Interview: ‘Fargo’ co-star Adam Goldberg on ASL challenges and Calgary cold

In March, I was on the Calgary set of FX's “Fargo” and I got to talk to most of the show's main stars, including Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Keith Carradine, and Colin Hanks and Joey King. I also chatted with producers Noah Hawley and Warren Littlefield and, before the premiere, I interviewed Billy Bob Thornton as well.

The characters on the reimagined take on the Coen Brothers' Oscar winner are compelling and that gives everybody involved plenty to discuss, so I hope to keep checking off members of the eclectic cast plenty to talk about.

Up next? Adam Goldberg, who was introduced in the second episode as a fiery hitman whose name has never been given. Official FX literature says that Goldberg is Mr. Numbers, while Russell Harvard's character is Mr. Wrench. Apparently, we aren't going to learn anything more than that.

Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench are intriguing because they're dressed an awful lot like Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight's characters from the classic “Midnight Cowboy” and because all of their dialogue together is delivered in often passionately delivered ASL. Goldberg's character also gets to talk in frequently irritated bursts of speech, but Harvard only communicates in sign language. It's a unique partnership. 

Goldberg is a master of frequently irritated speech in films like “Dazed and Confused” and on the small screen on shows like “Friends” and in the Hawley-created brilliant-but-cancelled ABC drama “The Unusuals.” He's carried that over into his work as an indie writer-director, a gig that nearly prevented him from taking the “Fargo” role and reuniting with Hawley.

It's also a master of irritated speech in real life. The guy is NOT a fan of the cold weather in Calgary, it turns out. And he was really worried about his ability to do justice to the ASL dialogue. 

And it turns out that the “Midnight Cowboy” thing? Well, it wasn't a part of his thought process. 

Click through for my chat with Goldberg, which covers that terrain and more. And check out “Fargo” on FX on Tuesday nights.

HitFix: So you and Noah had obviously worked together on “The Unusuals,” which I thought was a terrific show even if it only lasted six episodes. Had you just sort of filed him away as someone you wanted to work with again?

Adam Goldberg: Well, I mean, definitely. I guess he went on to do another short-lived series after that but, you know, we kept in touch. I can”t remember whether I heard that they were doing a “Fargo” or whether I heard it was Noah first or if it was concurrent. But certainly the combination of the two was obviously a no-brainer. I mean, I say that but actually I struggled with whether or not I A) could technically do it and B) whether I felt able to do it given not just scheduling things, but I guess it was mainly scheduling things. I was directing a film so basically throughout “Fargo” I've been editing the movie. So I just struggled whether or not to, you know, I could actually do it I guess.

HitFix: Well was it Noah that pushed you over the edge? Was it the character or was it just…

Adam Goldberg: Well, initially it was a total sort-of contractual thing. I had a deal like a holdover from some pilot last year, so I was being held to the end of the year. So Noah had to make a bunch of phone calls in order to try and get me out of the deal so I could actually technically, legally do the show. And once that happened I was like, “Oh s***. Now I have to really decide whether or not I am gonna do it.” And that was an issue just because, you know, I was directing a film up until the Sunday before the, I don”t know, the Thursday or Wednesday or something then I shot that scene, the sort of the heavy sign language scene which is our first scene in the episode the other night. And I just really didn”t know if it was possible. I mean I was very obviously immersed in directing and acting in this movie of my own and because of all the ASL stuff, I just wasn”t sure that I could do it justice basically. So I was really struggling with that and then I decided to worth with Catherine MacKinnon, the ASL coach, during one of my Mondays off during my film shoot and to sort of test the waters. And I don”t know that anybody really knew this, but if it went horribly I was gonna maybe, you know, jump ship. The deal hadn”t been made yet, but again it was simply out of respect for the role and the show, you know? I desperately wanted to do it. But it went well and Noah really made a point of saying, “Look, if we can get used to this first day of work, you”re gonna have a couple of weeks off after that. You”ll have a little bit more time to prepare for the next scene.” But still, this film of mine, it has been gestating for years and this was, you know, sort of on the list of existential priorities. So then to try and figure out how to edit this movie, I am the editor on the movie but without an assistant and all that sort of thing, while I was in Calgary was another major consideration. But anyway, having said that, you know, the point is that I did jump through hoops to make it work, to do it, because it was such an appealing combination of both working with Noah and, you know, doing the show which was clearly, I think, gonna be really interesting.

