Patrick Wilson had the same reaction most of us did when he heard that FX was making a TV series based on the film Fargo. “Like everybody else I thought, ‘What? Are they out of their minds?’” he remembers.
A little more than a year later, we’re speaking outside on a Calgary ranch, where the journeyman actor is wrapping up filming as the lead on the show’s second season. Also like everybody else, his skepticism appears to have been proven wrong.
The first season of Fargo was unexpectedly brilliant, topping critics’ lists, racking up trophies at every major awards ceremony, and generating a general sense of marvel at series creator and writer Noah Hawley.
Hawley, the self-proclaimed “writer who dared,” managed to perfectly channel the spirit of Joel and Ethan Coen’s gleefully grim tale of hapless criminals, pregnant cops, Minne-sow-tah accents, and wood chippers. He didn’t quite craft a re-creation or remake, but a 10-hour narrative that collected everything from the frozen, bloody universe the Coens built in 1996 and shifted it all slightly to the left.
A borderline sacrilegious TV experiment—bringing Fargo to the small screen—became the holy trifecta of TV hits: critically hailed, commercially successful, and an awards juggernaut. And with Season Two taking the anthology series approach of returning with an entirely new narrative and completely new case, Fargo had also become the hottest gig in Hollywood.
“Everybody understands that to have a show that is critically and commercially successful, that people actually watch and critics like—I don’t think I’m pessimistic when I say they don’t usually meet,” Wilson says.
That explains how Wilson, perhaps best known for his roles in Angels in America, Little Children, and Watchmen, found himself facing a frigid Calgary winter to shoot Season Two of the show about when bad things happen to polite people—with Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson, Jean Smart, Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Brad Garrett, and Jeffrey Donovan joining him as characters of various politeness.
Wilson has a unique challenge among the stacked ensemble, as he’s the only actor portraying a character that we already met in Season One. Lou Solverson was portrayed by Keith Carradine in the first season, and Wilson takes on the role in a narrative set 27 years earlier.
His is the quiet hero role, a far cry from the villainous bombast that likely contributed to Billy Bob Thornton’s awards season bulldozing last year for his performance as the terrifying killer Lorne Malvo. But he is also the show’s most crucial element, the even keel in a roller coaster of baddies, bloodbaths, buffoons, and arias of singsong Midwestern accents.
And it’s the role that will give the veteran actor the kind of mainstream exposure that’s largely eluded him in Hollywood thus far, after decades as one of indie film’s most reliable leading men.
“I’ll do a movie like Little Children and people will say, ‘Oh! It’s an amazing movie,’ and you go, right, you probably saw it on cable or on DVD because you sure didn’t go to theaters to see it—no one did,” he says. “So I’m used to the push and the pull of interesting and commercial projects, and this is one of the examples where those two things met. It was both watercooler conversation and a really good show, you know?”
In other words, it’s the rarest of Hollywood opportunities: a no-brainer. “It’s one of those, ‘If you’re ever going to do TV, it doesn’t get much better than this…’” he says.
We’re in director’s chairs trying to stay warm on a crisp afternoon in the last days of winter, but wholly appreciative that the weather has been unseasonably merciful for rural Calgary. Looming behind Wilson is the Waffle Hut, the site of a ghastly massacre that left three dead bodies bleeding out next to plates of half-eaten burgers and fries. A spilt vanilla milkshake is turning shades of strawberry.
Wilson and his co-star Ted Danson had just finished toeing around the carnage, making dry Coen-esque banter about dinner plans while taking in the crime scene. Cut is called, the casualties rise from rigor mortis on the diner floor, and everyone starts hobnobbing over coffee.
It’s 1979, and Lou is fresh from serving in Vietnam. He’s working for the local police department alongside Ted Danson’s Sheriff Hank Larsson, and the two are investigating a case that will eventually entangle a major mob syndicate, a local gangster family, and a gee-golly deluded beautician and her butcher-husband. It will be so traumatic that it’s referenced three decades later, by Carradine, in the first season of Fargo, giving the plot its connective throughline.
Similarly woven are the unusual layers of expectation on this Fargo season.
There was the pressure to live up to the indelible Fargo film when the series debuted last year. Now that the show pulled that off so spectacularly, there’s an added layer of stress on Season Two to reinvent itself just as brilliantly—and prove those bracing for a Season Two curse, like the one that plagued the recent True Detective run, wrong.
