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'Fargo' Stars Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman Discuss Re-imagining the Coen Brothers for TV

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire April 10, 2014 at 4:47PM

The stars of the upcoming FX mini-series discuss the challenges of taking on worn-in characters, what it's like to develop those accents, and how they felt about recreating the Coens' work.
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Fargo

Remaking an award-winning film for television has been around for years (even back in the 70s when "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" became "Alice.") The trend continues with recent releases such as "From Dusk Till Dawn" and "About a Boy" as well as the upcoming series "12 Monkeys" (on SyFy) and "Constantine" (on NBC). Another series -- make that mini-series -- of a similar ilk is "Fargo," FX's attempt to extend the life of the Coen brother's 1996 film of the same name. Billy Bob Thornton plays the careless instigator Lorne Malvo, a gun-for-hire who bumps into the too-timid insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, played by Martin Freeman, and brings havoc to his dull life. The star of the Coens' 2001 film "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "The Hobbit" himself took part in two separate conversations with reporters this week, sharing thoughts on everything from the state of television and independent film to advice for young actors. Here are the highlights:

Ethan Coen said, in his own way, the pilot "is fucking amazing."

Thornton was asked if he spoke with the Coen brothers before agreeing to work on the show. "Well, I didn't talk to them beforehand because I'd already been told and had learned that they'd given it their blessing," he said. "They had read the pilot and had some input on it. So that was enough for me. Since we've started, I've talked to Ethan a couple of times. Ethan, when asked about the pilot, he said, 'Yeah, it's good.' And for Ethan, saying 'Yeah, it's good,' is like him saying, 'This is fucking amazing.' They're not really forthcoming with their emotions sometimes, and so to get a 'that's good' from Ethan? That's a four-star review. So I was pretty happy with that. In reading the script, if someone had told me [the Coens] wrote it, I would have believed it."

Fargo

Billy Bob Thornton trusts Noah Hawley, the screenwriter for the "Fargo" series, as much as the Coen brothers.

Thornton was asked about some of the obscure language used in the show, including the more unusual lines written for his character. "That's something that he has in common with the Coen brothers, actually," Thornton said. "Their scripts are very tightly written, and if you don't say those words the way they're written, it doesn't come across as well. I mean, I've been largely an improvisational actor for most of my career, except when I've worked with the Coen brothers, and now that I'm working with Noah, I rarely change anything with Noah. [...] I respect him as a writer so much that I defer to him. I think I would say the same thing about the rest of the cast. There's very little discussion on the set about changing things. It's the same experience I had with the Coen brothers. You do it because there's a reason he wrote it that way, and it becomes clear to you when you see it and when you perform it."

Martin Freeman's main concern was not taking part in a "tribute band" for the film.

Freeman expressed some concern over the purpose of the mini-series after the film was so successful when asked about how he decided to sign up. "At the outset, it was a big trust thing," Freeman said. "It's all a big leap of faith. I knew I did not want to be in a rehash of the film. The film is perfectly happy without someone making either a good or bad cover version of it. I didn't want to be in a cover version, and I certainly didn't want to be doing a cover version of anyone else's performance. All I knew at the time was that I really loved the first script, and I guess I liked Noah's tone. I had a brief conversation with him. I'll have to check our emails, but he probably said something to put my mind at rest in an email at some point. I can't even remember what that would specifically be, but I know from the outset I would have been pretty vocal about not wanting to be a part of a 'Fargo' tribute band."

"Actors are clamoring to get on television because it's a place we can do the things we were doing in movies."

"Screwing with people for Malvo is kind of like jet skiing for most people."

Lorne Malvo is a truly unique individual. Perhaps the best way to describe him without seeing him in action is via the great Michael Caine in "The Dark Knight": "Some men just want to watch the world burn." Thornton appears to be having a ball playing him, and the actor confirmed as much on the call. "That's kind of been my wheelhouse, sort of intense characters who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humor. You know, I'll have 10-year-olds come up to me and say, 'Oh! Bad Santa! I just love you!' And I'm like, 'What?' I don't know what it is, but maybe it's that Malvo senses weakness in people or stupidity or whatever. He's got this sort of animal instinct, and he just smells people out. I think a lot of times, especially in these days and times when the world's going crazy, we're frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit. So maybe, through Malvo, you get a chance to slap someone around a little." 

