Carrie Coon discusses building a quarantine life, upcoming film 'The Nest'

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To become an actor is to become a risk management specialist without really trying. To remain an actor in the middle of a pandemic, one that has left all but a few fortunate actors employed, means graduating to crisis director of your own life.

“Certainly November’s going to be a big decider, as they say in politics, about what the future of our country looks like,” says Carrie Coon, one of the fortune ones. The 39-year-Chicago stage veteran is a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member, Tony Award nominee and frequent film and television presence thanks to “The Leftovers,” “Fargo” and “The Sinner.” For some, “Gone Girl” (2014) put her on the map. For others, she was on the map long before that.

“It’ll probably determine whether we can get this pandemic under control,” she says. “We have no national leadership right now, so how are we ever going to come back? I mean, theater’s going to be last to come back. Meanwhile 98% of the people I know are unemployed. And they’re probably going to lose their health insurance.”

Coon co-stars with Jude Law in “The Nest,” the second feature by the Canadian writer-director Sean Durkin, opening in (very) limited release Friday before going online Nov. 17. The style of this tense, absorbing drama, set in the mid-1980s in both America and England, will be familiar to anyone who admired Durkin’s 2011 debut film, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” about one woman’s seductively nightmarish experience in a rural New York state cult.

In “The Nest,” Coon’s character, Allison, has a teenaged daughter from a previous marriage, and a 10-year-old son with her nakedly ambitious commodities broker husband, played by Law. A move back to London, and to an cavernous manor in Surrey, puts this precarious couple further out on an invisible limb. Filmed well before the coronavirus pandemic, “The Nest” seems to suit these times, Coon says. “We’re all in isolation now, and everyone’s coming up against the tacit agreements in their marriages, and having to reexamine them in quarantine.”

Durkin and company made the indie, which found plenty of admirers at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, when Coon’s son, Haskell, was 6 months old. He’s now 2 1/2 and a huge jazz fan, she says, especially of Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie.

For the past six months Coon and her husband, actor and playwright Tracy Letts, have been home in Chicago’s North Side. (Letts’ play “The Minutes” was previewing on Broadway in March when everything stopped.) Coon is on the move this fall, first to New York for preproduction on the HBO series “The Gilded Age,” then home, briefly, then west to LA for some special-effects-driven reshoots on “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” then home again, then a drive east to start filming “The Gilded Age.”

How does she feel about traveling these days?

“Well,” Coon says, “Tracy’s in a high-risk group; he’s a 55-year-old man. So for us the stakes feel pretty high. No job is worth bringing home a virus that could kill my husband, you know? But I’m finding that the communication between (‘Gilded Age’) production and the union and the actors has been really very transparent. And I feel certain that if I feel unsafe I can raise my hand about it, and it’ll be dealt with. But yes, it’s intimidating. We’re going to be one of the first productions back in New York City, and nobody wants to be a guinea pig. For any of this stuff.”

It’s a new era for working actors, Coon speculates. “So much depends on building rapport in the hair and makeup trailer, in the casual contact at the craft services table. That’s all part of what building a company on a set is about. And we don’t have that contact anymore. I don’t know how it’s going to feel to actually do this work without the sharing of space and time.”

On Twitter, succinctly, @carriecoon hashtags her film viewing via #QuarantineLife. “This is Tracy’s dream,” she says, laughing. “He hasn’t been home much the last five years, he’s been working so much. But he’s amassed this astonishing collection of DVDs and now he finally gets to watch them.” Among her own recent favorites: “I really loved ‘Klute.’ And ‘Zama’ — such a fever dream of a film. Paul Schrader’s ‘Blue Collar’ — what a film to see now, when the haves and the have-nots in this country are so far apart.”

She says it’s an interesting time to be affiliated with Steppenwolf, in the wake of Black Lives Matter and so much racial reckoning. “Frankly our theater company is reckoning with all those conversations, as are all theater companies that might survive this pandemic,” she says. “Sometimes the conversations are national, sometimes they’re very, very personal. I think it’s often hard for organizations who consider themselves to be liberal to acknowledge it: No matter how liberal you may be, the organization is still rooted in the same systemic issues that are impacting society. You have to acknowledge that systemic racism is part of your institution, too. Steppenwolf has made efforts. But they’re not enough. It’s not enough. None of it is enough, or we wouldn’t be having the civil rights movement we’re having in this country. It’s up to artists to not only take a lead in those conversations, but then tell the history when it’s over. Artists will keep the history, even as a lot of theater companies go under and new ones rise up to take their place.”

Coon believes it in her bones: “I’m excited to see who emerges from this moment, and the voices we’ll get to hear in the next phase of such a fruitful and potent theater community. It’s really about: Who do these groups get to be? How can we make space for everyone to have an opportunity? There’s room for everyone. Art is like love. There’s nothing finite about it.”


“The Nest” premieres Friday in select theaters, depending on pandemic regulations, and on VOD Nov. 17.


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