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Cast Members Of The First Season Of ‘Fargo’ Reflect On Their Colorful, Despicable, Charming Characters

More than 40 characters were killed in the first season of FX’s critically acclaimed Fargo, which amounts to roughly four per episode. Of course, if you’re the type of TV viewer who’s a little more concerned with the bloody specifics, then it’s worth noting 22 of those murders took place just in Lorne Malvo’s insane and vaguely-executed rampage scene in “Who Shaves the Barber?” so it’s not like Noah Hawley’s characters were croaking left and right. But when they were shot, stabbed, sliced, drowned, and (in poor Don Chumph’s case) carved with more holes than all of the cheese in Switzerland, almost all of the colorful weirdos, losers, and psychopaths of Fargo went out in ways that seemed gratifying, if not entirely fitting.

The first season of Fargo somehow managed to be both dark and charming, allowing us to follow the cold, calculating, and manipulative monster Lorne Malvo as he left a trail of bodies and ruined Lester Nygaard’s anything-but-perfect life in the process. The second season travels back to 1979 to tell the story of Molly’s father and a Sioux Falls massacre referenced a few times in the first season; it goes without saying that the bar has already been set very high for the types of creative characters we expect young Lou Solverson to meet in season two.

To better understand the mindsets of these weird and wonderful characters, we spoke to some of the actors who played them in the first season.

Kevin O’Grady – The “Complete Asshole” Sam Hess

“Not everyone was able to audition for Fargo,” Kevin O’Grady tells us. “It’s a special thing.” But even if everyone could have auditioned for this series, would any of them have played the role of Sam Hess as well as Kevin did? Could anyone have captured that stereotypical, yet oh-so-real grown bully character the way that he did, making it seem like he was actually picking on Martin Freeman and not the character Lester Nygaard? Thankfully, we’ll never know. Along with the two boys who played his idiot sons, the actor helped set the tone for the first season — really bad things were going to happen to really bad people.

O’Grady’s initial response to the script was pretty simple: “Holy fuck, this is good.” The actor considers himself a “massive Coen brothers fan,” so he was obviously aware of how huge an undertaking it was for Hawley to be creating a series based on the Academy Award-winning film. But he had a good feeling about it when he read the script and learned who his character really was.

“I was totally blown away to where I was actually laughing out loud,” he says, “and normally I don’t laugh out loud at things. Normally I go, chuckle chuckle, but there were a few lines that I did… ‘You pencil dick’ [laughs]. I love that line, it still makes me laugh. When it’s that well-written it’s just so easy to just do it. Everything that you saw was what was written. There was nothing changed. It was so beautiful. It was amazing. And then to have Martin Freeman there, you’re just like, ‘Hi!’ [laughs] ‘So, the Hobbit movies…’”

O’Grady filmed his scenes in the cold of Calgary in November, but he had to wait until April to watch the finished product with the rest of us. While he clearly knew the fate of Sam Hess, the rest of the series was a mystery to O’Grady, but he certainly shared our collective opinion of Sam when we met him in the debut episode, “The Crocodile’s Dilemma.” Simply put: “That guy should die!”

“I was just like, holy fuck, what an asshole. That guy’s a real prick,” O’Grady says of watching his performance for the first time. “Obviously I would have loved to keep going. A lot of people liked my character so they would have liked to see me go on, maybe get tortured a little bit or something. But definitely I needed to die. I get it. There had to be something. But what I can take pride in is my character was the whole catalyst that made the whole thing go.”

Beyond that catalyst, O’Grady watched the rest of the season as clueless to the rest of the characters’ fates as we were. He says that every last story detail was kept under wrap, and as a fan he actually preferred that. “I didn’t want to know.”

Sam met his end in the back room of a strip club, where he was having sex with one of the dancers, Paprika, before Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo arrived and put a knife in the back of his head. The scene was a little more intense and complicated than O’Grady was used to. After all, he had to make it look like he was having sex with a stripper, and that meant that everyone on the set would be watching his every thrust and grunt. Fortunately, Thornton had a little experience in on-screen intercourse and was able to offer some wisdom.

“That was a very unique scene,” O’Grady laughs. “That was one where I didn’t know how it was going to go. I knew I was going to die, I just didn’t think about it. It’s coming – no pun intended – and I’m just going to do it. I’m going to show up, strip down, and screw this woman with all the cast right here in the back and have Billy Bob Thornton literally right behind me. There’s obviously nothing sexual about it at all. And I was on plywood so my knees were killing me. So movie magic, right? Billy Bob’s there so, of course, I have to make some joke because it’s ridiculous. Billy Bob standing beside me with my ass and he’s so cool. He’s like, ‘Trust me, when I shot Monster’s Ball, it was all out. Everything.’ I was like, ‘Alright, you got me there, Bob.’ [laughs]. Because it was Halle Berry, a little different.”