HitFix: Talk to me a bit about the ASL and about that sort of first experience with it and then getting more comfortable with it as you went along.

Adam Goldberg: I was terrified. Do you know what I mean? I was genuinely scared. I”m not good with kind of tutorials. I”m inclined to absorb things quite easily but I have to trick myself into doing it, so far as it”s been even with editing. You know? Years ago when I first made my first film, I remember my editor at the time trying to show me how the Avid worked and I couldn”t…  don”t know if it”s ADD or what. It was the same when I was in school. I tested really poorly… And I remember my editor was sick one day and she left and I started editing as though I”d been editing for 20 years on an Avid. And I still have this thing with guitar and writing music and make records and that kind of thing. It was anytime anyone tried to teach me anything I couldn”t absorb it and then I started writing songs and records. 

So I thought well there”s no way this is gonna work. It”s like I”m gonna have to figure out a way to learn this without this tutorial. So yeah, the first meeting it was, first of all I was completely exhausted, out-of-my-mind tired. You know, basically I had a day-and-a-half off. And those days were spent largely prepping for the next day”s work. And Catherine comes over and of course she couldn”t have been nicer and she couldn”t have been more reassuring and then she kind of put Russell at some point on a Facetime call and he, too, was very generous. He really seemed genuinely heart-warmed that I was kind of tackling this and knew that it was sort of a scary proposition. But I mean I was completely tensed up. And she”s like, “OK, we”re gonna start with the alphabet.” I”m like, “Jesus f***ing Christ. I”m 43 years old. Am I really starting with an alphabet of anything?” And so, you know we did that and as the session wore on I started to realize it”s just not that terrifying because it”s fairly — it”s not necessarily intuitive in terms of like, “Well stroking your cheek obviously means 'hooker' — But it”s just that it”s more that it”s like dancing or playing music. It”s very similar to, I guess, those things. You know, you just have muscle memory and it becomes like a flow. But you do have to know what you”re saying. Like you can”t just sort of memorize the gestures without understanding what you”re saying. 

And so there were sort of two discussions we were always having. One was okay, you know, “What exactly am I going to do?” but two, there”s a variety of different ways to say the dialogue. And so sometimes Catherine would call Russell and Russell would call Catherine. Even they themselves would work on that. So it wasn”t just that she was sort of tutoring me. They were working together to figure out the best way to, like the three of us were responsible for coming up with ways of communicating the dialogue, because there aren”t necessarily…  There”s ASL, but there”s also slang within the ASL. That”s maybe what people are doing today as opposed what they were doing, I don”t know, 10 years ago in order to communicate some things. Noah writes a very specific way, so the dialogue is written, you know, it”s dry and it”s funny but it”s not always obviously easily translatable into ASL which really utilizes very few gestures oftentimes to communicate a complex idea. But anyway, after that session I thought, “OK, this might be all right.” And then after the second one I thought, “OK, I can definitely get through this first scene. And then after that I”ll just jump and hopefully he won”t write scenes that are insanely sign language heavy that concur with my editing schedule in a way that makes it really difficult to learn.” And then we would get together and invariably, again though I can absorb things rather quickly I also discard them quickly, so we would have to get together and then work the day before. But that”s really where the stuff starts to solidify, like any scene that you would do. I mean you can sit around and try to memorize your lines, which I actually never do in all truth. Generally I don”t look at, memorize my lines, before I go to work and then I do it by doing it in the rehearsal. And it”s sort of the same with this stuff. The steps are really locked down when Russell and I and Catherine we get to, you know, pick somebody”s hotel room and work on it the day before.

HitFix: And the “Midnight Cowboy” of it all. Is that in the script originally and how did that sort of inform how you and Russell played off of each other?

Adam Goldberg: I mean are you just talking about sort of visually?

