The 1996 Coen brothers film “Fargo” made about $60 million at the box office — its production budget was $7 million — and won two Academy Awards, for best original screenplay and best actress for its star, Frances McDormand. Over the years, its cult status has become more and more entrenched. So much so that the film was used as the inspiration for FX’s just-concluded 10-part series using the same title, with the filmmakers’ blessing.
Joel and Ethan Coen acted as executive producers — the entire series was written by Noah Hawley — and the spirit of their iconic movie about a female Minnesota police chief investigating local homicides infused the series, which stars Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks and Allison Tolman.
Thornton plays hitman Lorne Malvo, the stranger who comes to the town of Bemidji, Minn., and wreaks unspeakable havoc and fear among the populace, beginning in the first few minutes and continuing through the bloody end.
He sat down with television reporters recently with the understanding that any discussion of the finale would not be revealed until after it aired.
Here is an edited version of the conversation:
Q: You could say that Malvo is as sinister as he is mysterious. You don’t know where he came from; you don’t know what he did before. Can you just talk about your approach in playing a guy like that, what his wants are? Can you give him a back story, and what do you think makes him tick?
Billy Bob Thornton: I think it’s probably the only character I’ve ever played, frankly, that has no conscience, but he has no back story in the story. So I chose to not think about that because Malvo, he’s an animal and animals are eating machines. I thought if I come up with a back story and it’s like his father locked him in a shed when he was little or something, that might cause too much emotion for the character. It might give me too many reasons to do things and I didn’t want to do that, so it’s the first time I’ve ever not had a back story, in my head or otherwise.
Malvo is all about he has a job to do and whatever he has to do to do it, that’s what he does and he has supreme confidence. He doesn’t think about failure and he’s not afraid of anything, and I was afraid that a back story might mess with that a little bit.
Q: Throughout the series Malvo has killed a lot of people and you’ve had a lot of shooting scenes and blood and all that to work with. Can you talk about the logistics of doing those kinds of scenes?
BBT: First of all I’ve been doing this for 30-something years, so you get used to it, although this time I’m the giver rather than the receiver most of the time, but we have really good technical people. The crew up there in Calgary was very good and the stunt people, everybody, they were really, really terrific, so we couldn’t have asked for more help.
What you want to do is you want to try to stay in a world of reality as much as possible, so you don’t try to ever think of it as fake blood or anything like that. You just want to stay inside the scene as if you’re really doing this stuff, and I guess that’s the main trick is just keeping your head on straight and never getting outside of the scene. It’s just like having a camera in front of you; you’re supposed to not know it’s there. And that’s why I never quite understood when actors don’t want someone in their eyeline because if you’re really in the scene, you’ve already got a camera operator, a boom guy, and a camera assistant and all these people in front of you. So I’ve never understood the difference between 5 or 6 people in front of you and 13 people in front of you. I think the main thing as an actor is you just have to try to ignore anything else and just do things as if you’re doing it.
Q: If Lester had walked away, do you think Malvo would have left him alone, or do you think he would eventually come after him anyway?
BBT: I think Malvo is kind of like a cat with a mouse. I’m not sure — I think the temptation would have probably been too great. I’m not sure he could have left him alone. It is, “Are you kidding me here? We are in the same place in Las Vegas; I’ve got to do something about this.” Plus this whole thing is more like a — Malvo is almost like God and the devil wrapped into one and I think these things were just going to happen. Do you know what I mean? I think a lot of this is about faith. You always think about if I’d only gotten on my motorcycle two minutes later, then I wouldn’t have hit that deer or whatever it is. Malvo is kind of the spirit that makes all those things happen, sort of lines up people’s faith for them.
Q: Billy Bob, were you satisfied with the ending of the finale and the end of the story arc for Malvo?
BBT: In terms of the arc of not only my character, but everyone’s, I think people will be very satisfied. I think Noah [Hawley] wrote a terrific ten-hour movie. It really has a beginning, a middle, and an end and that was one of the things that appealed to me about it. It’s just very well thought out and I was very happy with it. I haven’t seen the last episode myself. I watch them the way the public watches them. Every Tuesday night I just watch it, so the thing is … since it’s an ensemble cast like it is, you’re not always there when the other people are doing their thing, so it’s kind of like watching it fresh for me.