Sam’s awfulness was also elevated by his hilariously moronic sons, Mickey and Moe, played by Atticus Mitchell and Liam Green, respectively. Both actors cut their teeth on kids’ series, with Mitchell starring in My Babysitter’s a Vampire and Green appearing on Degrassi: The Next Generation. O’Grady says that the producers went through a lot of child actors when trying to find just the right kids to play the Hess sons, and while he didn’t audition with anyone, let alone any child actors, the actor knew it was a perfect fit as soon as they arrived on set.

“They add to that scene so well because they are so stupid. One of the crew said to [Mitchell] right after our scene, ‘I don’t think I’ve seen anyone so stupid in my life, very well done.’ [laughs]. I think that’s a great compliment. He’s actually an incredibly smart kid. He plays five different instruments, he speaks X amount of languages, he goes to Africa and teaches kids to play music. This is a very well-versed young guy.”

As for the end of the first season of Fargo, O’Grady enjoys the way that Lester finally went down. “Lester turned into me at the end. So beautiful, in a way.”

Kelly Holden Bashar – The Unhappy Wife Pearl Nygaard

The common bond of these actors seems to be an appreciation of the Coen brothers’ work. Like O’Grady, Kelly Holden Bashar was excited about working on a series based on the celebrated film, but she enjoyed that “it was going to be in the same world but yet a whole new story.” Mostly, though, she was excited about a change in pace. After all, her background was in comedy before she was offered the role of Pearl Nygaard, and she was used to playing “pretty likable, pleasant women.” Pearl was neither likable nor pleasant, but did she deserve to die? It’s an uncomfortable topic, to say the least, and Bashar definitely noticed that people were upset.

“It’s kind of lovely that people were so bothered by it,” she says. “A lot of the public hated Pearl and I saw a lot of stuff – luckily that wasn’t directed at me the actress – that I couldn’t help but catch online. ‘I’m so glad he killed her,’ [laughs]. I know it fulfilled a lot of people’s fantasies but there were also a lot of people who were very disturbed by it, it was very disturbing for a husband, for anyone, to do that.

In particular, the people close to the actress seemed to have the biggest problem with it. “My parents loved it and hated it,” she explains. “They loved that I was a part of it and it was exciting for them because a lot of people saw it and commented on it. But of course they were bothered by it, and I have a couple friends who told me they couldn’t watch it, that they just didn’t watch it, it was too upsetting. In fact, my agent couldn’t even watch it [laughs]. She watched everything up until then and was like, nope, can’t do the rest. To me it’s such an interesting scene because I know people who laughed when it happened, because it’s so shocking. We’re just having this marital argument and it feels like, no, oh yeah, you’re going to get me… and then he does. This sort of crazy laughter relief people have and then when he starts losing it, it’s very sobering very quickly that, oh, this is bad. They’re not going to go upstairs and finish their tomato soup [laughs].”

Bashar makes it clear that while she understands marital frustrations and the ability to draw on “times when we’ve been unhappy,” there’s little to nothing similar between her and Pearl. But she still felt bad for the bored and disappointed housewife. “Martin Freeman is a delight but Lester is not and I could see how a woman could get really over being married to him [laughs].” Adding, “Before he turns on her.”

The act of being killed on screen is one that Bashar says has been on her “actress bucket list,” and while this specific act was shocking, she enjoyed being the spark that sent Lester into his amazing downward spiral. “A lot of other things come into play, but it’s that moment that he chose to do what he does that is a jumping off point for him. That was exciting. Of course, I wish I could have been around longer. It would have been great to be in a few more episodes, because it was a really fun project to be a part of and everybody I worked with was awesome. That part of it, to be part of such a fun death and a death that was talked about so much, is pretty cool.”

The process of filming Pearl’s death scene was a cautious one, because Freeman actually had to hit her in the head with a hammer on the second strike. There was a small egg on the end of the hammer that contained some fake blood that splattered on impact, but before that moment they had to perfect that strangely hilarious and bloody reaction sequence.

“It was awesome, and it was tricky,” Bashar recalls. “Before I even got there we had to work for days on getting it just right. Noah Hawley definitely had a vision of how he wanted it to play and then Adam Bernstein, who’s fantastic and directed it, they knew they wanted that slow trickle down my face, so it was a lot to get that just right. I had this whole rigging system in my hair that went up through my hand and came out the back and was attached to this box on the floor, and we knew we had about two takes to do it. The very first time, it started to go early [laughs]. They’re like, ‘No!’ – running over to me with towels. It was really fun.”

