Kevin Carroll has acted every damn where: On Broadway, in films such as Being John Malkovich, on such long-running shows like Law and Order and Grey’s Anatomy. His most recent role is the mysterious patriarch of the Murphy family on HBO’s The Leftovers. In an interview with Inverse, Carroll discussed stepping into an established show in its second season, the unique challenges of a Damon Lindelof series, race on TV and film, and all of John Murphy’s secrets like what’s up with those fires and where the hell Evie went. Maybe we’re kidding on that last bit, but he did drop some hints about that bedside reading.
What has it been like to join an established HBO show in its second season?
It’s a funny thing, coming into a cast and joining its second season. The thing is, I’ve been around for quite a bit but I’m such a theater person — it did take some adjustment. Everyone from the top to the bottom is so professional and gracious and understanding. Every team you work with, if they’ve been together for a while they develop a shorthand, but I was so relieved and inspired to see how the company treated all the newbies coming in.
Since The Leftovers is unique with its level of trust in the audience — no information is spoon-fed, everything must be puzzled out — was that an adjustment for you as an actor? Or do they tell the actors where their character arcs are going?
Damon [Lindelof] is notorious for being close to the vest. I personally had very little information about where John Murphy was going; I worked from scene to scene. For me that was a very new way to approach a job. I’ve always been able to see a beginning, middle, and an end. For this, it was really a mindfuck in the beginning because I had never worked that way. As we went along, I tried to process it as a new phase, a new challenge, and trust it.
John Murphy has a lot of anger and malice, but it’s simmering under a layer of cheerfulness — which makes it even more menacing than if it were on the surface. He’s the kind of character where it would be easy to play up his dark side and make him one-dimensional, but the way you balance the darkness and light in him makes him feel real. Where do you find that balance?
You’re walking a fine line, and it is hard to figure out where the balance of it is. Luckily Damon is a great writer. And between the writing and Mimi Leder’s eye, those two allow me to go for broke here and there. It helps carve the performance. The writing was so great, it’s something I haven’t run across in TV and film often. John Murphy is so layered.
I try to stay away from that, but every once in a while, some friend has got to tell you something or Twitter brings it your way. For example, before any of the episodes aired, there were a few people on Twitter who were alluding to the fact that there’s a prominent black family on The Leftovers and saying, “OK, you just lost a fan.” I thought, why not give it a chance before jumping ship? Damon and Tom [Perrotta] are the kind of voices in our culture we want to protect and give room to grow, because they are really challenging us top to bottom to think about our mortality in an entertaining way. Why not protect that voice?
Twitter assholes aside, I was struck along with other critics by The Leftovers presenting a prominent black family in a way that didn’t feel like the writers were patting themselves on the back for being diverse, or making them into stereotypes or resigning them to the sidelines of someone else’s story. It’s far too rare that characters like the Murphys are presented nonchalantly. What are your thoughts on roles like John Murphy?
It’s a gift. You get to be a whole person. In a simple fashion, there’s a father who wants his family to be the best it can be, he’s got issues, but he’s a volunteer firefighter and his wife is a doctor — he’s just a human being trying to exist in this world. There’s no coloring this way or that way in terms of skin color. The color comes emotionally, from the emotional roller coaster of the show. It’s not about skin color.
I find it a relief to see that we find a character in film and television — and HBO is fostering this voice — where the idea of the wholeness of the person is first and foremost on the checklist, as opposed to it being a thing, if you know what I mean. That’s how it’s introduced, that’s how it’s brought about. And what a great playground to introduce this kind of conversation.
There are some things I can’t not ask about, but I understand if you can’t reveal much. Can you tell me anything about the books on John Murphy’s bedside table? Lenin, Mandela — those seem a little heavy for bedtime reading.
Well some of that I want to leave for the audience to figure out. We revisit some of these things. That’s the tricky thing about Damon. He’ll put some things in the show that seem insignificant, and later on we find out how they’re connected. But I can tell you that when you look at some of the people John is reading and then you watch his behavior, you might get a sense of some parallels.
And what about his “work?” When Erika Murphy comments in the first episode that John is “working” on his birthday — is it community outreach? Or recruiting the Garveys for his fire squad? Or sussing them out to make sure they stay in line and don’t deserve burning too?
That’s one of those that will be clarified a little further down the road.
Do you think John Murphy has a lot of self-delusion, or do you think he sees himself clearly?
I think John sees himself clearly, and I don’t know that he worries about how other people see him. John — at least at this point — is solid in how he sees himself and how he feels about the world.
John’s relationship with his son Michael is interesting. His son is deeply religious and he isn’t. Usually in situations like that, the parent is the religious one, or it’s a source of conflict between parent and child, but they seem to get along.
Michael is played by Jovan Adepo, a wonderful young actor, and I love that the father doesn’t agree with his son’s religious views and yet he’s not dogmatic about the way he has to live his life. I think that’s one of those gifts in a father-to-son relationship that we get a chance to expand on. Here is a son who is definitely on his own path in terms of beliefs, and his father is allowing him to live his life like he needs to, in a supportive, complicated, hands-off way. And I love that because it leaves us somewhere to go, later.
Do you have any favorite scenes you played, or one that you found particularly challenging?
In the last episode, there’s some stuff going on that’s pretty challenging on all levels: emotional, acting. Everyone from top to bottom leaves something on the floor when you finish. Writers and actors and directors – everyone has to dig deep. And though I’m a part of the show, when I watch it I feel like I’m seeing it reveal itself for the first time, in a weird way. It’s exciting.
The Leftovers airs on HBO at 9 p.m. EST on Sundays.