The actress Cara Buono has spent decades in prestige television roles ranging from Kelli Moltisanti in The Sopranos to Dr. Faye Miller for Mad Men. In her latest project for the Hulu series The Girl From Plainville, Buono takes on Gail Carter, the mother of Michelle Carter (played by Elle Fanning), the teenage girl at the center of the “texting suicide case” that led to Conrad “Coco” Roy taking his own life. Throughout the miniseries, Gail is seen simultaneously trying to protect her daughter, put the pieces together on what really happened, and process the unimaginable. To embody this layered and complex character, Buono says she drew from her own 30-year experience of volunteering at the Crime Victims Treatment Center in New York City—an organization that supports survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. “I’m really good in a crisis,” she says over Zoom from her home in New York. “It’s where I shine and where I feel like I can do a lot of good.”
Ahead of the show’s season finale airing May 3, the veteran TV and Broadway actress discusses how she navigated the difficult storyline, her thoughts on Don Draper, and reuniting with the cast of Stranger Things for its highly anticipated fourth season.
By the end of The Girl From Plainville, what is the emotional state of your character, Michelle Carter’s mother Gail?
My character in Plainville is really ill-equipped to deal with everything. She tries—she really tries. That’s the mother in her, but she’s not prepared to handle this tragedy. She’s thinking, How am I responsible for this? What have I done wrong? The real sorrow that I experienced playing the part was that guilt: Could I have done more? Could I have tried a different way? That’s one of the tragedies for Gail—thinking that she knows her daughter and trying to reach out to her, then discovering she’s complicit in someone else’s death.
You’ve said you had your own preconceived notions about the case before you took on the role. What were they?
I thought, why would anyone tell someone to kill themselves? That is never appropriate—and it still is never appropriate. But being part of the storytelling where we’re peeling back the layers and discovering the mental health issues of both Coco and Michelle, you realize that nothing is black and white. There are things that led both of them to that situation. But there’s nothing to say to justify that—even though Michelle, in her heart, thought she was helping him.
There are two mothers involved in this show: Chloë Sevigny plays Coco’s mom, Lynn Roy, who couldn’t be more different from Gail. There’s one scene where they meet face-to-face at a charity event Michelle helps coordinate for Coco. Their exchange is a bit awkward.
It’s true, they are quite opposite in where they’re from and their lives. But that scene, to me, was just one mom trying to connect with another mom about what was going on. I always thought if Gail kept talking in that scene, she might have a meltdown and just start crying. She’s almost hysterical, like, My daughter’s trying to call your son and thinks he’ll call back! She hasn’t had anyone to talk to about it, but clearly, Lynn’s in no place to hear Gail’s problems.
And as the narrative between Lynn and Michelle unspools throughout the series, Michelle keeps trying to get in touch with Lynn, to cultivate a relationship with her. While I was watching, I felt more and more like Lynn needed to stop responding to Michelle.
I think when you’re in a trauma response, you’re on autopilot. Your body’s in fight or flight mode. That’s why we need support systems for people to step in and say, we’re just going to end this conversation. But I’m sure Gail’s just curious too, in addition to processing the unprecedented. Like, this girl is really going out of her way to make a connection with me.
Stranger Things fans will soon see your character, Karen Wheeler, again, when season four is released on Netflix. The last time you worked with the cast was in 2018. What has the experience been like watching your costars go from kids to teens, and even full-fledged adults.
Working with kids, obviously every year, there is a tremendous amount of growth. I’m such a nostalgic person that in my mind, they’re still the kids I met in 2015 when they were all really little. And you know how much teenagers love that—when you go, I remember when you were 11! I remember being that age and older people saying I knew you when you were this big—and I’d be like, Ugh! And now I’m that person. I don’t drink, but it makes me want to go to a bar and take tequila shots. I can’t take the change.
What can viewers expect in season four?
Oh, there’s something I want to say, but I would get in so much trouble. But I can say, it is 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 you took on the Dr. Faye role?
I was. Before I got the job, I was crazy about it. I was like, I’ve got to be on the show. There were a few roles I wanted in my life: One was to be Irina Prozorov in The Three Sisters, which I got an offer to do in Chicago and I couldn’t, sadly; The Rose Tattoo on Broadway, which I did, and when it came to TV shows, I wanted to be on Mad Men.
How did the Mad Men role come into your life?
I had worked with Matthew Weiner on The Sopranos when I was added during the last two seasons as a series regular. He had just written the Mad Men script and we became friendly—he’s an established writer now, but at the time, he was one of the younger writers on the set. I remember reading the script and saying to him, You’re gonna have the best show on television. He’ll tell you, I said that [laughs]. I wasn’t right for any of the characters at the time—meanwhile, the show became a hit and everybody wanted to be on it. It was the coveted job of all jobs.
I happened to be in L.A., auditioning for pilot season. I noticed the studio I was in was the same one where they were shooting 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 character for Faye at that time, and the hair really did it for him.
There are Mad Men fans who believe Faye Miller was robbed when Don dumped her for Megan. Many folks on Twitter want justice for Dr. Faye.
Back when Mad Men was airing, Twitter had just started, so there weren’t these huge reactions online yet. But thinking back on it, Faye was too much of an equal, too insightful into him. It would’ve required him to step up emotionally and really participate in a mature relationship. I think it was just easier for him to be with Megan—who was really smart and cool, but she was still younger and didn’t require as much maturity on his part. Faye would have held him accountable, and he didn’t want that.