At first listen, Carrie Coon’s latest role doesn’t seem out of place with the serious-minded characters she’s inhabited in the past, whether the police chief of a small Midwestern town in the television series Fargo, or a grief-stricken woman in The Leftovers who is coping with the mysterious disappearance of her husband and children.

In Motherhacker, a podcast that Gimlet Media will release in November, Coon plays a single mother struggling with financial insecurity and “flying by the seat of her pants”, as Coon puts it, when she becomes the victim of a phishing hack.

But Motherhacker is a comedy, albeit a dark one, as Coon’s character, Bridget, transforms from hackee to hacker, employing various accents and tech-savvy teenagers to get back her money. Bridget’s funny nature is what Coon loves best about the role, and she relished the chance to stretch beyond what casting agents tend to like her for.

Download the new Indpendent Premium app

Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

“If you know my work, you know that people don’t typically think of me when they’re going to direct a comedy,” she says, laughing.

Bridesmaids’ Kristen Wiig provides the voice of an intuitive virtual assistant in ‘Sandra’, a fiction podcast from Gimlet Media (Rex)

Coon was drawn to recording a podcast by “the idea that there are people out there who might think differently than the Hollywood machine thinks”, she says. And that freedom and the chance to play against type in juicy, well-written roles are attracting more and more movie, TV and theatre actors to this growing medium.

So far this year, Rami Malek has played a radio DJ and father of two in Blackout; Cynthia Erivo has become a long-haul trucker who is accidentally caught up in a bioterrorism scheme in Carrier and Jenny Slate has starred in a one-woman alien-apocalypse thriller called Earth Break. This month, Kelly Marie Tran is the lead in Passenger List, a mystery thriller about a flight that disappears between London and New York. Cliff Smith, aka Method Man, of Wu-Tang Clan, will portray a gritty investigative journalist in the Stitcher Premium production of Marvel’s 1994 comic book MARVELS. And joining Coon in Motherhacker are Alan Cumming, Lucas Hedges, Rupert Friend and Pedro Pascal.

“The possibilities are more limitless, or as limited as my own voice is,” Coon says. “It’ll be really fun to see if I can push myself to be regarded in a new way in a new format.”

For the makers of fictional podcasts, the casting of well-known names helps their shows break through the clutter and, it is hoped, reach mainstream entertainment audiences. For example, when Gimlet released its first fiction podcast, Homecoming, in 2016, every voice was familiar: Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, Oscar Isaac, David Cross, Amy Sedaris. (Such star power can also help turn those properties into movies or television shows.)

Mimi O’Donnell, executive producer of fiction at Gimlet, which this year was bought by Spotify, says her task was to balance the celebrity quotient with the requirements for the parts the creative team is casting.

Malek played a radio DJ and father of two in the podcast ‘Blackout’ this year (AFP)

“Obviously, a big name highlights podcasts at a time when podcasts, especially fiction podcasts, are reaching saturation,” O’Donnell says. “But then also making sure that they’re right for the part,” she adds, referring to the actors. “That’s the key, not to feel like we’re going to package this together with big names if they’re not right.”

Since Homecoming, the company has produced shows like The Horror of Dolores Roach, starring Daphne Ruben-Vega and Bobby Cannavale; Sandra, starring Alia Shawkat and Kristen Wiig; and The Two Princes, a children’s adventure podcast that has gay themes and overflows with Broadway actors like Noah Galvin and Tony Award winners Christine Baranski and Ari’el Stachel.

The podcast producers have found willing collaborators in the worlds of film, TV and theatre.

“Nobody has asked me so far to run around and punch aliens in the face,” said Slate, the Earth Break star, who does the voices of several cartoon children in Big Mouth and Bob’s Burgers and has had lead roles in movies like Obvious Child. “I’ve been asked a million times over to be a pregnant lady, a comedian or a Jewish person, and in life I’ve been two out of three of those things – a comedian and a Jewish person. I just wanted to do something different.”

What podcasts lack – a pricey visual component – is the very thing that makes the medium such a rich opportunity for performers.

“It was all going to rely on the listener’s imagination and then what I could provide as a voice actor,” Slate says. “To literally divest myself of my actual form but still play a woman was really freeing. Not that I don’t like how I look, but sometimes I get tired of people saying how they feel about it.”

If Earth Break had been written for the screen, the story would have had to change into something reliably marketable to recoup the price tag of a production heavy with special effects. If its action-movie protagonist had been conceived as a tall blonde with an eight-pack, for instance, Slate says she “would have never even seen the script”.

The flexibility of podcast productions is also appealing. Coon had to spend only three days in a downtown Brooklyn recording studio to voice Motherhacker. And Kelly Marie Tran recorded her starring role as Kaitlyn Le in Passenger List over 10 days in London while she filmed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (Patti LuPone was able to record her role with Tran the same week she opened in the musical Company on the West End in London last year.)

Tran also had more influence over the story than she would have had for a typical big-budget movie. The show’s co-director, writer and producer, Lauren Shippen, went over every script with Tran to reflect the actress’s experiences and insights as the daughter of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants.

One tweak Shippen made was when Kaitlyn returns home in the middle of trying to unearth the truth behind the flight’s disappearance – her twin brother was on the plane – the scene is populated with Vietnamese actors actually speaking Vietnamese.