HitFix: Just sortta… OK. You”re Ratso and Joe Buck up there so, you know, where does that come into play and then what do you do once you have that knowledge that that”s how those two guys look?

Adam Goldberg: It never came up, nor did it even occur to me until somebody said it the other day. Because I”m not playing… I don”t know that that”s on purpose to be honest with you. I mean, maybe. I have no idea. Maybe they were pulling a fast one on us. All I know is that he was dressed that way and I”m me so, you know… They wanted me to dress kind of a little bit like someone who”s not totally dressed for this completely inclement weather, who”s kind of a little slick. So more as a slick kind of mob guy, which obviously changes anyway once we get to the lake because I personally insisted that there was simply no way I could go out there in an overcoat and Italian shoes in minus-30 degree weather on a frozen lake. So I don”t know. I guess you”d have to ask Noah if that was somehow intentional.

HitFix: Huh. Okay, I sort of made the assumption that these were two characters who at least on a subconscious level had internalized that world in some way. But you say…

Adam Goldberg: Yeah I guess it looks like that. But I think the relationship is like an old married couple. I mean that was note, “You”re an old married couple.”

HitFix: Well how did you guys work together to set up that dynamic and that rapport that an old married couple would have?

Adam Goldberg: It”s just there. To be honest, I mean if that”s what you”re supposed to do, if that”s what”s in the writing then that”s what”s in the writing. I mean there”s really no work required. You know, Russell and I got along and that was really the main thing. It was easy to work with him.

HitFix: Now I talked with Billy Bob about his character and he said that he viewed Lorne sort of as a force of nature than as a guy with traditional motivations. Is your character sort of the same way?

Adam Goldberg: Yeah. I sorta felt like I wasn”t giving myself any real identifiable kind of places of origin, you know. And I didn”t even decide for myself what that was. I mean normally I would sort of say, “Oh, he”s from here and he ended up there” and, you know, we obviously made a decision I wasn”t gonna do an accent. And so yeah, we”re just these kind of mechanized, I felt a bit sort of a little bit like a machine, you know.

HitFix: Well, okay. In the four episodes I”ve seen he doesn”t have a name. He”s sort of listed as Mr. Numbers in certain places. Is that what the script says?

Adam Goldberg: Yeah, exactly. It sorta exists just so that we knew who would speak.

HitFix: Well in your mind do you know what this guy”s first name is?

Adam Goldberg: No. Again I didn”t come up with a name of that for myself. I think the less I knew about myself, the better.

HitFix: Well how well do you think that sort of lent itself to what you”ve been talking about earlier about how sort of you were doing all of these other things at the same time so you didn”t necessarily have the time to work up a backstory and all of those things.

Adam Goldberg: Oh, no, no. I mean I certainly could have. I mean, believe me, I had plenty of hours of procrastination in my hotel room. The point is is that when I first started out acting when I was… Jesus, when I really first started as a kid, not acting in movies or anything but just taking classes, I”m 14 or 15 years old and I would study Strasberg and all that. You know I was a very cerebral kind of actor and Method and all those kind of things. And as time wore on I realize my acting improved the less …  Personally, I tended to think my acting in “Dazed and Confused” was some of my worst acting ever and it”s ironic given that I”m playing sort of thinly veiled version of myself. But I tried so hard to create some kind of backstory for this guy that half the time that's in my head, rather than simply being in the moment.
In the case of something like that it made it difficult for me to come up with a place to always draw from because the character,  the way the character”s described is not initially is not really what ends up sort of panning out in the writing. I mean like Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, you know, I”m the talker, blah, blah, blah. You know this kind of maybe vague illusion of the Steve Buscemi character, but none of that actually played itself out. I mean, in fact, we”re equal parts muscle and brain. He does speak and he”s bigger but he”s speaking just as much in sign language and saying things that are just as funny or sarcastic or thoughtful. So sort of that went by the wayside. And once that went by the wayside, it was really this idea that we exist really solely like we were born at whatever age we are.  We exist solely to carry out this function. And it became a very, it felt very clean. I don”t know how to say it exactly but it felt very clean while I was performing it. It felt unmuddy to me. So that”s all I can really say about it.