We shot it like a movie, so we shot it in two-episode blocks, so you might be doing episode six and seven or whatever it is, five and six, whatever. You may shoot two scenes from five on one day and one from six on the same day; so it’s shot kind of like a movie in that sense. Things were out of order enough to where I can’t remember it all, so it’s really nice to be able to watch it just as an audience member each week.
Q: When you read it, were you surprised by the ending? Was it something you saw coming? Or was it completely out of left field for you?
BBT: It’s not tricky so much. We kind of have known all along that I’m the devil in it and it’s kind of the way Hitchcock did things. He always thought it was scarier when you knew from the opening frame that’s the bad guy; that way the audience is afraid every time he’s around, so it’s not like the butler did it or something like that. I’ll just say it’s a very well thought-out series and very well-rounded and I think each character does have an arc and an A, B, and C.
Q: There’s been lots of chatter about a second season. Would you like to see that even if you weren’t necessarily involved? Would you like to see this tone continue on for another series of episodes?
BBT: Oh sure. As an audience member I’d love to see it. Our particular ten hours was designed as one story, so it does have a beginning, middle and an end. And if they did do another one, it would be a new story with some new characters and that kind of thing. But absolutely, I would love to see it.
I’ve really enjoyed watching it, frankly, and it’s kind of hard to watch things you’re in normally. But this was pretty easy to watch because after you’ve done ten episodes of something, you can’t really remember everything that you’ve already done, so it’s been very fresh for me.
Q: As a fan of the series, we fell in love with the “Fargo” characters and as critics we often use the term chemistry or say things like, “Brilliant performance! Billy Bob Thornton plays his most complex character yet.” I’m wondering in your opinion as an actor are words and terms like those to describe performances overused, or do you actually feel a sense of something going on while you’re filming it compared with maybe something else you may have filmed?
BBT: I think you generally get a sense when you’re filming something if you’re doing a good job or if the thing is good; I think you do get a sense of that. What you don’t get a sense of is how people are going to react to it. So in other words, I’ve done things before that I thought were OK and people think they’re amazing. And I’ve done things that I thought were amazing and people don’t get it. So you don’t always know how people are going to react to it.
But I think you do get a pretty good sense of if you’ve done your job and if it’s got that vibe. It would probably be comparable to … being in a band or something and you’re doing a concert and some nights you’re on and some nights you’re not.
This show in particular really felt like we were on, so yes, we could tell. It was, I don’t want to say easy, but I think the writing was so good and it’s based on such a classic thing and that tone had already been set by the Coen brothers. We all had a groove to fall into, so yes, I think we really felt we were up to something.
In terms of what people use in the press, all the words and compliments and everything, one of the ones that bothers me is when they always say something is award-worthy, because that sounds like they’re saying other people’s stuff wasn’t worthy. It’s kind of — I don’t know, sounds a little dehumanizing or something like that. I think in terms of when people are picked out for awards and they start talking, that depends on the machine behind you. You can make a movie for $2 million that doesn’t get a distributor; nobody sees it. Those don’t have a chance and maybe they’re just as good as the one that had a machine behind it and got all the right things lined up, all the right press lined up or whatever.
I guess the most you can hope for is that you get to be in good quality projects and know that you did your job and then after that, you decide to leave it up to fate or whatever and just see what happens. This one felt good during the process.
Q: Regarding Malvo’s physicality, in some shots he reminds me more than anything of the film character Nosferatu. I don’t know if that’s his code or how you’re holding yourself when you play him. Is that something you thought about? To me, it’s a big part of his menace is how he appears when he’s not talking.
BBT: That’s a very good question — and no one else has compared Malvo to Nosferatu, but that’s pretty good. I like that. I think a lot of that is just because after years and years of injuries and weighing 140 pounds, I look like Homer Simpson’s boss to start with, my physicality, so some of it is just natural. But I did choose to be very sort of slinky and sort of — I just sort of appear from places.
