David Thewlis interview for Fargo
David Thewlis, who stars in the latest series of Fargo for Channel 4, chats about playing the baddie, his DIY crash course in economics and why he’s glad he didn’t have to do that Minnesotan accent
Explain a little bit about your role in the new season of Fargo. Who is VM Varga?
It’s difficult, because, by his very nature, he is an enigma, and you don’t want to give too much away. He’s a Fargo-esque dark stranger from out of town who comes into the community like a plague and dismantles everything that has any stability. It quickly becomes apparent he’s involved in some perfidious, money-laundering financial scam, but that’s all I can say for now. He comes into the series a lot more as it goes on, and becomes a dominant figure.
What made you accept the role?
It’s Fargo, isn’t it?! I mean, if you’ve seen the series in the past, you’ll know. Anyone in my shoes would take it. I was an enormous fan of the Coen brothers film, and like everyone else I thought it was probably a bad idea to turn that into a TV series, and then they did and I thought that it was fantastic. So I was a fan before they approached me. I don’t even watch that much television, but it was one of the things I had seen. I’d been reluctant to do much American television, because it takes you away from your home and your family for so long. But when this came up, I thought it was excellent. Noah’s a genius. He approached me personally, and more or less wrote the part for me, once I’d said yes. He writes a lot for the actors once they’ve been cast. And to have Noah Hawley writing personally for me is a privilege. And also, because it’s Fargo, they’re self-contained, so you don’t have to sign up your life for 10 years in some Game of Thrones situation where you’re going to go on and on and on, and that’ll be all you’ll do from then on. So the fact that it’s self-contained in one season is perfect for me. And I go to work with Ewan. I’d never worked with him before, so that was another appealing factor.
Did you re-watch the previous series of Fargo in the run-up to filming, or would that have been counterproductive?
I did go back and watch them again. Normally I probably wouldn’t, but I think there’s something so particularly Fargo about Fargo, in terms of the tone. It’s a tricky thing to get right. It’s such a mixture of horror and comedy and serious thriller. And not knowing that much about my character Varga, I felt like I needed to familiarise myself with the tone. You perform it differently if you’re in a Scorcese film, or a Woody Allen film, or a Ken Loach film. You’d approach them all differently, because they’ve all got their own universe. I went back and watched both series again because I wanted to familiarise myself with that world. I watched them more than once, and carried on watching them as I was filming.
Did you do anything else in the way of research?
Yeah, a little. I gave myself a bit of a crash course on the economics, and the subprime mortgage crash of 2008, and all the financial markets, to understand something about the way my character might be operating, and what it is that he’s doing and how he’s doing it. It’s not something I’m particularly bright about, or take a great interest in, so I studied economics a little bit. And at the same time I was filming when Trump took power, and I was watching an awful lot of news. There are elements in this story of “What is truth?” – the nature of truth is one of the great themes of the whole season – so given Trump’s America right now, it was a fascinating thing to see what’s happening to the world’s truth at the moment. I found myself not intentionally thinking “this is my research,” but my research became watching the news avidly.
You’ve mentioned your eagerness to work with Noah Hawley. What was the experience like?
Funnily enough, you don’t see that much of him. I met him in London when he first offered me the role. He was over here doing a book launch, because he also writes novels, as well as writing movies and TV series and editing and filming the whole thing! So I met him then, and then he directed the first episode, and then we didn’t see an awful lot of him after that. He appeared to do a couple of special scenes, things he needed to oversee. And then he appeared again to show us two episodes. It’s certainly not a daily relationship, but it’s obviously great to have the man who came up with all of this to push the boat out to sea and set you off on a good course. And he was always available on the phone or on email, to ask any questions. I think he’s sad that he has to outsource and delegate –I think he’d love to direct the whole thing if he could.
