“[Jude is] a theater actor. I knew that about him, but that’s the piece that really came through when you’re working with Jude; it’s like being onstage. And with Sean, the way he places his camera so far away, sometimes it felt like we were working on a play, which was so satisfying,” Coon tells The Hollywood Reporter.
After receiving rave reviews for her performance as Nora Durst on HBO’s critical darling, The Leftovers, the Ohio-born actor resisted the urge to commit to another premium cable series given the seven-year commitments they required. Of course, her starring role on Fargo season three had the benefit of being an anthology series. However, the business has since changed, which resulted in Coon’s return to HBO via the upcoming The Gilded Age.
“More than my stance changing, the world changed. But I also value my relationship with HBO, and I think we all understand that the business is changing. We are in the Wild West in terms of how content is being made and distributed. And so, one of the benefits of that for actors is that we are not being pinned down legally in the same way we used to be,” Coon explains. “In order to stay competitive, the networks realize that they have to give us some latitude about doing other work if they want to entice us into accepting those jobs that are a longer commitment. I mean, that’s a huge part of my life I could potentially spend making The Gilded Age, and that affects everything about my life. That affects where my little boy goes to school. So these decisions are not to be taken lightly…”
In a recent conversation with THR, Coon also discusses The Leftovers questions that remain unanswered, the age difference between her and Ben Affleck’s twin characters in Gone Girl and the advantages of working with her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts, on sets like Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
Your character in The Nest trains horses. Do you have any personal history with them?
My personal history was pretty pedestrian. I grew up in a very rural area, and so I actually had horses across the street growing up. But they were lame, old paddock horses. You just jumped on them and rode around in a circle. Since I didn’t have any equestrian training, that was definitely something I had to do to prepare. It was a very important piece of the puzzle for Sean Durkin because his mother and his sister both trained horses. So he was very intimate with that field.
How did the reality of working with Jude Law compare to your expectations or preconceived notions of what working with him would be like?
That’s interesting. I was intimidated because he’s a movie star, and movie stars are different than actors. Movie star celebrities sort of have power on their own that has nothing to do with building character. (Laughs.) They have that ineffable quality that makes it so you can’t take your eyes off of them, and I knew what that was like because I’ve acted with movie stars before. But I’ve never seen anyone captivate on camera quite the way Jude does while I was working with him. He would be in the background of a scene and your eye was immediately drawn to wherever he was. And whatever he was doing would always be so specific, and that comes from being on camera for decades. So it was really intimidating to know that I was going to have to share a frame with that. The most surprising thing about Jude is that he is so good-natured, easygoing and down-to-earth, and he was so wonderful to the actors playing our kids (Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche). He was wonderful to me, too, but what was special about working with Jude was the way he was working with those young people and how quickly he was able to build a relationship with them. That’s because he’s a theater actor. I knew that about him, but that’s the piece that really came through when you’re working with Jude; it’s like being onstage. And with Sean, the way he places his camera so far away, sometimes it felt like we were working on a play, which was so satisfying. So I suppose I was intimidated but then he was so down-to-earth that I was immediately put at ease.
Given your background in theater, I was going to bring up that long argument scene in the living room and how it felt like theater in a lot of ways.
Yeah, that was certainly one of the main scenes where we turned to each other when it was over and said, “It was just like we were doing a play!” Particularly in that scene, [DP] Mátyás (Erdély) and [writer-director] Sean (Durkin) had put the camera so far from us that we really felt almost like we were alone in that room. We had done maybe 12 takes of that scene, and Sean let us play it straight through because he wasn’t really cutting; he was trying to get it all in one. And it was so incredible because when we finished, I remember I turned to Sean and said, “I don’t think I got it.” And then, they let us go a couple more times. (Laughs.) So it took a while, but I really felt the freedom of being in the theater where we got to keep rehearsing, which was really satisfying.
We all know people like Jude’s character, Rory, as they’re constantly selling something, and while watching, I remember thinking to myself, “Man, this guy is exhausting.” And sure enough, your character, Allison, says the exact same thing to him later in the movie.
