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Please Don’t Take Carrie Coon Too Seriously

The career-surging actress, who has earned acclaim thanks to some darkly heavy screen and stage roles, wants you to know she’s in a perfectly happy place.

Left/top: Jennifer Fisher earrings, Everlane top. Right/below: Ekria from Wolf & Badger rings, Jennifer Fisher earrings, 3.1 Phillip Lim sweater, Marc Jacobs pants, Tommy Hilfiger boots. Styling by Mary Inacio; Makeup: Rebecca Restrepo using SURRATT Beauty/TraceyMattingly.com; Hair: Marco Santini for Davines/TraceyMattingly.com

Carrie Coon bounds out of the elevator of her TriBeCa high-rise in a floppy Japanese paper hat, a green linen jumpsuit, and barefoot shoes — “not the ones with toes, make sure you’re very clear about that, no toes,” she’d say later. She no doubt assumed I would be alone, but because a change in her filming schedule had caused today’s interview to overlap with my family’s trip to New York City — and because my elder teen daughter is dragging out the dropping-off-Dad process in an effort to meet the indelible Nora Durst from HBO’s The Leftovers in the flesh — my wife and two girls are still in the lobby when Coon comes down from the apartment she shares with her husband, the actor and playwright Tracy Letts, and their 4-month-old son, Haskell. (Their main residence is in Chicago, where Letts is a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member.)

Unfazed, Coon enthusiastically introduces herself to everyone and asks whether we’ve eaten, then announces that she knows a bakery with the best croissants just a few blocks away. Suddenly we’re all on the move, walking as fast as her patter. “Come on! Come on!” she chirps as she zips across each intersection just as the light is changing. It’s like being led through downtown Manhattan by Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, minus the leopard.

In an earlier era, Coon, 37, might have been considered a Hawksian woman — as in the leads favored by director Howard Hawks: a fast-talking, sharp-witted female role à la Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, or Hepburn at her screwball peak. Coon’s speech is rapid-fire and distinctly enunciated; she doesn’t let you miss a syllable.

But such finely calibrated madcap energy is not what has made Coon the hottest, most respected actress you still may not have heard of. To those paying attention, Coon has — to use a show-biz term — exploded over the past several years, mostly thanks to a series of serious dramatic roles. After getting her start acting with the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin and then moving to Chicago, she landed some key stage parts, most notably Honey in Steppenwolf’s 2010 production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which transferred to Broadway in 2012, earned her a Tony Award nomination, and introduced her to her future husband.

Then came her auspicious film debut as the sister of Ben Affleck’s character in David Fincher’s Gone Girl; her ever-deepening, ever-expanding work over three seasons of The Leftovers, which begins with the mysterious disappearance of 2 percent of Earth’s population, including her character’s husband and children; her Emmy-nominated portrayal of small-town police officer Gloria Burgle on the FX series Fargo; another supporting film role, in Steven Spielberg’s The Post; a small part in Steve McQueen’s soon-to-be-released Widows; and, in what could be a big-screen game-changer, a recently snagged lead opposite Jude Law in the upcoming marital thriller The Nest. For good measure, Coon also did motion-capture and voice-over duties as Proxima Midnight in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War before having a baby and then being cast as the female lead in the second season of the USA Network’s The Sinner, which began its eight-episode run in August. That’s the project that has Coon working in New York.

Coon plays a cult leader in The Sinner, but it was the simultaneous spring 2017 airing of the third seasons of both The Leftovers and Fargo that cemented the actress’s own cult following. Who was this woman carrying two prestige cable series with such emotional depth, versatility, and power? How was it that she could gut you with a simple “It’s OK”? Had any actress been stripped more naked, literally and figuratively, than Coon in that masterful, satisfying-in-ways-you’d-never-expect Leftovers finale? That episode — which, like its lead actress, came at you from all sorts of surprising directions — completed Nora Durst’s progression from supporting character to focal point, as she closed out the series with an extended monologue in which the telling was even more important than the extraordinary tale.

