Shirley Li
December 21, 2017 AT 05:00 PM EST

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Carrie Coon refused to let the mystery be as she dominated this year’s prestige TV. The 36-year-old actress wrapped her gut-wrenching run on The Leftovers, nabbed an Emmy nom (her first!) for Fargo, and even popped up on the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. And now she’s one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year.

Below, she ponders her one-two-three punch of a 2017. (Portions of the interview, conducted earlier this month in New York, are in the video above.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had two shows airing simultaneously last spring, the spring of Carrie Coon.
CARRIE COON: Oh, my brothers are going to hate this. [Laughs] They’re so sick of the spring of Carrie Coon.

How do you feel about it now? I remember at the time reading that you felt like being on TV twice a week felt like “whiplash.”
What’s interesting is that of course I didn’t make them at the same time. I had finished The Leftovers by the fall of the previous year, and then launched into Fargo, and as an actor, the rhythm of that life is very familiar. We’re always leaving one project and moving on to the next. That’s just what we do, so it wasn’t strange for me to do that. I suppose it was probably more strange for people who were fans of both shows to see me switching back and forth twice a week. It must have been pretty unusual.

Let’s start with The Leftovers. How much do you miss Nora?
I think I’ll always miss Nora Durst, because there’s never been a character quite like her on TV, at least not that I’ve seen. It’s very rare as an actress to be asked to use as much of myself as Nora required of me. It was very challenging, and Damon Lindelof has this incredible knack for pitting you against your deepest, darkest fears while a camera is pointed at you. But it’s a really wonderful, spontaneous time.

And I’ve had the great pleasure of running into women who have said that Nora Durst has inspired them to ask for things, to make demands of people. And they were surprised that people always said yes! All they had to do was ask. I find those examples of people who were inspired by her really moving.

Ben King/HBO

What would you consider to be the defining moment for Nora this year?
That last season of The Leftovers really refocused in some ways on the relationship between Nora and Kevin [played by Justin Theroux], which was a tremendous amount of responsibility. For me it was really satisfying that they would put the ending of the show in my hands the way that they did. It’s also terrifying.

Yeah, that monologue!
Yes! It was 12 pages or something? [Laughs] And normally on The Leftovers, we would get our scripts one or two days before, but they were much better in the final season about getting that stuff to us a little ahead of time, so I did have a couple of weeks to prep that final monologue.

Well, now that we’re talking about the ending, you’ve said before you’ll never reveal whether you believe Nora or not…
Yup!

Does that still stand?
That still stands. I think it robs people of their experience of the show. The whole purpose of that ending is to expose something in the viewer about what they believe about the world. Who cares what I believe? The artist doesn’t matter, it’s the piece that matters, and I would never want to take that away from somebody, as frustrating as some of the fans find it when I won’t answer that question. But clearly I love ambiguous endings. Fargo is also ambiguous. So is life! We demand these neat lessons from our art when our lives do not function that way. I love making art like that.

But you do have a belief one way or another.
Yeah, I made a decision before I did the monologue. I’m not sure the monologue would be different if I had made the opposite decision. The performance would probably be the same, because the intention is to convince my scene partner of the truth of it, and also in some ways it doesn’t matter if she had that physical experience, because our mental experiences are equally as powerful, so if she had taken the time to meditate on her life and her damage and what she needed in order to heal, and that was the journey she went on… It doesn’t matter if it was real, your brain doesn’t really know the difference, so I don’t think it would be different if I made the opposite decision. Which I will never tell.

Just thought I’d try.
I know, nice try. Thanks for playing. [Laughs]

Moving on to Gloria, then, what made you want to be in her world?
Obviously Fargo was a huge shift, but in some ways, it was a shift to something that was closer to me to begin with, because I’m from the Midwest. The Fargo characters, they’re the characters of my people. They’re stoic, hardworking, uncomplaining, and I loved them. That’s my family, and in some ways Gloria was much closer to who I actually am than Nora was. They share some things.

Right, they both have been through immense trauma, they share an affinity for technical difficulties…
Which I have in my life. [Laughs]

How did playing Nora and Gloria back-to-back affect you?
I suppose any good role has an impact. I think Nora taught me more about the kind of woman I want to be in the world, and Gloria made me appreciate the women I come from. 