I did choose to be very quiet, but not like purposely menacing like the guy who twirls his mustache. Malvo even acts like he’s a pal to people sometimes, especially Lester. That was conscious, to make him not the typical bad guy who screams a lot and grits his teeth and grabs people by the collar. That was a conscious choice.
Q: You’ve done some amazing writing work for the screen. Did you ever have the urge to get in there with Noah in the creative process, or were you glad to turn that over to someone else for this project? Would you maybe consider trying to write a short-run TV series in the future after this experience?
BBT: First of all it was so well-written; it was just like when I’ve worked with the Coen brothers in the past. I tend to be kind of an improvisational actor, but in this case it was so well-written that I pretty much stuck to what Noah wrote. I had ideas every now and then, but they were generally less about dialog and things like that and more about how about I don’t go in a room right away or just little things like that here and there. Actors always have some kind of suggestion, so little stuff like that. But for the most part I just stuck to what Noah wrote.
I think something that’s been overlooked a little bit throughout our press for this show, there’s been a lot of talk about how we’ve created a whole new animal, even though it’s based on the movie. The Coen brothers didn’t write any of it. It’s been just our thing and its own show and all we took from “Fargo” was the snow and the general idea. But something that I think has been overlooked a little bit and not talked about enough is that if it weren’t for Joel and Ethan Coen, we wouldn’t be here. They created a whole new genre practically for movies. It’s not that nobody else had that dark sense of humor and nobody else had thought about these kinds of things in their mind before. Otherwise the Coen brothers wouldn’t have any fans, but all those people who had that sensibility, they hadn’t done it yet. The Coen brothers are the first to do it.
It’s like there might not be a Will Ferrell without a Steve Martin, if you know what I’m saying, so I think more credit needs to be given to Joel and Ethan for starting this ball rolling. They’re the ones who really created this world and I just have to say that because I think sometimes that’s overlooked, that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. They set this tone and deserve the credit for us even having this show.
In terms of writing … myself, I don’t know. I’ve never written anything over movie length, so I don’t know if I’d be any good at it or not, but I certainly think that’s the future. I think this short-run television thing, whether it’s a three-episode mini-series like Costner did with “Hatfields & McCoys,” or a ten-episode thing like ours — these are like movies, extended movies, and I think it’s a great world to be in and I certainly have thought about it. Whether I’d be any good at creating one or writing it, I don’t know, but I certainly would love to be involved in another one if it’s of this quality.
Q: How was it working up in Calgary? I don’t know if you were there for the entire six months it was shot. How did you cope with the extreme cold conditions and did you go anyplace afterward to defrost?
BBT: I live in Los Angeles, so yes, I definitely came home and defrosted, there’s no question about it. We really loved shooting in Calgary. It’s a great city and the people are terrific there. The crew was great and the people in western Canada really remind me of home folks a lot, so it’s very comfortable.
The weather, however, was miserable. Even the Canadian crew said that was the worst winter they’d had in years and years. What was funny about it sometimes is the fact that the Canadian crew sometimes when we’d get to work and they would all be happy because it was 4. And we said no, no, you don’t understand something, that’s winter to us, so 4 [degrees] doesn’t mean anything to us.
But I really enjoyed shooting up there and I was there off and on. We all had some time off because we weren’t in each other’s scenes, so you’d work ten days and be off for seven and come home, so I got to fly home quite a bit. When you have sinus and allergy trouble like I do, sometimes that’s a problem because you go from one extreme to the other and you end up having a cold all the time. A lot of us were sick.
Q: What was your favorite scene or moment from the series?
BBT: I really enjoyed the scenes that I did with Martin [Freeman]. There’s a scene in a little cafe where I tell him about how he needs to be a man and step up and realize that we were once apes. I like the opening scene where he and I meet each other in the lobby of the waiting room of the hospital, the scene with myself and Colin Hanks at the end of the pilot where we first meet each other in the car. I remember those as particularly good moments. I remember feeling completely lost in them, that we were really there, but I have to say all the stuff we did just felt really good.