“How Carrie Coon Quietly Became TV’s Most Valuable Player of 2017,” read a Rolling Stone headline. New York magazine chronicled how she “quietly became one of TV’s gutsiest actors.” Entertainment Weekly named Coon one of its 2017 Entertainers of the Year, though it didn’t say whether she’d earned this honor quietly. The Television Critics Association gave its top Individual Achievement in Drama award, for an actor or actress in any genre, to Coon for The Leftovers and Fargo.

Inside and outside the industry, Coon is lauded for the gravity of her work. She disappears so completely into her roles — and has such a stealthy real-person kind of beauty — that it’s no surprise she’s rarely recognized in public. As we walked around and dined in Lower Manhattan on two occasions, she was approached exactly once, while eating gelato at the Eataly pop-up in the Oculus train station: A young woman politely leaned in and told Coon she had left her credit card at the register.

When Coon does get recognized, it’s invariably for The Leftovers — and then things get personal. “I hear the stories of those people, about their grief and their loss and divorces and dead children,” Coon says. “Those are the people I meet. And it’s really important to them.”

Yet within Coon’s circle of family and friends, pretty much no one associates her with heaviness. “A lot of the roles that Carrie has played are these very serious, dark, deeply emotional, and in some cases traumatic roles,” says Tona Boyd, one of Coon’s closest friends since high school and a civil rights lawyer in Washington, D.C. “It is so interesting to me because the Carrie that I’ve known since I was 17 is this wacky, fun, silly person. She’s such a goofball.”

Carrie Coon playing soccer for the University of Mount Union team in the early 2000s
Playing for the University of Mount Union’s soccer team in the early 2000s Photo: Courtesy of Carrie Coon
Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon in the 2010 Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
With future husband Tracy Letts in the 2010 Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo: Michael Brosilow

“She’s effervescent,” says Madison Dirks, who played Nick opposite Coon’s Honey in both the Steppenwolf and Broadway productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “She’s the type of person you want to run around the park and chase.”

Nonetheless, Coon says, when she meets with a director, the conversation generally goes like this:

Director: I just thought you were going to be really different.

Coon: What do you mean?

Director: Well, I don’t know. You’re really fun.

“They expect me to be this lugubrious, brooding person in the corner that can’t speak to anyone while I’m working, and I couldn’t be more opposite of that,” Coon says. “I think taking yourself too seriously is boring. And a trap.”

Which isn’t to say that Coon doesn’t take herself seriously. She is serious about being a wife and a mother and contemplating where she and Letts might raise their son. She has serious opinions about how women are treated in the entertainment industry and beyond. And if you follow her on Twitter or talk with her at any length, you’ll grasp the seriousness of her disdain for those currently leading the U.S. government.

She may take her craft most seriously of all. Ask her about, say, the importance of voice in a performance, and she perks up. Coon’s voice is resonant and clear and compels you to listen. The secret, she says, is breathing: “The breath is what controls where your voice is sitting. The deeper your breathing, the more subtle you can be.”

She started working on her voice and enunciation in graduate school, and when she’d go back home to Ohio, everyone in her family suddenly sounded like pirates, with their hard Midwestern r’s. “Every now and then, people ask me if I’m German or something. I say, ‘No, I’m just pretentious.’ ”

She can get away with that joke because pretentious is far from what comes to mind with Coon. Pretentious people don’t get all enthused about the chicken-wing schnitzel appetizer at their neighborhood bistro and proclaim, as Coon does during one of our meals together: “Look, it’s like a chicken nugget! It smells like popcorn. I love it.”

To Damon Lindelof, cocreator and executive producer of The Leftovers, much of Coon’s power derives from what she simultaneously shows and conceals onscreen. “You always know what Carrie is feeling, but you never know what she’s thinking,” he says. “I’ve never really experienced that before in an actor.” So without a prior discussion with the writers or director, Coon was able to hit just the right ambiguous, wondrous notes in that final monologue. “People don’t even want to debate whether it’s true, because it feels true, all of the emotion that she’s sharing,” Lindelof says.

