Interview: Jordan Peele on bringing ‘Key and Peele’ chemistry to ‘Fargo’

06.03.14 3 years ago 2 Comments


One of the things FX's “Fargo” does best — and it does many things well — is taking disparate elements that, from the outside, don't seem like they ought to mesh and then folding them into the batter so fluidly that you can't believe you ever questioned their compatibility in the first place.

In this respect, “Fargo” is an expertly made frittata, somehow light and fluffy despite a seeming surplus of ingredients. 

The ingredients added most recently were Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, known to Comedy Central fans as Key & Peele. Peele and Key made their first appearance in last week's “Fargo” playing FBI agents Pepper and Budge, introduced sitting in a car outside of an office building that is soon to become the scene of a major massacre. Yes, the character names made me thing of East-West Bowl. Yes, I briefly flashed to other skits from their repertoire — “Soul Food,” their “Wire” parody — but that flash was ever-so-brief. In no time, Peele and Key were just part of the “Fargo” universe.

The process of integrating Budge and Pepper into the “Fargo” world continues in this Tuesday's episode, as we see the career ramifications from what Lorne Malvo did under their watch. 

I'm spoiling nothing when I say that this week's “Fargo” would be a good one to watch live.

With Key otherwise indisposed, I got on the phone this week with Jordan Peele to discuss how this paired role came about, their initial reservations and why “Fargo” is such a fertile space for acting experiments.

Check out the full Q&A…

HitFix: I guess the first question is sort of the obvious one. How did this come to you guys and was it sort of always as a package deal?

Jordan Peele: Yes it was. I think there was a moment where it was unclear whether Keegan could do it, scheduling-wise, but they came to us — we share a manager — they came to us as a package deal and I think my first gut reaction was — Keegan and my first gut reaction — was, first of all, just how cool is that? We're such big fans of “Fargo” and the Coen Brothers. We just had a lot of faith in the project but our fears, if any, were, “Is the presence of the pre-existing team going to disrupt whatever flow or the world of this show?” Are people who know our work all of a sudden going to be taken out of it and picturing our East-West Bowl characters, our football characters, at a time when they're supposed to be digesting the noir. So ultimately I don't think there was any point we were going to pass on it, but it did take a little bit of faith that the show was in the right hands of somebody who wasn't just a “Key & Peele” fan, so they wanted to throw us in there. And it turns out Noah Hawley is a guy, he's real sort of mastermind and it just a good move to trust him, because the place that seems impossible in making a “Fargo” show is exactly what he has his finger on the pulse of, which is maintaining that tonal balance, that Coen Brothers tonal balance really.

HitFix: Now, you guys got cast in February, where they able to actually send you the pilot of the show to sort of see what that tonal balance was and what it like?

Jordan Peele: We were sent a sort of sample size as to what we would be doing. I can't remember if it ended up being dialogue that actually made it into the show. I think some of it was. But just getting a little piece of the puzzle, you really couldn't see very much as to what the quality, the overall quality, was. It's much more dialed down, of course, comedically than anything we do on our show. One scene we looked at probably to of us just kind of read like a very straightforward, not too comedic scene. And then of course as we got to Calgary and we were already committed, we got the first two episodes we were in and then even a couple weeks later, when we were into it already, we got the second two scripts. And of course when you look at the entire piece, the comedy comes out and the real genius of the meticulous construction of the plot really comes through. After getting those samples, I think it was still a little bit of a leap of faith that it was in good hands, but it turned out to be, I think, in better hands then either of us where expecting.

HitFix: When you saw sort of the dialogue, and as you say, it was less comedic then what you guys were accustomed to doing together, was that sort of a draw, was that an allure or did you want it to become more comedic to fit into stuff that you felt more sort of comfortable doing?

Jordan Peele: I think if it was any more comedic we would have been resistant against the doing it. My biggest fear is that all of us sudden we're in “Fargo” and we're going for a different style of laughter and people who have come to appreciate this show that has a lot of integrity, both comedic and dramatic, are just taken out of the world. So to me, I know if you give Keegan and I a dramatic script we'll always be able to make something funny or bring comedy to something. In other words there was no fear in not getting laughs, for a change. And to me it was a real fascinating little, I mean I don't want to say “experiment,” but in a way there was an element of uncharted territory in, “OK, let's see what happens when you're watching 'Key & Peele' and you're waiting for that ridiculous game to kick in, but it doesn't happen in that same way.” And in fact we're a part of this bigger thing, just a very small part of this bigger world. Can we make that happen? So I think the short answer is it was absolutely a draw and probably a necessity that it wasn't too broad.

