This interview contains spoilers about the final season and episode of The Leftovers.
In the final episode of The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey found his way back to Nora and also found something that has frequently eluded him for all three seasons of the series: happiness.
Justin Theroux, the man who has portrayed Garvey during his time in Mapleton, Miracle, and alternative universes involving hotels and presidential war rooms, spoke to Vulture about Kevin’s emotional flash-forward reunion with Nora (Carrie Coon), how it felt to say good-bye to the show about the Sudden Departure, and whether Nora’s account of crossing over can be taken at face value.
Series co-creator Damon Lindelof has said that The Leftovers was, in a way, about the Kevin-Nora love story, and the finale certainly supports that idea. Do you see the show that way, too? How would you characterize it?
I would characterize it in the same way … It’s more of a love story told as it relates to family, in a way, because essentially each season ends almost in the exact same way, on a certain level. In the first season he comes home with his daughter after pulling her out of a burning building and finds Nora unexpectedly on his porch, having written him a good-bye note, and there’s a baby there. You know, it’s a family of a sort, one that he wished for but didn’t necessarily look like the one that he thought he was going to get.
The second season ends with him going to hell and back, or purgatory and back, and he opens the front door and his entire expanded family is there. And then, in the third season, there’s this beautiful time jump where we sort of see what Nora has been through and what her life looks like now. And he comes and essentially tries to romance her, having realized that she was the woman for him. It’s not the normal kind of flirtation of “Look, do you want to go get dinner and do you want to have a date night?” or “Hey, I’m still single.” Essentially, in that wedding scene, he woos her by telling her about his family and saying, “Here’s where everyone is, some have children, my father’s still alive and I live there.” That’s the flirtation, which is he spells out pretty clearly what he thinks matters and is important.
Having had the episode prior where he literally and metaphorically cuts out this dysfunction from his shadow self in the presidential war room, he’s now had several, I’m sure, very dark nights of the soul missing her. There’s that beautiful line where he says, “People hold candles.” I think in that sense it ends the way the previous two episodes end, which is: This is the family. This is what matters. This is what’s important. And it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be together forever, because, you know, obviously one or both will die, and who knows when? But I do have the firm belief that they’re together at the end of this.
Not only does Kevin cut out this whole part of his past history with Nora when he reunites with her, but the way you play him, he’s a completely different guy. He doesn’t even seem like the same person.
He’s happy. I mean, he’s happy but missing this one piece. If there’s any cruelty to what he’s been living with, it’s that he’s been living with essentially his entire family minus this one piece. Part of that was a result of choices he made. So on the one hand, I think he’d be happy to take up his scrip and staff and go to Australia every year and keep looking for her, although I’m sure he’s not enjoying it. On the other hand, that’s his mission: to put them back together.
He, in a sense, is a whole person now and I think by the end of it, she’s a whole person. Obviously I believe the story that he did come back and look for her every year. The playing of the character was different in that I couldn’t play the sort of angst-ridden, bewildered, “Mother fucker, why is this happening to me?” guy anymore. I had to play him with a kind of levity, of a guy who has gained wisdom.
He’s so much more relaxed. Watching Kevin usually, you feel like you need to hold your breath a little bit. This version of him is like: Oh, you can exhale.
Yeah, exactly. I think that’s by design in the writing. You don’t want to feel like he’s going to see Patti over her shoulder again — you want him to be relaxed. But I don’t think he’s acting relaxed to try to win her back. He really, genuinely is a more realized person and has learned not to force things anymore, save for this one issue.
The show doesn’t say how far in time we’ve jumped ahead, but obviously they did a little bit of work to age you and Carrie Coon. It was very subtle. What did they actually do to make you a little bit older and how labor-intensive was that?
It was actually more labor-intensive than you would think. It was three hours. We had beautiful makeup artists who did very delicate work where they basically went in and painted your face with this sort of stuff that wrinkles up your neck and cheeks, and then they do age spots and pale you out and put bags under your eyes a little bit: just kind of hollow you out a little.