"I look at Malvo's sense of humor as his only recreation," Thornton continued. "For Malvo to mess with people the way he does -- which he doesn't have to. He could just leave or use them for whatever he's using them for, but he still has to mess with them some. I think for him that's his recreation. It's his only social contact. So screwing with people for Malvo is kind of like jet skiing for most people."

"You can still make a great independent film, but you're not guaranteed anybody will ever see it because nobody takes that much interest in putting it out."

Fargo

"The fact of the matter is, and we have to face this, that baby boomers in particular really have to look to television now," Thornton said. "Not only the performers and the writers and everything, but the audience. When I was coming up, [television] was a bad word, and now it has a cache and actors are clamoring to get on television because it's a place we can do the things we were doing in movies. There's a spot that television is filling that the movie business is not, which is the medium budget studio movies. The $25-30 million adult dramas or adult comedies. And the higher budget independent films, you know, the $10 million, $12 million independent films. You can still make a great independent film, but you're not guaranteed anybody will ever see it because nobody takes that much interest in putting it out, you know, putting money into distributing it. [...] On TV, you even have more creative freedom now, and I think part of that is because censorship has loosened up over the years and now you have sex and violence and language and stuff on TV. So now all those things that made you not want to do TV when I was coming up in the '80s are gone. So there's no reason not to. I have to face it. That's my audience now. All the guys my age, all of us that came up together, some of us even born in the same year, Costner, Bill Paxton, Dennis Quaid , and Kevin Bacon -- our audience watches television. [...] There are independent films that pop through every now and then, and there are some great studio movies that come through every now and then, but it's the exception rather than the rule now."

Freeman was less declarative in his comments regarding the changing worlds of film and television. "I don't really see a big difference ostensibly between film and TV because I think my job is basically the same," Freeman said. "You know, my job is to work with the camera and, you know, focus your performance for a camera. Whether that's for a film or TV, I think -- especially these days -- is kind of immaterial because as the best television gets what we call filmic and the best writing -- I think we can acknowledge for 10 years has been on television -- I think there's much less of a differentiation now then there was 20 or 30 years ago."

"I think both of us had to shed some real life stuff in order to play the characters."

On the dynamic between Thornton and Freeman:

"[Malvo] has an abundance of confidence," Thornton said. "I don't think he ever considers losing. Whereas Lester is a nervous ball of mess. I do like when you see two characters at the opposite end of the spectrum together. They end up kind of strange bedfellows. It was a really interesting dynamic. We didn't really have to work on it. It just naturally happened. Martin himself seems to be a very confident person, so I think maybe he had to downgrade his confidence a little. And me, by nature, I'm a very nervous, worrisome person so I had to drop that a little. So I think both of us had to shed some real life stuff in order to play the characters."

"I did work with Billy," Freeman added. "[But] not as much as I would have wanted, because the first thing I shot with him was the scene in the emergency room, and it was just a pleasure from the get go. Sitting there doing it with a fantastic actor I've long admired was an absolute joy, and he's a real pleasure as a man as well. I think both of us -- I think I'm right in saying both of us -- wanted to do more of it together because it just instantly clicked. It was very, very easy. We had a good chemistry together, I think. It certainly felt that way."

Freeman's advice to actors: don't go "playing the result and not the game."

The actor, who's now been a part of more fan-cherished shows and movie than just about anyone, took a moment to caution young actors about the business they're so eager to join. "I think the mistake is playing the result and not the game," Freeman said. "I don't think you can think too far ahead in terms of a glowing, glittering career. You just have to be in it for the reasons of loving it. You're going to have to be prepared to never pay the rent and possibly be out of work for a year, which by anyone's standards is hard going on the wallet and the psyche. If you don't love it, you better not do it. That's the only thing I could really advise. Read, be interested, be interesting, take an interest in history, politics, people, yourself, and learn your lines."

This article is related to: Fargo, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Interviews, Television, FX, FX