I’ve particularly enjoyed working with Keith Carradine in the one scene we’ve had so far in his diner. I’ve always wanted to work with Keith and it was just a real — you could feel two actors disappearing into their characters in that scene. I remember coming out of it as if I’d actually been through something; it was really, really easy working with Keith and just looking at him as this guy.
Q: What was your take on the rain of fish scene? Was it more kind of just a surrealistic kind of play on what was happening?
BBT: I thought it was pretty great and it obviously had the sort of symbolic, biblical thing, I guess. I think the one thing in terms of fish that I was pretty disappointed about was nobody told me they were going to do a photo shoot with all these girls in bikinis holding fish. I wasn’t warned about that, so I didn’t get to go over and watch. I always miss out on all the good stuff.
I think that’s one of those things that at the end of the day it kind of doesn’t matter and it’s up to interpretation by each person. Myself, I probably felt, yes it’s more of a surreal kind of thing, that’s more the way I take it. That’s a great thing about stories — it’s why books are so great, because you read a book and you’re the only one there, you and that book, and you can interpret these things any way you want to. You can envision the characters as looking like or being like anything you want.
So I think sometimes you just have your visceral reaction to something and let it live in some place in you where it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not real, you know what I mean?
Q: I wondered if you could comment on what you see as the meaning of Malvo’s journey.
BBT: I think Malvo, in a way, I’ve said before, people say he’s like the devil. I think he’s more like God and the devil. I think it’s almost as if whether he knows it or not, Malvo is there to facilitate people’s true selves. It’s like he brings out in people who they really are. He’s very impatient with people who are stupid or if they’re ridiculous. Malvo likes to get to the root of what everything is about and sometimes he has to mess with people in order to do that. But I think Malvo symbolizes that sort of spirit in the world that ultimately brings to the surface who people really are, and I think that’s probably the best way I could put it.
Q: When an actor plays a very dark role or there are dark forces at work, is there any point at which you really have to protect yourself from it?
BBT: I think it depends on the actor and I think it depends on how fragile that actor’s constitution is. I’ve never had a real problem with it, I don’t think. I’m pretty able to just go home and have an omelet. I’m not really the type to let it permeate my life. Maybe when I was doing “Bad Santa” to a degree, I think maybe I probably drank a little more beer during that time than I normally have in my life, because I’m kind of a lightweight.
For the most part I don’t let it creep into my regular life. It was really interesting playing a character like this who had no conscience, though. I’ve never done that. When I played odd characters or whatever, they usually had their softer side, but Malvo is pretty straight ahead. He just kicks ass and takes names. He’s not worried about the consequences.
Q: One of the lines that really stuck out with me through the course of the show is the line Malvo says to Gus about shade the green and it comes full circle in the finale. Everybody wants to survive and people will do sinister things to survive, and can you relate to that line or idea at all in your career or otherwise?
BBT: It’s certainly hard to survive in Hollywood, so that’s one place where I’d probably put that as a practice. Also, I grew up poor and in a rough way, so I think I’ve had to be a chameleon at some points in my life, both in my career and as a person. I always had a knack for if I’m hanging around English people, I think I probably get a little fancier. If I’m hanging out with the folks back home, it’s easier to fall in with that vibe. So I’ve always been very aware of who I need to be in a certain situation and it’ll get you out of a knifing sometimes. I’ll tell you that much.
Q: Your character was almost like a hummingbird going from scene to scene and having so many different interactions with probably more characters than anybody else, besides Lester. Can you compare this with being able to work with another actor throughout a whole project?
BBT: Because my guy doesn’t really know any of these people, I think that made it seem very realistic for me that I just stepped into the lives of different people throughout the series. I think you do have a different feeling than you would have if you were playing, say, the husband of one of the lead actresses or something, or you’re the guy who’s lived in the town forever. You then have to think about your relationship and your history with these people, but my guy, he’s from nowhere. It’s kind of like Clint Eastwood in the old spaghetti westerns, like he was the man with no name. Malvo is kind of the man from nowhere. I found it very interesting to be able to do that and I didn’t have to know anything about these people, and I could look at them as if I just met them all the time. … I enjoyed that aspect of it.
