Christopher Eccleston on Playing the Unluckiest, Most Optimistic Character on The Leftovers

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The Leftovers’s Reverend Matt Jamison is as dedicated to his wife Mary as he is to his belief in god. His devotion led the couple to Miracle, Texas, where the town’s juju woke Mary up from her vegetative state — for about three hours. Now Matt is finding the supposedly sacred place a lot less hospitable than advertised, and his faith seriously tested. Surprisingly, none of this gets Christopher Eccleston, the Brit playing the all-American minister, down. He says the preacher is an “eternal optimist” and “very resourceful.” Vulture rang up Eccleston in England to talk about why Matt’s still so trusting, and how reciting Yeats in a car trunk became one of the “greatest” moments of his career.

Matt’s got a new look in Miracle. Was it your idea to lop off your hair?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it was. I justified it by thinking the burden of hair is so strong, and Matt does not have time for his hair. So get it all buzzed off, get out of the shower, and get on with caring for your wife.

He’s also changed his behavior. In Mapleton he didn’t care if he pissed people off, digging up dirt on the raptured. But in Miracle, he knows speaking about Mary’s recovery is a problem, so he doesn’t. Why’s he changed his M.O.?
To protect his wife, very simple. He’s warned very early on that if he talks about that, he will endanger his wife. Obviously, it’s a difficult thing for him to do to a certain extent because it’s a denial of faith. But Matt has become more pragmatic and becomes more pragmatic as we learn about [his and] Mary’s secret.

We see what a devoted caregiver he is, and learn he’s repeating everything he did their first day in Miracle to get Mary to wake up again. He wonders if he’s being tested. Isn’t God supposed to be benevolent?
Oh, that’s a big question [laughs]. I think he doesn’t necessarily understand, but accepted that God is not benevolent in that God visited the Departure in the first place and [put] his wife in a vegetative state. I think Matt is more focused on how he can endlessly reinvent his faith and move forward.

The medical facility thinks he raped her cause she’s pregnant. Does he have any proof she woke up?
None at all.

He can’t catch a break. In Mapleton, he gambled and won money so he could keep his church, and then got held up. Now he stops to help a stranded driver, gets knocked out, and loses his and Mary’s wristbands. Why’s he still so trusting?
A man of the cloth is supposed to stop and help people when they are in distress. And he’s not supposed to question what the consequence of that might be. So the fact that Matt helps someone out [again] is very gratifying. Matt “abides,” to quote The Big Lebowski. If you’re a man of the cloth, you cannot pass them by, regardless of your experience. Everything that’s thrown in Matt’s way is God’s will.

Mary wakes up — or he thinks she does — to tell him they’ve got to get back to Miracle because “he” won’t last out here. Is he hallucinating? Is she having a boy?
Well, I’m not gonna answer that. And you just made me realize that I didn’t think about the gender of the child. Like a good, true husband, I [as Matt] just hoped that the child was healthy. I supposed there’d be a little nativity if the child was male.

Maybe there’s an Immaculate Conception going on there?
No, no, no. Matt had his moment — and he waited a long time!

At the visitors’ center, John wants Matt to lie about Mary. When he asks John why he’s so angry, he withdraws his help. Why does he pick that moment to rebel?
Because he’s being asked to deny his faith. And a man like Matt is never going to deny his faith.

What’s godly about hitting a guy so hard with a paddle that it breaks, all for money?
He’s like us all: He’s very contradictory. Matt, when he’s given the paddle, is forced into a corner. And I would suggest to you that actually denying that Mary woke up [would be] a stronger statement than hitting someone momentarily with a paddle. That’s how I justified it.

Matt gets duped again — this time by Elmer and his supposed route into Miracle. Is he the most hapless character you’ve ever played?
I’m starting to get a little defensive about Matt. I’ve got a feeling you think he’s stupid.

Oh, no, hapless meaning unlucky — there’s so much misfortune that rains down on him. It’s hard to watch, and I imagine it must be hard to play.
He’s wonderful to play because he’s an eternal optimist, and he’s very resourceful [laughs]. But we all do that. We all keep moving forward in denial of the obvious.

Okay, but reciting Yeats in a car trunk. That’s gotta go down as the most unusual scene you’ve ever played!
I’ll tell you, it was one of the greatest moments of my career. Because in episode two, I was talking to Janel [Moloney, who plays Mary] — knelt down by the side of the wheelchair — and I said to her, "Do you know this Yeats poem 'Song of the Wandering Aengus'?" She said no. I said, “Well, I don’t know why I’ve just thought of it, but I’m convinced it would be their poem.” And that night, drunk — I’d been out for a few drinks — I emailed Damon [Lindelof] and I said, “For some reason today, I started thinking of this poem.” And [several] weeks later, he sent me a draft [of the script], and he put that poem in [the draft]. So it was a moment of collaboration. I wasn’t lobbying him; I wasn’t asking him to do it. It was one of those strange things that came out of me, that I told him about in jest, and he used it. So saying that Yeats, which has been a poem that I’ve known since I was 17, in the trunk of a car with the beautiful Janel Moloney, was one of the great romantic moments of my career.

So we should expect some kind of epic showdown now that Matt’s defiantly told John that Mary woke up, and he won’t deny it, right?
That was like a Western moment, a High Noon moment. Let’s see.

Matt leaves Mary with Nora even though they got their wristbands back. Then he goes out of the park, and trades places with the guy in the stocks. Why?
Because he feels he has done some ungodly things in protecting Mary. He’s also conflicted [about] his crisis of faith. When John asks him to deny it, it’s all connected to that. It’s all connected to Matt’s relationship with God. It’s also connected to teaching these people a lesson in the encampment. Matt is, as ever, looking for a congregation. He finds one by teaching them kindness.

How do you shake this character off when you’re done filming? Do you and the rest of the cast go drinking after work?
I’ve been depressed as hell playing characters, but not Matt Jamison. I find him eternally optimistic. People said [last year] was depressing. I find all of these characters heroic.