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 put 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.
“If you know my work, you know that people don’t typically think of me when they’re going to direct a comedy,” she said in a phone interview, laughing.
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 said. And that freedom and the chance to play against type in juicy, well-written roles are attracting more and more movie, TV and theater actors to this growing medium.
So far this year, Rami Malek has played a radio D.J. 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, a.k.a. 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 said. “It’ll be really fun to see if I can push myself to be regarded in a new way in a new format.”
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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, said her task was to balance the celebrity quotient with the requirements for the parts the creative team is casting. “Obviously, a big name highlights podcasts at a time when podcasts, especially fiction podcasts, are reaching saturation,” O’Donnell said. “But then also making sure that they’re right for the part,” she added, 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 the Tony Award winners Christine Baranski and Ari’el Stachel.
The podcast producers have found willing collaborators in the worlds of film, TV and theater. “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 said. “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, Slate said, “I 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 Kaitlin 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 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: When Kaitlin 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 said. “And so it really makes sense to basically dig into a character voice with an actor when the actor is 70 percent of a show.”
Actors also enjoy another perk of audio-only performing: Coon jokes that her favorite 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 last decade as innovators. “For me, it felt like being invited to the cool kids’ party,” Coon said. “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 said. “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 Fall
This fall, 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’s most popular class — ever, according to the university — the psychology professor Dr. Laurie Santos explores the science of what happiness actually is, and how you should change your thinking about it. Pushkin Industries, Sept. 17.
‘Thirst Aid Kit’
Revived from the dead by Slate after Buzzfeed axed it last 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, Sept. 26
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, the 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, Sept. 25.
The comedian and actor Chris Garcia is on a mission to fulfill 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 labor camps and fled to the United States with his wife to raise his family. Garcia uses humor 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, Oct. 23.
‘Lost at the Smithsonian with Aasif Mandvi’
In each episode of his new podcast, Aasif Mandvi digs into the back stories 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 symbolized American cool to him as a child of the ’70s and ’80s: 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, Sept. 26.
‘The Colored Girl Beautiful’
In 1916, Emma Azalia Hackley, the African-American singer and political activist, published “The Colored Girl Beautiful,” a self-help guide compiled from the talks she was giving to “colored girls in boarding schools.” In this new podcast, the 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. Oct. 1.
‘Dolly Parton’s America’
This fall, the podcast universe is getting the Dollywood treatment. In announcing the show last month, Jad Abumrad, the host of “Radiolab,” tweeted that “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.
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