It can’t be easy to give an interview about HBO’s doomsday drama The Leftovers. “I can’t confirm or deny it,” veteran actor and writer Justin Theroux, who plays the show’s protagonist, Kevin Garvey, is forced to keep saying during our phone call with regard to the plot. The reason why it’s so tricky to talk about The Leftovers, created by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and author Tom Perrotta and begins its third and final season Sunday, is probably because it’s easily the vaguest show on TV right now.
Here’s the groundwork: When The Leftovers premiered in 2014, it depicted what is referred to as the “Sudden Departure,” in which two percent of the world’s population disappears without warning. As the series unfolds, no reason is ever given as to why the Departure occurred. Was it the Rapture? Is God involved? Where did those people go?
Season Three opens with Kevin, who definitely survived all of Season Two’s suicide attempts, back on top as town sheriff of Jarden, Texas, which famously had no departures and may or may not be straight-up magic. But now it’s been seven years since the Sudden Departure, and everyone’s getting antsy. In the Bible, seven years is a significant amount of time (the Earth was created in seven days; Egypt saw seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, et al.) Kevin, ever the pragmatist, is staunchly dedicated to promoting a “nobody panic” environment. But not everyone around him is so certain that the world won’t end. Some, actually, are convinced Kevin might be Jesus.
Though he’s contractually bound from offering any clues as to how The Leftovers will conclude, Theroux is more than happy to do a deep dive into the show’s characters—as well as humor Paste while we try to pry the answers out of him. Theroux talks about how Kevin is into “edging” death, whether or not Jarden is about to face a Noah’s Ark-level thunderstorm and to what extent Lindelof is just trolling all of us at this point.
Paste: Let’s get this out of the way: Is Kevin Jesus?
Justin Theroux: I don’t know! I don’t think he thinks he is, and if we’re basing it on the first episode, he certainly is not. I think there’s been a groundswell unbeknownst to him around him with people putting certain meaning on him. Y’know what I mean? At least as it relates to the events of the second season and things that he’s experienced and gone through. But I think he’s a pragmatist in the end and has a perfectly rational explanation for each of his deaths or resurrections.
Paste: It’s interesting that you say he’s only a pragmatist. I see Kevin as a public pragmatist/atheist but a deep-down believer in something bigger than himself. On one hand, he’s so determined to show friends and family that everything’s fine — both with himself and a still-rattled community. But in his private moments, he has experiences that are, shall we say, less than down-to-Earth. Like in Season Two, where he dies —multiple times!— in order to get rid of Patti. How can a person experience these things and not believe in a higher power or purpose?
Theroux: Yeah. If you took the three seasons as a whole, or even pre-Departure/post-Departure… Y’know, pre-Departure he was a guy who I think wanted something more exciting in his life. Meaning, when he was still with his wife, with his family, he was a guy who was hitting that place where he’s like, and I think he even says it, “Is this it? Is this all there is?” He was looking for meaning. Then, boy, did he get it delivered to him after the Departure. And he was looking for action and then got an enormous amount of action.
And then in Season Two, clearly that anxiety is further ratcheted up by the visitation of Patti and whatever that is. And I think in Season Three the pendulum swings back the other way, but he’s not quite willing to let go. Even though he was in agony in the second season, I think he’s looking to feel those deep feelings again that he was feeling when Patti was in his life.
In sex there’s a term called edging, and I think in his world death is the equivalent. He’s basically edging death a little bit. He’s become addicted to what that feeling is; just being right on the precipice. [On the other hand], I think he does go back to a slightly normal existence. He goes back to just being a cop in the town, just sort of riding around on his horse and keeping law and order and doing community meetings and whatever else he does.
Paste: Yeah, although in the Season Three premiere, there’s a community meeting about the possibility of the apocalypse.
Theroux: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] But I think he’s a complete atheist in that respect. He’s done seven of these [Departure] anniversaries, and he’s kind of going, y’know, “If it were Y2K, people panic and then they don’t panic for years to come.”
Paste: I’m not even sure to what extent Kevin’s admitted to himself that he’s a thrill seeker. He seems a little in denial about that. But I agree that even though he’s an atheist, sometimes I think that atheism edges into agnosticism.
Theroux: Yeah, I think he’s forced into agnosticism. Because he has no rational explanation for the events that unfolded in real time in his own life. So I think he always has to leave that door open, but he’s constantly trying to shut it. In his quieter moments he’s a straight-up atheist and is looking for the meaning in just his life, and that’s it. I think he continually finds himself dissatisfied whenever his life normalizes. It takes its form in a myriad of ways in the real world and in our show. Nora likes to get shot in the chest, y’know? It’s not the normal “I sit down with a bottle of gin every night.” It’s more abstract than that. It’s seeking a feeling or a connection, and it takes on different levels of insanity, frankly.
Paste: Right, and we found out in one of the first episodes that Kevin had actually cheated on his wife. So clearly whatever “normalcy” he had achieved wasn’t enough, even before the Departure.
