Austinites Noah Hawley and Russell Harvard provide ‘Fargo’ with plenty of heat
April 28, 2014
By Dale Roe
Austinite Noah Hawley, novelist and creator of the FX television series “Fargo,” has a hate-hate relationship with Texas heat.
“It’s starting to get hot here, mid-80s in the late-afternoon hours, but it’s not the heat that’s noteworthy,”
Hawley wrote in a March 2012 dispatch entitled “Austin, but for how long?” on his GoodReads.com author page. “It’s what the heat implies, which is that soon it will be much hotter.”
So when I chatted by phone with him from the set of “Fargo” in Calgary, where the freezing Canadian climes have been acting as the show’s icy Bemidji, Minn., setting for months, I wondered if Hawley and the heat had kissed and made up.
“Yeah, I could use a little 100-degree heat right now,” he said, laughing.
It’s a different kind of heat, but “Fargo” has certainly netted Hawley and FX a warm reception from viewers and critics. A self-contained 10-episode miniseries of sorts that is set within the universe that Joel and Ethan Coen created for the pitch-black 1996 comedy/drama — but with a completely new story and characters — it’s the first time in a long time that Hawley, who once worked on Fox’s “Bones” and created TV’s “The Unusuals” and “My Generation,” has written within somebody else’s construct.
FX “called me and said, ‘We’re thinking about making a TV show out of ‘Fargo,’ but we’re wondering if you could do it without Marge,” Hawley says, referring to Frances McDormand’s iconic pregnant police chief. “By which they meant without any characters from the movie.
“What they were really saying to me is, ‘Hey, do you think you could make us a Coen brothers movie set in that region?’ It’s a challenge that was both intimidating and too exciting to pass up.”
Hawley incorporated signature technical approaches to make the look of the series match the Coens’ films but says that his goal was not to imitate the brothers.
“At the end of the day, it’s about, ‘How can I create the same feeling in the audience that they get from watching one of their movies?’ and it might not be by doing the exact same thing that they do,” he says.
The writer received a full series order, which meant that all 10 episodes were written without the need to film a pilot — “a dream come true,” he says.
Hawley set out to assemble a feature-film quality cast for what he considers “a 10-hour movie.” By removing the possibility that candidates would have to lock into multi-year contracts, he hoped to be able to attract the caliber of actors who wouldn’t normally do television.
It worked. In addition to Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks as police officers Molly and Gus, Hawley assembled a stellar cast, including Billy Bob Thornton, so good as the enigmatic, troublemaking drifter Lorne Malvo; “The Hobbit” star Martin Freeman as henpecked insurance salesman Lester Nygaard; and fellow Austinite Russell Harvard, a deaf actor who plays one of the heavies, Mr. Wrench (the character figures prominently in Tuesday’s episode).
Harvard, who has lived in Austin since he was just a year old and graduated from Texas School for the Deaf in 1999 (his parents, both deaf, had also attended the school), enjoyed playing the heavy. His scenes with fellow hit man (and interpreter) Adam Goldberg as Mr. Numbers are violent and often hilarious.
Hawley, who lives near Texas School for the Deaf, created Harvard’s character because he appreciated the beauty and duality of sign language. “It’s so visual,” Hawley says, “and yet it’s so private.” He calls Harvard “magnetic and charismatic,” a big physical presence you can’t take your eyes off of.
“Mr. Wrench sure is a dark and foreboding character,” Harvard, who previously starred in the 2012 film “The Hammer,” said in an email interview. “I’ve wanted to play the villain for a long time.”
The actor had never seen the original “Fargo” and followed fellow cast member Keith Carradine’s advice to wait until filming ended.
Many others have, of course, seen the original film, which presents Hawley and FX with a double-edged sword: There are hard-core fans of the original “Fargo” — intelligent people who love it so much they can’t stand the idea of this series.
“I don’t hold anyone’s opinions against them,” Hawley says. “It’s an act of hubris, I think, to take it on, and it’s not going to be for everyone.”
But he echoes the sentiments of FX president John Landgraf, who stood before critics and said, “We’d rather make something great for somebody than make something good for everybody.”
Although the current characters’ story is self-contained, there’s a chance the series could go on.
“I don’t think there’s any universe in which we have the continuing adventures of Molly and Gus, but … ‘Fargo’ becomes a metaphor for a type of true crime case where truth is stranger than fiction,” Hawley says. “So, there’s no reason that there isn’t another 10-hour true crime story that could be told in this region.
“I guess it’s up to me to figure out what that might be.”