Carrie Coon stars in the new Sean Durkin film, “The Nest,” playing a 1980s woman having marital issues with her husband. She has received multiple award nominations for her acclaimed performance, including the Gotham Award for Best Actress.
Coon recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about what was special about “The Nest,” working with Jude Law and how her work in “The Leftovers” continues to resonate. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the transcript below.
Gold Derby: I’m curious what aspects of this project stood out to you more than other scripts or other offers that you encountered?
Carrie Coon: Well, the first thing that stood out was that it was an offer, that somebody wanted me to be the leading lady in a film, which, if you’ve been following my career you know that doesn’t always happen for me. There are very few scripts that are really about women that come out and there’s going to be the same 10 or 12 women being considered for those and I’m not one of them. So it was firstly, really flattering. Secondly, I’d seen “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and so I knew about Sean’s sensibilities, vocabulary. I had some friends in that movie who had a good experience, but the script was so finely wrought and the relationships were so clear and there were such specific relationships between the family members and mostly it was also a 50/50 movie. I mean, it really felt like a true leading part and not just a supporting wife, and then most importantly, I’d never seen marriage dealt with this way. Normally there’s a divorce, there’s a death of a child, there’s an infidelity. But this was really just about marriage. Marriage is almost a character in the movie and it also felt really authentic. My parents had a really egalitarian marriage for the ‘80s, I would say, and so it was really familiar to me. Also, I grew up in a rural area so this idea of this woman who’s able to have one foot in mucking a stall and another foot in play-acting this very ritzy lifestyle was something I could relate to. I thought it was really smart.
GD: Yeah, and Allison is another one of your characters that is very complex and not always the easiest to sum up in a sentence or two, but I think, she’s gotten used to the materialism of the eighties and I think on some level, she still loves her husband but that relationship has really become strained. She’s also a progressive woman, but she’s also kind of unsatisfied with some aspects of her life, very three-dimensional, very human character. So how were you able to get a sense of who Allison was?
CC: Well, if Sean were sitting here with us, he would say in his estimation, there’s no person who’s only one thing. So it’s always important when he’s writing a character to make sure that they do contain multitudes, dualities, they contain inconsistencies, really. All of that is in the script. I truly could just walk out with Sean’s script and start acting it and we would be most of the way there. It’s really all on the page. But I find that one of the best ways into it for me was the horse training, because that is a particular kind of grounded-ness. I had done some informal riding, but never the kind of equestrian training you see in the film and for Sean, his mother and his sister both trained horses so he had a very specific idea about what that looked like and the thing that you learn is that you can’t lie on a horse. They feel everything in your body and if you betray any lack of confidence or anxiety, they’re going to go off and follow the leader because they’re pack animals or they’re just going to do whatever they want because you’re not in charge and to have to center yourself in that way is so instructive. It was like, “Oh, this is who she is. She’s the tether. She’s the ground underneath Rory’s feet,” and yet, kind of dreaming he’s doing is really intoxicating, and who wouldn’t want to be enrolled in that dreaming? And she’s got a taste of it, like you say, of good fortune.
GD: Yeah, and, even though this can feel contemporary, it is a period piece taking place in the ‘80s. So how much did you factor in that context into your performance, the idea that this is a woman who’s steeped in this culture of the ‘80s and also she’s kind of fighting back against the societal stuff, but also still very much in that world?
CC: One of the great things about the fact that it was a period piece is also about the way we go from America to the U.K. because what’s great about it is that though America has a class system, it’s not as stratified or as overt as the one in the U.K. So it was nice to give Allison some really distinct obstacles to push back against, which I think would have had to have been more subtle if it was set in America. So that was really interesting. I also think that the slow revelation of what’s really underneath that marriage, that it’s not actually as equal as it seems, and what the movie does is take Allison out of her life as an entrepreneur — she’s a working mom — and thrust her into almost purely being a housewife in a way she hasn’t been before. I just think it allows us some distance from the issues we’re still struggling with. That’s what great period films do is they give you a little bit of space to contemplate things that are actually still very present but with the distance of considering it as a period piece. In addition to that, I think it’s very tastefully ‘80s. Sometimes I think that stuff really hits you over the head, but I think it allows also a contemporary person to enter the story because it’s not so overt. It’s the most tasteful version of it. It feels very real, and we had a great costume designer, Matthew Price and Emma Scott, who did our hair and makeup. They were really on board with Sean’s vision.
GD: Yeah, the clothes, the hair, it was all fabulous.
CC: Really fabulous, right? And it was important to me because, not playing a leading lady very much, I needed to feel like walking into those frames I looked like I belonged there.