(Laughs.) Right, but you can imagine a time when Rory and Allison’s relationship started and it was thrilling. It’s that point where the romance and the vision is intoxicating. Allison didn’t have two nickels to rub together, so that possibility is so enticing, and it takes a long time for it to wear on one, especially because we learned from their history that they did experience some success. And so, once you’ve tasted that, you want to believe that Rory is capable of getting it back. I mean, Allison absolutely wants to hold on to that possibility, but it is exhausting. (Laughs.) Delusion is exhausting, as we’ve discovered politically.
I know that Nora smoked a little bit in The Leftovers season three, but is Allison the biggest smoker you’ve played so far?
Yes, I would say yes. I’ve played characters that are supposed to smoke onstage, but since you can’t light fires in the theater anymore, you have to find all these different ways to not smoke a cigarette, as opposed to actually smoking a cigarette. (Laughs.) So, yes, she was. And my parents were both heavy smokers growing up and smoked in our house. I don’t know how well I did, but I’m sure they’ll make fun of me. So I happen to be intimately familiar with that. (Laughs.)
Have prop cigarettes improved at all, or are they just as nasty as they’ve ever been?
No, they’re terrible. They’re just terrible. They’re the worst thing for your voice, and they taste like you’re smoking a burning stick, which can’t be healthy. I would much rather smoke a real cigarette; I know I’m not supposed to say that, but it’s true.
Before the family moves to England, Allison senses that something is off with Rory. Would you say that you also have strong intuition when it comes to reading people or rooms?
I think many actors would say that they do, and also, I think you’ll discover that many actors are middle children. (Laughs.) We’ve had a lot of practice reading a room, making adjustments and perhaps being the harmonizers in our families. Or, perhaps, there are family dynamics at play that require one to be vigilant, right? Just to know how to navigate whatever the emotional dynamics are in a household or in a room — I can relate to that. And also, what you’re dealing with, of course, is a marriage, a long marriage. Rory and Allison have been together a long time. I’m only seven years into my marriage, and you can’t get away with anything after that long. (Laughs.) Your partner, even if they don’t know what’s wrong, knows when something is off because you’re so intimately familiar with each other’s rhythms. That was one of the things I loved about the script; it was dealing with these tacit agreements we make in a marriage and I hadn’t quite seen a movie deal with that so explicitly.
Both of your restaurant scenes are awesome, especially the first one where Allison rattled off the dinner order. I really appreciated how she called out the waiter for deferring to Rory, which was still the default mode in the ‘80s.
(Laughs.) Yes, absolutely.
It also came up again at a party when they’re introduced as Mr. and Mrs. Rory O’Hara, which led Allison to volunteer her name amid the “confusion.” Can you talk a bit about her resistance to the gender roles of that era?
Yes, it’s true that in that time, those gender roles were more overtly codified in Great Britain, and you see how Allison chafes against that very public declaration of gender roles. However, that’s not to say that the United States didn’t have the same dynamics at play; they were just much less overt. Our system is not one that is codified by a monarchy on down. Our class system is much more subtle than that and much more economically-based, as opposed to being born into landed gentry by being a Tory, for example. And so I think it’s really interesting to take an American — who has actually been operating under a similar dynamic — and then putting her in a place where that dynamic is just so spelled out and so in her face every day. Because in America, she was able to ignore it by being sort of an entrepreneur in her own right, and that’s just not something that’s respected when she crosses the pond.
Even though the circumstances are much different, there’s a scene where Allison is partying and dancing with herself, and it immediately reminded me of Nora dancing on that hotel room couch in The Leftovers season one’s “Guest.” As you’re working on something new, do you tend to notice parallels like this to your previous work?
