There’s not much snow on the ground in April in Calgary, but “Fargo” rolled with it. Substituting Canada for midwest America is one of the very few compromises that the FX drama makes. Now entering its second season, the series inspired by the classic Coen Brothers film has become a pitch-perfect example of how to take a tone and build a franchise; something that everyone involved is quite conscious of. (And, in some cases, nervous about screwing up.)
During a visit to the set, while the second season was still in production, Indiewire spoke with key cast members Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Jeffrey Donovan, Ann Cusack and Cristin Milioti, as well as showrunner Noah Hawley. Below, they reveal what it’s like to become a part of the world of “Fargo,” from the violence to the humor to the accents.
How They Got the Job
NOAH HAWLEY [showrunner]: It’s a large ensemble, even more so than last year. There are some major players in a very big story, so you can’t really measure their importance by the page count per hour. Sometimes, a character in an hour is going to have less to do than another character in an hour, so you need to get on the phone and say “Here’s where you’re going and here’s the journey that you’re on,” and just feel them out.
Sometimes you’ll say an offer is subject to a meeting or a conversation, and that’s as much for them as it is for you. I knew that Patrick Wilson was the guy for the role, but I had a couple of conversations with him. Part of that is actors who aren’t used to working in television. You’re trying to tell them what the role is. They’re used to reading the whole story but you’ve given them one or two hours of it. Then you have to explain to them where it goes and what their character does.
JEFFREY DONOVAN [“Dodd Gerhardt”]: When I was watching it, there wasn’t a second season yet. And no one talked about a second season. And then once I finished the show, I think it was like two weeks later, I got a call that was like, “Noah wants to Skype with you.” I was like, “Noah Hawley? Okay…” And we got on the Skype and talked for like an hour and chatted about the show and what “Burn Notice” was like. I didn’t know that he was a fan of mine from a series I did ten years ago called “‘Touching Evil.'” It was my very first series, and it was in Vancouver. And he goes, “I’ve been a fan of yours since ‘Touching Evil.'” And I was like, “‘Touching Evil?'” So we talked about that and that role and how I created that character. When we got off the phone, I got the offer to play Dodd.
HAWLEY: I Skyped with Jeffrey Donovan originally. He had come off the lead of “Burn Notice,” and I got on Skype with him not really knowing him as an actor and not knowing where I necessarily wanted him. And the more time I spent with him, I just had this instinct that he could play the oldest son in this crime family. On many levels, you would consider him a villain, but really he’s just a powerful, bullish character. That was something I wouldn’t have offered him unless I’d spent that time with him.
DONOVAN: I actually asked Noah why he cast me as Dodd and he said, “I don’t know. You just come off with a sense of power. I think Dodd comes off with a sense of power, and I thought that you have the chops to find the humor in it.” To play a heavy with humor is difficult.
KIRSTEN DUNST [“Peggy Blomquist”]: I rewatched “Fargo” the movie, and obviously I’d seen the show and had read two of the [new] scripts before I did it. But it was such a great role, even those two scripts, it was just, “Where is this character going, and this is going to be so much fun to play.”
CRISTIN MILIOTI [“Betsy Solverson”]: He called me to play Betsy and we had a long talk and he sort of explained who this woman was. There weren’t a lot of scripts at the time so I had a lot of questions and we spoke on the phone one night for about an hour. And he really sold me on it, and then I watched the show. I hadn’t seen the show before the call, and I think if I had seen it, I would have been too scared to even ask questions. So that was good. I watched it in two days. The minute I got off the phone with him I was like, “I’m going to do it.” It just like absolutely had me on board, and then I had the bonus of watching it on the show and I was like, “oh, this is the best thing ever.”
HAWLEY: Sometimes you know more specifically where someone will fit in a role. Nick Offerman, I thought of him for this role and we sat down together and as written in the first two hours he was just local color. I said to him, “No, I have a plan for you in the story.” It’s just about feeling people out and getting a sense of chemistry.
MILIOTI: One of the main things that sold me on it was how he kept talking about the role of Molly [played by Alison Tolman in Season 1]. He kept talking about it as this strong woman along the lines of Marge Gunderson, and the film is among my favorite films of all time. That character of Marge is one of my favorite characters of all time. And he was talking about the strong woman. And how he wanted this character to be a strong, intelligent tough woman. Regardless of time period, regardless of region, and that also really spoke to me. That’s so important and rare, in terms of roles for women.