GD: That’s right. And working with Jude Law as your husband, what kind of work did the two of you put in to establish that relationship that would show that there’s still love there but at a certain point, they’ve reached a level of resentment, I guess you could say.
CC: Right, yeah, they’ve got some tacit agreements that need to be examined. Well, we had one prep day with Sean where I had a baby actually pretty recently before we started the film and so they actually came to New York and we went up to a conference room and we hashed out a little bit about their backstory and Sean filled us in on some of the ideas and we got to ask questions. And then we really didn’t see each other until we started shooting in Toronto and we had a day with the kids, Oona Roche and Charlie Shotwell, on the set just to kind of hang out and get to know each other and it was so seamless. Jude is such a generous scene partner and person. He’s just a really open person and really smart and also wanted to make sure the kids felt empowered to make artistic choices in the scenes. So he really set the tone for that, which I was grateful for, because it can be really intimidating to walk into a movie with somebody like that. But he’s so down to earth.
GD: And this house, this country house that you eventually end up in really becomes a character in and of itself, as much as it’s a cliche to say. It’s big and it’s expansive, but it’s almost like you just become so much more isolated than you were before and there’s that element of dread and fear. I’m curious if the house itself, your environment actually helped you in any way to just draw something out of your character even more than you were expecting.
CC: Well, it is a fish out of water story. I’m an American in the U.K. as much as Allison is an American in the U.K. So there was that because that house is 700 years old, from the 13th century and it’s extraordinary, and the family still lives there in an apartment in the building. So you might be shooting a scene and a bookcase would open and the patriarch would come through to get his reading glasses. It’s like the cliche of an old English manor house, but I didn’t realize ’til about halfway through shooting that our production design team had actually made it look older and more rundown than it actually appeared. They do weddings there. It’s a beautiful house. But they had done all of this fine, fine work to give it that quality and I had no idea that it was not real. So that was extraordinary. We did fill it with a lot of laughter, though. As tense as the movie feels, we had a really beautiful, extraordinary time in that place. But you feel the history and you hear the sounds and it’s all very lush to work in.
GD: And this is a movie that’s requiring so many different emotions from you. You spend a lot of the film just listening and reacting to things around you. But then there’s other scenes where you’re doing this totally wild dance or the argument scenes or later on you have this big emotional scene that I won’t spoil but I’ll just say that you are asked to express a level of sorrow. Was there any particular scene here that you found the most challenging to try to pull off?
CC: What I’ve always found is that the thing you think is going to be the most challenging almost never is, and for me, you think of a big emotional set piece like the one you talk about at the end of the film that I won’t spoil and you think, “OK, that’s going to be a big day.” But in some ways, maybe because of the kind of work women are asked to do, that stuff actually ends up being easier than you think. And then it’ll be some weird little… like for me, it was a scene where I’ve realized the door has been opened, the door is unlocked after I just locked it and I go and yell at the kids. For some reason, whatever that particular kind of anger and frustration was was very difficult for me on that day and I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t see that scene as being the one that was going to drive me nuts on that day of shooting. So it’s never the thing you think it’s going to be, I’ve found. The dancing scene was fun. It was hard, ’cause you have to dance in the ‘80s style but it was so much fun to do.
GD: And again, fabulous. You mentioned it a little bit ago, but I was also reading in another interview that you said you actually did have quite a bit of fun on the set, even though the film is quite tense and moody and you might not expect that you would just have a barrel of laughs on that set. But I’m curious if you’re an actor who is able to be totally in a scene and then once they yell, “Cut,” you can just make that switch and goof around, or if just the heaviness of the scene still is lingering with you.
CC: I was shooting on “The Leftovers” one day and Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book and was one of our producers, was on set and I had this big, huge emotional scene to do and it was the end of the day and then we were walking out and he was crying and I was like, “All right, Tom, I’ll see you later!” And he was like, “Just like that? You can drop it just like that?” But the thing I always feel as an actor, we have the gift of being invited to be fully expressed in a way that the average person in their job isn’t asked to be. So for me, it’s always felt really healthy and so, yeah, I’ve always been able to say, “Well, that felt really cathartic and now I’m ready to go to bed.” I also was alone in England with a nanny and my husband wasn’t there. So I also had a baby. So I was just basically raising a baby and then going to work. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about my emotional preparation. I just had to show up and try to be present. So the older I get, the more I just do that, just sort of be into the moment and try to be with the other person and directors are always surprised to meet me, I think, because of my work. They expect a really kind of heavy, dark person and my family just doesn’t understand my career at all.
