'The Leftovers' Christopher Eccleston on Faith, Hope and Clarity

The British actor talks about his big episode, that cryptic smile and why he thinks the HBO show is actually optimistic

Christopher Eccleston The Leftovers
Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Christopher Eccleston on 'The Leftovers.'
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Unless you are a Dr. Who fan — in which you'd immediately recognize him as the ninth version of the time-traveling doctor  — Christopher Eccleston is one of those character actors who usually prompts a "where have I seen him before?" reaction. It might have been as the flatmate whose greed drives him insane in Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave (1994) or as the powermad military man fighting off the infected in 28 Days Later... (2002). He may be familiar to you as a metaphorically ghostly presence in The Others (2001) or a literal invisible man from the NBC show Heroes. He's played Jude the Obscure, Iago and a Thor villain — in other words, he's a working British actor, the kind whose characters purposefully leave more of an impression then the actor himself.

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Eccleston's role in the HBO series The Leftovers, however, should change that last part, especially after his turn in last night's episode. Based on Tom Perrotta's book, the show imagines a world in which two percent of the world population — your next-door neighbor, the local grocer, J-Lo, Gary Busey — simply vanishes into thin air, leaving behind a confused world unable to process the where, why or how of it all. As Matt Jamison, the muckraking town priest and resident fallen holy man, the actor has spent the first two installments as one of many background voices in the drama's PTSD chorus of grieving. But in the third episode ("Two Boats and a Helicopter"), Jamison takes center stage in what's essentially a solo storyline, revealing more about the character's past and his purpose in trying to "expose" the Departed as less-than-saintly. Though opinions have varied on the effectiveness of this particular hour of television, the notion that Eccleston's grace and gravitas in playing Jamison adds immensely to the show is practically irrefutable.   

Eccleston talked to Rolling Stone right before the episode's airing about Matt's motivations, collaborating with director Keith Gordon on this specific narrative arc and why he thinks that this alleged downer of a show is actually optimistic.

What was your first take on Matt Jamison?
It came from the book before the script, actually. I was tipped off about the Tom Perotta novel by my friend Julian Farino, this British director who's responsible for a number of episodes of Entourage, Big Love and various other HBO episodes. He's also a big fiction reader, and when he'd finished the book, he'd passed it to me and said "I think you'll like this." So I had a good sense of him before I'd even been handed a script.

But he's a much more minor character in the novel…he's like a figure in a Bosch painting that you'd see in the corner of a much bigger canvas.
He is, yeah…he's far less developed in the book than he is in the series, and I think Tom would be okay with me saying that. I do like the Bosch comparison — there's certainly a lot of writhing and gnashing of teeth in Matt [laughs]. But I was surprised by how much the character had made on me even as a peripheral presence. When I eventually talked to [showrunner] Damon Lindelof about the part…it seemed pretty obvious to me that a man of God, one who's been left behind in something akin to a Biblical rapture, that there would be a lot of dramatic potential there. He's been woven into the ensemble quite nicely.

It's pretty obvious that, even with the small amount of screen time that he has in the first two episodes, that this is a man who is in denial of his own pain. He's clearly externalizing it by trying to convince others that this is no act of God that's happened, and that somehow, this will make everyone feel better. And that it will somehow ease the pain of what's happened to his wife, fix the ruins of what's happened to his family and fix the doubts that are plaguing him about his belief system in the aftermath of the Departure. Those notions are certainly expanded on in the third episode.

He certainly doesn't seem like a peripheral presence after this episode…
No, but one of the great things about ensemble shows is how you can use characters like Matt or his sister, Nora [played by Carrie Coon], is that you can constantly have people come into the foreground and recede into the background as you need, in order to tell the bigger picture. We shot this episode really early on in the schedule, and then as you'll see, Matt kind of comes and goes…there are times when he'll show up, say a few lines and then you don't see him for another few episodes. It's the same with other people on the show. Carrie will have her moment, Ann Dowd [who plays the cult leader Patti Levin] will have her moment…Justin Theroux's character, Kevin Garvey, is still our lead man, but a lot of folks will get to step up and have their stories told.

But here's what was weird: I noticed that the crew sort of treated me as just another person on set before we'd filmed Matt's solo episode, if you will. Then, after we'd shot it and I'd come in to do another scene or have a brief exchange with another character, they treated me differently. There's this sense that there was a gravitas around Matt now, because of how damaged we all know he damaged he is, and I could feel the crew responding to it. I hope viewers will feel the same way. He's no longer some crazy face in the crowd now.

