THE LEFTOVERS: A Conversation with Kevin Carroll and Chris Zylka

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

The mysteries of the universe will get a bit more complex this week as HBO unleashes their third and final season of The Leftovers. The show, created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, explores life after the unexplainable disappearance of 2% of the earth’s population. Chris Zylka portrays Tom Garvey, the prodigal son of Justin Theroux’s character, who has returned to his family over the course of the show – a move that has ironically made his life more complicated. Kevin Carroll, playing John Murphy, entered the story in the second season and has become intimately intertwined in the journey of the Garvey’s while also dealing with his own impossibly intricate family.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher had a chance to sit down with both actors recently to discuss the final season of the show as well as how they brought these characters from the script to the screen.

John Bucher: Chris, what is it like after a break to come back in and re-embody your character?

Chris Zylka: You always worry about that. I grew up playing football. I was a quarterback, and you have butterflies, and you learn to just deal with them. Then as soon as the first snap happens, they go away. It’s the same exact thing with acting. You don’t worry too much about the character. You obviously question yourself, like, “Oh my God, we start filming in a week. I don’t know who Tom is anymore. What am I doing? Should I call Damon?” But as soon as the first take happens, it’ll all come back, and it always does.

John: It seems like over the course of the three seasons, Tom’s really been on this journey of trying to find what it means to be Tom? What’s the meaning of his life? Obviously, he’s come a long way from where we first met him. What is that journey like in your head? What has Tom been looking for?

Chris: I think it’s mostly, instead of thinking about what’s Tom looking for, it’s trusting Damon, trusting Mimi Leder, and trusting the cast and crew enough to just go with the flow. Take it one scene at a time, or one episode at a time. His evolution has been so wonderful, and has taught me so much as an actor, like to not ask so many questions, to just trust. Ironically enough, that’s what Tom learns to do: trust that the answer to all of his questions was always there.

John: Kevin, can you talk about how you approach a character with such a complex spectrum of spirituality?

Kevin Carroll: When you first are confronted with that, you start to look for ways to justify it, and the realization that everything that happens in season three comes with the emotional cracking at the end of season two. Once we’ve moved John out of the need to control and opened him up to considering other possibilities in life, it gives us latitude in every aspect of who he is, because everything that he had thought that he needed to control to be safe in the world has now been blown apart, and he’s still okay.

For so long, he thought he was without control of his environment, that somehow there was a danger of another violation in some way, so we really saw him hold on to that notion, because he had been violated. Now he is processing, working through that, working on it, and being safe in the world was a control. This opens us up for John to see new possibilities.

John: I’m really interested in John as a father. Can you talk about that? Did you have personal experiences that you drew on?

Kevin: Well, first of all, the commitment from my family in the show — Jasmin, Jovan, Regina — they all jumped in with a hundred percent commitment and willingness. It lent itself to meeting you halfway. For me, I take what I know from being an uncle, what I’ve seen from my father. I look at what we have to work with in terms of the journey on the page, and then being open and playful with the commitment of the Murphy family. It gave us enough to have our own unique connected journey in this world.

John: You made a statement about taking what you’re working with on the page and embodying this character. Can you talk a little bit about what that process looks like for you when you take these words that John is to speak? So much of his character seems to be taking what’s on the page but then crafting something based on that – a subtext to what’s there.

Kevin: The foundation of it is on the page. Then, the process of making it your own is a part of the next step. Then, the beauty of it comes in finding it in your partners who are playing with you. If you only listen to the idea that you’ve come up with, I don’t think you get as much texture and color as you do when you take the idea from the page, make it your own, and then remind yourself to live it for the first time.

When you’re able to do that, and sit across from Justin and Carrie, Ann Dowd, Regina King — totally committed players — you’re not sure what you’re going to get, where it’s going to go. All you can be sure of is if you sit, listen, and bring the best that you can bring to it in the most truthful way, there’s an electricity that will be created, because they’re going to do the same thing. If you can show up open and ready, and you have the eye of Mimi Leder behind the lens, or Carl Franklin, all of the directors that we brought in, it gives you a trust.

John: Chris, Tom has had this really interesting relationship with his own family throughout the course of the series. You’re working with amazing talent, but how do you approach that? You see these words that are written on a page for Tom to say, and the way he interacts, but as Kevin says, there’s some sort of magic that happens between the actors, yes?

Chris: Yeah. I like to think that I got the easy way out. I got to work mostly with guest stars for the first season and build enough confidence to work with Amy and Justin and Liv and the rest of the cast, instead of getting thrown in with the big dogs right away. I got to exercise a little bit and get in shape for it. It’s the greatest opportunity ever, and you either seize it or you don’t. It goes back to trust. You just trust in everyone’s work, and that’s how our cast and crew have been the entire time. Even moving from place to place, it’s just always worked.

John: Specifically, there seems to be a real intimacy between Tom and his dad. Are you and Justin just that close in life, or what’s the base of the chemistry that’s between those characters?

Chris: Justin’s one of the finest men that I’ve ever met in my life that I would want to be like as a person, as an individual. He’s caring, he’s the ultimate man. I’ve admired him so much that when we got to do our first scene in real time together, not a flashback or anything like that, I admired him like a father already. I call him Pops. I text him and say “Hey Pops. Loved you on Girl on the Train.”

John: Kevin, what have you learned playing this role of John?

Kevin: I’ve learned that flexibility in life is the most underrated characteristic of so many of our issues. You get locked into the outcome of things, and you forget that one of your biggest strengths as a person is the ability to be confidently flexible. I can handle what you throw at me, because I am who I am.

John: The Leftovers has really found an audience with thinking people, people that really desire to find the layers in life and explore what it means to be a human. Can you speak to why you believe that is?

Kevin: John, this show has ideas with muscle. This show taps into something bigger. We’re looking at where we are in our everyday lives as a country, as people, as being good neighbors to the world, in a bigger sense, and I think that in this show, we’re taking the time to have a piece of art that is reflecting a general sense of consideration for what it means to be human in this political climate.

Bigger than that, when I say this show has muscle in the ideas, I mean that these questions are the same questions that we have tried to understand for years in a number of different contexts. There’s always been an unanswered wonderment about humanity, and this show is challenging you to get back to one of the fundamental and basic questions about that, and it’s about how, where, why we are here.

John: Chris?

Chris: I think because TV culture has changed so much, Damon’s found a way, and HBO in general has found a way, to credit its audience in not needing to have the answers, but to try to figure them out for themselves and then ask their own questions. Every great story teller usually leaves you with a couple questions that haven’t been answered, and I think that’s a testament to Damon’s brilliance. He’s going to leave you with questions that you can answer on your own.

Season three of The Leftovers premieres Sunday night on HBO.


John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site,

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