“With Passenger List,’ Kelly’s in every single episode, basically in every single scene,” Shippen says. “And so it really makes sense to basically dig into a character voice with an actor when the actor is 70 per cent of a show.”

Actors also enjoy another perk of audio-only performing: Coon jokes that her favourite parts of Motherhacker were the hours she didn’t have to spend in hair and makeup.

Screen and stage actors who are already fans of the medium, like Coon, a proud Murderino (a fan of My Favorite Murder, for the uninitiated), are thrilling to the wedding of their industries to the podcast-makers who have spent the past decade as innovators.

“For me, it felt like being invited to the cool kids’ party,” Coon says. “Like, suddenly, the popular kids were calling me, and they knew who I was.”

But ultimately, the performance required isn’t so different from that in a movie, a TV show or a play.

“You never see yourself as that person, and you’re not in a costume,” Coon says. “But you still have to do all the things you have to do in your other jobs – cry, have an emotional breakdown – except you’re alone in front of a microphone and you can’t move. You have to be able to still reach down for what you need to supply in that moment to be truthful. And that’s very challenging.”

7 More Podcasts for the autumn

This autumn, as the podcast boom shows no signs of flagging, new shows will take you on a lusty romp through celebrity culture, an exploration of American iconography and an investigation into why everybody loves Dolly Parton.

The Happiness Lab

Based on Yale University’s most popular class – ever, according to the university – psychology professor Laurie Santos explores the science of what happiness actually is, and how you should change your thinking about it. Pushkin Industries, out now.

Thirst Aid Kit

Revived from the dead by Slate after BuzzFeed axed it in January, this weekly chat podcast hosted by Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins discusses the ways celebrity worship and pop-culture shape our most lusty thirsts. Basically, this show is a celebration of the “female gaze” and all of its silliness, subtleties and seriousness. Come for the cultural critique, stay for their original fan fiction inspired by the crush of the week. Slate, 26 Sept.

Last Day

The first show from Lemonada Media, a new podcast network started by Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, tries to understand America’s biggest epidemics by zooming in on one person’s story, starting with his or her last day. Then they rewind the tape and look at the circumstances, for the individual and the country, that led to death. They’re beginning with the epidemic Wittels Wachs knows best, opioid addiction. Her brother, comedian and writer Harris Wittels, died of a heroin overdose in 2015 and Wittels Wachs talks with his friends Aziz Ansari and Sarah Silverman about losing Harris. Lemonada Media, 25 Sept. 

Scattered

Comedian and actor Chris Garcia is on a mission to fulfil his father’s dying wish: to have his ashes spread off the coast of Cuba. Over the course of this seven-part series, Garcia sets out to learn everything he can about his father, who was imprisoned in Castro’s labour camps and fled to the United States with his wife to raise his family. Garcia uses humour and loving memories to document his father’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, to grapple with his own loss and to commemorate the untold sacrifices of immigrant parents. WNYC Studios, 23 Oct.

Lost at the Smithsonian with Aasif Mandvi

In each episode of his new podcast, Aasif Mandvi digs into the backstories of classic Americana at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Mandvi, a comedian and former correspondent for The Daily Show, starts with an exploration into the cultural object that most symbolised American cool to him as a child of the Seventies and Eighties: Fonzie’s leather jacket. Mandvi sits down with Henry Winkler to discuss the celebrated yet problematic masculinity of his Happy Days character and the legacy of “the Fonz” in American culture. Stitcher, 26 Sept.

The Coloured Girl Beautiful

In 1916, Emma Azalia Hackley, the African American singer and political activist, published The Coloured Girl Beautiful, a self-help guide compiled from the talks she was giving to “coloured girls in boarding schools”. In this new podcast, host Aseloka Smith gauges how the advice given a century ago holds up today. Her guests – black women themselves – turn over the topics in Hackley’s book, including love, personal appearance, marriage, work and motherhood. 1 Oct.

Dolly Parton’s America

This autumn, the podcast universe is getting the Dollywood treatment. In announcing the show last month, Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab, tweeted: “She’s been called the ‘Great Unifier’ for her rare ability to bring people together across divides.” In this nine-part series, he aims to explain what the country singer’s story tells us about this country. WNYC Studios, October.

© New York Times 

Comments

Share your thoughts and debate the big issues

Learn more
Please be respectful when making a comment and adhere to our Community Guidelines.
  • You may not agree with our views, or other users’, but please respond to them respectfully
  • Swearing, personal abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia and other discriminatory or inciteful language is not acceptable
  • Do not impersonate other users or reveal private information about third parties
  • We reserve the right to delete inappropriate posts and ban offending users without notification

You can find our Community Guidelines in full here.

Create a commenting name to join the debate

Please try again, the name must be unique Only letters and numbers accepted
Loading comments...
Loading comments...
Please be respectful when making a comment and adhere to our Community Guidelines.
  • You may not agree with our views, or other users’, but please respond to them respectfully
  • Swearing, personal abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia and other discriminatory or inciteful language is not acceptable
  • Do not impersonate other users or reveal private information about third parties
  • We reserve the right to delete inappropriate posts and ban offending users without notification

You can find our Community Guidelines in full here.

Loading comments...
Loading comments...