How to Make Drama Funny
TED DANSON [“Hank Larsson”]: Just play the drama. Be earnest. Play the seriousness and the earnestness of what you’re saying — which is sometimes not the smartest thing in the world to be saying — and you come across as funny. You don’t have to play anything funny around here. You just have to play it with a great deal of earnestness. We’re not telling jokes. The humor is on the page. It got written for us.
PATRICK WILSON [“Lou Solverson”]: Being a theater guy long before I did movies, I always sort of feel like the play is the thing. It’s my job to tell the story. I don’t try to rock the boat because I know that Noah’s got a good handle on the tone. That being said, there are certain moments where you think, “I could hit this comedically, do you want me to play it off, do you want me to hit the joke?” And honestly, I just like to give a variety. If I do three takes one way, I’ll just say, “you know what, let me hit it this way.” Just so that, if they get in there, and they think, “he’s being too funny, or not funny enough,” that can sort of work. I just think you have to understand the tone.
DONOVAN: I was surprised, not because I was trying to play any humor, but I’ve gotten a lot of laughs in my role. And it’s not laughs like, that was a funny joke. It’s more like you laugh at him because you know how stupid he is. There’s a scene where I’m trying to give my daughter advice, and it is probably the worst advice a father could ever give his daughter, and wait until you hear it.
This is Ted Danson’s First Beard
DANSON: Noah, when we first talked, said, “Would you grow a beard?” So I grew a beard, which I’d never had. And I immediately go, “Woah, I don’t even quite recognize myself in the mirror, so maybe I don’t have to be the way I’ve always been.” There’s a liberating, mask-like thing about changing your look.
I’m kind of hung up on the fact that you’ve never grown a beard before.
DANSON: I’m not crazy about beards.
DANSON: No. It’s like wearing a burka, a prickly burka. You have to kiss very carefully. It’s not that much fun.
So the beard’s going as soon as the show’s done?
DANSON: The beard’s going. Oof.
“I Thought I’d Get to Kill More People”
ANN CUSACK [“The Judge”]: I’m a total pacifist, and I’m all about the peace movement, but this is my one thing. Anytime I get to do any kind of stage combat, or get shot, I get so excited.
DONOVAN: I asked my wife why she likes watching the Kardashians. I don’t. She says, “Because I have no drama in my life, I can watch it on screen and laugh at their drama.” And that elevates you because then you go, “I’m detached from that drama.” And I think in some ways when we watch something and it’s difficult or uncomfortable and we laugh– I think it detaches us from that. We feel safe, but we can see something dangerous.
CUSACK: I know the way they set things up, they start the season with some kind of horrible death, massacre, craziness, and then it all spirals out from there. That’s sort of the genius of Noah and the writing: You don’t know how it’s going to unfold, and that’s really great.
WILSON: It’s a very “Fargo” thing. The weight that Bill Macy gives [the original film], trying to cut it off before it happens. That’s the whole struggle. They both believe in the good of humanity and they want their family to live in a world where it’s okay. It’s not just, “there are these heinous crimes happening in a small town,” I mean, that’s a given.
DUNST: I thought I’d get to kill more people, to be honest. I was a little disappointed with that.
“A Pedigree of Cinematic Gold”
DONOVAN: The first thing you have to remind yourself of is that this is a pedigree that is one of cinematic gold. It is a Coen brother tone, and there is no other Coen brothers tone. Only the Coen brothers invented it. And it’s a very specific tone that if you miss it, it’s parody or it’s farce. So you know that going in and you want to respect that. And there’s intricate things that you work on that are just boring to talk about and too long to talk about, but you want to adhere to that and be true to it. And you want to fulfill what Noah envisions for your character, so you do a lot of talking with him about it. And then finally, which is a credit to him, he lets you free. He says, “Show me who Dodd is.” And you open your mouth and you say your lines and he goes, [thumbs up]. And you go, “Really, you like it? Oh, my god, I can’t believe you like it.” And then you move and just wait for the call that you’re fired and it never comes. And then you know that you’re not sucking.
