He starts very much as someone who, as the stage directions say, would apologise to you if you trod on his foot. He’s someone who life has been happening to for most of his life. He’s very henpecked and easily pushed around. And then, through a series of events, the central one of which is meeting Billy Bob Thornton’s character Lorne Malvo, he finds more confidence – but not in ways that are always positive or recommended. He carves out a new niche for himself as someone who’s not going to be trampled on.
How familiar were you with the world of Fargo? Did you re-watch the 1996 film before production started?
No, I definitely didn’t re-watch it, purposely. I like the film, but I didn’t feel I wanted to be influenced by it. I wanted to play what was in the script. The tone of the tv show is set by Noah Hawley’s scripts, which obviously are influenced by the Coen brothers, and I always go on whatever script I’m working on at the time.
Fargo has a delicate balance between comedic moments and dark moments. How did you find it having to navigate your character between these areas of light and shade?
I think it’s always a challenge to do these things well without jarring – and that’s a challenge for the writing, directing and acting. I’m a big believer in the fact that human life contains everything anyway, I think those disparate impulses are pretty ever-present in all of us almost all of the time. The curtain between your comic self and your dark self is a thin one that’s quite permeable. As far as Lester is concerned, all these things exist within him so it’s just down to whatever he decides to let out. As an actor it’s about knowing what place you’re in and what scene you’re in. The world of Fargo is a heightened world, and much like the original film it’s not a “kitchen sink drama”. But you also have to attend to these differences and details without being ham-fisted about them. If the script is well written, which all of these 10 scripts are, that does a fantastic job of telling you which world you’re in. It’s fun playing these differences too. I’ve always loved playing complexity, where nothing is completely straightforward, and this is very much the situation with Lester Nygaard.
Lester Nygaard could, to some extent, be called an antihero. Do you think there’s a renaissance of the antihero on TV at the moment?
There is. The modern blueprint for it, I guess, is Tony Soprano. We give people titles such as “antihero”, but essentially they also have to be people you want to follow, and people that the audience are going to want to spend, in our case, 10 hours in the company of. They have to be relatable and likeable to a certain extent – like Walter White from Breaking Bad. I think people like the antihero at the moment because they’re demand something a bit more complex than just “goodies” and “baddies” in drama and I’m all for that. Artistically it’s a bit more interesting too, and as far as life is concerned, it’s a more instructive as nobody in the real world is either just a “goodie” or a “baddie”. And if good television is reflecting this more then I’m very happy.
How was your experience on set in Calgary?
I really loved it and had a thoroughly good time. The work was demanding and challenging, allowing you to flex your muscles as an actor. The crew were terrific too. The weather, though it didn’t feel kind to us as individuals, was kind to production as we needed snow and there was always snow on the ground the entire time we were filming. The Calgarians are pretty hardy people, for us in london a day at -10 degrees would be pretty cold but for them they were like “eh, whatever”. It doesn’t begin to register with them until it begins to reach -20 degrees.
And how was it working with the rest of the cast?
The bulk of my time was spent with Allison Tolman I guess. She is a revelation. Fargo is her first major part for tv and she is fantastic. I think she’s going to delight and surprise a lot of people. I’ve long loved Billy Bob Thornton as an actor and he didn’t disappoint. He was really good fun and also very professional. I really liked him as a bloke as well – he’s a good guy to hang out with and talk to. On screen he’s got a fantastic, still presence – he doesn’t have to do a lot to convey what he’s thinking and he brings with him this amazing brooding presence. He plays menace brilliantly.
You have a great Minnesota accent, how did you go about perfecting that?
I never felt like I perfected it, but it was a case of working on it daily with a voice coach and staying in that accent from the moment I was picked up in the morning to the time filming wrapped at night. It requires work if you want to do it well and not be the only Englishman in the cast ruining it. You’ve really go to apply yourself, so I did. I watched a couple of guys on Youtube as well actually. It was just them talking, so I should probably thank them as well. If I was off for a few days and needed an instant route back into the accent, I’d just watch these guys and the accent came straight back.
How do you hope the UK audience will respond to Fargo?
I hope they really like it. I signed on to the project on the strength of the first script, which I thought was ace, and they just kept getting better. They’re real page-turners. I’m really hopeful that people will like the show – it’s a very strong cast, beautifully shot and fantastically written. I’m very hopeful, and quietly confident the uk will like it.