“I’m just hanging around the house with my boobs out,” says Carrie Coon on a recent Wednesday afternoon as she nestles into position to nurse her newborn son. It’s only been eight days since the actress – who between The Leftovers and Fargo is arguably the reigning queen of weird prestige TV – went into labor, rushing to the hospital to have the breech baby delivered by C-section. “But I’m doing pretty well, considering,” she says now, cheerily. “I grew up in a family with five kids. I grew up with babies. So babies have never been particularly intimidating to me.”
Nor, it seems, has much. Certainly, Coon was not intimidated by the prospect of playing the lead in her Ohio high school’s rendition of Our Town, though she only auditioned because she’d been “waiting for soccer practice to start.” Nor was she put off by the banging headboard in the neighboring hotel room during a weekend trip to audition for drama grad schools: “My grandma and I are just laying there in the dark, and she says, ‘Well, it sounds like those people are having sex!'” Or the fact that she might not have had much business being there: “My mom and my aunt and my grandma are playing cards and drinking martinis in the lobby, and I look around and there are all these theater kids doing vocal exercises and stretches, and I think, ‘Wow, I guess I’m supposed to be doing all this stuff. I have no idea what I’m doing.'” Or that her offer to attend UW Madison “was pretty much a desperate last offer because they’d been turned down by a lot of other students” and that she’d need to spend the next three years living off the $9,000 annual stipend they’d given her to be a TA. “Which, I like to brag, I survived on by cooking chili on Sundays and putting it in the freezer. It was just this big adventure.”
It’s that sangfroid, that Midwestern inability to, as they say, get one’s panties in a wad that served Coon well in 2010, when she walked into a callback audition for the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and found herself face-to-face with writer and actor Tracy Letts. She’d heard of his Pulitzer-Prize winning play August Osage County, but, she says, “I thought he was a girl. I thought, ‘Huh…good for that girl! That gal writing that fantastic play. You go!’ If I had known more, I would have been a lot more scared.”
Coon was wearing a bikini and about to audition for a beer commercial – “I was getting ready for the humiliation of parading my pale, pale body in a room of really beautiful women” – when she got the call from her agent that she had gotten the part. Letts won a Tony for his role in the play, which transferred from Chicago to Broadway. But Coon’s standout performance earned the attention of the casting director for HBO’s dystopian drama The Leftovers. “I’d only done guest spots on TV at that point,” Coon says. She’d never even been to L.A. But her portrayal of a grieving mother had such gravitational pull that by the series end, the whole show may as well have belonged to her. She was nominated for an Emmy for Fargo (and won a Critics Choice Award for The Leftovers). And a reputation as an actor who can do pretty much anything, whose gravitas and sangfroid can root even the most outlandish of concepts in the pressing here and now.
Which means that the 37-year-old Coon has found herself in possession of that rare career in which a woman gets to play flesh-and-bone, fully-realized characters, as she did in the third season of Fargo. And David Fincher’s Gone Girl. And Spielberg’s The Post. “I didn’t expect to pursue acting at all,” she says now. “Let alone TV and film, let along New York or L.A. I was quite content doing Shakespeare out in Wisconsin.”
Now she lives in Chicago with Letts, who she married in 2013 in a hospital room where he was recovering from emergency gallbladder surgery. They’d planned to go to city hall, but rather than let their marriage license expire, Coon simply went to find the hospital chaplain. Letts was “high as a kite” on painkillers, Coon was wearing his T-shirt, and the chaplain had never performed a marriage before and agreed to fudge the date on the registration. “Tracy’s WGA insurance covered that whole visit, so it was a very inexpensive wedding,” Coon says, laughing. She got pregnant when both she and Letts were on the set of The Post: “It’s our Spielberg baby.”
As for what’s next, she and Letts are “waiting to see who gets the next big offer that we can’t refuse.” In the meantime, she says, they’re enjoying the excuse to stay home that new parenthood offers. “I haven’t been home in years,” she says. “So we’re gonna eat some chicken paprikash and just sit around.”