How Carrie Coon Quietly Became TV's Most Valuable Player of 2017

She's flexed both comic and tragic muscles on 'Fargo' and final season of 'The Leftovers' – and the Midwestern actor is just getting started

Carrie Coon has played tragic on 'The Leftovers' and comic on 'Fargo' – and she's just getting started. How the actor quietly became 2017's TV MVP. Credit: Van Redin

If you've been watching television for the last few months, you have probably seen Carrie Coon cry. This is not unusual, considering that, throughout her tenure on the three seasons of The Leftovers, HBO's bleak, brilliant drama has required the actress to turn on the waterworks numerous times. Also, she's an excellent crier, the kind who can run the scales from single-silent-tear-running-down-a-cheek to full-out crumbling, crinkle-faced ugly sobbing. A wise showrunner knows that when you've got someone on your team who can bring it like that on a series about trauma and tragedy, you're a fool not to utilize that kind of first-rate tear-duct talent.

But if you've been tuning in this final batch of Leftovers episodes, as well as watching Coon take on a co-lead role in FX's new season of Fargo, then you've also had the pleasure of seeing her chase down a criminal Santa Claus, fend off unwanted advances (He: "So are we having sex or what?" She: "What."), lie down in a claustrophobic packing crate, rat-a-tat-tat interrogate murder suspects in a thick Minnesotan accent, hang out with Mark Linn-Baker in a hotel room, get repeatedly dissed by technology, get a tattoo of the Wu Tang Clan (or per her character, "the Wu Tang Band") insignia on her arm and, in what may be the single most transcendental TV moment of 2017, slo-mo bounce on a trampoline to the rap collective's "Protect Ya Neck."

The fact that Coon can seemingly take any pitch that comes her way and turn it into a pop fly attests to her gameness as a performer. She's a theater-trained utility player, a clutch performer in an ensemble and more than capable of commanding the screen on her own. But it's the way Coon sells you on every one of these moments, no matter how mundane or outrageous – how she makes you think, yes, that's exactly how her small-town police chief would handle a sexist boss; of course her grief-stricken "departure" investigator would ink the Wu's phoenix into her skin – that's quietly branded her as a stealth small-screen MVP over the past seven weeks. It's now verboten to say that someone is "having a moment," but the 36-year-old Ohio native has definitely turned the coincidental scheduling of two different shows on two different networks during the same timeframe into a coup. And even with two weekly showcases of her skills, Coon still leaves you thinking that she may be the most underrated jaw-droppingly great actor working today.

"The idea was never to get famous," she says the second time we speak, with her calling in from Fargo's below-freezing set in Calgary. "I was in my early 30s, living in Chicago, I was doing theater, some voiceovers, some motion-capture work for video games. I had my studio by the lake, I was writing and editing ESL students – I was making my living from language, which even after studying acting in college [at University of Wisconsin–Madison], was all I ever really wanted. I wasn't raised in a materialistic family; I think my parents might have still been paying my car insurance, but I could afford my life. I was content." A pause. "And then Honey came along."

As in Honey, the younger woman in the toxic foursome that makes up Edward Albee's scathing play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the part that would help Coon garner a lot of notice in town, and bring her to Broadway, and introduce her to both her future husband (her costar, actor/playwright Tracy Letts) and casting agent Ellen Lewis. But that would come later. "Here's the thing about the Chicago theater scene," she adds. "When the companies announce their season, you can really see how many roles are there that you're eligible for. I think, for that season, it was only three parts – and Honey was one of them. So, you know, high stakes! But I knew it would change things, and I knew it was mine. I thought, no one else can play this part. Even when i walked into the first rehearsal at Steppenwolf, I kept thinking, 'I should be petrified. But I'm not. I have this down.'"

It was during the end of Coon's Tony-nominated run after the production had moved to New York, she says, that she booked two roles: Ben Affleck's sister in David Fincher's movie of the bestseller Gone Girl; and Nora Durst, the numb-with-sorrow woman who, among other things, hires a prostitute to shoot her in the bulletproof-vested chest, in The Leftovers. "I wanted to cast people I hadn't really seen before," the series' co-creator Damon Lindelof says. "People who weren't necessarily in a million movies or TV shows. And I was curious about the New York theater scene, so I asked, 'Who are the big theater actors right now?'" Lewis, who was casting the HBO drama, had just seen Woolf the week before; she immediately mentioned Coon.


"Carrie was the first person we hired," the showrunner adds. "We were watching her audition tape, and she's reading the monologue she has in the pilot, where Nora is talking about losing her family in front of a crowd. And it felt like she was hiding something in her read – there was something slightly disingenuous about the speech that made you think, why the hell is she doing this? You felt like you needed to know what was going on so much more. Suddenly, Nora became a different character because she was playing her." When it's mentioned that "Guest," Coon's standout, near-solo episode in the show's first season, was the turning-point moment for a lot of viewers, Lindelof replies, "That's how we felt writing-wise about it as well. You suddenly felt like you could write an episode like that because Carrie was doing it. You felt like you could write anything for her and she'd go, Ok. It opened everything up."  

