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Christopher Eccleston on Playing The Leftovers’ Muckraking Priest and Returning to Heroes

In Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, the town pastor is a fleeting presence, a priest who publishes leaflets proving less-than-saintly people like gamblers and pedophiles disappeared when two percent of the world’s population went missing. In the HBO series, he’s a major character played by Christopher Eccleston and his Job-like travails are the sole focus of Sunday’s episode, in which he attempts to keep his tiny congregation and church going despite crushing obstacles. Vulture chatted with the British actor, best known as Doctor Who’s ninth doctor and Thor villain Malekith, about creating a character almost from scratch, having empathy for Matt, and why he’s down to return to Heroes.

How did you become involved with The Leftovers?
Tom’s novel, which I read before I knew the show existed. I fastened on to the character of Matt. He’s barely in the novel, but obviously a reverend in the middle of what could be the biblical Rapture who has not been taken; there’s a lot of mileage there. So it was the novel, and then it was my meeting with Damon Lindelof. His passion, his intelligence, and his humor about the whole thing. And his openness and honesty about how the focus was going to shift. [He said] I wouldn’t always be busy but when I was busy, I’d be very busy. As was the case in episode three.

Were you a Lost fan?
I’d seen some of Lost but not all of it. I’d also seen Prometheus. I was aware of Damon’s work, but I wasn’t hugely aware. It really was about that meeting in a hotel in London when he was over doing publicity for Star Trek. We got each other. That was it. It wasn’t some great intellectual careerist move. I think there will be a friendship between myself and Damon whatever happens to this show.

What kinds of things did he tell you about who Matt is since there’s so little of him in the book?
We didn’t talk about any specifics. We talked about religion, we talked about life, we talked about work. We both recognized from reading the novel that this character would work particularly well on television, but it was absolutely a leap of faith on both our parts, particularly mine because I had to get myself over to America. I think he was fired up by the fact that I’d fastened on a small character and I’d seen what he’d seen. Here’s a reverend in a community where people are feeling so ambiguous about Christianity, as they probably would.

Matt believes he’s living post-Rapture, or something like it — in this case, the good people have been left behind. But his flyers seem unnecessarily cruel, or at the least ineffective in making his point.
Well, he thinks he’s right. This is God’s doing, and this is how he’s proving it. Matt definitely cares about people. He cares through his own filter, which is one of Christianity, which you can either take or leave, but this is a man who feels very deeply for people. He’s half ape half angel is how I thought of him. I was hugely fortunate in that I had one of the very best directors I’ve ever worked with in Keith Gordon, an actor who gave a performance hugely influential in my life in Christine. Keith was very strong on not judging Matt, not playing him too angry, playing his vulnerability.

I’ve read that you’re an atheist, and this whole show is about spiritual crises. Why do you think you originally zeroed in on the priest?
You know, I think I said I was an atheist years ago when I was young and headstrong. I don’t know what I would say now. I’d probably say nothing. I actually think it’s quite important when you’re playing a character like this to keep your mouth shut about that. So, I’m keeping my mouth shut.

What was the most challenging part of the episode?
Apart from the New York winter was the scene where Matt puts his camp bed next to his wife, who is in a semi-vegetative state, and stares at the portrait of Job. That’s his darkest hour. How to pitch that ... crumbling was a challenge, and probably one I won’t look at. That was hard. It’s those quiet moments where the camera pulls into you and and you try and open yourself outward … I don’t want to sound too much like an actor here but you know what I mean? Those moments of fragility are the hardest.

Janel Moloney from The West Wing plays your wife, Mary. I take that as a sign she might not always be catatonic.
Well, that’s a hugely challenging role. She can really focus your attention. That’s a great character, actually. There’s a great deal of mystery to his wife. You don’t have to shout and gamble and fight and move around to interest an audience and that’s the hope with Mary. Janel’s certainly well capable of doing that. I’ll say you will see more of her. She is the heart and soul of Matt, and I think what happened to her had a huge effect on the way he behaves. There’s great anger there.

In the end, by being a good Samaritan, he loses his church. In a sense, God doesn’t reward his good intentions. Matt’s no Job!
I was very surprised and heartened when I read that ending because there are no easy answers in The Leftovers and there are no easy answers in life. I’m glad that Damon and Joseph put character through the mangle the way he did.

He got beat up at least three times.
At least, yeah. He gets beat up a couple more times over the series, too. We have a very good stuntman, Justin, but I said to him, “I’d like to do this as much as I can without being silly.” I’m not one of those actors who thinks it’s fun to hurt or be hurt — in fact, I think that’s amateur. But I trained a lot in drama school and I’m physically reasonably fit, and the physical element of acting has always been attractive to me so that’s me throwing myself around. It’s a visceral show hopefully. We move very, very quickly on The Leftovers. It’s not a hugely budgeted show, so we work on very tight schedules. We try and have an immediacy in front of the camera.

Favorite celebrity departures?
I really enjoyed the fact that the Pope and Gary Busey went.

I was bummed that the cast of Perfect Strangers went. I watched a ton of that.
I think being Raptured is a compliment.

You mentioned recently you’d be open to returning to the Heroes revival. Has anyone from the show approached you about that?
No, I’ve not been approached. To be honest, I was just on the red carpet for our premiere and someone popped the question. Of course, I was positive about it. I wish them all the very best with their venture. I had a very good time. If they approached me I’d certainly listen to them. I don’t know that they’re going to need that character, but if they asked me, I’d certainly be interested.

Did you watch the show past your season?
I didn’t, no.

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images