It’s funny because the energy of those scenes was very different, and the longest I’d ever been on camera in my life was shooting that episode of The Leftovers. I mean, I had never done an episode of television that required me to be in almost every frame. So I was dealing with some other circumstances, and that scene, while intimidating, got a little bit lost in all the other pressures. And, in fact, when I shot that scene on that particular day, I was so terribly ill. I was really sick during most of that episode, and so most of it feels like a fever dream. In contrast, while I was getting ready to shoot that scene in The Nest, I was really scared of it because it’s not just a dancing scene; it’s also dancing in the ‘80s. It is specific to dance in period, and while I was a child in the ‘80s, not an adult, people’s bodies do move specifically according to the time they’re born in. So it’s always profoundly interesting to me how certain genres of music or movement couldn’t exist without what came before, and so, I was very nervous about it and the lack of inhibition. I love going to the edge, I love letting myself go and I love being invited to do that, but you don’t want to do it poorly, right? You don’t want it to not feel as visceral, explosive and free as you see it in your mind, so I was very intimidated by that scene. But Sean gave me some great music, and the atmosphere was very conducive to embracing that moment. It was getting on into daytime, and they had these amazing extras who just looked fantastic; they were really going for it every take. It was dark and smokey in there, and they really did help me out by setting the tone appropriately.
The Nest is mostly shot at this beautiful manor in England. Does a unique location add something to your performance whether you realize it or not?
Gosh, I hope so. We all know that a new environment is always stimulating in ways that are overt and ways that, like as you point out, that may be subconscious. And so, oftentimes, in dramatic stories, you’re telling a story about a person who’s out of place — a fish out of water story. So it’s always helpful when you’re playing a person who’s under that circumstance. When Nora goes to Australia, when Allison is pulled to the UK, where you are actually, yourself, a fish out of water and where you’re processing a lot of new information. I do think that it probably creates hopefully an aliveness that supports the story that you’re telling.
You first shot the pilot for The Leftovers, then you shot Gone Girl and then you returned to The Leftovers to finish season one. Since Nora only briefly appeared in the pilot, were you already aware as of the pilot that your role would expand to something on the level of “Guest” if the show was picked up to series?
No, I didn’t know “Guest” was going to happen until I was handed the script probably four or five days before we shot it. I may have been more forewarned that I had a big load coming, but I had no idea what the script was going to be. And the first thing we shot was the scene with the prostitute, so that was kind of a big first day. (Laughs.) I remember asking them, “Hey guys, that’s cool that I have a gun in my purse; what’s it for?” And I remember somebody saying, “We don’t know.” (Laughs.) And thinking, “Oh… oh you… oh you don’t know?” I had no idea where the story was going, but then they didn’t either. (Laughs.) And then, in there, I decided to just show up and be ready for whatever the adventure was going to be. That was a wonderful way to move through that series because it never changed. We always got scripts just a few days before we shot them, which is very different from Fargo, where I had five or six scripts several months before I shot it. So it’s just a different way of working.
By the way, I was all in on The Leftovers from the start, and I absolutely love season one. So I take great pleasure in teasing my friends who only came back to it upon season two’s rave reviews.
(Laughs.) Wow, I appreciate you. Thank you. I think going on the whole journey is really special and important in that show.
Because of our real-life circumstances, the show doesn’t seem so sad anymore.
(Laughs.) It’s, unfortunately, really appropriate for the times we’re living in, but people have really found their way to it.
Before I do a Leftovers deep dive, I’d like to discuss Gone Girl for a moment. I watched a recent interview with you, and when Gone Girl came up, you made a quick remark about the age difference between you and Ben (Affleck) despite playing twins.
This issue has bothered me for a long time since female actors are almost always the ones who are “aged up” to older male actors.
Or male actors are cast with wives that are 20 years younger than them, for example.
Exactly. By all accounts, you’re quite fond of Fincher and Ben, so is the issue more so with Hollywood for normalizing such a tendency?