Theroux: Yeah. I think it’s that thing of him wanting something else. In episode nine, where we do that flashback to pre-departure and the whole episode he’s going, “What the fuck am I doing?” and “Why am I hiding my cigarette smoking?” and “I feel trapped.” Then once whatever hits the plunger on the rest of the world, he’s desperately clawing to get that back and wondering why he’d ever question that in the first place. It’s the classic dilemma of “miss it ’til you don’t have it.”
Paste: To pivot for a second, if you take Kevin’s practical belief system and apply it to heavy rain shown in the Season Three trailers, it leads the audience to ask: “Is this storm the end, seven years after the first Departure? Or is it just an overnight flood?” And if the world doesn’t end, will people think that Kevin-maybe-Jesus prevented it from happening?
Theroux: That’s a good theory, I won’t confirm or deny it. I’ll say this: At least as far as our characters are concerned, you never get to ask a religious person once they die what it’s like in heaven. So everyone’s own personal apocalypse is their moment of death, probably. So if I’m driving a car and I smash into a tree, that’s my apocalypse. These mass apocalypses that are constantly predicted or theorized or whatever, most religions have some version of the apocalypse, and it’s not absurd because even scientifically we know at some point we’re going to spin towards the sun and fall into [it] or spin away from the sun and fall into something else.
Like Matt Jamison [played by Christopher Eccleston], or Regina King’s character, where they have these belief systems and things that they’ve endowed [with] meanings, or rituals [that] they’ve put meaning on. And then, when the expectation of those meanings are upended, they become more lost as opposed to more found. And the ones like the Guilty Remnant, for example, who essentially put meaning on nothing and are nihilists, they’re kind of throwing themselves towards death and going “It’s all pointless anyway, so what’s the point? Why try? Just simplify your life, wear white, eat the same thing every day and smoke your head off and have fun.” Not fun, necessarily, but it’s its own kind of world order for them.
Kevin falls somewhere in the middle of all those things. In the first season there were meanings in magazines, in stags and deer, and just bizarre things like the pothole exploding in front of him—you could say that all those things were portents of something wicked coming. Or you could say, “Oh, he just saw a deer in the woods and he happened to see another one later that week.” It’s not crazy to say that he saw two deer in one week; he lives in upstate New York! But it’s the way he’s looking stuff that’s alarming, and Damon is focusing on that and going, “Should you be paying attention to that? Is there meaning in that?” Who knows?!
Paste: I was going to mention the Guilty Remnant—even though they place meaning on nothing, like you were saying, they still have had their beliefs upended, too.
Paste: Like, by believing in nothing, that’s still some form of belief. They still have rituals.
Theroux: Yeah. Any organized thought has a ritual. Whether you’re in a church meeting or an AA meeting, there’s still a certain way things happen that people like, and the same is true for the Guilty Remnant. I think that’s just a way of organizing your thoughts into a more cohesive place. It makes it easier to kind of digest or follow through on. It’s more like their endgame is like when you read the opening of the Ted Kacyznski letter [and] you think, “Oh yeah, the government does tax us a lot.” Then once he gets to “I’m going to make mail bombs,” you’re like, “Woah, woah, woah! Hang on a second. I was with you for the being taxed too much.” Then eventually crazy people start to veer into more extreme and radical strains of thought. Same thing with the Catholic Church. At a certain point they do ask you to believe that someone died and rose and made a bunch of fish out of nothing and created loaves of bread for the hungry just out of thin air. You kind of go “At what point do my beliefs just not accept this as reality, or my reality?”
Paste: I’m guessing we haven’t seen the last of the Guilty Remnant, seeing as there are factions all over the world and Meg’s faction was more radicalized.
Theroux: I don’t want to give anything away, so you’ll see.
Paste: Well, it definitely seems like The Leftovers remains committed to answering nothing and letting the audience interpret everything. Is it Damon’s intent to leave everything open-ended?
Theroux: Y’know, he gets accused of two things: either purposefully obfuscating or purposely trying to frustrate the viewer, and I think he was really smart, I don’t think he was trying to be cheeky or clever. When we did even the pilot and he said, “Look, we’re never going to answer this question. You’re never going to know where all these people went. It’s just a thing. You’re going to have to accept that.” I don’t think he was buying his way out of any kind of finale or anything like that, or safeguarding himself against criticism. I think he was doing it legitimately because he’s like, “That’s not what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is the effect [the Departure] has on people.” In a strange way, he’s taking a Petri dish and dropping a germ on it and going, “Let’s just see what happens.” It turns out that’s interesting, and it enables him as a writer.
He can’t answer what’s on the other side because no one else can. It’d be alarming for a show runner to say they could answer where people go when they die. So in that sense I think he was like, “Look, this is the sandbox that I’m going to build, these are the three seasons that we’re going to play in it, and hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself and it’ll make you think.”
