The Leftovers’ best and wildest episodes tend to be those that isolate a single character in extreme emotional close-up. It’s a little surprising that it took two and a half seasons for Damon Lindelof et al. to write one for Kevin Garvey Sr., the aging Mapleton police chief who responded to the Departure by checking into an asylum and then fleeing to Australia to become a prophet. But what an episode it is — one of the saddest, deepest, craziest, and most hilarious outback walkabouts ever filmed, wherein Senior dances nearly naked in indigenous paint, almost dies after falling off a roof and being bitten by his “totem” snake, loses consciousness numerous times, and finally comes around to the idea that he should (temporarily) drown his own son.
Scott Glenn, the 77-year-old actor who plays Senior with effortless glee, is a lot saner (or maybe less holy) than his character, and also more accomplished, with a long string of clutch roles in Urban Cowboy, Silence of the Lambs, Apocalypse Now, Nashville, and, more recently, Netflix’s Daredevil (as a blind martial-arts elder). But he’s led an equally eccentric life between the credits. After college and three years in the Marines, he was a police reporter and aspiring poet before stumbling into acting, and well into his career he took long breaks to work as a bartender and mountain ranger in Ketchum, Idaho. He still lives there with his wife, hiking and skiing and practicing martial arts — activities that come in handy when you’re called upon to hobble on crutches for hours through freezing Australian scrubland. Glenn talked to us about his belated Leftovers star turn.
How did you feel when you saw the script for an episode entirely about Kevin Sr.?
I was overjoyed. I called Damon up and I said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I knew about what was gonna happen — in really broad strokes — two months before I went to Australia. So I asked Damon, “What can I do?” And he said, “Read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, research the indigenous people, learn to play the didgeridoo.” I got the script probably about three weeks before we left and it was just a phenomenal gift. I learned the whole thing like a play. And when we got to Australia, I think my wife and I were in town less than two days before we were on a plane from Melbourne to Broken Hill and dove right into it.
I think by this point in the show it’s clear that Senior is, well, kind of nuts. He’s willing to drown his own son for his own misguided purposes. How do you understand his evolution as a character?
Well to begin with, from my point of view, the one word that doesn’t fit at all is misguided. I see Senior as someone who desperately needs a purpose larger than his own life. At the beginning of this whole journey, three years ago, I asked Damon, “What can you tell me about this guy?” And he said, “I’ll tell you this: the voices that you hear never ever lie to you, ever. They’ve never told you anything that wasn’t true or became true.” And then in a couple of really small scenes in season two, the voices pull the rug out from under my feet. Once I accepted them, they stopped talking to me, and after thinking I had a purpose beyond my own individual life, all of a sudden it’s gone, and I’m looking for it to return — maybe not in the form of voices, but certainly in the form of signs. And that’s what prophets like Moses went on and created a religion with.
What was the hardest thing about shooting the episode?
Before we got to Australia, I probably would have said taking all my clothes off and putting paint on my body and dancing in the Outback in the middle of the night. I did think I was gonna be in Australia in the summer, not realizing that it was gonna be their winter, so it was bitterly cold. But when we got to it, it wasn’t hard at all. Most of that episode pretty much just played me, and all I had to do was stay out of my own way, and not to read what was coming and say, “Here’s a moment of humor or here’s a scary moment or an outrageous or subversive moment” — which I normally do as an actor.
You do have one very long monologue, which must have been hard.
Yeah, one of the longest monologues Damon’s ever written — the scene with [indigenous film star] David Gulpilil. [Director] Mimi Leder was planning on splitting it up and shooting it from take to take, and I said, “Just turn the cameras on, let’s see what happens.” So I went through the whole thing word-perfect, I guess, because at the end of the take she said, “That was great, Scott,” and then she started mentioning things that I did in the middle of the take. And I couldn’t remember any of them. I’ve had that experience only two times in my life before, where the script played me more than I played it. Once was in Urban Cowboy and the other was onstage in Killer Joe. So we did that take and then we did more. But somewhere in the middle, Mimi came over and said, “You really can’t remember specifically things that you did during these takes?” I said, “No, I can’t.” I did things I couldn’t remember doing at all — breaking up when I start talking about Junior, any of that stuff. She said, “Well, if you can’t direct yourself, no one else can either. What do you suggest we do, if there are things that I want and I’m not getting?” And I said, “More takes. Just keep shooting till you get what you want.” She said, “That’s gonna exhaust you.” And I said, “No, I don’t think that it will.” So we did it seven times.
Speaking of exhausting, what about the physical challenges of the episode? I guess it helps that, by all accounts, you’re very fit for your age.
It does help. It helps a lot. My life is stupidly physical. I had just finished doing a thing for Marvel in New York [the Daredevil spinoff The Defenders], and I started a new martial art in New York that I hopefully am gonna get back into in the next week. But my life is very physical. So I ski and I hike, you name it. It’s not even a matter of trying to stay fit for the work, it’s the way I live my life.
You’ve said before you never take a script that you don’t love. What do you love about The Leftovers?
A number of things. One was Damon’s writing. I called him up sometime during the first season and said to him, “Do you have mics fucking hidden in my bedroom?” Very rarely have I read writing that is so easy for me to say and yet is so circumspect and off-kilter. The other thing is that it’s not afraid to deal with big questions. Another thing I said to Damon in the first season, I said, “What are you dealing with here, man?” He said essentially this whole show is meant to ask two questions. The first one is: What does it really mean when you say the word family? And the other question is: What is the origin of religion? What is it that makes people feel like they have to find a purpose bigger than their own lives, to give their life meaning? Not that Damon ever really tries to fully answer those questions, but the show asks them in a strong and unpredictable enough way that at the end of this whole thing, hopefully, people in the audience will ask themselves those questions much more deeply than they ever have before.
Before we go, I wanted to ask you for your thoughts on Jonathan Demme, who passed away last week.
He was really a good friend. I was in the first movie he ever produced and the first movie he ever directed, and then Silence of the Lambs. He was a champion of art and music, he was an incredible father. He was just, he had a pure love of art and humanity that was more overwhelming than most people I’ve ever been around. I’m still kind of dealing with that. I mean, did you ever meet him? Well, he was the kind of person who, years ago, when he went to Haiti, adopted the whole country when he felt what was going on there, and made it his cause. I remember that when we were doing Silence of the Lambs, when his kids would come on the set, rather than shushing them away, he would break everything just to pick his kids up and swing them around in the air and play with them and then get back to directing the film. He was such a pure, loving, wonderful guy.
What did you learn from him?
That your first impulse to do anything should either come from love or appetite, not an outside consideration, like, Will this be good for my career or how am I gonna advance, but Am I hungry for this and do I love it?