No one is more surprised by Carrie Coon’s career than Carrie Coon. Over the past decade and a half, the 40-year-old Ohioan has gone from stage actor to TV star to film lead with a fluidness rarely seen in Hollywood. Her ascent has been called “swift and stealthy” and, while she might not yet be a banner “name”, Coon’s detached coolness and easy-going elegance have made her a director’s go-to choice. “I’ve had a terribly charmed rise,” Coon says, without a hint of arrogance. “There are few stories that are quite like mine.”
This story began in the early 2000s, when Coon’s college professor convinced her to ditch plans to study linguistics in favour of acting. In 2006, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, four years later was cast, as Honey, in a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. The play, which had a five-month run on Broadway, proved a watershed moment for a then 30-year-old Coon.
“I had a play go to Broadway, I married my co-star and then it was off to the races,” says Coon from her Chicago home. “That’s really how it’s been.” As we speak, she’s looking after the new-born daughter and three-year-old son she had with that co-star, the playwright and actor Tracy Letts, whom she married in 2013.
Virginia Woolf? was very much the catalyst for a decade most actors dream of. Coon earned a Tony Award nomination for the production in 2012 and starred in David Fincher’s Gone Girl in 2014, playing the role of Ben Affleck’s sister. She then won a legion of fans thanks to lead roles in HBO’s acclaimed drama The Leftovers (2014-17) and the third season of Noah Hawley’s anthology series Fargo (2017). She received an Emmy nomination for the latter, worked with Steven Spielberg on his Oscar-nominated drama The Post (2017) and appeared in 2019’s Avengers: Infinity War, the fifth most successful film of all time. It’s no wonder IndieWire called her “one of the finest” actors working today.
“It’s funny ’cause it feels at once very quick but, at the same time, slow and steady,” she says. “I feel so fortunate. I have an IMDb page that I’m really proud of; I don’t have a lot of duds in there.”
New film The Nest is a worthy addition to the list. Written and directed by Sean Durkin (Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene), the psychological drama follows a couple whose marriage is tested when Jude Law’s British breadwinner moves his American family from New York to an overbearingly large manor in the English countryside. The film, set in the 1980s, is an exploration of familial breakdown, its characters walking frayed tightropes over dizzying heights. It’s an unnerving watch, and Coon’s performance is easily its most enchanting.
“It’s one of the most honest depictions of marriage I’ve ever read,” she says. The film doesn’t hold back in showing the ugly side – the dissolution of communication, financial woes and screaming matches. Fortunately, Coon says the marriage in the film is worlds away from her own. In fact, working on The Nest made her realise she has “a really good” one. Coon shot the film in Hampshire while Letts was in the US filming James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari in 2018, and it’s this distance from him, caused by their careers, that she credits with keeping things on track.
“I do think time apart is the key to a long marriage,” she says. “You get to miss someone instead of getting sick of them. And we’ve always been very good at reasserting communication in our daily rhythms. As an adult, it takes some maturity to make that adjustment.”
Coon describes The Nest as “a style of film that has gone away since the 1970s” – a mid-level low-budget release akin to a John Cassavetes or Alan J Pakula film. Thanks to the multi-layered role of Allison O’Hara, it has also made her more dogged in her hunt for “innovation in female storytelling”.
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“It feels like there are so few films made that are really good and complicated that have women in the lead,” she says. “I also think that sometimes the dramatic thrust for female characters does often revolve around loss, and [are] in that domestic sphere, because frankly that’s the world we’ve been allowed to have ownership of.”
Take, for instance, her role in HBO’s superlative drama The Leftovers. The cult series presents a world in which two per cent of the population vanishes into thin air. Coon plays Nora Durst, a woman plagued with grief after losing her entire family in the event. While Coon is proud of her time on the show, and is overwhelmed by how much its fanbase grew during the pandemic, she admits there was a frustrating outcome to the experience.
“I now get a lot of scripts about dead or missing children and think to myself, ‘You’ve already seen me make all those faces – can’t I do something else?’” She laughs. “I’m looking forward to a time when the female hero story gets to open up into something that isn’t just superimposing a female journey on a male structure.”
By Coon’s admission, she couldn’t have done the show without Gone Girl. Despite being released in cinemas three months after The Leftovers’ HBO premiere, the film – an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel – was wrapped before she completed work on the first season.
“I filmed the pilot and then went to David Fincher film school,” she says. “There was actually a lot of language about being on a set and working on camera that I didn’t know. I had David and Ben teaching me about why they were doing what they were doing, when I had to be still, and how much food to eat on camera when you’re gonna do 80 takes.”
However, Coon doesn’t enjoy watching the film back; she calls the experience “horrific”, adding: “I’m one of the actors who feels like I should watch myself ‘cause that’s how my habits are revealed to me. But when I watch Gone Girl, all I can see is myself making faces. I think I can note my improvement as The Leftovers goes on – I think I get better – but I find my performance in Gone Girl horrific to watch.”
Another role she found “challenging” was the heavily CGd villain Proxima Midnight in mega-smash Infinity War. Just hours before we speak, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn criticised Martin Scorsese for his previous comments about Marvel movies being “closer to theme parks” than cinema. As someone who has appeared in a Marvel film, Coon is remarkably balanced about the ever-raging debate surrounding superhero blockbusters and their current contribution to cinema.
“Entertainment serves specific purposes,” she says. “I sign more autographs for Avengers than I do for all my other projects combined and I was in that movie for 15 minutes. That tells me there’s a desire for mythology in a country where there’s maybe a spiritual hole. I think what those movies are doing is providing the equivalent of what the Greek and Roman Gods were doing: it’s a mythological storytelling which is ultimately morally instructive.”
She continues: “I think maybe somebody like Scorsese looks at that and thinks it’s reductive. That the good vs evil debate is more nuanced – and I think there’s perhaps more room in a Scorsese film for that level of complication. But that doesn’t take away from the value of something that’s more commercially appealing, and so, there’s a place for all of it.”
Next up for Coon is a starring role in TV period drama The Gilded Age. The series, co-starring Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon, is Julian Fellows’s Downton Abbey follow-up and looks set to be a hit when it’s released in 2022. Then there’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Jason Reitman’s reboot of the beloved franchise that was popularised by his father, Ivan, in the 1980s. Coon was headhunted by Reitman. She was also sought out by Durkin, no doubt because of her knack for imbuing characters, however small the role, with grace and a strong-willed resilience. If Coon was around in the 1960s, you can bet Samuel Fuller would have cast her in a noir.
“I feel so fortunate I don’t have to work with people I don’t like!” she says. “Not everyone has that luxury, I realise. Life is too short to be around a bunch of a**holes. I’m not interested in living my life that way.”
In the case of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Coon was worried that Sony, the studio behind the film, would step in and fire her. Why? “Well, I’m not a big name. I’m at the bottom of the B-list or top of the C-list.”
Surely that’s not the case anymore. After all, Coon is clearly somebody who has gained recognition for the quality of her talent. When I tell Coon she must be fast shooting up that list, she remains unconvinced.
“Let me tell you: I’m only famous on the internet. I could walk down the street, and nobody would bother me.” She smiles. “To most people, I’m just another middle-aged lady with a couple of kids.”
‘The Nest’ is in cinemas on Friday 27 August