You get to see more of Matt's motivation for what he's doing, definitely — but how do you work with the writers or a director like Keith Gordon to make sure that Matt doesn't end up being just the sum of his psychological damage? 
Oh, I'm so glad you brought Keith Gordon up, as he's a director that I don't feel gets enough credit. It's funny, I can remember sitting in a theater when I was 18 and watching Christine, which he stars in, and thinking, "Who is this guy?" There's a performance where you see someone maintain the audience'e sympathy even as he becomes a monster…it's an odd little coincidence that he ended up directing this episode. 

I guess, to answer your question, is that the idea is to see where you and the character have common ground and go from there. You never want to play the subtext of a character as text. But you do want to feel that the sum of his psychological damage, as you put it, comes from a place that you recognize. To me, Matt is really just trying to do his best, even when he's plunging a knife into his sister's back. She's been grieving over her husband, and he's trying to smash that so she can move on. Now, does he do it for the right reasons? Probably not.

It's interesting that you bring that specific scene up, as it's the moment where Matt goes from being a flawed character to a borderline unlikable one. He's using this knowledge he has about his Departed brother-in-law as a sort of poker chip…
Before he gets around to using literal chips in the casino, yes [laughs].

…in order to get her to pony up cash to save his church. It's close to a breaking point in terms of the audience's sympathy, wouldn't you say?
Perhaps. Maybe. I do think that both he and his sister have been profoundly traumatized, both by the departure and by events that happened way before the departure, and that knowing that may help shed some light on his behavior, as well as hers. But it's a fair question, and I'd hope that the rest of the episode helps folks see that Matt is an incredibly complex person, and that he's capable of inflicting damage even as he's trying to spread something like a sense of hope. Everyone has their reasons, as they say.

Can you talk about the smile Matt gives at the end of the casino sequence? It's an interesting, and understated, choice regarding how you play that moment.
Was that the shot he used to end it? I haven't seen the episode yet! Oh my god, that's brilliant.

I'm sorry to have spoiled it for you.
[Laughs] Not to worry, it doesn't surprise me that Keith chose to end the scene that way…it's very clever. Let me back up a bit before I get around to the moment you're talking about. Very early on, when Carrie Coon and I started working on our scene together, we knew we had a lot of work to do. It's four pages of dialogue, there's a lot of information to get across, there's the betrayal of trust on Matt's part…it's a dense sequence for something that it essentially just two people talking. Plus Carrie and I were still getting to know each other, so there was still a sort of feeling out period between us, you know.

And as we hashing it out, we're talking with Keith about all of this. He's listening and listening, and he finally says, "Look…don't think of this as a big scene. Don't feel you have to carry the dramatic weight of the narrative on your shoulders here. The drama will take care of itself. Just play it as a scene." Only a director who's been an actor would say that, really. But it got right to the heart of it for both Carrie and I: Just. Play. The. Scene. That's what we did.

So to come back to the original point, when it came time to film the scene at the casino, it would have been very easy to play it as this huge joyous thing, in order to communicate to the audience that, you know, he's done it, he's won, everything will be okay! But what he'd said stuck with me: Don't feel you have to play this huge, just play it. And that's where the smile came from. It just felt like the only way to go. I'm so glad he used it.

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Both Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof are using this idea of looking at the aftermath of a huge event in order to examine how society deals with huge overwhelming tragedies and collective grieving. But what does this show say to you, personally, about the process of picking up the pieces?
I feel that The Leftovers is actually an incredibly optimistic look at humanity and how we deal with tragedy, both the book and the series.

It's very weird to hear you use the word optimistic.
Why's that?

Because the show has this reputation, deserved or not, of being somewhat of a downer, even by its fans. And your character is someone who's using his faith as a crutch, wouldn't you say?
Well, don't we all have crutches? In that respect, Matt is not different from you, or me, or anyone else. Look, I'm not saying that the reaction to the show as something of a dwoner, to use your word, is a bad reaction. But it isn't my reaction. I felt the same way when I read the scripts of the series that I did when I read the novel: That it's the story of survival, and that the very act of trying to survive, of trying to live life again after something like this has happened, is heroic. It's remarkably heroic to me, at least. The act of trying to pick yourself up and heal is heroic, even if you stumble and fall…especially if you stumble and fall. Getting back up again is heroic. These are people who are coming to grips with the fact that their world has changed. But in a way, they're coming to grips that a lot hasn't changed as well. Life still goes on. [Pause] It just happens to go on without Gary Busey being around anymore.

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