Q: Malvo the character is very meticulous and economical in everything that he does. He just does enough to get by and not go out of his way, but he did have a little fun terrorizing those kids who moved into Lester’s old home. Do you want to talk a little bit about, was that just for fun for Malvo, or was that on purpose?
BBT: Malvo does have fun messing with people, and more than messing with the kids he was really messing with the father. I think Malvo was probably pretty pissed that he didn’t find Lester yet, so who’s the nearest person I can poke with a stick? It’s like Lester is not here, so you bought Lester’s house. You’re not the guy I wanted, but let me just leave you with this little tidbit.
Malvo definitely likes to mess with people and I think particularly people that are too cheery, and that guy was just a little too friendly in the beginning and he thought he’d leave him a little something more serious to think about.
Q: Usually there’s a long history of TV adaptations of great classic movies that falls a little short. This one is obviously just as good as the classic. Were you bothered by the possibility that it won’t be as good?
BBT: When I read the pilot script, I could see how good it was. I think if I had just heard about the idea without having read it, I think maybe I would have been a little more worried about it. But as it turns out, when they met with me and offered me the role, I read it right away. That dispelled any concerns I might have because it almost looked like it was written by the Coen brothers to me. It was very, very much like the movie in that way. … I thought Noah really hit the mark. I didn’t worry about it so much; but if I hadn’t read it right away, I probably would have been concerned.
Q: Just like the movie, the TV series used the initial words, “This is a real story.” This seems to give the audience the right motivation to somehow look to this fictional universe in a different way. Do you think this is an element that will appeal to the story?
BBT: Yes, definitely. Obviously it’s not a real story, but it falls in the category of a true crime story, meaning that you get to see the crime unfold in real time. I think that’s a cool thing for the audience. Even though they know intellectually it’s not a real story, I think it helps you get into it more and helps the audience think of it as being real, because at the end of the day whatever movie or TV show you’re doing, you want the audience to feel that. So yes, I definitely think it helps.
Q: The show certainly had a lot of press coverage, recaps and things like that after every episode. Do you read that? Do you have to be selective or how do you deal with all that feedback?
BBT: I don’t really read the stuff. I hear it from other people. I think I’d rather do it that way. Like friends call up and say people love the show and I’ve heard that it’s even a big hit in England, which is great. So I hear those things. If you put any given thousand people together and have them start a conversation back and forth with each other, some of them are going to love you; some of them are going to hate you, and I don’t know why you’d want to subject yourself to the ones who say he’s ugly, we don’t like him. It’s like I don’t need to read that stuff.
In terms of legitimate publications, my publicist will send me the reviews and stuff like that and I’ll read those sometimes. It depends on the source. In other words I don’t get on the Internet and read chat rooms or stuff like that about what people think about it, because if people tell me that there’s a good reaction to the show, that’s enough for me without reading the particulars. But as I said, newspapers, magazines, different things like that that do legitimate reviews of it, I’ll read those sometimes. I’ve been so happy and grateful that people have embraced the show the way they have. It’s been a real thrill for all of us.
Q: You have an amazing body of work and I’m wondering what drives you and gets you excited each time you take on a new role. Did you approach anything differently going from film to TV?
BBT: These days TV and film are so closely connected in terms of where they’re done that I didn’t really approach it any differently. I think it probably depends on what type of TV show you’re doing. Like for instance if you were doing a sitcom, I think you would have to rethink the way you prepare yourself or something. But I think in this case it was like doing a ten-hour independent film, so I didn’t really approach it any different. And these days really great work is being done on TV and it seems like it’s the future for people who want to watch movies for adults. Because that Renaissance that we had in the ‘90s of independent film … those days are kind of over, and the medium-budget studio films, too, which is my other wheelhouse, that’s not being done as much.
So TV is a great place to do these things. Now TV is not looked at as TV anymore. It’s just another way to watch movies in a lot of ways, especially on premium cable and all that kind of thing. It’s just there’s not much difference. I guess if you’re doing a big action movie I guess you need the big screen. But so many people watch even movies today on computers or whatever or at home on Netflix or whatever, the two are coming together, I think, in a lot more ways than before. I think you just try to not think about the differences. There’s not much of one.