GD: I love it. Well, you mentioned “The Leftovers.” I wanted to go back to that because that was a show that for those of us who watched it, were very deeply impacted by it, I think, and Nora Durst was such a fan-favorite character and I think a lot of people discovered you as an actress through “The Leftovers.” I’m curious with actors what kind of relationship they have with their characters and after they’re done playing them, they’ve kind of put them away, and with Nora, I imagine it’s such a special character to you. I wonder if you could speak to what she means to you now and what the fan response to Nora has also meant to you.
CC: Well, that’s a really palpable and applicable question right now because so many people found their way to the show during the pandemic who hadn’t watched it because they were running out of things to watch and they finally took up someone’s recommendation. So I’ve been asked about the show a lot because, of course, two percent of the population disappears and there’s collective grieving and just very applicable. But for me personally, I learned a lot about myself working on that part because there’s a way that Nora Durst walks into a room that wasn’t necessarily the way I walked into a room. There was a rootedness, even just in her voice that wasn’t necessarily where I started. There’s a kind of backbone to her that I am so grateful for that I didn’t have. Not that I didn’t have, I guess it was in there, but I didn’t know how to use it. As a woman, you have to advocate for yourself in a different way in the world and she really helped me figure that out.
As far as interactions with fans, I mean, there’s nothing trite about it. As you point out, people who appreciate the show have a very specific connection to it, usually, often related to their own grief, and I am so privileged to get to hear from people how important it was in whatever moment they found it. As an artist, you don’t get much more gratifying than that. So it’s deeply satisfying. And I’ll tell you this, I never get recognized. The only people who ever recognize me are “Leftovers” fans. I’ve never been recognized on the street for “Gone Girl,” for “The Sinner.” It’s always “Leftovers” people, or they’ll hear my voice and they’ll whip around and say, “Are you Nora Durst?” So it’s really interesting. Their connection is so strong they’re the only people who know who I am! (Laughs.)
GD: Amazing. Well, perhaps on a more trivial note, since we’re an awards website, I have to ask about your history in that regard. You won the Critics’ Choice Award for “The Leftovers,” here at Gold Derby we’ve given you quite a few Gold Derby Award nominations and a win.
CC: Yes, thank you (laughs).
GD: You were nominated for an Emmy for “Fargo” a few years ago and that year you were nominated, it was such a banner year because you were nominated with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Felicity Huffman, Oscar winners and nominees. Do you have any memories from that night or just from that experience of being nominated with your peers that you just look back on fondly?
CC: Well, it was a very relaxing evening because I knew I wasn’t going to win (laughs). People like that in your category. It’s funny, there’s always a lot of anticipation about those events, nerves, and you have to get dressed up and there’s a lot of pressure. But the thing that Tracy [Letts] and I always discover when we go is that what really happens is that you just see a bunch of people that you haven’t seen in a long time that you really love and people that you’ve worked with a few years ago or somebody that you got to see take a big step forward this year. When Ann Dowd won I was just screaming. I mean, I thought they were getting out of the building because I’d gone to the bathroom and came back and they thought I was just a seat filler who was losing my mind to get attention. That’s the most gratifying part of those moments is you get to see those people or even just people that you really admire that you would like to work with someday. Just to see them in a room, I don’t know, I find it really inspiring, actually. So that’s what I remember most, is just seeing people I love, like William Jackson Harper and I did a play five years ago and to see him now getting his own show on HBO and to run into him at the Emmys, that’s the good stuff. You see good people doing good work getting recognized is really moving.
GD: Well, you also have a few projects coming up. You’re going to be in the new “Ghostbusters” movie, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” which feels like a change of pace, relatively speaking. I could be wrong. I haven’t seen it yet. But is there anything you can tease about about that or “The Gilded Age” or anything else you have coming up?
CC: Well, I’m ticking off some boxes. I don’t get to do comedies very often and “Ghostbusters” is a comedy, and I was really surprised when Jason Reitman came a-calling. It’s really flattering to be asked to do something and I really love the script. I read the script and I really loved it and that’s not easy to do, to take a franchise like that and try to give it a new life. But Jason grew up on the set. He’s the perfect person to illuminate that legacy and it’s told with such love and such heart and such good fun. I think everyone will have an appetite for it when it comes out. So I had a great time. And Paul Rudd. I’m just so lucky I get to work with all these charming, attractive men. And “The Gilded Age” is a period piece. I’ve gotten to do that work on stage, but I’ve never gotten to do it in TV and film where frankly, let’s compare the budgets of the theater to the TV and film industry, it’s just extraordinary what the artists on this set are able to do and the costumes and it’s just everything you think it would be. Not to mention, it’s filled with a roster of great New York theater actors who won’t be going back to the theater anytime soon. So it’s a privilege to be working with them right now as we bide our time and just a lot of fun. And I think it speaks to the moment we’re in, actually, in some really unique ways. So I’m having a great year.