The Best Actress on TV Is The Leftovers’ Carrie Coon

By
Photo: Maya Robinson
Vulture TV Awards 2016
The Best Actress on TV Is
The Leftovers
Carrie
Coon
Photo Illustration by Maya Robinson

From Monday through Wednesday this week, we’re presenting our third annual Vulture TV Awards, honoring the best in television from the past year. We're taking a purer approach this time, with in-depth, critical essays on three major categories: Show, Actor, and Actress. Each piece makes a thorough case for our winners, and why they beat the competition. The shows that were considered had to be ongoing, which disqualifies limited series and shows that ended their runs in the past year. They also must have wrapped up their season by June 26. 

Carrie Coon’s work on the second season of The Leftovers can be described using many words, but the one that springs to mind before all others is "fierce." As Nora Durst, a woman trying to reassemble her life following the sudden departure of her husband and children in the HBO drama’s rapture–like event, her performance radiates a stubborn determination to believe that everything is going to be okay. From the measured edginess in her speaking voice to the way her gaze challenges anyone who suggests that the inexplicable may strike again, Coon’s Nora is no longer numb, as she often was in the show’s first season — she’s ultra-focused. Some people on this show are ardent believers in higher powers; Nora is a zealot about moving forward and not looking back.

Coon is one of those actors whose mere presence elevates every scene she’s in, even when she’s not necessarily the focus of it. On The Leftovers she’s surrounded by gifted castmates — Regina King, Justin Theroux, and Christopher Eccleston among them — who don’t need any assistance in having their games raised. Yet when they’re working opposite Coon, one can sense she’s taking them a little higher. She’s great at that thing acting teachers always say is so important, but that spectators of theater, film, and television tend to underestimate: listening and reacting. Whether her brother Matt, played by Eccleston, is telling her about a miraculous transformation he witnessed in his wife or she’s engaging in idle backyard barbecue chit-chat with her new neighbors, she’s always engaged and attuned to what’s happening around her, in a way that doesn’t look like acting and more closely resembles actual living.

While quiet intensity may be Coon’s signature, there’s a fragility that’s always lying beneath her surface. A simple comment or question that hits Nora the wrong way can push her over the edge. Paradoxically, it’s Coon’s sense of control — the way she carries herself with such commitment to keeping her balance — that makes it clear how desperate her character is to find that balance. Physically, she maintains perpetually perfect posture, never letting her toned, broad shoulders slump even after she's just chucked a rock through her next-door neighbor's window or learned her husband is having hallucinations. Nora deals with what life throws at her with steeliness and a sardonic sense of humor but, to borrow the words of Bob Dylan, when she breaks, she’s like a little girl, tears suddenly spill from her eyes when her wounds are reopened. When she’s threatened, she devolves into panic or explodes with sudden, deliberate, radio-smashing rage. Another actor might handle these outbursts in ways that feel showy or scream “Nominate me for an Emmy.” But Coon moves through these mood shifts so naturally, it feels like we’re not watching a performance — we’re spying on someone’s private pain. 

She is so completely her character — this sad, unapologetic, confident, scared, self-righteous pseudo-widow — that, as I write this, I keep losing track of whether to refer to her as Carrie Coon or Nora Durst. That may be the highest compliment that can be paid to her work: It’s so thorough and fully realized, it’s often hard to tell where Nora Durst ends and Carrie Coon begins.

THE CASE FOR CARRIE COON

1. “Are the people gone?” (2.4, "Orange Sticker")

In the fourth episode of season two, Nora awakens in her living room after an earthquake and, with her boyfriend Kevin (Theroux) missing, immediately assumes another sudden departure has occurred. Attempting to find answers, Nora, who’s just moved into her new house in Jardin, Texas, realizes she has no cable, no wi-fi, and no way to immediately confirm that the worst hasn’t happened a second time. She calls 911 and illogically asks the operator, “Are the people gone?” Then Kevin walks through the door, and she eagerly embraces him for a moment, but just as quickly lets go and coldly walks away. In the span of a minute and a half, Coon skates through this vast emotional spectrum — panic, frustration, sobbing relief and, ultimately, anger at Kevin for rocking her so far off her carefully laid foundation — and does so with a fluidity that will look familiar to anyone who’s ever ridden similar waves of grief and fear. But the most amazing, telling thing that Coon does here is simply breathe: at first rapidly, so she can barely speak; then deeply, when Theroux enters the scene; and then normally, quietly, as if nothing had made her gasp mere seconds earlier. The way Coon takes in oxygen is filled with intent, and speaks to Nora's insistence on keeping her emotions in check.