This was such a tight shooting schedule that he was writing as we were going. He’d only written four or five episodes by the time we started filming, so he had to write another five while we were filming. And we were actually heading towards the thing going out on air. So the pressure on the guy to do that is incredible! And yet what he comes up with is brilliant. The first draft tends to be the finished draft.
He’s particularly good at creating mysterious and deeply sinister bad guys, isn’t he? Like Varga, and Lorne Malvo from the first series.
Yeah, he is very good at that, and it’s a Coen brothers trope as well. There’s things that are consistent with each season of Fargo, and the villain is usually someone we don’t know everything about, and may never discover everything about. There were lots of things I wanted to know about Lorne Malvo, who he was, where he came from, how he had achieved what he did, but he remained enigmatic. Even if you ask Noah to his face, he often won’t tell you anyway. It felt strange building a character and not knowing much about them. Normally you build an enormous backstory for a character, but Noah wasn’t interested in doing that. That’s not the way he works. I asked Noah if there was anything I really had to know – he’s not going to throw something at me in episode six that makes me think “For fuck’s sake, I wish I’d known that!” But otherwise I didn’t really want to know where he was going with any developments, so it came as a surprise to me. It kept it entertaining.
Is playing a villain as much fun as it looks?
Always. Definitely. Given a choice, I’ll always go for the villain. At the end of the process, you always think “I enjoyed that so much more than playing a nice guy.” Nice guys are predictable. I seem to have done 50:50 in my career. I either play really, really horrendous people or, when they’re good, they’re very, very good. They’re like monks or saints. Villains are what I look forward to more.
You play Varga with a British accent. Was it a relief not to have to learn the Minnesota accent?
Yes, totally. I had to watch Ewan do the accent twice, for two different characters. Varga was always definitely not American. There was always some debate with Noah and myself about exactly where he was from. And in a way, Noah would prefer that we didn’t really know where he was from. But I pointed out to Noah that I did have to talk, so I had to have some kind of accent. But I’m pleased he wasn’t from Minnesota. I panic a bit doing American accents – especially on weekly TV, where you’re getting the scripts at very late notice.
You filmed in Calgary – was that an enjoyable experience? Was it the coldest shoot you’ve been on?
Yes – that and when I did Seven Years in Tibet, which was shot in British Columbia, which isn’t a million miles away from there. This was as cold, and in fact I dug out the same North Face coat that I had used 20 years ago. It was extremely cold – I can’t say that was much fun. It’s brilliant for the show, and it’d be impossible to not have it like that, but it was a little hard in your down time, when you had a week off, it wasn’t enough time to fly home, so you’ve just got a week hanging out in Calgary, and you can’t go out walking, you can’t go out cycling, you can’t really go out! You have to dress like Edmund Hillary just to go and get some milk. It was a bit like being under house arrest a lot of the time. So at first I felt that it was going to be hard to be there for four months. But I only left the other day, and I was quite emotional about leaving the place. I got quite attached to it. But it was colder than anything we’re used to in this country – it was minus 40 sometimes, and that was just ridiculous. It shouldn’t be allowed. But I thoroughly enjoyed the whole job, and being in Calgary was part of that, so it was an experience to spend four months of your life in extreme, bitter cold. I’m glad I did it.
The show’s already going out in the US. Was that an unusual experience, to still be filming when a show has started screening?
Yeah, totally, I’d never done that before. There was a certain level of panic among the team, because Fargo had never done this before, so close to transmission. Fortunately, it’s gone down very well, because if not, that could have been a bit demoralising – to still be shooting and have the reviews coming in saying “This is not up to scratch, this is not the Fargo we know and love, and what the hell is David Thewlis doing? Don’t watch!” You could be left with three or four episodes still to shoot, and people hate it. So it’s gone down very well, everyone seems to love it as much as the other seasons, so it had the opposite effect. It motivated us to go back to work with renewed vigour. We all feel like we’ve made something pretty great.
Fargo airs on Channel 4 later this month.
May 17, 2017 5:21pm by Channel 4