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‘The Leftovers’ Star Scott Glenn & Director Mimi Leder On Their Exposure To “The Oldest Culture On Planet Earth”

Deadline logo Deadline 6/22/2017 Matt Grobar
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Several weeks ago—as the series finale of HBO’s The Leftovers was about to air on the East Coast—director and executive producer Mimi Leder and star Scott Glenn were feeling nostalgic. Sitting together and reflecting back on the series an hour before a series finale event presented by Deadline, neither Glenn nor Leder could stop complimenting the other.

Directing the Season 3 premiere and finale, Leder also directed the third episode of the season, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” in which Glenn’s self-proclaimed prophet Kevin Garvey, Sr. goes on a walkabout in the Australian outback. With limited real estate in Season 3—only eight episodes to close out the story—series creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta chose to devote that entire episode to Glenn’s character, as they have with other characters in the past, a testament to the love they have for their actors and the characters they portray.

Speaking with Deadline, the actor-director pair discussed their “life-changing” Australian experience, speculating on where Kevin Sr. ends up after the series draws to a close.

How long have you both been aware of the avenues the series would go down in its final season?

Mimi Leder:  I knew that we were headed to Australia when we were beginning Season 2. Damon and [writer] Tom Spezialy and Tom Perrotta and their merry, brilliant writers were building clues into the show from Season 1, and then heavily into Season 2.

I also did a virtual location scout at the beginning of Season 2 to say, “Are you sure you want to go to Texas, and not go to Australia now?” But it was more “No, let’s save it. We’re going to Australia in Season 3.”

Scott Glenn: I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen. I did Season 1; Season 2, Damon told me that I was going to be in lightly, almost not at all.

I remember when I first talked to him about doing the show on a Skype conversation, he said about my character, “You’re actually a prophet, and sometime in the future, you’re going to go on some kind of a walkabout.”

He said that before I ever got to New York for the beginning of Season 1, so when I heard that we were, in fact, going to Australia, I thought “Outback, here I come.”

Leder: We were saving the best for last.

Mimi, directing the first and last episodes of a series’ final season is a hefty responsibility. In the case of The Leftovers, there’s an interesting narrative parallel in the first and final episodes of the season.

Leder: There’s a narrative mirror going on between Episode 1 and the finale—”The Book of Kevin” and “The Book of Nora”—and it was very inspiring.

The challenges were the normal challenges we face, to get the story right. The biggest challenge, though, was for Scott and I, because we were starting off the Australian adventure together, and we went on this journey to The Outback where we didn’t have a lot of things.

Scott did everything—he wouldn’t let anybody do any stunts for him. I know he’s sitting right next to me, but he was a warrior from the beginning to the end, and he was true to his character. He really brought the story to its peak, on this journey to stop the apocalypse.

Shooting on the sacred earth was inspiring and life changing for all of us.

Do you think moving to a new location each season has worked to strip away the sense of a “new normal” that many of the characters are seeking?

Glenn: The character that I played was never looking so much for normalcy, but just a divine purpose. I think, in some ways, everyone in the cast is looking for that, something that gives their life more meaning than just waking up in the morning and surviving.

Leder:If you look at the last three sentences in the finales of each season, the first one is “Look what I found,” the second is “You’re home,” and the third one is “I’m here.” Those are the words that end those seasons, and speak to the human connection that we are all searching for.

The Leftovers is a study in grief and loss. I think this season was very much about the release of that pain and finding love.

Can you expand on the collaboration you shared on the walkabout episode you mentioned, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking”?

Glenn: I got the script a month before I went to Australia, so the luxury that I had, that Justin [Theroux] and Carrie [Coon] and Amy [Brenneman] didn’t have as much, was much less to do overall. I had a lot of time to work on it, which I like.

Then, I had as my tour guide the best director I’ve ever worked with—this lady sitting right here—who just understood that, to my good fortune, the script started to play me.

