"I keep saying," Carrie Coon tells me with a laugh, "if we all walk out at the same time, there's nothing they can do."
She's kidding, of course — or maybe not. Coon calls the production in question — David Cromer's Steppenwolf Theatre Company revival of Bug, an early play written by her husband, Tracy Letts — the hardest play she's ever done. Considering her résumé, from the stunning drunk performance she delivered as Honey in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and her graceful, heartbreaking turn as a mom of a sick toddler in Amy Herzog's Mary Jane, that's saying a lot.
In Bug, Coon plays Agnes, a waitress on the run from her abusive ex, who begins a love affair with a paranoid young drifter and descends into madness. There's nudity, drug use, and a lot of blood. It's been a very tough rehearsal process leading up to their first few previews, but you can tell that Coon and her cast are having a lot of fun…even if the first aid kit they're installing onstage will have to constantly be restocked.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Is this the kind of production that was hatched with Tracy in your living room, or did you come into this the traditional way?
They were looking for a famous actress in her 40s who had theater chops to come in. Nowadays, in order to promote theater, you need to create some sense of an event. That was the conversation, and they couldn't really get anybody to do it. It's too hard. Everybody said no. We were in the kitchen one day and I said, "Oh, I should do it!", and Tracy said, "You're too young." The character is 44, I'm 38 this year, and the actor they were considering for the role of Peter, Namir Smallwood, is actually a little older than the part as written, so Tracy was concerned about the age difference. But [artistic director] Anna D. Shapiro and Tracy got to talking about it, and they decided to offer me the part. And then I immediately regretted opening my mouth.
It's the hardest play I've ever done, by far. It's actually very precisely constructed, and quite elegant: You have this meet-cute; then the acceleration of the relationship; then the bugs appear in Scene 3; in Scene 4, you see her get isolated from her family; in Scene 5, it's the descent into madness; and in Scene 6, we're in full-on madness. It's very taut. There's not an extraneous bit of language in it. As an actor, you have to go from beat to beat and you can't skip any steps or have any extra gesture, language, or sound. That's really hard to do.
There are also so many conditions in the play. There's nudity, there's drug use, there's jonesing for drugs, there's being hit in the face, bleeding. They're gonna put a first aid kit on set because there's already been so much bleeding and bruising. Tracy said when we first started rehearsing that we were gonna be so banged up, and he's absolutely right. We're just a mess.
But it's a very well-written role. Tracy is an actor, so he writes very actable moments. It's very active. Even when you read the stage directions, you see they're filled with strong verbs, because Tracy understands that actors need something to do. You can't just play a mood. You can get really trapped in playing tone in something like this.
This role, Agnes, seems very different for you.
It's not the same work that I'm always asked to do. Tracy's work is always very funny, and some people who've seen me onstage know that I have some sense of comic timing, but from my TV work…
Between The Leftovers and Fargo, you have become the prestige TV —
I was gonna say "crier," but that's a better way of putting it.
[Laughs] It's true; I do do a lot of crying and grieving.
Where does Agnes fall on the spectrum of roles you take on and that you relate to?
It's a working-class part and I'm from a blue-collar town. My dad was educated in seminary, but he ran an auto parts store, and my mom is a nurse. My people are working-class people.
Agnes has her own street smarts, but she's not as smart as me. Sometimes, you don't get asked to play roles like that if you're known to be an intellectual actor, which is just sort of my reputation, for good or for ill. So it's fun to play around in that world.
Is being married to the playwright helpful for a show like this?
Talking shop is very useful at home. He can answer my questions about the play and what he was thinking. We love working together. He's my most avid and ardent supporter. He thinks I'm a great actor and I get so intimidated when he's in the room, because I think he's an extraordinary actor. Even if he wasn't my husband, I would be nervous having him there, because I just respect his work so much. But it also means that he's really able to be helpful to me when I'm having trouble. Not only is he the playwright, so he knows what the intentions were, but he's also such a great actor that he has a great way of keying into my strengths and weaknesses that's really helpful to me.
For him, it's more nostalgic than anything. This was the beginning of his career, and he's just remembering so vividly that time in his life. It's just this delightful romp through the past for him, while all of us are pulling our hair out over it.
Do you want to take Bug to New York once the Chicago run is over?
It's funny, it's very hard on one's body to do this play, but the runs at Steppenwolf are very short. We close March 8. In some ways, I think it would be unfortunate if we only got to do it for the eight or nine weeks. If we were gonna put that much work into it, you might as well do it a little longer. But I don't know. Martha Lavey [the late former Steppenwolf artistic director] said that Bug would never be done at Steppenwolf. She wasn't a big fan of what was considered "prurient" or "trashy" — whatever words have been used to describe Bug. It's very in your face. So maybe it's too edgy for New York. Can they handle it? We would certainly love to come, but I really wonder.