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EXCLUSIVE: Why Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux Were Perfect for Each Other on ‘The Leftovers’

by Stacy Lambe 12:04 AM PDT, June 14, 2017
Outstanding Lead Actor and Actress in a Drama Series: Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon, 'The Leftovers' Photo: FilmMagic/HBO

For all its big mysteries and intricate storytelling, The Leftovers was a love story about Kevin Garvey Jr. and Nora Durst. Sure, the HBO series adapted from Tom Perrotta’s book was predicated on the sudden disappearance of two percent of the world’s population as those left behind were confounded by grief, as both Kevin and Nora were for the majority of the series’ three-season run. Brought to life onscreen by Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon, The Leftovers relied as heavily on these two actors’ standout performances as it did the writing, led by co-creator Damon Lindelof.

Of course, Theroux and Coon each stood out on their own, bringing layered emotions to absurd situations, like Kevin venturing to the underworld, where he transformed into an assassin in season two, or Nora hiring a prostitute to shoot her in the chest in the debut season. “When we first meet Nora, she's sort of this waifish, grieving woman,” Theroux tells ET. “Then there are scenes where we see Carrie get shot by a prostitute or go toe-to-toe with Regina King [in season two] and you realize that Nora is a woman who has an iron core. I think Carrie moved beautifully between those two extremes.”

“The things that Damon required Justin to do,” Coon adds of her co-star, “they require physical boldness and incredible vulnerability. I think it's rare for an actor to be able to occupy all those spaces so wholly in the way that Justin did for three years.”

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And when Theroux and Coon shared the screen, they brought all of the show’s outlying themes together and filled those moments with magnetic energy and layers of emotion. There is no better demonstration of that than the final hour of the series.

After spending much of the third and final season pushing each other away -- Kevin returned to the underworld to get answers for those who were still living, while Nora, consumed with the possibility of being reunited with her departed, chased down the machine that would take her there -- the two characters had an emotional reunion after what turned out to be a decade on opposite sides of Earth. And both Theroux and Coon delivered some of the best performances of their careers as their onscreen counterparts reconnected.

For Coon, it was the scenes where Kevin courts Nora. Desperate to reunite with her, Kevin pretends that the couple’s relationship never went beyond him asking her to a dance in season one. Instead, he comes upon her in a remote town of Australia as if it were chance, all the while courting and coaxing Nora out of her isolation. “One of my favorite scenes is when he comes to the door and surprises Nora and he’s fully in that ruse. He’s just so charming and he was so light,” Coon says the unexpected dynamic that plays out like The Leftovers version of a rom-com after spending most of the series confronting some issue or revelation between the two. “That’s energy we rarely see on The Leftovers. So when you see it, it’s really delicious.” And the actress found herself equally charmed by her co-star. “When I see it, I feel myself completely disarmed and utterly charmed by Justin and trying not to smile. Really, it was hard for me not to smile that day.” 

Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux in the closing scene of The Leftovers series finale. Photo: HBO

Later, Kevin and Nora continue their flirtation at a wedding. There, he delicately dodges the truth as the scene culminates in a tear-filled dance. “Justin and I aren’t romantic,” Coon says. “We’re good friends and we love acting together, but as a person, it was a beautiful thing to experience.”

The series finale ends with a monologue from Nora as she tells the truth of what happened to her after she got in the machine and in the years since. It’s scene that could easily be chewed apart, but Theroux praises Coon for “a magical piece of storytelling,” adding that he “had the pleasure of sitting a few feet across from her” as Nora’s story unfolded.

During the “white knuckler” of speech, Coon says it was just her goal to get through it once without messing up. “Onstage you don’t get to stop and start. You have to get through the whole thing no matter what. I had to think of it as a play I was in with Justin. And Justin is a reliable scene partner and he’s always right there.”

Theroux also credits her presence in any scene they filmed together, knowing that they would be able to get done what they needed to do. He says that while it can be a challenge when an actor doesn’t work very hard or have very much technique, with Coon the situation was anything but. “When you have an incredible actress like her across from you, your life is made so much easier,” Theroux says. “I know when it came on my back and not hers, she was always providing.”

On the opposite end, when they weren’t filming together and Coon saw what Theroux was given the opportunity to do in other episodes, the actress was envious. “Which is a funny thing, isn’t it?” she muses. “It almost feels like a jealous partner because I see him with Ann Dowd and I think, Why didn’t I get to do that sort of thing with Justin? That’s how I know I love and respect working with him, because I actually get jealous of his scene work with other people.”

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