But yeah, when I first heard we were going to be doing age makeup for the finale, I was like, “Oh my God, are we going to be 85 and are we going to be sitting there having rubber prosthetics applied to us?” Damon was like, “We’re not going that far into the future. I want to go maybe 15 years. Nothing totally jarring. I don’t want you to look like you’re about to keel over.” Also, I think it’s appropriate for the timing — I haven’t asked Damon this, but I think it was probably a smart choice going, look, I want them to feel like they have a lot of years ahead of them.
The scene where you and Nora sit down and have tea and have this long conversation — was that the last scene you shot?
No. The last scene that I shot was very close to the end, maybe the second or third to the last day. The last scene that I shot, interestingly, was us in the bathtub, talking about what we wanted when each other died.
Oh, that’s not even in this episode. That’s from the previous one.
Oh, it is! That’s right. It was directed on my last day of work. It was one of those scenes where, because “The Most Powerful Man in the World” was such a labor-intensive episode, that [scene] was the one that kept getting pushed off the schedule because we were like, “It’s a quick bathtub scene, we just need to get it, we need to get it.” So my final day on-set was, yeah, shooting that bathtub scene.
I’ll ask you about that first then: When you were done shooting, was that an emotional moment for you?
It was emotional, yes. It’s one of those things when you’re at the end of any season, forgetting the final season, basically every piece of toothpaste has been pushed to the end of the tube and you’re exhausted and tired. It was emotional in that, I think it hit me later as I was packing up my trailer. I had to leave the very next day. I don’t like to get emotional in front of people so I think I shed a few tears there. And also with some quiet good-byes to Mimi and Carrie and everyone else.
I was making an assumption that the tea scene might have been your last scene because it felt like maybe real emotion was entering into it. Obviously that was just motivated by the material itself.
The material itself and also I always relished working on this show. There were no moments where I was like, “God, get me off this thing. I’m sick of it.” I knew how special the thing we were making was, or I felt it was special. That being said, when you know you’re in your final couple weeks and final couple days, that feeling becomes more piquant. In that scene, and also knowing the gravity of that day, where I come back, slam the door, get up, yell at her, get upset, and then have her deliver that monologue, you realize, “This is a landing you have to stick.” There is a little bit of that pressure. But again, as you said, the writing is so jaw-dropping that when we’re having tea together and she’s telling me she went back home, she went to the other side, she hid behind a tree and watched her children and realized that they were the lucky ones and she didn’t have a place there, and there was a new girl there — and as an aside, Nora just beautifully delivered, “And she’s pretty” — at that point, I’m just a viewer, watching an incredible performance. In that sense, I’m just lucky that I got to sit three feet away from it. So it was moving just watching. The best thing to do in those situations is just listen.
Damon had always said we’re never going to answer what happened to the departed on the show. But the show did. That monologue explains it.
Yeah, if you believe it.
Do you think we shouldn’t believe it?
If you believe her, you know. It operates on two levels. Yes, this thing happened and that’s where they all went and there’s another world where there’s the 2 percent. It also operates on the level of “This is the story I tell myself, and this is the story I’ll tell you.” Or “This is the story I tell everyone, or this is the story I will tell those who listen.”
I was bracing myself as she was starting to tell that story because I expected it to flash to some imagery of what she’s describing. I almost wanted that, because I wanted to see it. But then I really appreciated that that didn’t happen, and this was just a pure scene of two people talking and the actor was able to conjure the world.
Definitely. But again, maybe we didn’t flash to it because there was nothing to flash to. You know what I mean? I would hope that becomes the lobby talk. Well, I hope the lobby talk is, “Wow, it was a nice episode.” But again, I think it can be viewed both ways.
That raises another question. In this episode, because it cuts from Nora’s immersion in the water to the blue sky of Australia, part of me initially wondered: Is what we’re seeing of her life in the future real? Or are they in heaven or something?
If you had that opinion, I’ll absolutely let you have it. Not to create an unwanted music cue, but heaven is a place on Earth. That probably should have been our closing title sequence.
No, they used it in Black Mirror already.
Oh, they did? Oh, good, all right. That might be something that’s a question for Damon and [co-creator] Tom [Perotta], really, but I think once we see them lovingly holding hands at a table and the doves coming back and finally landing, doves being love, I think we’re in real time at that point.