When Coon is off camera, he adds, he has a similar reaction to her. “She’s totally accessible, totally nice, totally authentic. Every emotion that she’s putting out there is genuine. But I have no fucking idea what she’s thinking.”

Carrie Coon
On Coon: Astrid & Miyu ear cuff, Cos top, Sandro Paris coat. Styling by Mary Inacio; Makeup by Rebecca Restrepo using Surratt Beauty/TraceyMattingly.com; hair by Marco Santini for Davines/TraceyMattingly.com
 

During our late-morning excursion, after my family has peeled away, Coon takes a sharp left, and all of a sudden we’re walking along the Hudson River, a favorite route of hers and Letts’s.

“You can see the Statue of Liberty from here. There it is!” She points. “You can walk left toward Battery Park City and the Staten Island Ferry, or you can walk right up the river path. It’s really wonderful, especially for kids and dogs.”

This postcard-worthy New York scene appears to be the realization of the fears expressed by Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones in his review of Writers Theatre’s 2011 production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Calling her “one of the most arresting talents to appear in Chicago in years,” Jones wrote that “Coon forges an aggressive, dangerously desirable, young woman — one whom a man can never be sure won’t one day get up and leave.” He then worried that the actress might do just that to Chicago after Virginia Woolf began its Broadway run.

Coon says that while she knows that work may ultimately force them to settle elsewhere, she and Letts still love living in Wicker Park, where they own a house near the 606, which she prefers to New York’s more touristy elevated trail, the High Line. “The 606 is longer and, just like everything in Chicago, is just a little more practical than in New York.” She likes Chicago’s restaurants more, too. But she and her husband have spent less time in the city of late. “We determined that last year was about one-third Chicago, one-third New York, one-third other places.”

Yes, they have work in New York, friends in New York. Still, she’s not keen on Haskell having a childhood in New York. “I would like my son to grow up outside,” she says as we seat ourselves on a bench beside a handball court on which a man and boy are playing with remote-control cars. “That was a big part of my life. I can’t imagine kicking him out of this doorman building here in TriBeCa and saying, ‘Go play.’ It just seems ludicrous. And I see kids who grow up in New York, and they just seem so old. I was protected from that.”

Coon describes herself as a “country kid.” One of five children, she grew up on a nonworking farm in the unincorporated town of Copley, Ohio, near Akron. “We were outside from morning to night.”

As the middle sibling, she says, she sought attention by being the funny one. But her older brother, Josh, now the general manager of an Akron multiplex, remembers her less as a performer than as a jock, which may be the most professionally relevant piece of information about her childhood. “She was a star soccer player,” he says. (She was inducted into her high school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.) “She was really competitive, really athletic.”

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Coon didn’t shed her outdoorsy impulses while earning her master’s in acting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison or while apprenticing and acting for four years at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The current artistic director of the theater, Brenda DeVita, recalls that Coon could often be found lying on her back in the woods “just taking in the trees,” or swimming in the Wisconsin River. Onstage, Coon was “like a gazelle,” DeVita says. “She has an energy that fits the outdoors, that fits the space.”

Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro took note of Coon’s physical prowess when, in 2009, the new-to-Chicago actress tried out for Regina Taylor’s Magnolia, which Shapiro was directing at the Goodman Theatre. “She was the best auditioner I’d ever seen,” Shapiro says. “I kept asking everyone, ‘Who the hell is that?’ I think the thing about Carrie that defines her is she has an athlete’s orientation to what she does. She’s fearless, and she’s willing to throw her body at things.”