HitFix: Well, you sort of a mention that this was kinda an experiment for you guys. And one of the things that I love about “Fargo” is that there are a lot of people doing similar variations on that experiment. So you have Bob Odenkirk and he's doing something kind of like that. You have Martin Freeman who comes from a very different background, Billy Bob from a very different background. What do you think it sort of says about the show that it's able to create this environment where so many people can experiment I guess so comfortably?

Jordan Peele: That's a really good observation. I would say that one thing it means is that the subject matter and the movie it's based on is that it's close to a lot of people that were drawn to the project. And I think it also speaks to the tone of the Coen Brothers that Noah Hawley adopted and did just a wonderful clone of is a very, very rare tone that it is very hard to get experience doing. I think there's very few people who… You have to have been in a Coen brothers movie to have staked out what your little piece of that pie looks like. Now of course Billy was, he was in “The Man Who Wasn't There,” is that what it was called?

HitFix: Yup.

Jordan Peele: Which I guess kind of has a similar tone to his pensive,] sort of brooding that we have in “Fargo”. But yeah, it seems to me that just upon hearing that this is going to be attempted, it's something that a lot of people are up for. If you look at all the people that are in it, everybody is somebody that in someway straddles the dramatic and the comedic. So there is this innate Coen Brothers-ness to all of these actors. Bob of course, being the comic relief on “Breaking Bad” and Martin being on “The Office,” which is the funniest show of all time but it plays just so grounded. And then Billy who's an Academy Award nominated actor who was also in “Bad Santa.” So yeah, it says to me that it takes a very, very specific type of person to go off this tone or attempt it.

HitFix: You guys are aficionados of funny and evocative names. What were you instantly able to get from Budge and Pepper?

Jordan Peele: [Chuckles.] Yeah. I think the name work in the entire show is great. Budge and Pepper, I have to admit I assumed I was Budge and Keegan was Pepper, just based off of the names. In fact it took me probably a couple days into shooting before I realized, “Oh no, the pudgy one isn't Budge and the peppy one isn't Pepper.” But yeah, I actually secretly wonder was there any actual reference to our name work with those names. Yeah, I've gotten comments from more than you that that's sort of a perfect way for us to enter this universe.

HitFix: I also get the impression that these two characters have been partnered together for a long, long time. How are you guys able to bring your own natural working rapport and relationships into the character dynamic here?

Jordan Peele: I've got to think that that was a big part of why we were cast, is that we are already partners. What happened when we got there is we instantly started to evolve the characters with Noah when we got there. So the first scene we shot was that scene Episode 7 where Malvo passes us and he shoots up the Syndicate building. And the last take of that shot Noah had us improvise, to essentially break us down a little bit and get us into a more conversational play. And that first conversation kind of existed as it is. And then we went off an improvised a little bit. And I think Noah ended up sort of taking or continuing to push this script in the future episodes into this dynamic that we were finding, which felt very natural to us. 

Keegan and I joked that the characters Pepper and Budge feel kind of like an extension of our actual personalities. And it got to the point where any time before we'd get on camera, we would be in character and improvise some version of the conversation of Pepper telling Budge, “alright man so this you got to let me do the talking. You got to just to let me take care of this because when you talk it doesn't – you go off the rails.” And he goes, “Yeah, fine. Of course, you do the talking. I know, I know.” And then of course the scene starts and he immediately will interrupt my character and go off on one of his sort of philosophical diatribes or over-talk something. So I think that little dynamic of the little pre-scene before we get on, that's something we'll do on our show as well. The moment that happens right before the actual scene starts is fresh in our minds.

HitFix: Does doing sort of a pre-scene improvisation, does that sort of get that creative part of your process out of the way so that you can then do the scene as scripted when you're actually in it?

Jordan Peele: No, it's more for those little things that we would have forgotten to do. So for instance, if he starts talking, if we're in a scene and I start telling somebody some of the evidence that we've uncovered and then Keegan has a line, you know, without that little preamble for us it would just be line, line, line, line. But because we've done this little thing, there will be a little moment of my character looking at him and it just looks like they've had this conversation before. So it really just adds a quiet layer that really just for anything else, I think it just helps ground the interaction so you know it's not a couple of guys coming on doing their lines and getting off, but you go, “Oh God these guys have a story we're not seeing as well.”

“Fargo” airs on Tuesday nights on FX.

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