Well, it’s bigger than Hollywood because the overt sexualization of women and girls is cultural. And yes, it’s part of our art, but it’s much bigger than just Hollywood, right? It’s much bigger than film and television. It’s also advertising. It’s also decades of conditioning, and Hollywood reflects back what the society is. It plays a part in creating society, but it’s more often than not a reflection of what society values. And we know what it values in women; it’s youth and beauty, not experience. So I’m always looking for scripts that tell stories that resemble the women in my life that I know who are full and complex human beings, and who are their most deeply interesting after 40. But, as you well know, those scripts, even if they get written, rarely get made. So, yes, my issue, is it with Hollywood? Sure. But Hollywood, that’s really a symptom. It’s like Trump is a symptom of something bigger, right? This conversation is much bigger than just making movies, but I think I’m eight or nine years younger than Ben. What is heartbreaking to me is that we don’t know what a 35-year-old woman is supposed to look like because they’ve been aged down. And so, when you see one, your perspective on that woman, her sexuality and her viability is completely skewed. There is a phenomenon where women become invisible after a certain age, and it’s a shame because, like I said, the women I know become fierce and interesting after 40. I can’t wait to turn 40. I turn 40 in January, and 30 was such a huge paradigm shift for me in terms of my identity, my ability to say no, my ability to know who I was and what I wanted, and also to start asking for it. And so, I’m really looking forward to it, and I wish that women weren’t made so afraid of aging because it made an industry a lot of money.
Here’s a Leftovers question that you’ve probably never been asked. Nora’s brother, Matt (Christopher Eccleston), was friends with the Garvey family long before the Sudden Departure, but for some reason, when Nora first met Kevin (Justin Theroux) in the hallway of that high school-set dance, she never said, “Oh, you’re my brother’s friend, right?” nor did he say anything like, “Oh, you must be Matt’s sister.” And whenever Kevin and Matt encountered each other later in the season, Kevin never brought up the fact that he was now dating Nora. It wasn’t acknowledged by all three characters until season two in Texas. I know there was a line about Kevin being older than Nora, but did you ever wonder why Kevin and Nora didn’t already know each other through Matt or know of each other at the very least?
You know why it didn’t occur to me to think of it that way? Because I was thinking of this question another way. Even when I auditioned, there was a scene between Matt and Nora that didn’t make it into the show, and it was before they were made brother and sister. Because, in the novel, they’re not brother and sister. In the novel, they’re strangers, and so, I was thinking of it from the point of view of “how are we going to adapt this novel?” And I suspect a lot of other people were too, which is why that question, perhaps, was not dealt with in season one because it didn’t occur to anyone. I think they just made a choice to muddy up the dynamics by making us related and giving us this shared backstory so they could create some more overlap in story. And they didn’t necessarily worry about some of the things that you picked up on because of that change. Some of the material was already written before they made that change, and sometimes, when you go back through to adjust and make everything make sense, you miss a detail here or there. But that’s so funny; it hadn’t occurred to me that we didn’t deal with it. I come from a small town, and it would be unusual for me not to know my brother’s friends. In fact, I dated most of them. (Laughs.)
[The following three questions contain spoilers for The Leftovers.]
I know you’ll never reveal if you played Nora’s series finale monologue as fact or fiction, so do you mind if I do that really annoying thing where someone tells you what they think?
(Laughs.) No, that’s not annoying. That’s the reason I don’t tell because your point of view is so much more interesting than mine. So please do tell me.
Nora’s job in the post-Departure world was exposing people’s bogus Departure-related stories like she did to Sandy (Brett Butler) and her story involving the Pillar Man’s (Turk Pipkin) death. Matt even pleaded with Nora to let people have these stories so they can cope, but she refused to honor his request. So the irony is that, in the end, she became one of those people who cultivated a story in order to live with her decision to not only leave Kevin behind, but also justify to herself why she didn’t actually take the slim chance to see her kids again via the machine. Instead, she convinced herself that she saw her children, and didn’t want to disrupt their semblance of happiness. Plus, she looked like she was caught red-handed when she discovered that Kevin had found her Australian hideout. I know they had an ugly fight the last time they saw each other at that Melbourne hotel, but if she truly went to the other side and saw her kids living happily, would she really try to flee before Kevin found her doorstep? Would she really hide for decades despite making the right choice to see her kids one more time? To me, her behavior is that of shame and regret, versus too much time passing or a fear of not being believed.