Her soccer playing continued even after her acting career took off. “In Chicago there are fantastic pickup leagues,” she says. “You can almost always join a coed team, and the coed teams always need girls. So I could leave town for a while and come back, email my soccer friends, and say, ‘I’m here for the weekend. Does anybody need a sub?’ ”

But in 2016 she tore the ACL in her left knee. She was on crutches during rehearsals for the Steppenwolf production of Letts’s play Mary Page Marlowe, in which she was one of six actresses playing the title character, and despite her injury, she was soon flying back and forth between Chicago and Austin, Texas, where the second season of The Leftovers was being shot. That scene in which Coon and Regina King are jumping on a trampoline? She filmed that just a few months after her surgery.

Gillian Flynn, who wrote the Gone Girl screenplay based on her novel, bonded with her fellow Chicagoan on what was the first movie set for both of them. She observed the actress’s tightly controlled energy up close as Coon sold the premise of Margo (a.k.a. Go) being the twin sister of Ben Affleck’s Nick — despite the actor being nine years older. “She actually brought more game to Go than I had pictured Go having,” says Flynn, who also cowrote the upcoming Widows. “She made Nick stand at attention.”

Letts invokes his wife’s sports background in describing her sang-froid during the high-pressure shoot of The Post, in which Coon played Washington Post editor Meg Greenfield and he played the paper’s chairman. “She was the only person on the film who wasn’t nervous, and I mean the only one,” Letts says. “I talked to her about it: ‘I wonder if some of this comes from your time as an athlete.’ I’ve heard it said that athletes in the zone feel a kind of poise that actors only pretend to feel. She’s relaxed and in the moment, and if she screws up a scene with Meryl Streep, she laughs it off and moves on.”

Shapiro, though, surmises that beneath Coon’s “external calm” lurks an “internal roiling.” “I think Carrie is an incredibly self-sufficient person for a lot of reasons, and her self-sufficiency has given her a very vital internal life,” says Shapiro, who also directed Coon in Letts’s 2012 adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and in Mary Page Marlowe. “You’re seeing someone who’s in survival mode on the outside and inside is calculating a million different things for self-preservation.”

Admirers of Coon’s work have assumed that she must have endured some devastating heartbreak or trauma to be able to tap into such dark emotions. But she says no, she’s just doing her job. “I’ve had my share of light trauma, but nothing heinous. Everybody’s still alive. Some people think you have to be tortured to be an artist. I’m doing my best work now, at the psychologically healthiest point in my life.”

As she talks, a big fuzzy caterpillar crawls onto her hand. “Oh my gosh, he thinks I’m a leaf, because I’m wearing green,” she says, then addresses it: “Hi, fuzzy, you don’t want me, you want a leaf. Let’s go on a leaf. Here you go.”

 
 

Coon and Letts met in 2010 during rehearsals for Virginia Woolf. Fifteen years older than Coon, Letts was an established actor and playwright; Coon was a relative unknown. Dirks, their costar, recalls that the pair were quiet about their relationship at first, though everyone else had pretty much figured it out by the time the couple invited him into a dressing room during the play’s pre-Broadway run in Washington, D.C., so that Letts could tell him: “We’re in love with each other, and we’ll be together till we die, and we thought you should know what’s going on.”

Suddenly it all made sense to Dirks, who flashed back to a grammar argument between Coon and Letts during rehearsals: Coon said a word was a noun, and Letts insisted it was a verb. “Carrie whipped around and said, ‘It’s a gerund.’ Tracy flashed this huge smile and said, ‘You’re right. It’s a gerund.’ He seemed so proud that she was so smart.”

Though Coon says she hasn’t delved into writing — “I don’t have anything to say yet” — words matter a great deal to her. During one of our walks, I point at the immense sign for the Millenium Hilton, marveling at the misspelling “millenium.”

“Oh my gosh, that’s wild,” she says, adding with a laugh: “I spend half my time on Twitter policing people’s grammar and spelling.”

“I punctuate texts,” I admit.

“I do too! I even use semicolons.”