Mimi, rather than trying to control that, inspired it. She kept me in the deep end every day, either by giving me one or two words that made me make it more personal, or giving me a bottle of tequila when I needed to take my clothes off in below-freezing weather, and sing and dance.

The other thing that I wasn’t ready for was exposure to the oldest culture on planet earth. To be around a people whose continuous culture is 150-f*cking-thousand years old—way older than Hinduism, or Judaism—people that discovered agriculture 40,000 years ago and rejected it, because if you lived with agriculture, you had to stay in one place.

Their whole being is nomadic, walking and singing, trying to get back to the first day of creation, or as they call it, “The Dreaming.” I’m not a New Age-y kind of guy, but to be around that gave the whole enterprise a kind of blessing and permission to be free that I’ve never had before.

Leder: It was a sacred time, and we were fortunate enough to be a part of it and to help maybe go into their culture a little bit, and honor it.

To my understanding, you went through a process to ensure that you’d handle this particular episode in the most respectful way possible.

Leder: Yeah. We brought three communities together to create this dance that Scott beautifully emulated—or I should say, he completely trashed it. [laughs]

It’s very unusual for three communities to come together like they did and create the song that they sang and danced to, and we did a smoke ceremony to cleanse ourselves when we were filming on their land, because all of Australia really is sacred land, owned by the indigenous people of Australia.

Mimi, could you speak to some of the visual ideas brought to life this season, from a Gary Busey blowup to the beads around Nora’s neck?

Leder: When we first came to Australia to scout it, we went to the place where Scott eventually does watch the dancing, and I didn’t have a script then. It wasn’t written. Tom was coming up with it as we were looking at locations.

We were in this place called The Pinnacles, and I said, ” I don’t know what we’re going to shoot, but we have to shoot here.” We did end up shooting there, and the landscapes were vast. At first, it was hard to even look at it. It was so vast and beautiful, and the more you looked into the landscape, the more it spoke to us.

It was great to put Scott Glenn’s face into that landscape, because every line on his face tells a story, and every piece of land there does, as well.

The beads are symbolic of the sins that we all have, that she takes on herself. The whole episode of the finale is watching Nora being cracked open, and finding a way to feel again.

Glenn: Running the show out there as a director, Mimi was always aware of the whole picture. I remember at one point—it’s the first time I’ve ever had a long scene with a snake—when the brown snake bit me, she had a particular way that she wanted me to kill it, to echo the cavewoman that began [Season 2].

Now, I don’t ever think of what I’m doing in those kinds of ways, but Mimi always had the big picture in mind. As an actor, it gave me deep security that what was happening was going to not only work realistically, but fit into the overall story of this crazy f*cking thing we were doing.

Having played Kevin Sr. for three seasons, what is your takeaway for this character?

Glenn: My takeaway is Senior is a little bit outside of everyone else in the story, in that he’s not beset by pain or grief, hardly at all. He would probably say, “I don’t whine.”

When we started the show, Damon told me, “The voices that talk to you never tell you a lie,” so I’ve had these voices, which have given my life a perspective, and then they’ve gone away.

What they’ve left me with is an addiction to purpose. I’m a person who will just keep on going, even beyond the end of the show, looking for signs, and looking for a new purpose. God only knows what Senior’s doing now. Probably, if someone asked me, I’d say, “Well, I don’t know. He’s probably riding with an Aussie outlaw motorcycle gang.”

Leder: He lives on. He’s unforgettable.

What does it feel like for both of you to walk away from this series, having done three seasons and ending on your own terms?

Leder: Well, it’s very nostalgic and very emotional to walk away.

Glenn: I hope this isn’t true, but it’s sad to think that I’m not going to get to say Damon’s words, and have Mimi direct it, because it’s been the greatest joy of my life, as an actor.

I also have to say that the key relationship in this whole thing, for me, I had no idea it was going to be with someone who’s so super talented and funny and bright and generous as Justin Theroux.

Leder: The writers gave us the greatest gifts we ever could receive. We’re spoiled for life to have worked with their material, and we are very blessed because of it.

To view the moving Leftovers series finale, click here.

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