“Look, I didn’t see the show, truthfully, until I got the job,” Wilson laughs, when I ask him about any sort of pressure he felt before signing on. And if there was any to be felt, it was repeatedly assuaged as the accolades for Season One kept rolling in. “Look, it didn’t hurt that it won the Globe right before we got to set,” he says. “And while we were shooting it won the Peabody.”
Wilson says it was at the behest of his wife and his agent that he read Hawley’s first script for Fargo’s Season Two and then binge-watched the first season, which they had both raved about. After having spent fall of 2014 on a grueling shooting schedule of back-to-back movies, he was itching for a break at home.
But he was also itching for what Fargo could do for his career: be seen.
“I try to be as self-aware as I can,” Wilson says. “Although I don’t quite know what people think of me, I have a pretty good idea.”
Cable miniseries in the vein of Fargo have a pretty solid track record of spotlighting a veteran actor’s talents, changing how the industry and audiences view them and what they are capable of. Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, Jessica Lange in American Horror Story, Thornton in last season’s Fargo.
That can be a huge motivator for a film actor like Wilson, who has worked steadily since breaking out with his Emmy-nominated work in Angels in America in 2003 but who has found most of that work on well-reviewed, if sometimes little-seen, indies (Young Adult, Hard Candy), genre films (Insidious, The Conjuring), and TV guest spots, like a 2013 episode of Girls.
“There have been several times that you’ve given your heart and soul to an independent film and more often than not it doesn’t match up to any commercial success or people seeing your film,” he says. “So [my wife and agent] were like, ‘You need to do something that people see.’”
In the year 2015, that typically means heading to TV.
“The way the studio landscape is, it’s really difficult to not just get back into that, but just to have the roles that I want,” Wilson says. “I have to go where the roles are. Not be the fourth lead in the movie that everyone might see but not really care about you in it. That doesn’t interest me.”
And while he recognizes that there certainly seems to be a TV boom—with his fellow movie star brethren flocking to the small screen for juicier roles and buzzier projects, two things that seem to be in increasingly short film supply unless you’re among those called when the Avengers are assembled—Wilson concedes that he probably wouldn’t have signed on for Fargo had it required more than a four-month commitment.
“I’ll be very honest with you,” he says, when I bring up that he had once before signed his life away in one of those notorious seven-year contracts for the failed 2011 CBS drama A Gifted Man. “It’s not as easy as ‘That’s where the good writing is.’ I don’t see it that black-and-white. I think there’s fantastic TV and there’s some really horrible TV, just like there’s some amazing movies and there’s some crap.”
Wilson and his family live in New Jersey, and have become accustomed to, as much as any family can, his schedule of leaving to shoot a movie for a few weeks at a time and then returning home. He “doesn’t want to put words in their mouths,” he says, but he ventures that many of the primarily film actors who are signing on for these 10-episode cable miniseries share his aversion to that traditional seven-year broadcast commitment.
“Seven years on a show is a gold mine to a lot of people, and that’s awesome,” he says. But the appeal for him of Fargo was the short shoot. “It’s hard to say that when actors are out of work and you feel like you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth.” After a few more explanations, he trails off. “Anyway, we could talk for hours about that…”
A few minutes later Wilson is back in the Waffle Hut, poking around the dead bodies.
When we see the scene in the season premiere, which aired last week, Lou Solverson is reading a bedtime story to his daughter, Molly, when he’s interrupted by the phone call with news of the massacre. Despite it being a small, quiet town, Lou seems relatively unfazed by the news, a demeanor that continues when he swings open the door of the Waffle Hut and calmly encounters the brutal bloodshed.
Wilson, keeping with the Coen Brothers’ influence, likens Lou to Tommy Lee Jones’s character in No Country For Old Men—a quiet, grounded hero treading water when he’s in over his head. It’s a soulful nobility that’s become rare in this Golden Age of Television, which prefers its gilded leading men to have blood on their hands: brooding antiheroes and morally bankrupt protagonists.
“Without giving too much away about his situation at home, Lou is trying to fight a battle there as well,” Wilson says. “That reflects back in his job. Come hell or high water he’s going to save someone here, if he can’t save his family. You know what I mean?”
Oh, you betcha.