Chris Large/FX

And why did you want to continue working in a fairly dark space, going from The Leftovers to Fargo?
Oh, it’s so funny! Perhaps this is very revealing of me, but I think of Fargo as a comedy, a very dark comedy. I think Noah Hawley’s writing is hilarious, and I love a good dark joke.

Inevitably, when directors work with me on a set, they say, “This isn’t what I was expecting. I thought you were going to be very serious.” But I like to stay loose and have a good time and not take myself too seriously. I think otherwise you get in your own way. I think the Coen brothers’ world is hilarious! Maybe it’s just me?

Not just you! And that accent, too. 
Yeah! I mean, those sounds are very familiar to me. I went to school up in Wisconsin, and, you know, vocal trends move west to east so we’re all going to sound like that soon. We are.

Your work got a lot of attention. How did you feel about your career at the start of this year, and how do you feel now?
Oh my gosh, I can’t even remember back that far… When I was doing the work, I was just doing the work, and then the accolades for it have come much later. Of course, The Leftovers is both beloved and snubbed in sort of every way [laughs] but the most rewarding part is I keep meeting people who continue to find the show. They always have a reason why they connected to the show and want to tell me about it.

In some ways, that stuff is real. The other stuff — if you’re getting more famous or more well-known — is all happening on the internet. People still don’t know what I look like, I’m not getting stopped in the street. Everyone thinks I’m on Mindhunter

Right, you’re not Anna Torv! So what has changed for you?
What’s changed is I think I have some credibility in our industry, so people that I want to work with are maybe interested in working with me. Otherwise, nothing feels different. I’m still looking for another job, you know? [Laughs] I know it’s probably cliche to say that or maybe it’s protesting too much to say that, but, you know, I’m just working.

And I’ve been utterly spoiled by this material. I keep threatening to retire, because I’m just totally spoiled rotten. I’ve had four years of really extraordinary writing, and you can’t go backwards. I find myself saying no to a lot of things, because my bar is set so high. That’s not a bad thing… I’m so privileged to have these opportunities.

Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

You did say yes to The Post, in which you play Meg Greenfield, one of the journalists who helped publish the Pentagon Papers. What did you take away from that experience?
I got to do a scene with Meryl [Streep] which was really lovely, because I got to watch her process a little bit. One of the things she does is every take is a little bit different, because she’s just trying things… It’s nice to be reminded that your job isn’t to come in and be right. Your job is to come in and be open and available to what’s happening around you.

And what kind of project would you like to say yes to?
When you’re a woman my age, a lot of things that come your way are supporting parts as mothers and wives, and while there’s nothing wrong with playing those parts, most of the time I find in a script where the woman isn’t the center of the story, they’re not very fleshed out and not particularly interesting, and they don’t resemble the women in my life. So for me, it’s important to prioritize projects that are spearheaded by women. Helping us try to achieve parity in this business is important to me.

But I’ll always come back to good writing. I’m married to a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright [Tracy Letts], so we’re very snobby. [Laughs] And while I’ve had some intriguing things come my way, I haven’t found quite the right fit yet, but I guess I’ll know when I see it. But it won’t be something I’ve done before. It will be scary for me and challenge me. That’s the goal, anyway.

Finally: What would you say has been a defining moment for you this year? Maybe the Emmy nom?
Oh gosh, this year, this extraordinary year… It’s funny, I feel like I’m still processing this year that I’ve had. And the defining moment will probably become clearer to me as the year winds down [laughs] but I feel I’ve been working nonstop for years now, and I haven’t had time to take a breath. I’m looking forward to taking some time to reflect back on that. I’ll get back to you.

That’s fair. It has been an extraordinary year. I mean, Mindhunter was amazing!
[Laughs] I have to watch it, really! It happened on an airplane just the other day, somebody was a Leftovers fan and he went, “Aren’t you in Mindhunter?” And I went “No! I’m not on Mindhunter.” I’m sure she’s astonishing, and I’m flattered to be mistaken for her. I hope she feels the same way, but it’s hilarious, I gotta keep working to clear this up. We’re going to have to make a statement. 

We’ll have to bring you two together.
Yes, yes, spend some quality time, and do a joint interview with me and Anna Torv and do some comparisons. Like, have us read the same sentence and walk and run and do some tests, because people say, “I’ve never seen them in the same room.” So we’re fueling this conspiracy theory, and we should clear this up. Anna Torv, wherever you are, let’s clear this up. Let’s meet in a room, and let’s get it on tape.

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