What was it that attracted you to Fargo?
To be honest, I hadn’t watched the first season: why make a TV series after something as amazing as the film? And my kids all kept saying “No, no, no, no, no, you’ve gotta watch this!” And I continued to resist, for some reason. But then, towards the last month of doing CSI last year, there was some interest, or an offer, or something, and so I immediately devoured the whole thing in about two days. Halfway into the first episode I was just totally hooked by the characters, the writing, the acting. The whole mood of it was so fascinating to me, and it definitely captured the spirit of the Coens, and then just took off on its own track. So I became a huge fan. Then I had a phone call with Noah Hawley, the writer, and it was all very mysterious. The part wasn’t that large when I read it, and I kept saying “Gee, is there enough for me to sink my teeth into?” but he remained very mysterious.
You play Sheriff Hank Larsson. What can you tell us about him?
In a way it’s a prequel to the first season. In this series, Molly, who was played by Alison Tollman in the first series, is my four-year-old granddaughter. I’m a World War II vet, and my daughter has married a State Trooper, who’s also a Vitenam vet, played by Patrick Wilson, who is a younger version of the character played by Keith Carradine in the first season.
Any hints as to the storyline?
The story is about these two innocents in town, well, they’re kind of idiots. They start a ball rolling, by some unfortunate coincidence, that brings these two rival crime families together. It soon escalates and becomes a turf war, with the two innocents caught in the middle. The law enforcement family, made up of myself and my son-in-law, then get involved. All of a sudden, things in town have gone from one murder every six years to bodies falling from trees. There’s also some social commentary in there. The whole series is just delightful. In the first episode, something so startling happens in the first five or ten minutes, and yet you’ve completely forgotten about it by the end of the episode.
Is Minnesota a part of the US that you know well?
No, not at all. And the dialect was daunting when I first started working on it. But we had this wonderful actor who is a great dialect coach, who lived up in Calgary, which is where we shot the series. He worked with me for a couple of weeks beforehand. Then every day he’d be on set for all of us. I worked with him probably more than I did with my fellow actors. He was a really great help. And what had at first been really scary in fact became my best friend, because the dialect has so much of the character of that world in it – an earnest “life is really hard, but we’re gonna show up” sort of approach. It’s a bit like that British stereotype of the stiff upper lip. This is like a countrified version of that. I kept saying that this was the closest I’ll ever get to doing a musical, because each syllable was studied by me. Every word that Noah wrote was important and fun.
How did you get on with the cold?
We lucked out. We had a couple of days of -15°f. But the year before it had been -40°f on occasion. We actually had to make snow for a few of the episodes. But after that we just played the weather as it came to us – we didn’t worry about it. In fact, the whole series has a different look this year. They used 1970s filters, so it has that rich feel, it’s saturated with colour. And the music has that 1970s muscular rock and the cars are all those 1970s muscular cars. I just think they did an amazing job. I should be leaving the praise to people who have aren’t actually in the series, but I was just tickled when I saw that first episode.
A lot of your scenes are with Patrick Wilson. How was that dynamic?
Wow, what a talented man he is. He and I both went to the same school, about 20 years apart. I was there in about ’68, he came about 20 years later. He’s quite the musical star, and he’s had three or four amazing Broadway shows. He’s so talented. He’s your basic family man who loves to act: he shows up, acts and goes home to his family. We were the old fuddy-duddies on the set – he’s the one person I could go out for dinner with and count on being home by 8:30pm.
Are you still learning, with every job you do?
Yeah. I’m pretty lucky. I really fell in love with the process of acting before I fell in love with the idea of being an actor as a career. For the longest time it didn’t matter to me if I was in an acting class or if I was being paid to act. I just loved the process. I’m now almost 68, and I still love going to work, because I love the process. Some projects are better than others, but I love showing up to work and acting. And yes, I do still feel like I’m learning. It’s not always the case, but ideally you’re starting back at zero, back at not knowing what you’re doing, with the excitement and fear of “where will this lead me”? If you are just doing what you did last time, you’re not going to be surprising and delighting and scaring yourself or the audience. Every time you step up in to a new part, you’re starting over again.
Looking back over your career so far, what are you most proud of? When were you most fulfilled?
I’m a little bit of a Pollyanna. I’m going to work today to do some CSI Cyber, which is a spin-off of CSI. And that’s a procedural, where the plot is the thing, it’s not so much about character –you have 45 minutes to tell your story. On Fargo, Noah Hawley had 10 hours to tell the story. It’s very cinematic. We spent a lot of time on the mood, on the visuals, without always having to use every second to drive the plot. So the character pieces – Damages, Bored to Death, Fargo – they’re delightful. But then again, ego-wise, two or three million people see cable shows, and hundreds of millions of people around the world see CSI, which is a procedural. So there’s pleasure in both, they’re apples and oranges. The challenge in the procedural is trying to make it real, trying to make it believable, trying to drive the plot, and at the same time have some sense of character. So it’s a whole different exercise. But of course, I have to pay homage to the reason we’re talking now – Cheers. Clearly, that was certainly character-driven. And that is the reason I have a career at all. The success of Cheers.
You have a beard in Fargo. Were you tempted to keep it? Did Mary [wife Mary Steenburgen] have strong feelings about that?
We both went “Looks good, feels like crap!” The day after we finished shooting, I called Noah and said “Am I through completely? No reshoots?” And he said “No reshoots!” I was standing over the sink, with a razor in my hand – I couldn’t wait to get rid of it. I liked how it looked, but it was like trying to kiss through a burlap sack.
What would you say to fans of the first series? What can they start to get excited about regarding season 2?
It has that same Fargo tone, but it’s also completely different. It has the same thing – “How can I be smiling and grimacing at the same time through all the violence?” You still get to know the characters so well because of the leisurely pace. But you really get stuck into a different world – you really do time-travel back to the late 70s. And it does really have a unique voice.
Fargo returns to Channel 4 on Monday 19th October at 10pm on Channel 4