WILSON: Before I even got this, I’ve been really [laughs] watching a lot of Coen brothers movies, specifically “Fargo,” “Burn After Reading,” and “Lebowski.” I certainly know those movies like the back of my hand, which is awesome. I love those movies. I love this world. I’m very fascinated by trying to hit that tone.
DONOVAN: I was watching the first episode with a little doubt in my eye. I was like, no, they’re not going to do it. And then when Martin Freeman takes that ball-peen hammer and hits his wife square in the head, and she has this look of shock, and you think for one second that she’s going to yell at him. You think it’s gonna be “how dare you hit me like that?” and then you see this little trickle of blood. And then he sees it and he doesn’t say it, but he’s like “Holy fuck, I really just-.” I went, oh they did it. They brought humor to a murder all in one explosion of a moment in life. That’s so hard to do. I’m telling you, that is the impossible thing to do. And that’s when I knew this series was going to be great, and it was. From then on, I was hooked.
MILIOTI: I have such trust. This show is so good and written so well, there is this wonderful trust that comes up where it’s like, “well, they’ve got it.” Sometimes as an actor you have to do backflips to make things work. And you can sense it when it’s happening, you think like, ‘okay, I’ve got to sell this line, how do I sell this?’ And that never happens here. If we’re talking about me as a person, as Cristin, I mean I was intimidated. My first day on set was just like a blackout, panic attack. [laughs] But, you know I’m completely trustworthy of them and their vision.
DONOVAN: [The hardest part of the gig was] not letting Noah down. He went out there and took a swing for the fences in the first season. He tried to do the impossible, to make the Coen brothers a TV show for ten episodes. And then he did it and then everyone applauded him and everyone doubted him and still gave him awards. You just don’t want to walk in here and let him down because it is so good, what he did the first season. You just don’t want to let him down. That’s the challenge. The acting is what we do and the dialect is what you do and you try to find the humor, try to find the tone, that’s what you do as an actor. But to put it all together so that Noah goes thumbs up, that’s all you’re really hoping for.
WILSON: It’s wonderful for actors to chew over this material. I could sit and do a scene a 100 times, and find different things in it. I’ve never felt like I’ve done a scene and was like, “Great! There’s nothing more I can do.” If they will give me another take, I will take another one.
DONOVAN: I feel like I got invited to the all-star game and the first two all-star picks were sick and then I got to play. Because I look around and I’m like, god, look who’s on third base, look who’s pitching, look who’s on first, oh my god. I’m a bit of a geeky fan right now with Jean and Ted and Patrick and Jesse and Kirsten. You get over that shock hopefully quickly and then you just kind of delve in.
The Joys of the Accent
MILIOTI: That’s so fun. So much fun, I can’t stop doing it even in my real life.
DONOVAN: [Dodd] has one of the accents. It’s not Minnesota nice, that’s for sure. It’s more chewed up and spit you out Fargo. He and his daughter [Simone] have the thickest accents, so me and Rachel Heller. She’s a phenomenal Canadian actress. She plays my daughter, and we have the thickest because we’re the toughest of the Gerhardts. And the mom [Floyd, played by Jean Smart] has the least because she’s the most educated, and then Bear [Angus Sampson] is just kind of in the middle of just being intelligible.
DUNST: I had to get in the groove. I had done the accent before, for “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” which was way over the top for what we’re doing. But it’s not a hard accent for me to sink into. My grandma, she passed away, but she was from Minnesota, and she comes from a farm, with a family of ten. So it’s like, half my family is from Minnesota. So it’s in me kind of. I spent summers in Minnesota, and I’ve been out on the farm.
DANSON: You say the words over and over again and you go, “That’s interesting. Look at what I’m thinking about and talking about, look how I’m expressing myself.” And then you put on top of that the dialect, which is so specific and so interesting. Is it funny? It makes you stop and listen. And it’s very earnest and very sincere and very well-intentioned, just the dialect makes you feel that way. So you put all those together and then you try to be as good as the writing. And that’s kind of what you do. You just try to be as good as the writing. When writing is really good, it makes you try to go up to it, as opposed to pulling down to you. It makes you reach for whatever that is.