me, which I had never done. Because Gone Girl, while it was long and painstaking, the pace of film is much slower than TV.
Especially when you’re working with…
Yeah, with David Fincher! I got to go to Fincher school before, and I’m so grateful for it because David taught me a lot. The only thing was when I got on the set of The Leftovers suddenly we were doing 5 takes and moving on and I was like, “Whoa whoa whoa I was just warming up guys!” So I had to learn to shift pace and that was a lot of pressure.
Now working with Damon Lindelof and Noah Hawley, they have such strong writing styles and voices. Very distinct. I was wondering if you could sort of compare and contrast what it’s like to work with the both of them.
Well I find them both to be geniuses, really, in the way that they translate their personal struggles and preoccupations into their work. And I found that both of them were filtering from them in a very oblique way that is different from the real world, yet it’s dealing very specifically with the world that we’re in. I think that’s the thing I admire the most about the both of them, the way that they’re able to filter the world into their work.
As far as their processes go, they’re very different, because you know like I said, Damon would be pivoting from moment to moment depending on what he was interested in. He was sort of shaping the story according to what we were doing that was interesting to him and following his curiosity about what he thought we were revealing to him and where he could take it. It’s why you always come up against your own existential fears when you’re working on Damon Lindelof shows, because he puts them in your face.
And then with Noah, it’s a much more controlled situation where he knows the story and you’re getting plugged into it, which is an equally valid, and again, equally satisfying way of working. It’s very familiar, it’s just like doing a play. You’ve got the whole script, you study it, and then you go do it and execute it. They both have such a great eye for storytelling and for editing. I mean, there were several times in both shows where Noah and Damon when handed the footage from a director would have to reshape the story just to have it fit more cogently into the bigger arc of stories that they were trying to tell and some of that editing was really astonishing. I mean that episode that I did on Fargo, the standalone episode, was completely different from the script that we shot. We shot a whole dream sequence, there were all of these things that didn’t actually make into the final cut and Noah had to reshape it to make it work with the season. It just felt like a freaky anomalous episode and he was able to re-edit it in a way that made it work. I just find them both really gifted in that way.
Now while we’re talking about talented collaborators, I just had one more question. You’ve shared the screen with such amazing actors and worked with fantastic directors like Mimi Leder, Keith Gordon, and David Fincher – but that still probably couldn’t wipe away what must have had to have been a surreal feeling of working with Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks on The Post.
Pretty wild. It’s pretty wild because there isn’t a person around who doesn’t know who that is. Some people don’t know who David Fincher is, they don’t know who Damon Lindelof is, but everybody knows who Steven Spielberg is. So your third cousin in Ohio is suddenly very excited about your career because you’re working with Steven Spielberg, when they find out about it.
It was thrilling and he’s everything I could have wanted. He’s a very generous artist and he’s childlike in his wonder at the process that he’s been engaged in for decades. He’s never lost that, that very childlike appreciation for what he’s privileged to be able to do with his life and that’s really intoxicating. Same goes for Tom and Meryl. They’ve been doing this for a long time now and they both love making movies. It was such a wonderful energy to be around and we all felt that we were collaborating on a story that was important for the time that we’re living in. I was surrounded by so many fantastic actors that I admire that I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with, I’ll never forget that process. In fact, I’ve got some great photos of Steven Spielberg looking intense, like a director, like how I would imagine them, and there I am standing right behind him in a little beehive. That’s the stuff you get to tell your grandkids someday. It’s pretty amazing.