Kevin Carroll on The Leftovers: ‘I Don’t Know the Last Time I’ve Seen a Character of Color This Complex’

Photo: Gary Miller/FilmMagic

Thanks to The Leftovers, theater vet (The Piano Lesson, A Raisin in the Sun) and Obie Award–winning actor (Home) Kevin Carroll is getting plaudits from an entirely new audience with his portrayal of John Murphy, Miracle’s devoted family man, ex-felon fire chief, and self-appointed enforcer. The journeyman actor, who’s done some movies (Paid in Full, Being John Malkovich) and TV (Survivor's Remorse, Law & Order), says he’s been spoiled by his stage roles, and feels “a sense of relief” now that a complex TV character of color has come his way. Oh, and he really regrets ever mentioning he’d never seen the show! After a long day of press, Carroll spoke with Vulture about the books on John’s nightstand and why the role is such a breath of fresh air.

Congrats on killing it in this part. You’ve said you didn’t have HBO, and didn’t know the show when you auditioned.
I probably shouldn’t have said that! My career happens so much in the theater at night, so rarely do I get onboard with a lot of series unless I record them. And I just find that a lot of times I get so far behind that I get overwhelmed with trying to catch up on shows. At the time [of the audition], I was back and forth between L.A. and dealing with some family stuff, so I wasn’t following many shows. When this came up, it was one of those days where [I had] three or four auditions after [I’d] been sitting around wondering what in the world [was] going on. I looked at the writing, and I was curious about [it]. Damon [Lindelof] is notorious for not giving information out — or very little.  I saw this scene between two guys, and there was some sort of conflict. I wasn’t sure what it was, and I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if this guy was in a suit and tie? It feels like he’s a real high-status person. Having three auditions in one day, I was just worried about being on time, getting in the room, and putting my hat in the ring.

On Vulture’s TV podcast last week, Amy Brenneman said you’re an old friend. She also said the way Damon works is that “the character doesn’t exist until it’s cast.” Did the fact you’re not well-known help, since John’s a mysterious character?
Amy and I did a play years ago at Lincoln Center, God's Heart; Viola Davis was in it. [As to why I was cast,] that’s probably a better question for Damon. For me, I think the reading allowed me to find a place in his writing that felt genuine. I think I just lucked out and [had] the right energy, and what Damon was looking for. [He] had an idea of what he wanted, 'cause he sort of directed the audition and really discussed some minor points. We kept playing with different scenarios and aspects of character that he was looking for. I auditioned about four times, so I think [he] had a chance to really figure out if we were on the same wavelength or not.

Was the combination of John’s familial devotion and menace on the page, or something you brought to the role?
Damon knew that was a part of who he needed John to be. Where we [met] in the creative process [was] the nuances he was looking for are nuances I appreciate seeing. It’s very human to be multi-layered in the way we approach problems. In other words, just because John doesn’t like somebody doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be a bully right away. He’s fair. There’s a part of Isaac that he doesn’t like, but he gives him a chance to come clean before he goes in and starts to exact any sort of justice. He wants to talk about the problem first. He just doesn’t believe the answer.

But he exacts a type of justice he’s never meted out before.
Right. By the time you get to exacting that type of justice — John can only imagine the number of people Isaac’s taken advantage of at that point. Isaac’s been doing this — he’s got a line of people outside his house. 

What should we read into the books he’s got on his nightstand — Mandela, Lenin?
You can read into that what you will. We do know John is a force in his community, and he’s interested in [people] not taking advantage of anyone. There is a sort of leadership quality about that, and about who he is. He’s reading about great leaders of our time. The people in those books have all gone about their leadership in individual ways. He’s reading everybody from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King.

But there’s a consequence to his “leadership.” He’s afraid to eat the apple pie left on his porch! Is the community behind his vigilantism?
It’s no secret John’s done time in prison. He sort of puts it out [there]. So he’s very aware his actions have consequences. And he’s holding [other] people to the same standard. As a matter of fact, I think he’s respected because of who he is, and what he’s done, and the way he’s gone about it. This is something we’ll learn more about as the series goes along. 

