Note: This interview discusses plot points of the second episode of The Leftovers.
Since the first season of The Leftovers, the HBO series has toyed with the running gag—one of the few in a drama suffused with anger and grief—that the 2 percent who disappeared during the Sudden Departure included the entire cast of Perfect Strangers. Co-creator Damon Lindelof has said the idea, which originated with producer Jackie Hoyt, was initially sort of a throwaway gag, meant to illustrate anomalies and arbitrariness of the rapture-like event. But the joke became its own compelling mystery in the second season, when it was revealed that Mark Linn-Baker, playing himself, had faked his Departure and absconded down to Mexico. And while viewers might have assumed that was the end of it, leave it to The Leftovers to turn this into its own compelling plotline. The third season’s second episode, the aptly titled “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” found Baker returning in a very meaningful way, when he contacts Carrie Coon’s Nora about a project that could potentially reunite her with her family—and him with his cast mates. The A.V. Club spoke to Linn-Baker about the surprisingly crucial role he’s played within the show.
The A.V. Club: How did you first learn that you were a part of The Leftovers universe?
Mark Linn-Baker: In the first season, they called and asked if they could use Perfect Strangers clips, and I gave my permission—you know, it was in the scenes where Justin Theroux’s character goes to visit his dad, Scott Glenn, in the asylum. There’s several scenes where they’re watching Perfect Strangers on television, and they talk about the fact that the entire cast has departed. And in that first season I had gone in and auditioned for a role as an administrator in an office, where I’d be talking to Carrie Coon’s character. I did a good audition, but I heard back that they had already referenced me, so they didn’t want to use me playing somebody else, since I had already appeared on the television in clips as myself. That didn’t make sense to them.
AVC: How did that feel, finding out that you’d been raptured?
MLB: I found it amusing! That was fun. And then of course, Damon [Lindelof] called in the second season and asked if I would be interested in coming in to play myself, his idea being that the entire cast had been raptured except for me, and that I had faked my Departure and was hiding in Mexico… It’s a little sleazy. But it was fun to play the sleazy Mark Linn-Baker. The first season was the innocent, Departed Mark Linn-Baker, the second season was the sleazy con artist Mark Linn-Baker, and now the third season Mark Linn-Baker is something else altogether.
AVC: What do you think you would have been doing for those several years down in Mexico?
MLB: Drinking! A lot of tequila, a lot of mezcal, trying to forget.
AVC: How were you approached about returning for this season?
MLB: I got an email from Damon that he wanted to do something with the character of Mark Linn-Baker that would be integral to setting up the beginning of the third season. It didn’t take much. I’m a fan of the show, and I’ve loved being a small part of it—it’s very easy to say yes to that.
AVC: At any point did you feel like they were making fun of Perfect Strangers or of you?
MLB: No, no, not in a negative way. I am flattered that that show is known, that it’s part of the culture, that it’s a reference point worth touching on. And I think it provides as much of a comic moment in The Leftovers as there has been.
AVC: In your opinion, is this project you’re selling Nora on in that scene legitimate, or are you—as she suggests—just deluded and suicidal?
MLB: Well, you know, I have to approach it from my character’s point of view, and clearly he believes in what he’s talking about. It sounds crazy, but he’s full of the science and the background to back it up. Yeah, I think he believes.
AVC: I notice you keep referring to him as your “character.” How much separation is there actually between you two? I mean, you do actually have two degrees from Yale…
MLB: I do. But it’s Mark Linn-Baker—whom I know well—but in an alternate universe. So I have to think of who I would be in that world.
AVC: Doesn’t that Mark Linn-Baker also have a family? Isn’t he busy with TV and theater? What would he be leaving behind?
MLB: Not that Mark Linn-Baker. That Mark Linn-Baker may have started there, I’m guessing. But we see him in Mexico, he’s hiding out, and not doing well. He’s definitely not pursuing theater roles.
AVC: So is this the last we’ve seen of you on the show?
MLB: As far as I know. But you know, I thought that each time I’ve been a part of it, so we’ll see.
AVC: If this actually happened—if all your Perfect Strangers cast mates suddenly vanished from the earth and left you behind—how do you think you, this Mark Linn-Baker, would actually feel?
MLB: Well… There’s reality and there’s fiction. And when you confuse the two, that’s when you know you’re crazy. [Laughs.] I think the story is about losing everyone around you who you care about and being left behind, and what that does to you—how you have to figure out what that means, in a world that doesn’t explain to you what it means. I understand those are the circumstances of that fictional universe. Are you asking if I would write it the same way Damon would write it? I’m not a writer. That’s not what I do. So fortunately, there is a great writer producing a great show who has an idea about how the alternate universe Mark Linn-Baker would react.
AVC: If you did “go through,” would you really want to spend your afterlife hanging out with Bronson Pinchot?
MLB: [Laughs.] I don’t know that I would do that. I know that if, in the afterlife, they were producing television, I certainly would want to work with him.
AVC: Would you rather spend eternity with him or your My Favorite Year co-star Peter O’Toole?
MLB: I think O’Toole. I’d choose O’Toole.
AVC: So where can we expect to see you next?
MLB: One thing I’ve learned in this business is, whatever you think you’re doing next, that’s not it. It’s always a surprise. Fortunately, I have had a great time working. I’ve worked in a lot of different places, on stage, in television, in film, had a lot of well-done, well-produced projects, and they keep coming. So as long as that happens, that’s all I ask.
AVC: But you are gonna stay on this plane of existence.
MLB: Yes, yeah. If it’s a choice between Departing and staying here and working, I’d rather stay here and work.