2. “I evolved.” (2.6, “Lens”)

One of the stand-out moments in The Leftovers’ exceptional second season is the scene in which Nora administers a government questionnaire designed to determine whether Erika’s daughter, Evie, legitimately departed or simply went good old-fashioned missing. In the course of the conversation between these two alpha moms, Erika hints that God may indeed have taken her daughter away, and that Erika’s choices may have caused that to happen. Nora responds by batting down Erika’s entire belief system — “Your logic, it’s a little all over the place, don’t you think?” she condescendingly asks — prompting Erika to start asking questions about what happened when Nora lost her own family.

Coon articulates every word extra carefully, molding syllables with the same attention Nora gives to molding other people's worldviews, as well as her own firmly entrenched state of denial. During the questionnaire, she hyper-articulates every query until she gets to the word "lens," a term used to describe people whose presence causes sudden departures. She half-swallows and almost chokes on that word in a way that highlights the repression of her own guilt regarding the loss of her family, and the question marks that hover over her the same way they hover over Erika. While attempting to make the case for her superior way of viewing the world, she tells her neighbor, “I evolved,” taking her time with “evolved” — a relative of evolution, a theory that contradicts the idea that God’s hand is in everything — so that it lands with a punch. As she and Erika continue to talk, their faces are shown in increasingly tight close-ups, so that when Erika inevitably punches back, we can see in detail what happens when Coon’s facade crumbles: her chin quivers, a tears bubbles up and out of her left eye, and she's rendered speechless.

3. “Fix that, Jesus.” (2.10, “I Live Here Now”)

This scene unfolds as Nora is attending to her wheelchair-bound sister-in-law, Mary (Janel Moloney), and her infant daughter while listening to a talk-radio program. On the air, a father who lost a child in the sudden departure explains that his wife left him because she didn’t want to have another baby. The host of the show tells the caller that his wife was right to not want another child; she can’t be a loving mother again yet, because she’s too broken to be ready. The only thing that can fix her, he says, is Jesus.

The camera stays on Coon the entire time as she listen to this, absorbing the information. Watch how much she expresses wordlessly, as a variety of expressions play out across her face — slight eye roll, brow furrowed in curiosity, tiny glimmers of empathy — as Nora contemplates how this couple’s situation applies to her own, and then decides to do what she does next: calmly stride across the room, pick up the radio, and slam it onto the floor so it shatters into pieces. “Fix that, Jesus,” she says. Coon delivers the line so straight that it’s both hilarious and the perfect illustration of the way Nora shuts down her own doubts. A few seconds later, another earthquake hits and the comatose Mary speaks in Nora’s presence for the first time in years, resulting in a look of wonder and confused joy on Coon’s face that is worthy of a Steven Spielberg movie. The whole scene, as she plays it, transcends a single performance in an episode: It captures the essence of The Leftovers, a show about people trying to hold on to what’s rational while the universe insists on tossing the inexplicable in front of their eyes.

HOW WE PICKED HER

A number of lead actresses gave amazing performances this year that are worthy of praise. If we go back to that word I used earlier — "fierce" — we could be here all day naming women whose work exemplifies that adjective. Women like: Sarah Paulson (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Kirsten Dunst (Fargo), Shiri Appleby (UnREAL), Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Keri Russell (The Americans), Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey), Felicity Huffman (American Crime), Lili Taylor (American Crime), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep), Robin Wright (House of Cards), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Aya Cash (You're the Worst), Lena Dunham (Girls), and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe). 

More specifically, when it comes to performances that exhibit control with flashes of fragility, a number of woman excelled in that department this year. But if I had to nominate only a few, I would single out Keri Russell, Michelle Dockery, Lili Taylor, Sarah Paulson, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (Yes, I know we said mini-series are excluded from consideration in the Vulture TV Awards. But the acting in some of this year’s ongoing anthology shows, particularly American Crime Story and American Crime, felt too significant to ignore.) 

