Actress Cara Buono has spent decades in high-profile television roles ranging from Kelli Moltisanti to The Sopranos to Dr. Faye Miller for Mad Men. In his latest project for the Hulu series Plainville’s daughter, Buono confronts Gail Carter, the mother of Michelle Carter (played by Elle Fanning), the teenager at the center of the “text message suicide case” that led Conrad “Coco” Roy to commit suicide. Throughout the miniseries, Gail simultaneously tries to protect her daughter, put the pieces together of what really happened, and deal with the unimaginable. To portray this multidimensional and complex character, Buono says she drew inspiration from her own experience of 30 years volunteering at the Crime Victims Treatment Center in New York, an organization that supports survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. “I’m really good in a crisis,” she says on Zoom from her home in New York. “That’s where I shine and feel like I can do a lot of good.”
Ahead of the show’s season finale airs May 3, the veteran TV and Broadway actress shares how she navigated the difficult storyline, her thoughts on Don Draper and her reunion with the cast of stranger things for its highly anticipated fourth season.
At the end of The Plainville Girl, what is the emotional state of your character, Gail, Michelle Carter’s mother?
My character in Plainville is really ill-equipped to deal with everything. She tries, she really tries. She’s the mother in her, but she’s not prepared to handle this tragedy. She thinks, how am I responsible for this? What did I do wrong? The real heartbreak I felt playing the role was this guilt: Could I have done more? Could I have tried another way? That’s one of the tragedies for Gail – thinking she knows her daughter and trying to contact her, then finding out she’s complicit in someone else’s death.
You said you had your own preconceptions about the case before taking on the role. What were they?
I thought, why would anyone tell someone to kill themselves? It’s never appropriate, and it still isn’t appropriate. But being part of the storytelling where we peel back the layers and find out about Coco and Michelle’s mental health issues, you realize that nothing is black and white. There are things that led them both to this situation. But there is nothing to be said to justify this, even if Michelle, in her heart, thought she was helping him.
There are two mothers involved in this show: Chloë Sevigny plays Coco’s mother, Lynn Roy, who couldn’t be more different from Gail. There’s a scene where they meet face to face at a charity event that Michelle helps coordinate for Coco. Their exchange is a bit awkward.
It’s true, they are quite opposite in origin and life. But that scene, to me, was just a mother trying to connect with another mother about what was going on. I always thought that if Gail kept talking in this scene, she might break down and start crying. She’s almost hysterical, like, My daughter is trying to call your son and thinks he’s going to call back! She hasn’t had anyone to talk to about it, but it’s clear that Lynn isn’t able to hear Gail’s issues.
And as the narrative between Lynn and Michelle unfolds throughout the series, Michelle continues to try to get in touch with Lynn, to cultivate a relationship with her. As I watched, I felt more and more that Lynn needed to stop responding to Michelle.
I think when you’re in response to trauma, you’re on autopilot. Your body is in fight or flight mode. That’s why we need support systems for people to step up and say, we’re just going to end this conversation. But I’m sure Gail is just curious too, in addition to dealing with the new. Like, this girl is really going out of her way to connect with me.
stranger things fans will soon see your character, Karen Wheeler, again when season four releases on Netflix. The last time you worked with the cast was in 2018. What was the experience of watching your co-stars grow from kids to teens, and even full grown adults.
Working with children, obviously every year there is a huge growth. I’m such a nostalgic person that in my mind it’s always the kids I met in 2015 when they were all very small. And you know how much teenagers love it – when you go, I remember when you were 11! I remember I was that age and older people said I knew you when you were so big– and I’d be like, Ugh! And now I am that person. I don’t drink, but it makes me want to go to a bar and have a shot of tequila. I cannot accept change.
What can viewers expect in season four?
Oh, there’s something I want to say, but I’d be in so much trouble. But I can tell it’s darker, the episodes are longer and it’s going to be epic. I’m excited to watch, because it’s been so long; I feel like I’m going to be a fan watching it too.
Many of your fans were introduced to you during The Sopranos and Mad Men, when you played Kelli Lombardo Moltisanti and Dr. Faye Miller respectively. were you a Mad Men fan before playing the role of Dr. Faye?
I was. Before I got the job, I was crazy about it. I was like, I have to be on the show. There were a few roles I wanted in my life: One had to be Irina Prozorov in The three sistersthat I received an offer to do in Chicago and unfortunately couldn’t; rose tattoo on Broadway, which I did, and when it came to TV shows, I wanted to be on Mad Men.
How the Mad Men role came into your life?
I had worked with Matthew Weiner on The Sopranos when I was added in the past two seasons as a series regular. He had just written the Mad Men script and we became friends – he’s an established writer now, but at the time he was one of the youngest writers on set. I remember reading the script and saying to him, You’re going to have the best TV show. He will tell you, I said it [laughs]. I wasn’t good for any of the characters back then – during that time the show became a hit and everyone wanted to be on it. It was the coveted profession of all professions.
I happened to be in LA, auditioning for the pilot season. I noticed that the studio I was in was the same one they were shooting in Mad Men. I said, I’m going to say hi to Matt. During The Sopranos, when we were working together, my hair was super dark, but I had just dyed my hair blonde for a movie. When he saw me, he didn’t recognize me. I was like, it’s Cara, blonde! He was working on the Faye character at the time, and the hair really did that for him.
There are Mad Men fans who believe Faye Miller was robbed when Don dumped her for Megan. Many people on Twitter want justice for Dr Faye.
Return when Mad Men was airing, Twitter had just started, so there weren’t these huge reactions online yet. But come to think of it, Faye was too levelheaded, too insightful about him. It would have required him to step up his emotions and really participate in a mature relationship. I think it was just easier for him to be around Megan, who was really smart and cool, but she was even younger and didn’t demand that much maturity from him. Faye would have blamed him, and he didn’t want that.