Coon also takes pride in being the first reader of Letts’s plays (“She’s very articulate about the way a piece of writing works,” Letts says), and the two of them speak of each other like cherished colleagues. But their circumstances have changed since their courtship: While Letts’s career has certainly progressed at a steady pace (key parts in Homeland and Ladybird, three plays premiering at Steppenwolf over 18 months), Coon’s has skyrocketed, so their decisions now must give significant weight to both careers. Such a dynamic can be challenging for a couple — there’s a reason A Star Is Born has been remade so many times — but, Coon says, that troublesome template doesn’t fit them, in part because her husband has gained a lot of perspective from his success. “One of the things I understood about Tracy when we met is that there was plenty of room for me. There was room for my ambition. He was my greatest champion and always would be.”

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The arrival, in March, of their son doesn’t seem to have slowed Coon down. Haskell is named after one of Letts’s grandfathers — not, as some might speculate, after the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who shot the movie version of Virginia Woolf. Coon had planned on full-time mom duty for a while after Haskell’s birth, but circumstances intervened when actress Vera Farmiga declined the lead female role in the second season of The Sinner, for which Letts had already signed on to play one of the main characters. The producers offered Coon the part, and the convenience of being able to stay close to her husband proved too much to resist.

The Sinner didn’t feel like a huge stretch to Coon, who plays Vera Walker, a formidable commune leader whose son is wrapped up in the season’s central mystery. “Because there are some qualities that Vera Walker shares with Nora Durst, the challenge of The Sinner was really trying to differentiate them.”

This was Coon’s first time playing a mom while actually being a mom, though she found that didn’t make her job any easier. “I thought there would be some magic button where I would suddenly feel this overwhelming mom-like response and it would be easy to tap into the pain of having a child that’s hurting, but it hasn’t been true.”

The show has earned her yet more superlative notices, such as this one from Jen Chaney on the website Vulture: “Carrie Coon is the star of The Sinner season two. … Honestly, that could be the end of my review, since she’s reason enough to watch the latest installment of this anthology crime series.”

The set of The Sinner was about an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, so when both parents had to work, Haskell was watched by babysitters or family members. Such juggling of schedules was new territory for Coon and Letts, and both acknowledge that the logistics will only get harder as their son gets older. “We decided in welcoming Haskell that we would go hard for five years before he was in school,” Coon says. Letts puts it this way: “I think as long as Haskell’s portable and we can stick him in a suitcase, he’s a child of show folks, so that’s the way it goes. Once he starts school, we’ll definitely wind up in one location.”

The identity of that location remains a mystery. Coon doesn’t like L.A. “It’s not a great theater town. And I don’t want to live in a place that’s on fire.” She dreams of buying a farm in upstate New York, but that would make work travel more difficult. She’d also consider leaving the country altogether. “The possibility that my son has to go through active shooter drills — it’s unconscionable to us to think of putting our son in that position.”

As for the prospect of staying in Chicago, well, they say they still love the city, but Letts has found transferring plays from Chicago to New York increasingly difficult, and Coon says, “There’s a changing of the guard happening at Steppenwolf. It’s time for the younger generation to take over.”

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Having lived in Chicago for 30 years, Letts is more connected to the city than Coon is. “She just doesn’t feel as much a part of the theater community in Chicago. So I don’t know. It all becomes an algebra problem that we can trust will sort itself out.”

Such uncertainty sits fine with Coon. “It was a lark when I took this turn in my life. The fact that it’s continued to be a pretty steady upward rise has been very surprising to me. But it’s because I haven’t held on to it too tightly.”

So Coon will continue being a mom, a wife, and an actress — and at some point maybe she’ll land a role that captures that dashing-across-intersections effervescence. “The thing that I would love her to do is some kind of Coen brothers comedy where she really goes out on a ledge and has a set of fake teeth and an eye patch,” Leftovers co-creator Lindelof says. “I want to see her go full wackytown. And then I want to see her as Liam Neeson. She’s the woman who’s on a train across the German countryside with her baby and her husband, and then the terrorists take over the train, and Carrie’s the one who kills all the bad guys.”

Not even Hepburn and Bacall did that.

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