Paste: But why even portray an apocalyptic situation if there’s no meaning behind it?
Theroux: Well there’s little meaning behind any apocalyptic situation. Even things that can really upend you, and that can be the death of a loved one or a genuinely cataclysmic event like a hurricane or a tsunami, you can find peace around it and understanding, but it’s a dramatic event, which is why traumatic events are often dramatized.
Paste: This is true. But I will say that this particular event is sort of biblical-ized, in that it comes seven years after the first event.
Theroux: True, yeah.
Paste: Which seems to indicate a biblical context, and in the Bible there’s a real reason behind the rain and the apocalypse. God’s like, “Everyone here sucks, I’m just going to start over.”
Paste: That’s all I’ll say.
Theroux: Yeah, I don’t want to elaborate. [Laughs.]
Paste: I totally get it. I really liked last season when Kevin is sort of lingering between life and death and goes to the hotel. That made me think a lot about that scene in The Sopranos where Tony is in a coma and he’s in a nondescript hotel on a business trip. Was that just coincidental?
Theroux: That’d be a Damon question. I know he watched that show and loved it, but I don’t think — I think he was really trying, more than anything, he was using, and again he left himself a lot of outs, my character drank God knows what, was it poison?
Paste: Poison, yeah.
Theroux: He technically could have survived. Was he essentially in a coma? Was he actually dead? Did his heart just slow down? I think the thing that Damon [Lindelof] really wanted to do was to create it, again sort of like a play space, so he could play with more of these kinds of questions and dig deeper into some of the characters, particularly Patti in that episode. Sort of shining a light on that character going, “Here’s why she became a member of the Guilty Remnant, here’s her backstory. Here’s her past,” and what I think was a beautiful turn, making her extremely sympathetic. I think there was only one place where he could do that and that was in that world. I don’t think it was as simple as, “Oh, we should find another device to get us into purgatory, or whatever you want to call it.” I think he really wanted to tell Patti’s story and that seemed like a good place to put it, and at the same time it created this very high bar for Kevin to have to jump over in order to rid himself—it was built-in, in a way, because she was following him around so much and she had already killed herself in a cabin, so how do you kill her again in real life? How do you kill something that’s a figure of your imagination?
Paste: I guess you have to convince yourself that you’ve actually killed her.
Theroux: Yeah, obviously no one else was seeing her, no one else was hearing her, he was the only one. He tried to shake her for a solid six episodes. I think because she’s either a figment of his imagination—although Damon would argue that with me, saying, “No, she was real,” just to frustrate me—you kind of have to go into his internal life or into his mind in order to properly murder her so that she wouldn’t return.
Paste: The episode in Season One where she does kill herself and Kevin’s kind of holding her, just as a total side note, that stayed with me. But I’ve personally thought the idea of a nondescript, business class hotel was sort of funny.
Theroux: I thought it was incredible. I think it genuinely was like, “Let’s just find a hotel,” and then the practicalities of what you can actually do. We can’t create a set that looks like Angels in America, nor would I think Damon or Tom want to. I think it’s perfectly bland enough where you kind of go, [exasperated] “Oh fuck,” and also claustrophobic enough that you can believe, “Oh, they’re not going to walk out of here, necessarily.”
Paste: I understand that while filming the first season, you asked not to know Kevin’s ultimate trajectory. You just wanted to find out script by script. Have you maintained that?
Theroux: I did. It serves two purposes. One is to not get ahead of myself and start trying to aim a performance anywhere than the scene that we’re in. The other thing is to try and keep it spontaneous. I think if I knew where we were going in any of the seasons I think I would have incorrectly played things a little differently. Actors, at least on these long-form television shows, should sort of be like dogs; just living in the present of their character and not think too far into the future because you can just overcomplicate things.
Paste: Now that you do know the end, and Kevin’s ultimate fate, do you feel satisfied?
Theroux: Yeah, I do. I’m not just saying that to be the team player, which I am, but I really was blown away by the last couple episodes. I mean, I was blown away by all the episodes, frankly.
Paste: I would expect nothing less.
Theroux: I mean look, I think assassins in the orchard are always going to try to pick off our fruit, but I’m not going to pay attention to them because I think we made a really good three seasons of television.
Paste: Yeah, I really admire that you kept it capped like that. It reminds me of another show you worked on, Six Feet Under, where Alan Ball was like, “This is where we’re ending it. We could go further but we’re ending it here.”
Theroux: Yeah, I’ve said this before, but it’s death creatively and it’s death for the viewer, when you start to feel like you’ve painted the room and now all of a sudden a studio or a channel or a network are asking you to extend the paint out onto the veranda. You go, “Well, you’re not really supposed to paint out there…” And this is definitely not the show that I think everyone wanted to live in for eight seasons. We’d all kill ourselves.
Season Three of The Leftovers premieres Sunday, April 16 at 9 p.m. on HBO.