Anything would come to include everything from nervous breakdowns and one of TV's more intense one-on-one scenes with her Season Two costar Regina King ("Like two prizefighters in a ring," is how Coon laughingly describes the long, dialogue-heavy argument sequence) to that aforementioned trampoline sequence. "When we write these big, crazy story leaps – literally and figuratively, in this case – I think Carrie takes it as a dare," Lindelof says, "If she had said, 'Oh, come on, guys!' when we'd sent her that episode's script, we'd have taken it out. But she doesn't question it; she just goes for it. I was in Texas with her for a shoot, and Carrie had hurt her knee. I asked her if she was going able to do that scene, or if she wanted a double. And she just looked at me with this smile and went, 'Oh, I'm doing the trampoline scene!' You couldn't stop her."

"The only thing you know when you are working on a Damon Lindelof show is that you have no idea what's going to happen," Coon admits. "I mean, he's trained us for three years to realize that wherever you think it's going to go, that's almost assuredly not where it's going to go. That includes the ending." While she's careful not reveal spoilers about the series finale (which airs on Sunday, and bears the title "The Book of Nora") or address an enigmatic flash-forward in which Nora seems to have aged drastically, she will say that, "as an actor, I was very satisfied. I know that sound cryptic, but when I read it, I just thought: Yes. That feels right. Because of a scheduling thing – and don't read too much into this – I ended up being the last actor in Australia. Everyone else had gone home; it was just me partying with the crew. But I was alone with Nora one last time, and it made me realize how much I'll miss her. She taught me how to say 'No.' I'll always be grateful for that."

And, Coon mentions, she was at a point where, now in the market for a post-Leftovers job, she could say start saying yes to things – like a chance to join Fargo. "I would have jumped on board even without reading anything," she declares, before starting up an impromptu call-and-response cheer about the anthology show's creator. "When they say Noah, you say Hawley! When they say Fargo, you say yes! Fargo, yesss!" Cast as this season's folksy, steadfast law-enforcement officer Gloria Burgle, she was happy to add her own personal take on the series archetype. "She is a bit more cynical, a little less cheery or perky than, say, Allison Tolman or Frances McDormand's policewomen," Coon observes. "I've heard rumors, and make of this what you will, that the network was worried she wasn't that likable. But Gloria does have the folksy grace you've become accustomed to with Fargo's female sheriffs, and because of the way Noah writes ... he has a way of taking something really familiar and not making it a retread. He's also one of the few people out there really dedicated to writing complicated female characters, so you'd read scripts and think, this is easy. She's all there on the page.

"Plus the Fargo world is very outside in," she adds. "You put on the boots, the police belt, the hat with the earflaps" – she slips into Burgle's accent – "and well, you're right there in that world, aren't ya?"


"I needed someone who could play a female Gary Cooper type," Hawley says. "You know, why are the men all the strong, silent types? Why can't women be stand-off–ish and stoic as well? I think the idea that Gloria wasn't just Marge Gunderson 2.0 but someone who was having to find her own grounding in a morally shaky world was very appealing to her. That, and the fact that it was such a different tone from what she had been playing on her other show. And she's from the Midwest, so this sort of regional story is something she gets right away."

"My family's motto is 'We'll handle it,'" Coon admits, chuckling. "'Hey, a meteor is about to hit Earth!' And then gramps shrugs and says, 'Eh, we'll handle it.' We laugh about it, but yeah, that's the hallmark. You move on and you don't talk about it. Gloria is trying to figure out how to ask for help, which is not something that my people do with ease. I could relate."

She also credits her Midwestern background for helping her handle the career shift she's going through, noting that having two high-profile, critically praised shows on the air simultaneously increases the chances of "not just being considered for either grieving widows or small-town cop parts. The 'or' part is the problem. Hollywood is renowned for lacking imagination – especially when it comes to actresses – so having these two particular shows on at once helps. But my background has helped keep me grounded: Instead of, you know, 'I'm a star now,' it's more like, 'Well, I was No. 12 on the list of actors up for something, and now I'm No. 8.' Which is, frankly, what I'm more comfortable with anyway."

Indeed, Coon mentions she's happy that she's a bit more visible to the industry but still able to become invisible in public at will. The first time we talk, sitting in a midtown New York Starbucks during the tourist-heavy holiday season for close to an hour, she is approached exactly zero times for an autograph. She is, however, asked for directions to local landmarks no less than five times, a fact that makes her close to giddy.

"What would be ideal," Coon says, in regards to her fleeting moment in the dual-show spotlight, "is that people become more curious about what else I can do. One of the few things I have going for me is taste: I've been able to chose well. So if I can keep that up and also still mix things up – parts where you cry and parts where maybe you don't – then I'm already where I want to be."