In the Season Three premiere of The Leftovers, which takes place three years after Season Two, John Murphy is a changed man. Now seven years after the Sudden Departure, in which two percent of the earth’s population mysteriously disappears, the series’ third and final season reintroduces us to the bespectacled fireman (played by Kevin Carroll), who used to attack community members who thought themselves capable of extraordinary acts, such as fortune-telling. A lot’s changed since then: He’s lost his teenage daughter Evie (Jasmin Savoy Brown), remarried, and pretends to speak to people’s dead loved ones with the help of his new wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who used to be married to the town maybe-messiah, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux).
Indeed, now that Kevin’s died a few times and come back, everyone in Miracle, Texas, is more or less convinced of his Christ-like status. John’s a new believer too, and for good reason: Suspecting that Kevin had something to do with his daughter Evie’s disappearance, John shoots Kevin point blank in the chest, but it doesn’t take. Now he’s so sure of Kevin’s role in whatever comes next, which may or may not be a Noah’s Ark-level apocalyptic flood, that he, his religious son, Michael (Jovan Adepo), town preacher Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) and Laurie follow Kevin and his partner, Nora (Carrie Coon), on their trip to Australia so they may take him back to Miracle in time for the Departure’s seventh anniversary. On their way, they encounter a real-life lion, cosplay orgy cruises and a semi-concrete plan to communicate with Evie in the afterlife.
Paste: caught up with Carroll to learn more about John’s spiritual change between Season Two and Season Three, his character’s not-uncomplicated relationship with Laurie, and what it was like to film certain scenes on a very cold, naked boat.
Paste: I actually spoke to Justin Theroux before this season kicked off, and we had a really intense discussion about the philosophy behind the show. To what extent have audiences approached you looking for answers?
Kevin Carroll: Here’s the thing: Justin, Carrie [Coon], they were in on the ground floor of the series, so I think they had many more in-depth conversations about theoretics. Justin being the lead of the show, I’m sure he sat down for great conversations with Damon [Lindelof] and Tom [Perrotta] about it and how it went. But for us, the second season people, I went on, like, four auditions, and I had three days. I got cast on a Saturday and was in Texas on Monday. We learned the show on the fly, and after they finished the book. So the first season and everything, a lot of the stuff that Justin was dealing with was initially from a foundation of the book, that didn’t really have a lot to do with Season Two.
Paste: How did you connect with the role of John Murphy? You said you auditioned for it over three days. How did you first hear about the role?
Carroll: My agent found it. It was one of a couple of auditions that I had during the week. In classic Damon fashion, you don’t get a lot of information with the stuff you’re auditioning with, so there wasn’t a lot of details about the [characters’] world, who they were to each other. They were just two people in a scene, and you knew something was at stake, but you didn’t quite know what. I just remember looking at that scene, along with the other stuff that I was auditioning for, like, “Wow, I don’t know what it is, but I like this scene! I like the way this is written!”
For years I’ve [auditioned for] network things, and there’s always been someone that’s considered a “name.” Coming from the theater, you think that there’s a safety in the name game and, of course, that happens. I think it was freeing after I saw a few, very recognizable faces. I thought, “I don’t have much to lose, so let me just go and let it all hang out and have fun.” I was just completely wrong, because I didn’t know it was already on television, I didn’t have cable at the time. I had been doing theater stuff and working at night, so I just hadn’t connected to very many TV shows. I was dressed wrong for the role, but I went in and read with Vicki Thomas, who cast the show, and she was so on-point in the audition. She was really invested, she really played the scene as if the camera was around. I was like, “Wow, who’s auditioning, me or her?”
Paste: When we first met John in Season Two, he would become violent when members of the Miracle community claimed in some way to be special. Then, in Season Three, he fools townsfolk into believing in his own “abilities.” We don’t get to see how John’s marriage fell apart, though it’s implied that his ex [played by Regina King] moved on from Evie’s death, and John hasn’t. What else do you think has changed for him in terms of character?
Carroll: I think Evie being gone again has created a real vulnerability in John. I think from the time we meet him in Season Two, he was a father trying to put his family back together. I think it was very important to him, after doing a prison sentence. Then we see, simply, a man wanting to put his family back together and resume normalcy. Evie’s disappearance, along with him attempting to kill Kevin—because he was unable to do it, I think that shifted his sense of safety and his worldview. I think he thought that if he could control everything, he could maintain and stay safe in control, and that things would turn out for the best. And then when he realizes that he’s not in control, I think it starts to crack his whole sense of safety and everything he knew prior to figuring out that he had no idea what was happening in the world around him. I think that, along with the relationship with Laurie, [who] was then able to, I would imagine, be very patient. She’s been able to share with him in a deep, meaningful, understanding way her sense of the journey. I think that they’re working on healing each other, and I think that John’s able to now consider that something can be bigger than him in this world. With the hope that Evie would return to him, I would only imagine that he would have to say that he has continued to work for the betterment of people around him at all costs.