What made that scene in “The Crocodile’s Dilemma” so bizarre was the man holding the hammer. It was just difficult getting used to an actor like Freeman – a guy who plays lovable characters like Dr. John Watson and Bilbo Baggins – turning into this deplorable murderer in a matter of seconds, but to Bashar that was just part of the fun. Interestingly, as the series continued, Bashar knew that people were pulling for Lester to make it out alive, believing that despite what he did to poor Pearl, he might not deserve to die.

And then he sent Linda Park into his office.

“That was a really fascinating journey to watch,” Bashar says. “As a fellow actor I was impressed with how he pulled it off. But it was all still shocking, the things he would do to set up his brother, how far he would go. It’s so wicked and devious and wonderful. And yet there was still a point where people are rooting for him until he knocked off the second Mrs. Nygaard. Then everyone’s like, no, Lester needs to die [laughs].”

Adam Goldberg – The Hitman Mr. Numbers

Adam Goldberg signed on for Fargo the moment that he heard Noah Hawley’s name. “Sight unseen I would have just been in it,” the actor says, citing his work as Det. Eric Delahoy on Hawley’s short-lived ABC series The Unusuals as his reason. But it also helped that Goldberg would be playing a hitman who used sign language, because “everything about it just sounded cool.” Mr. Numbers and his associate Mr. Wrench were certainly cool and surprisingly funny, as they arrived in Bemidji to find out who put a knife in Sam Hess’ head. They end up directly involved with Lorne’s murder spree and Lester’s meltdown, and it all culminates in the breathlessly intense blizzard shootout in “Buridan’s Ass.”

The first season of Fargo focused a lot on the dynamic of couples, be it Lester and Pearl, Lester and Lorne, or Lester and Sam, and Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench were arguably the most unique because of the way they communicated with each other in ASL. Working with a deaf actor like Russell Harvard required extra work for Goldberg. He worked with a teacher, Catherine MacKinnon, to make sure that he had his lines and especially the vernacular down so the interactions looked effortless and fluid. The result was a duo of killers that became fan favorites.

“There were people who just thought there was something really cuddly about the whole thing, which is so funny,” Goldberg says. “[Harvard] was very protective and helpful to me because I was very scared and nervous about doing this and butchering it. I would argue that, to a certain degree, it’s always a little bit intimidating to be a hearing impaired actor and be in a world that obviously is largely a hearing world, where there’s a lot of stuff going on. Necessarily, we became our characters because he taught me ASL, and repeat direction and all kinds of things like that. So we had to be close from the get-go. You could argue that maybe that translated.”

Goldberg and Harvard first met via Skype during the former’s ASL lessons and had little time to get acquainted before meeting on set. Hawley’s major direction for them was that they were an “old married couple,” and the whole situation came down to two hired guns who have been “doing this a million years and we’re sort of on each other’s nerves.” (Goldberg also acknowledges that he’s heard about some unique Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench fan fiction since then.) But it’s that old married couple vibe that was on full display once Mr. Wrench learned of his partner’s fate in that incredibly tense shootout, the kind of scene that Goldberg doesn’t necessarily enjoy shooting, but he knows that people love it.

“I’ve never been a huge fan of doing that stuff but people love that shit and the funny thing is I’ve done it a lot. Honestly, I’ve shot more guns and done more stunts, been killed more times than I can remember. So I’m not super jazzed when I see that. And the older I get the less jazzed I am. I think when I was younger I thought that stuff was cooler. Once you actually are doing it, it is kind of exhilarating, but I’m not like, oh great, we get to get a whole bunch of gun training, and oh great I get to shoot a bunch of blanks and we have to have a stunt rehearsal.”

A scene like that is ultimately fun and exciting to shoot, he says, because of the setting. “Fire is still shooting out of the front of [the gun] and there’s a big fake blizzard, so shit is flying all over the place and shit is getting in your eyes. It does make it all very real so you stop acting. There’s something about not acting that’s always fun, whether it’s in a scene like that or a dialogue scene. It’s when you’re in your head that it’s absolutely no fun acting.”

And then there’s the act of dying, being stabbed by Thornton’s character and firing his gun and hurling muffled insults as a last act of retaliation, before having his throat sliced. Again, it’s intense. But as anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan knows, it’s something that Goldberg has a little experience with. So, where does one rank against the other?

“My death scene in Saving Private Ryan to me was, in many ways, a highlight of my life,” he explains. “It was super challenging, it was exciting, it was arguably cathartic in some way. And I felt like, it’s a big death scene. It’s not just me. People talk to me about that scene a lot so that’s hard to top [laughs]. Both in its outcome and also in the actual process of doing that which is such an involved day of my life.”

