No Shortcut to Truth: An Intimate Conversation with Kevin Carroll of The Leftovers

TV Features The Leftovers
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What do we mean when we say that a television show is “honest”? Since the October premiere of its second season, The Leftovers has been described as such, by critics and fans alike. We’ve praised it for its honest portrayal of grief, love, faith and violence. Some of us have applauded the second season, partly for deviating from some the mystery that made Season One difficult (a difficulty some of us actually enjoyed), and for—even with some major changes in tone and setting—remaining true to the tangled, twisted, devastating, beautiful, shape-shifting world at the center of the story. If you are a diehard fan of the show, you might still have a hard time explaining precisely what makes this series so incredible, and that speaks to the personal nature of watching The Leftovers. In this way, it is like its own belief system or deity, where its significance varies greatly from one individual to the next.

Kevin Carroll plays John Murphy on the series, which is heading into its highly-anticipated season finale tonight, and he opened up to Paste about his long and fascinating road to The Leftovers (it’s an amazing story, deserving of its own epic TV show). Carroll also offers some helpful insight for those of us wondering how in the world the writers and actors have managed to deliver such a powerful collection of stories this year. For him, it all comes down to a group of people, willing to expose themselves and take the long route to their truth.

“The scripts that come down—by the time they get to us—they’ve cost the writers something,” Carroll explains. “It costs you an investment of your emotional life and your truth.” Carroll makes it clear that the vision we might have of how a TV show is made, might not be applicable to The Leftovers. Form and content—as in, the process of making the show, and the result of the show itself—are linked. The spirituality within the plots, and all of that wrestling we witness the characters going through is a reflection of what the writers go through, before he even gets his hands on a script, and offers his own interpretation.

“Our writers have to bleed, to put it on the page and get it in the writer’s room,” Carroll goes on to say. It’s a great, Hemingway-esque way of explaining things, but it’s important to him that he also admit he doesn’t know exactly how this blood transforms into a script. “What they’re exposing is somebody’s truth, and they have to sit there and figure it out with [showrunner] Damon [Lindelof]; they bump heads and do whatever wicky-whacky, crane dance stuff they do to get it out,” he laughs. “It’s not like you just write a bunch of stuff like this, and move on. There is toiling with the material. The writers are wrestling with themselves to get through. You can’t write about this spiritual stuff, and not sleep on it, and not wake up with it.”

And if you ask Carroll, the actors have their own toiling to do. They are not mere vessels through which the material passes, although it does start out that way.

“What [the material] most demands of the actor is to be open, to channel and to find their truth,” he says. But after this channeling, there’s an investment to be made, and Carroll insists that, with The Leftovers, every participating actor must find their own way to honestly present the story.

“You have to invest in the material to get the best of the storytelling out of it. You find your truth in the moments of the script as they are designed, and the storytelling itself will take care of certain things,” Carroll explains. “We require no less of ourselves [than the writers], because you can’t skate through with this material. Everyone is exhausted after a day of work, whether it’s emotionally, or because of the elements.”

The best part about listening to Kevin Carroll wax poetic, is that this all comes at the tail end of a long interview that actually began with Paid in Full. Yes, yes y’all. Kevin Carroll played Calvin in the beloved 2002 crime drama, and we’ve got the “Calvin Paid in Full glasses” Google images to prove it.

Although it may seem like a giant leap from one to the other, Carroll says that working on the classic hood film taught him some invaluable lessons that he’s carried with him, all the way to The Leftovers.

“Wood [Harris] and I had known each other for a long time before that,” he says. “Creatively, we found ourselves looking at some things in a different way—there was a lot of male energy on the set,” he adds laughing. “Had we not had mutual respect for each other, things could have gone bad. The biggest [lesson] for me was just generosity of spirit. No matter what happens with this job, you have to land and meet [your co-actors] on a playing field. You can better serve the project to see what they’re offering, rather than taking issue with what they’re doing.”

His extensive experience as a theatre actor has also played into his work on The Leftovers, which marks his first TV role as a series regular. When asked about some of his most compelling (and terrifying) scenes of the season, working alongside Darius McCrary, Carroll says that he doesn’t “really think about the camera,” although he laughingly admits that this probably sounds bad, if he wants to keep working in this medium.

“I’m more interested in what I’m getting from my partner. Darius has done stage as well, and it was like a great dance. He blew me away with some of the nuances that he brought to [the role of] Isaac.”

Indeed, the same must be said about what Carroll has brought to John Murphy. There is no other character like him on TV, and it’s difficult to find a more honest portrayal of a man who’s sometimes good, sometimes bad and always wholly committed to his own truth. That commitment (to family, and to what he believe is the truth about Miracle) is brought to you by an actor who made a binding commitment to performance a long time ago.

In what was the most enlightening part of our conversation, Carroll spends about 30 minutes answering the question, “What led you to acting?”

The explanation begins like every great story, “Man, what happened was…” and Carroll goes on to talk about a high school assembly he found himself accidentally hosting, where he discovered that a person on stage can exert a power like no other. He speaks of his own troubles with the law, where a court case inspired him to attend college immediately after graduation, so as to make a good impression on the judge. At this technical school he witnessed the glory of his first play—a production called “Jonin’” (after the D.C. term for playing the dozens, or ranking), and—like any other artist discovering his calling for the first time—he was never the same.

“I was transported. I had an out-of-body experience, and I was just a knucklehead 17-year-old,” he recalls, speaking as if the event took place only yesterday. “The only places I’d been to was North Carolina and the Bronx. I was absolutely, bio-chemically changed.”

This unforgettable Kevin Carroll epic (as thrilling and unpredictable as a Matt Jamison-centric episode of The Leftovers) went on to take me through all manner of characters; a college buddy who never woke up before noon, but signed young Kevin up for his first audition (“I told him if you’re serious, come wake me up. The audition was at 12 and I knew he didn’t get up before 10. He was at my door at eight.”); a beloved mentor who put on a production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” and gave Carroll his first role, as Torvald; the co-star who refused to kiss him on opening night.

But the most important character, of course, is young Kevin Carroll. He may have been transported and transformed by the stage, but the same passion that inspired him to change his major and immediately demand that the director of “Jonin’” give him the lead role (he was politely told, “That’s not how this works”), is the same passion we’ve seen pulsing through Carroll as John Murphy. And it’s the same passion in the voice of an interview subject who just can’t skip the details, because he knows that there are no minor details—there’s no shortcut to the truth.

Kevin Carroll describes his career as “the little engine that could,” and credits The Leftovers’ “courageous” showrunner Damon Lindelof for taking a chance on him. But at the end of a long and intimate conversation, it’s abundantly clear that Carroll is exactly where he’s supposed to be. That we, the audience, have had the privilege of witnessing a powerful performer as he’s lived his own truth on screen as one of the most fascinating characters of the year, is just one more perk to this golden age of television.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.