So he’s gone along with this idea to help people by giving them a sense of security and safety through the connections that they’ve needed, but he’d never take the money, which is different from what Isaac was doing. Isaac was in it for the money, and John didn’t believe that. It was that: “You’re totally making it up and you’re taking their money.” And that is not what John is doing. John doesn’t think that people will be able to use the information that comes up unless they pay for it, because that makes it real for people, when you add money into the equation. But John never accepts the money. [We learn in the latest episode that he shreds it.] What he’s able to do is release people from their pain, help people move forward from wherever they’re stuck. Whatever emotional turmoil they’re stuck in, John is helping them move forward through it, and never once has he been tempted to take the money, he only allows them to give the money so that they will participate in their own journey of moving forward.
Paste: Do you think that John’s transition also plays into his willingness to follow Matt on this mission to retrieve Kevin from Australia—and later help drown him to prevent the apocalypse?
Carroll: Yeah, very much so. I also think that it’s not all following Matt Jamison, but John has witnessed a modern-day miracle himself. In other words, when you ask John the first time why he went to prison, he says “attempted murder,” and Kevin says, “What happened?” He goes, “Well, I guess I didn’t try hard [enough].” He went to jail for attempted murder because he shot his father-in-law, but I don’t think he shot his father-in-law to kill him. I think he shot his father-in-law to say, “You violated me and this is my revenge.” Whereas I think John is ready to kill [Kevin]. There is a place where you can get shot in the chest where a bullet will go through and not touch any vital organs, but he had to look that up. In John’s time, I think John went and aimed for the heart. This wasn’t a warning shot. Then Kevin came back; he arose from John’s sense of the dead. I think for John, that is beyond the scope of his reality. Then he’s heard these stories of Kevin drinking poison, and some of the other miracle-like experiences that have happened to Kevin. I think he’s fully on board with leaving a record of this man of miracles, because none of us know what’s gonna happen on the day of reckoning.
Paste: In last week’s episode, John and Laurie bore witness to a lot of very naked people having cosplay-lion sex on a boat. You even had a live lion on the boat with you. What was that experience like?
Carroll: It was wild. We show up on the day and there is a real fucking lion, and the lion is a little pissed because his agent didn’t work the numbers out for him or whatever. The lion’s looking like, “There’s nothing funny about this, and I need more lines. This is bullshit for you to bring me here with just a few lines.” And I was thinking, “Buddy, I understand, trust me.”
First of all, just to witness the majesty of a lion. You have already encountered this sacred notion of being in a land where there’s some of the oldest recorded history you can find, and there are still people that live in a very nomadic way, and they still honor their tribal rituals as they did long ago. You’re already in this out-of-body experience. And then you add a lion in with the experience of that—and wait, we’re not finished! In the notion of episode, you have a group of people from the community that are going to rescue a community member, but they run into an obstacle to get to their community leader. It just so happens that the obstacle that they run into is an orgy. Now, it’s kicked up a notch. It is very cold on the boat. You then start to appreciate the commitment of a whole bunch of naked people on a cold boat with a lion. Everything from toes to knees to boobs to elbows, everything’s getting swung every kind of way; it’s cold; and you have to figure out your lines as all of this stuff is happening. And everybody’s very committed to it, which I have to say, made for an incredible bit of work.
Paste: Last night’s episode begins with Laurie attempting suicide directly after the Sudden Departure, and ends with her implied suicide. How do you think Laurie’s death, if she is in fact dead, will impact John?
Carroll: One of the things about The Leftovers is that there are different responses to the tragic situation. You always have a chance to show a resiliency in the human spirit, and I think for some people, that is a very true thing. We have people who have lost people and they’ve had to go on, and some have. I think about Carrie Fisher, with her going and then her mom going the next day—that was such a deep moment for me, having this show so fresh in my spirit. I just thought, “Wow, I just witnessed what some would say is somebody trying to deal with the grief that overcame them in such a way that some people would not be able to explain.” You can say, “Maybe she had some health issues that she didn’t know about,” but we don’t know that she would’ve passed away had it not happened to her daughter first, on that day. In the same way, there is no definitive answer for what will happen to John, but there is a possibility that the resiliency so many of us have, as human beings—you may refer to it as “survival instincts”—will be a part of what happens with John, and I think more so now after he’s accepted that he’s no longer in control of things, he has a better chance of moving on and suffering the pain of that loss.
Paste: Watching John is fascinating, too, because he wears the same wire-frame glasses as Evie. I’m reminded of one character whenever I look at one character or the other. Is that purposeful?
Carroll: You know, there are times when we attempt to hold on to people, have them close to us. I see this as John’s way of doing that. I love the notion that he hasn’t finished his search for Evie. When that idea was brought to the table, there was the notion: “Do you think John would wear Evie’s glasses?” And I said, “absolutely.” It’s a way of him staying connected with her, and it’s the way he continues to search for her.