(Laughs.) I think what I’ll do is when that question comes up in the next interview, I’ll just give them your phone number and they can call you and talk about it. But I love your point of view, too, because I think what it reveals about you is someone who is attuned to the literary construction of the piece. You’re interested in the storytelling in a way that I think some people just take that final moment out of context and just as it speaks to that season. But I love hearing you pull it back into the earlier season and how it relates to Nora’s struggle and what she was trying to get after. So I think you have a beautiful understanding of it that strikes me as very literary.
As someone who rejected these stories throughout the show, I just think it’s a fitting conclusion to her arc. She finally adopted Matt’s thinking regarding storytelling and how it’s okay to use it as a coping mechanism.
Mhm. I think Damon Lindelof would really love to hear your explanation. You should make an Instagram story. (Laughs.)
Here’s another burning question. In the series finale, were you directed to make Nora’s fried egg over easy, or is that your own preference?
(Laughs.) No, I think it’s my preference. I do love an over-easy egg. I love a slightly dippy egg. My grandmother used to make me dippy eggs when I was little, but it was probably more about the amount of time you get on-screen to tell a story. (Laughs.) So an over-easy egg is much faster to make in a limited amount of time.
So technology didn’t seem to work for Nora or Fargo’s Gloria, while Avengers: Infinity War and The Leftovers both disappeared a lot of people.
While I’m totally reaching here, has anyone connected Vera’s giant rock on The Sinner to Nora’s affinity for rocks on The Leftovers season two?
You know, I haven’t actually heard that specific parallel. That’s very interesting.
Yeah, I knew it was too much of a reach.
(Laughs.) Is there any such thing as reaching too far? I mean, all we’re doing is trying to make meaning. You get to make meaning however you wish. So I love those connections. I was an English Literature major in college, so I love sniffing out a subtle trend or seam. I think that’s great. That’s really interesting.
Tracy never jokingly asked if Vera would be throwing that giant rock through a window?
(Laughs.) No, he didn’t, which is so funny. Maybe because it was so big and so paper-mache. (Laughs.) I’ve been asked, “What’s your greatest accomplishment?” and I truly think it might be that day on [The Leftovers] set when I had to throw that rock through the window. They didn’t think I was going to be able to throw it that far or that I was going to be able to hit my target. And I hit it six times in a row.
How could they doubt a collegiate athlete?
That’s right! I’m an athlete. That was one of my proudest days on set. (Laughs.)
After The Leftovers, you were rather hesitant to make one of those seven-year commitments like most cable shows require. Has your stance now changed with HBO’s The Gilded Age?
More than my stance changing, the world changed. But I also value my relationship with HBO, and I think we all understand that the business is changing. We are in the Wild West in terms of how content is being made and distributed. And so, one of the benefits of that for actors is that we are not being pinned down legally in the same way we used to be. In order to stay competitive, the networks realize that they have to give us some latitude about doing other work if they want to entice us into accepting those jobs that are a longer commitment. I mean, that’s a huge part of my life I could potentially spend making The Gilded Age, and that affects everything about my life. That affects where my little boy goes to school. So these decisions are not to be taken lightly and I think they recognize that if we have a little freedom in our contracts, then we don’t feel like we’re not going to be challenged beyond… For me, one of the biggest reasons I don’t like to take on longer jobs is because I’m afraid that the challenge is not going to continue and it’s not going to be as interesting to me after a couple of seasons. I don’t want to be stuck doing something that doesn’t feel like it’s helping me grow as a performer. So, by saying we’ll be able to make some space legally for you all to do more projects, I think that’s just the way the business is shifting. So I’m just benefitting from a change that’s happening, overall. And also, there was a pandemic. (Laughs.) I’m in an industry that has been decimated by the pandemic. And so, to have a job that you know is going to get made — because they’ve already started, they’re really fully invested in it and it’s got wonderful actors who would normally be committed to the theater, but the theater’s going to be the last thing to come back — doing The Gilded Age is kind of the only way I get to work with theater actors. That’s where they are. It’s almost all great New York theater people, and some newcomers from all over. But it’s sort of a little bit of a bomb for the soul to be able to see those faces.