He tells the Garveys he’s an attempted murderer, “but he didn’t try hard enough.” What’s the backstory there?
That’s one of the things I don’t want to spoil.

We learn he was locked up during the Departure, and he started cracking down on people when he got out. Why’s he so reactionary, especially since Michael’s a believer?
I know! I think that’s one of the amazing things about him as a father. He’s not dogmatic about his beliefs. He’s going to allow his son to discover the world for himself. But he’s going to require his son to be accountable for his actions. I think that speaks to the love that he has for his family. And also knowing that he’s made his own mistakes, and his son is going to become a man in this world and have to discover some things for himself. That’s a very interesting, intricate part of the puzzle of who he is. How great to have a character like this [who’s] complex and complicated. 

Is he ever going to open Evi’s gift?
That’s another one where I can’t tell you. [Laughs.] But it’s going to kill you. If you want to figure that out. It may not get [completely] answered ’til season three. 

John told Kevin he didn’t drink, and now’s he’s downing a beer because Evi’s gone. Does he have an alcohol problem?
Another one where we’ll find out. 

After he assumes Evi’s disappearance is Isaac’s payback, he doesn’t let Kevin, a former cop, question him. Why’s he such a hothead?
I don’t think John’s a man of thought; John’s a man of action. The notion of his daughter being missing, and feeling like he’s familiar with who Isaac is and the bill of goods he’s selling people, he doesn’t think there’s time to let him talk [Kevin] around in circles. [He thinks], we’re gonna get this done. We’re gonna figure this out, and I know how to do it. 

Michael seems sure Evi’s not coming back. What does he know that John doesn’t?
I’m gonna wait to answer that as well. 

What was it like after Regina King won her Emmy and came back to the set?
Everybody was so thrilled for her. But Regina showed up ready to work. She’d done that, had that moment. We congratulated her [with] hugs and kisses — and then she was about the work. As a scene partner, she is right where you need her, when you need her to be there. She’s just at the top of her game right now, and I’m so lucky to have fallen into this position to work with her. 

What’s been the reaction of your friends and family to this part?
People couldn’t be happier because for a long time I have been in the theater and wanting to work in film and television, but also wanting to work in film and television in the kind of things that I’ve wanted to do … When you come from the theater, you get spoiled because the characters and the writing are so expansive. You get a chance to be whole. You get a chance to play Hamlet, Walter Lee, August Wilson characters. And television, sometimes, is a different kind of work. So for me to have a role like John Murphy … I think it could be the role of a lifetime for me in television. I don’t know that I’ll ever find this kind of work again in television. 

As for the people around me, now it makes sense, what I meant all of this time. I don’t think people could understand before. The number of times [they] would ask, Well, why can’t you just get on this show? And [me] saying, I don’t know that I’m finding a way to [get] that particular kind of work. So to step into this — now so many of the conversations I’ve had with family and friends make sense. They’re like, "Ah, I get it."

You must feel a sense of validation for having held out for quality parts.
I feel a sense of relief. The truth of the matter is, I never thought this type of work existed in television. And anything that came close, it’s usually Don Cheadle, or Denzel [Washington], or Lawrence Fishburne, or some of the guys who have paved the way and earned their [right] to be considered for this kind of stuff. I just had no sense of the tide turning in a way that would give someone like me, who’s unknown, an opportunity to work with this kind of material. I worked for HBO years ago, when I was really young, on Always Outnumbered, with Laurence Fishburne and Cicely Tyson. Now here I am 15, 20 years later, and I’m back with another project that I feel is groundbreaking. Damon has created wholeness in a character for an actor of color that is not necessarily often seen. [John’s] a father who is trying to do the right thing, but who has issues. I love that everything is not perfect; you don’t have to be perfect. Clearly, there’s love in the family, and yet it ebbs and flows like life … I don’t know the last time I’ve seen a character of color this complex.