On The Americans, Russell was a master of restraint, who, after betraying perhaps the only real female friend she's ever had in Young Hee, allowed her clear regret and sadness to peek out, but only for a second. Then it was back to maintaining her cover and emotional armor. Seriously: Elizabeth Jennings and Nora Durst could co-teach a hell of a seminar on denial. But Coon edges her out, just barely, because she consistently radiates a power that Russell doesn’t always match.

As Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, Dockery revealed a warmth and raw emotion in the series' final season that was all the more powerful because she usually kept it so deeply hidden beneath Mary's sub-zero-degree demeanor. But as a character, Lady Mary doesn’t give Dockery nearly as many levels to play with as Nora provides Coon.

On American Crime, a show packed with solid performances, Taylor stands out as a mother so anxious to pursue justice for her son that she loses sight of whether her actions are actually serving his best interests. Taylor projects raw emotion at every turn. When she’s angry, she’s a human piano wire threatening to snap; in her more subdued moments, you can see the degree to which exhaustion has seeped into her bones. But, with the caveat that trying to quantify what’s “better” about one actor’s work versus another’s is hardly science, Taylor doesn’t command the screen to the same degree that I feel Coon does.

The two performances that come closest to matching Coon’s are Paulson’s on that other show with American Crime in the title — The People v. O.J. Simpson — and Louis-Dreyfus on Veep. Paulson is the one actress here who is playing a real person, and she manages to convey the essence of Marcia Clark without resorting to imitation. More importantly, she’s got that control with flashes of fragility thing down pat, as we watch her fight back tears of frustration like she’s doing it on behalf of every underestimated working woman in the history of America. And in this year of the (possible) woman president, Louis-Dreyfus brings all kinds of shades to Selina Meyer as she deals with her own politically uncertain future and personal trials, like the death of her mother. I came very close to choosing Louis-Dreyfus as best actress, largely because of her performance in the episode I just alluded to, "Mother," an extraordinary showcase for her ability to travel up and down emotional scales while being completely hilarious at the same time. I don't know that I've seen anything on TV this year as darkly comic and simultaneously heartbreaking as Selina's farewell to her dying mother and subsequent crazy-giggly celebration of the fact that ballots will be recounted in Nevada. Louis-Dreyfus is simply amazing.

So what makes Coon more amazing than Louis-Dreyfus or Paulson, and therefore more deserving of this honor? Coon possesses a magnetism that I haven't seen in another actress this year. As she proved in season one of The Leftovers and established even more firmly in season two, when she's onscreen, she's like gravity: She pulls you toward her center. There is something powerful about her — about the way she's always thinking, the way her emotions expand and recede, how her facial expressions are sometimes so clearly at war with her desire to convey equilibrium. It's a quality that can't be learned, in my opinion. Coon has it in her acting DNA. While, as noted before, she uses language and speech as a key tool in her arsenal, her biggest strength is her silence. You can turn off the sound on an episode of The Leftovers and watch Coon on mute, and it's still possible to not only be riveted, but to have a genuinely profound emotional experience while watching her. As good as Paulson and Louis-Dreyfus are, I'm not sure they pull off that same level of magic trick.

There's also an undercurrent to Coon’s performance that resonates especially deeply in our current cultural climate, to a degree that the other performances I mentioned don’t, quite. Paulson's portrayal of Marcia Clark helps to widen our understanding of a key moment in our past; Louis-Dreyfus, perhaps, enables us to imagine a potential, hopefully less bumbling and profane future with a woman in the White House. What Coon is doing speaks very specifically to where the average American's head and heart is, right now. She’s playing a woman befuddled by the bad things that have happened to her and struggling to get a grip on them and herself. And isn’t that all of us, every day, when we watch the news and hear about another mass shooting, or a terrorist attack in Paris, or witness the latest developments in this ugly presidential race? Our world is not the world of The Leftovers. No one’s suddenly departed from here, at least not yet. But the issues of loss, grief, and frustration that percolate on that show mirror our own. Carrie Coon delivers an enormously convincing, moving performance. But that performance feels like something even more special because, as we watch Nora struggle, it often feels like we’re watching ourselves.