When you agreed to play Proxima Midnight in Infinity War, was there an understanding that it wouldn’t rule you out from appearing as another character in human form at some point? I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to see you back in the MCU.
(Laughs.) Oh, thank you. That’s very kind. Yes, that is certainly the kind of conversation that an agent would engage in when looking into committing to those jobs. Yes, they want some verbal assurances that the possibility for additional work is not completely off the table. So, yeah, absolutely. It’s like, you know, being on Chicago Fire. You get killed and then you can’t come back for another year. (Laughs.) You want to make sure that we have job security, so we’re always asking that question. Absolutely.
You and Tracy have appeared in the same TV/Film project three times now (The Post, The Sinner, Ghostbusters: Afterlife). Has this been rather helpful now that you have a little one in the picture?
Absolutely. No question. Once Tracy signed onto The Sinner, when they came knocking on my door, it made perfect sense for us to make a living and be together in the same city because Tracy and I have spent the bulk of our seven-year marriage apart. And once you have a kid, the calculus absolutely changes. The reason he’s in Ghostbusters is because he happened to be in Canada with me and Haskell when they lost an actor due to a conflict, and so they just asked if he was around. (Laughs.) So it worked out really well. Some of that stuff is just the synchronicity because somebody knows that I’m an actor or he’s an actor, and there’s a problem to solve. (Laughs.) And not to diminish my husband’s talent; he’s very talented, obviously. But it was convenient for them to have him in that city. (Laughs.) And The Post is the only way we could make a baby because we were in the same city. (Laughs.) So yes, it has a tremendous impact on family, and having a kid just changes what you say yes to.
15 years ago, if someone approached you at the Taste of Madison and told you that you’d be in a Ghostbusters film someday, would you have laughed hysterically?
(Laughs.) I’m still not convinced that it’s not just some big gag. Though, that’d be an expensive joke to play on little old me, but no, it still feels really surreal. I don’t think I’m going to believe it until I see that credit sequence and hear that music on a big screen somewhere in about a year. It’s really hard to believe that it’s actually real. And no, I didn’t even think I’d be an actor 20 years ago, so I would’ve laughed in your face.
Since we’re running low on time, can we do some rapid-fire questions?
Yeah, I’m cool with it.
Since you’ve worked with almost all of its lead actors, who’s your favorite Halt and Catch Fire character?
Oh that’s so hard. I think Mackenzie’s (Davis) Cameron. I think it’s Cam. So hard.
Among Mapleton, Miracle and Melbourne, what was your favorite fictional/actual location on The Leftovers?
Among stage, film and TV, which gives you the biggest high?
Have you and Mindhunter’s Anna Torv bumped into each other at all since you were flooded with tweets that confused the two of you?
Never, but I can’t wait to do the mirror exercise when we do.
When you have to put yourself on tape or prepare for the next day of shooting, how often will you ask Tracy to run a scene with you?
Never. I find it really intimidating to run scenes with Tracy because he’s one of the only people whose opinions matter to me. And while he’s incredibly generous and is definitely not judging me, and would also give me really excellent and useful feedback, I find that I’m so intimidated that it gets in my way because he’s such a great actor and such a tasteful actor. And so I prefer to just memorize my lines and have at it in a vacuum. And every now and then when he has to do something with me and he does give me notes, they always make me better, so I should probably not do that anymore. (Laughs.) I should probably embrace him as my scene partner and acting coach. (Laughs.)
Lastly, there’s a scene in The Leftovers season one where Nora hoses down some ghost-like figures with precision (i.e., The Guilty Remnant). Do you know if this scene played a small part in Jason Reitman’s decision to cast you in Ghostbusters: Afterlife?
You’re the first person to make this connection! I’m sure that if he had seen it, he wouldn’t have taken the time to call every director on my resume. And, I confess, it’s much harder to mime the kinetic force of accelerating particles than it is to act with a functional hose, so I’m not sure it would’ve helped my case. Suffice it to say, I have a new appreciation for the original Ghostbusters’ technique.
The Nest is available in select theaters and on-demand/digital on Sep. 18.