Rich Heldenfels


Carrie Coon is a rapid-fire talker. But she has a lot to talk about.



The 1999 graduate of Copley High School has gone from soccer and track success in high school and college to acclaim on the stage, including a Tony Award nomination for her work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; the play was life-changing in several ways, including by bringing her together with prize-winning actor and playwright Tracy Letts, who is now her husband. She has also completed her first movie performance in the much-anticipated Gone Girl, due in theaters this fall, and a major role in the HBO series The Leftovers, which premieres at 10 tonight.



Following are highlights of our conversation.



Finding acting. The daughter of John and Paula Coon of Copley was about 10 years old when she saw a play and thought it was something she would like to do. But, as one of five children with two working parents, that wasn’t going to happen right away. “There’s no time to be shuttling people back and forth to rehearsal,” she said.



Still, even when she was active in sports (and would later wind up in the Copley Athletic Hall of Fame), she thought about acting. As a senior in high school, she auditioned for Our Town and got the part. She began crying, convinced her mother would be angry about her juggling one more activity — but this time, Carrie was allowed to do the play. And then she had a similar experience in college, at Mount Union, focusing on athletics but squeezing in “four or five productions.”



“I would run in in my shin guards, all sweaty, and kiss my leading man,” she said.



An English and Spanish major with a special interest in linguistics, she expected to pursue that in graduate school — until a theater professor told her about the University/Resident Theatre Association and its audition process for acting students.



“I did not know people could go to school for acting,” she said. “I had not grown up in the theater, been taken to theater. Grandpa Bill [Ploenes] had done some community theater … but that was it for our family. So I went to Chicago with my mom and my grandma and my aunt, and they had this great weekend drinking martinis in the Palmer House while I auditioned for graduate school.”



From the audition, she received an offer from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she received her master’s of fine arts in 2006. And she was on her way, supporting herself as an actress ever since.



The Woolf breakthough. Coon’s character, Honey, was famously played onscreen by Sandy Dennis, who won an Oscar for her work; the play has been produced many times. But Coon said she had to put previous ideas about the character behind her when she began playing the role for the Steppenwolf theater company, first in her home base of Chicago and later in Washington, D.C., and finally Broadway.



“You’ll never get out of bed, or go to rehearsal, if you’re trying to be Sandy Dennis, or better than Sandy Dennis, or hope to even live up to a tenth of what Sandy Dennis was capable of,” she said. “Steppenwolf always approaches a classic work as if it’s being done for the first time. Otherwise, why do it? You’re not trying to do a re-creation of something that’s been done before. I was grateful for that. … The only thing now is, if 20 years from now somebody wants to do a new version of The Leftovers, maybe they’ll have me in their head.”



She got rave reviews all along the way and, in New York, was noticed by people in television and the movies. “Tourists didn’t really come see it. We were playing to half-houses most of the time. But the industry is really good about seeing something like that, something that’s acclaimed, and casting directors are always looking for new people. … That show changed my life,” she said.



And, of course, it brought her together with Letts.



True romance. Letts, she said, is “an amazing man and an amazing artist.” While they did not play husband and wife in Woolf, Coon said, “we had an immediate rapport when we started the rehearsal process. I did not expect him to be my husband, but I was expecting him to be a mentor. He has a great sense of humor, and we kind of got each other immediately.”



At first, they were both in other relationships, she said. But that changed. “When there was a time when we could actually be together, and we thought it would be a surprise to everyone, our director Pam [MacKinnon] was like, ‘Well, yeah, obviously.’ It was apparent to everyone else that we were well-suited.”



But what about all that time when they were acting together but not yet in a relationship? “They call these feelings a showmance because they don’t last beyond the show, because you’re falling in love with the character instead of the person that is front of you. There’s a lot of intimacy in a rehearsal room, and it’s not like Tracy and I were playing people in a relationship, but we were spending a lot of time in the same room. And it’s hard. It’s hard to know if what you’re experiencing in that room is a real thing, or if it’s something that you’re imposing because you have to be available to the others in the room. It’s confusing, and it took us a while to figure out where it was headed.”



One of the places was a hospital room.



Wedding adventures. Coon and Letts filed for a marriage license in Illinois, then had 60 days to get married. “We were apart almost that entire time, and it was Day 59,” she said. While working in Los Angeles, Coon called Letts, said they had to get married the next day and flew back to Chicago. When she came home, Letts said he was not feeling well. “Flash forward to 1 o’clock in the morning, and we’re in the emergency room. On our wedding day, he’s having emergency gallbladder surgery. …



“I went and got the Lutheran chaplain in the hospital. She came into our room, and it was just the three of us, and I was wearing his extra-large T-shirt. Ponytail, and haven’t changed underwear in three days. … She married us in this very simple little ceremony, and then he peed in a cup and took a painkiller and went to bed.” The wedding pictures, she said, “are hilarious, and a little sad, but very sweet.”



The Leftovers. Coon’s earliest TV experience was in commercials and some guest-starring work on TV, starting with a role on the NBC series The Playboy Club. “Those guest-star roles are highly coveted,” she said, “because they give you a good chunk of change, and the theater doesn’t pay anything.”



The Leftovers is a much bigger deal. Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, and with Lost’s Damon Lindelof as co-creator, it is a gripping account of what happens to people left behind after 2 percent of the world’s population disappears without explanation. People like Nora Durst, played by Coon, have to deal with inexplicable loss and massive grief, while trying to keep their own lives going.



“I have read all of Tom Perrotta’s books,” she said. “I read The Leftovers before I knew it was going to be made into a series, as did my husband. So I was compelled by Nora then. To me, she was one of the most interesting characters in the book.” Like the other characters, Nora grapples not only with her emotions but with who she is, her identity having been ripped apart by the disappearances, and Coon catches that struggle even in small scenes.



When she auditioned, Coon said, “it was very similar to my experience auditioning for Honey. I felt like I had such a keen understanding of who that character was, I didn’t want anyone else to play it. And I felt that strongly about Nora. Then I had the opportunity to meet Damon Lindelof, and that sealed the deal. He’s not only a passionate, intelligent creator; he’s also someone who is interested in the actor. … If he sees something in you that you’re doing with the character that is really compelling, he’s going to follow that thread a little bit. … Oftentimes in television, you get these stock characters that are just one thing. And it’s just not the case in this process. … I found it really fun.”



It is also even grimmer than Perrotta’s book, at least in the early going. Although she had read the book, Coon said there were moments in the script that still caught her by surprise. When you put something like this onscreen, she said, “you can’t have it be so introspective and thoughtful [as the book]. You have to add some action. There’s going to be some wrestling and gunplay, all those things you need in a television show. People have an expectation of what TV does. I think we’re riding a very fine line.



“I think the story lines are very provocative and moving. … I’m not somebody who turns to television purely for entertainment. I don’t watch a lot of television. … It has to be saying something larger for me to be invested in it, and I think that’s the kind of TV I want to do and that’s the kind of TV we’re making.”



And next? Fall brings Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher and with a cast including Ben Affleck. She also has some not-ready-to-talk-about projects, too, but wants to see what happens with The Leftovers and Gone Girl, too. And there’s a coming trip to South Africa, where Letts is in the new season of Showtime’s Homeland.



“You know, we’ve only been married about nine months. We’re still newlyweds. I’m not going to let him go to Cape Town without me. I like him!”



And that will probably yield more stories.



Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. He is also on Twitter and on Facebook, where his page is Rich Heldenfels, Pop Culture Guy. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.