HitFix: And you alluded to this earlier but I was on set in Calgary last month and everybody had a coldest day story and many of them mentioned being out on those lakes. Give me a favorite story for working out on those lakes in Calgary.

Adam Goldberg: Well there”s nothing “favorite” about it. [He laughs.] It was f***ing awful. When I finally got to meet Billy and we had a little scene together I said, “Just so you know, I don”t do well at this hour” — because it was six in the morning “or in this weather.” He goes, “Hey man, you don”t have to tread lightly with me” or something like that and goes, “This is fucking bullshit,” something along those lines. And I was like, “OK, good, a friend.” It was, yeah, it was f***ing awful. It was just awful. 

And, you know, that day on the lake I really… I mean the irony is that if someone were going to generalize about my career, they would pick a certain aspect of my career, I would guess, and kind of identify it as a sort of, you know, verbose, urban, New York Jew — although I”m really neither, -ish, kinda over — But I mean the truth of it is, you know, “The Unusuals” and a lot of what I”ve done on television in particular has been playing, murderers and cops, well a lot of cops. And I've always been in sort of inclement conditions and like running down the street at five in the morning. I was like, “What I would do to just have a scene where I am sitting down at a breakfast table complaining about something.” But so yeah, I don”t have the world”s greatest constitution. I get migraines. That place is terrible for migraines. I talked to the doctor in Calgary. She”s like, “Oh yeah, this is the headache capital of the world.” I go, “Perfect.” Because you get these winds, called the Chinook winds and those winds, although they tend to warm things up, create a kind of pressure that will then give you, if you”re prone to them a migraine. So you”re either freezing or you have a migraine.

When it was the lake day, yeah, I dreaded it. Looking at the forecast days and I knew what it was gonna be. And I believe it was colder than what I thought. Maybe minus-15 but, I remember looking in one of the vans that had a thermostat and it said it was minus-29 or something. So you get out of the car in that scene and I don't know how much screetime it is, 15 seconds but it takes you six hours to shoot it or something like that. And first of all you”re completely electric. It”s so dry that the electric shocks are like… I mean Billy was telling me a story at one point where he was stuck in an outfit in his hotel room. Because there was so much electricity he couldn”t get the f***ing thing off of him because there was so much pain. So you reach for the door handle, every time I touch any metal, you open the trunk to let the guy out and, “Jesus Christ!” And I”m supposed to be a tough guy. And, you know, your nose hairs immediately freeze. You feel like there”s no air in your lungs and my beard freezes within about 10 seconds. And then we”re dragging these fuckers halfway out in the middle of this lake and I mean if you watch the thing you see me, like I”m slowing way down. There's a close shot after I”ve had a little break and I”m like moving along and there”s the wide shot and man, I”m having a hard time. And I remember saying like, “I thought he was the brawn and I was the brains.” But it”s just a cold I never experienced. I”m sure plenty of people have. I hadn”t. I mean I had walking around town a little bit, taking pictures and sort of photo ops and that kind of thing, but not working for that long. And then actually my last day of work, my second-to-last last day, but my last scene. It was one of these days where it wasn”t supposed to be that cold but for some reason it was and I spent a lot of time in the actual snow itself with the snow sort of in contact with my bod. It was just awful. Just awful. I don”t know what else to say. So yeah, so it was just a lot of saying to yourself, “This is worth it, this is worth it, this is worth it.” Yeah, like that. That was my mantra.

HitFix: Just as a last question: What is the plan for the movie that you were editing on set? When is it gonna be ready? What are you gonna be doing with it? [The movie is “No Way Jose,” by the way.]

Adam Goldberg: Basically there”s a company that has a first look deal on it. It”s a very small independent movie that we made. But there”s a first look deal in place and they”re gonna take a look very shortly and they”ll make up their mind. The plan is probably that it goes to a festival. One way or the other it's festival movie, whether we”ll have distribution in place or whether we don”t. So I”m sort of just literally now in the next few days finishing up the editing process and then just moving on to the rest of it. But, I mean, you know, it”s like any independent film. So we”re finishing all this stuff up and then, you know, you”ve got to sell it.

“Fargo” airs Tuesday nights on FX.