That was ultimately my takeaway, too. I wonder, though, if some people will have that question.
That’s great if they do. The wonderful thing — and that’s what our show does not cleverly, but well, meaning not in a cynical way — is that it allows for multiple interpretations. Just like life does.
You did three seasons and that’s it. But if HBO had said, actually, let’s do a fourth season, would you have wanted to do one? Would there have been any more story to tell?
It’s hard to say. Damon was always very upfront about, we’re not doing eight seasons of this show. We’re not even doing five seasons of this show.
At the outset, before we even shot the pilot, in order to put my mind at ease, he said, “Look” — because I was sort of reluctant about doing a television show, just because you can get locked up for enormous periods of time — he said, “This will be three or four seasons max.” He’s like, that’s the amount of time I think it’s going to need to tell this story without beating it to death or dragging it out. As I’ve said before, I feel like he and Tom put that last stroke on the painting and went, “You know what? This is the time to walk away and we’re done. If we were to put more paint on it we’d just ruin the painting.” The mark of a good showrunner is to go, let’s not try and wring out these characters and let’s not write ourselves into corners and let’s not start adding colors that don’t deserve a place on this thing. I think it was the perfect little trilogy or triptych for our show.
It feels like it ended the way it should have.
Yeah. I mean, look: With our finale as it is, I wouldn’t want to keep scribbling off the page of that. But if he had come and said, I have two more seasons, of course I would have done it. Because I know he would have had the vision to do that, but the fact that he said I think we should do a third and this is our last, I completely respected and appreciated that decision.
This show has been airing opposite Twin Peaks. I know the original Twin Peaks had a big impact on Damon Lindelof and probably many of the people who worked on The Leftovers. You’ve worked with David Lynch yourself. Do you see any similarities between the material on The Leftovers and what David Lynch does?
Yes. Damon’s the first to say that Leftovers could not exist had Twin Peaks not existed before it. I don’t think Twin Peaks could have existed had Fellini not existed before it.
I don’t know, I can’t go much further back in time than that, unless you wanted to get really avant garde, but I know David was a massive fan of Fellini. I think what Damon and David have done is they’ve taken the lessons in the risk-taking of storytelling, and basically imbued them with the stories that they want to tell.
There are certain element of Jungian symbology that both Damon and David share, sort of archetypal types of men and women. They obviously have their own very unique aesthetic, and the parallels sort of end there because their thematic work — you know, David is very much about the subconscious and dream logic. Damon dabbles in that, too, but Damon is more, I think, curious about the meaning of life and what makes us put our shoes on in the morning and what makes us hit the pillow at night — what makes life worth living if we’re not being nihilistic.
Certainly “International Assassin” and “The Most Powerful Man in the World” have that subconscious feel to it. Even if they’re not about dreams, they have a dreamlike quality.
Absolutely. But I think there’s a more scientific side to Damon than there is to [Lynch]. Each time I would be killed, I would always be very specific, “Did I die?” He would, in a wonderful way, much like David, would say, “I don’t know.” “But, I will tell you this. Like, I have done the research. There is a way to get shot in the chest where it can hit you right in the solar plexus and it can find its way and miss all organs and exit your back and you can survive that.” Even drowning: How long can you go without oxygen? “Well, you know we’ve [researched] what happens when you die, what happens when you breathe in water to the point of death. Certain chemicals can be released that induce dreamlike states. Oftentimes people will say they saw a white light. Some people say they saw hell. But is that a dream or are they really … ” So, you know, Damon will always explore the scientific to back that up so that to people who think clearly he went to purgatory or to heaven or hell, you can say, “Oh, but there’s another explanation for that.”
Which is, I think, Kevin’s point of view as well. In a way, Kevin might be Damon’s proxy. Because I don’t think Kevin holds any religious beliefs. That’s probably what he realizes by the end of it. He’s like, look, all you got is love. That’s the thing that I want and that’s the thing I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to get, or ostensibly all three seasons trying to get. I want love, I want family, I want some version of that.
I will say this: I think by the finale, Kevin knows what that looks like. Whereas in the first two seasons and even at the beginning of the third, I don’t think he knows what it looks like.
This interview has been edited and condensed.