“I don’t want that to remind people of the other one. I want to be able to differentiate my two reactions. But in this case, this was really technical. The Saving Private Ryan one was sort of technical, too. I had a prosthetic body, I was actually standing up and leaning back, it was a lot of illusions going into that scene. But once you’re in it you’re really, really in it and it was part of a day and it was very technical about having to expose my neck in a certain way. And I know it was very cold because I had to lie in the snow face down, and that was unbelievably unpleasant. To act like you’re dead, ultimately you know it’s going to be cut around in such a way that they’re not going to see you shivering and breathing and all that stuff. But that I remember being very technical and really difficult. It was almost like the death equivalent of a love scene.”

Goldberg says that he could have simply wrapped his character and asked Hawley what happens next in the series to save some time, but he wanted to be able to watch the series play out like us. Still, when it came time to watch “Buridan’s Ass” and his death scene, he couldn’t believe how insane the entire episode was, even beyond his shootout.

“The episode in which I die is an incredibly climatic episode and I remember thinking like, not just of my death but the entire episode tons of people were dying and it was incredibly operatic. And I was like, wow, it’s like a finale. What more could possibly happen? But then you had these primary characters, the antagonists, and in a weird way I feel like there was a reset button that was hit after that episode. It got a second wind in a way. But yeah, it was all very satisfactory for me. I’m not a big TV watcher but I was totally hooked. I’m definitely someone who gets hooked once I’m in. But this idea that you knew exactly how long it was going to go on, you get so immersed in something but you don’t really know where you are, so sometimes you feel like you’re treading water. Here you know it’s moving toward some sort of inevitability. There’s something exciting about that.”

Susan Park – The “Goo-Goo Ga-Ga” Girlfriend Linda Park

“I really didn’t know much,” Susan Park says of her character, the lovelorn Linda Park, who falls for the new and improved version of Lester one year after Lorne comes to town and changes everything. Of course, the show’s biggest secrets remained unknown until the scripts were in the actors’ hands, so Susan simply put bits and pieces together early on to help give her character the right kind of blissful ignorance.

“I was so smitten with Lester,” she explains, “and I had a huge crush on him from the beginning. And when he stands his ground against Gina Hess, Kate Walsh’s character, I think I just went goo-goo ga-ga. That’s what I played off of and then we got to find out more in the later episodes.”

The funny thing about Lester, as O’Grady pointed out, is how he goes from being this pathetic, spineless weasel – anything but a man – to the same person that Sam Hess was before Lorne stuck a knife in the back of his skull. It’s a perfect circle for such a loser. Linda, on the other hand, was only in the picture for a short time, so her realization that Lester might have been up to no good had to develop quickly, and that simply came from one specific emotion – hopeless, naïve love.

“She was just so in love with Lester,” Susan recalls. “There’s a scene where Molly comes and she’s asking a few questions, and I think she knows that something’s up and that Lester did something and that something happened in that elevator, but she buries that deep down inside because she’s so in love with him and she’s so happy with him. That’s just the place where the character operated from. She was happy in love with and she would rather just be in that place and be a little bit blind and play dumb.”

And as we all know, in Fargo dumb equals dead. Linda was probably one of the very few characters that didn’t deserve to die, and her death served more as a reminder that Lester hadn’t simply turned into the series’ biggest monster, he might have been the biggest monster all along. That’s why, when he knew that Lorne was waiting in his office to finish things once and for all, Lester had no problem sending Linda in as bait. He even gave her his jacket to seal her death sentence.

Did Susan know all along that poor Linda would be yet another number in Lorne’s body count? “A little bit because it’s Fargo,” she laughs. As for that mesmerizing scene, that had us waiting for Lorne to emerge from the shadows and put a bullet in the hood of that bulky orange jacket, Susan was on the side watching with us. A stunt double filled in for the shooting scene, but when it came time to lay on the floor “gooey with blood,” that was all Susan.

“It was pretty easy,” she says of the transformation to a corpse. “I didn’t really have to do much but I will say it was so cold. I had to go back and take a hot shower and thaw out for a half hour because it [lasted] hours. It was cold in Calgary, like lying on a block of ice for hours. So, it was fine, it was easy, but it was freezing.”

Susan considers herself lucky to have been a part of the “brilliant” Fargo, working with Hawley for a second time (she also appeared in The Unusuals). When the first season finally aired she watched every episode, excited to see the finished product and find out what happened to the other characters, or in her case the remaining characters. Her mom watched with her and, while she doesn’t speak English very well, she remarked that Thornton’s killer was “so icy cold.”

When it came to Lester finding his watery grave, Susan fittingly channels her blissfully ignorant character in wondering if he maybe didn’t have it coming. “Lester died a horrible death and he was so scared running away. I don’t want to say he got what he deserved but everybody’s a little bit fucked up in that world in their own way. Even my character. She covered for her husband and she would rather live in a blind bliss.”

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