Is it risky to bring a big-screen masterpiece like “Fargo” to television? You betcha.
But that’s what FX is attempting to do – sort of – with its new 10-episode limited series that debuts Tuesday.
“Fargo” isn’t a sequel, or prequel, or even really a spinoff of the Coen brothers’ beloved 1996 cult hit. Instead, it’s an all-new “true crime” story that follows a fresh case and brand new characters (sorry, Marge Gunderson fans).
Still, the show does share its predecessor’s flair for black humor. It’s also set in the icy heart of snow-covered Minnesota and is teeming with quirky folks who talk kinda funny.
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“I think when something’s really good, like ‘Fargo’ was, fans will want to see more,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who leads an impressive cast. “It’s the kind of movie that lends itself to expanding. Same place. Same type of people. New stuff happens.”
Thornton stars as Lorne Malvo, a manipulative drifter, with a goofy hairdo, who meets and changes the life of beleaguered insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). Joel and Ethan Coen are listed as executive producers, but all 10 episodes were penned by Noah Hawley.
Calling in from Calgary, Alberta, where “Fargo” is being shot, Thornton took some time to chat up his latest project.
Q Adapting an iconic big-screen film to television often fails. Were you skeptical when you first heard of this?
A I was more skeptical about getting on a television series. Not because I don’t like television, but because there are more movies I want to do, and I wasn’t crazy about getting locked into something that might last six or seven years. The fact that it is only 10 episodes made it creatively ideal. It’s like a 10-hour independent film.
Q So you were captivated from the start?
A Well, the script was fantastic, and I was told that it had the blessings of the Coen brothers. If they thought it was a mess, I may not have done it. But Noah did a great job. He managed to get the vibe and the tone of the Coen brothers’ movie without imitating them.
Q What do you enjoy about playing your character?
A He’s sort of God and the devil all wrapped up into one – a puppet master, in some sense, who is not only capable of very dangerous things, but is very mischievous and toys with people. He has a sick sense of humor, and he doesn’t like weak people. If he smells weakness in someone, he messes with them.
Q Are there any special challenges that come with playing this guy?
A I don’t like to think of a character in terms of challenges. If you think of challenges, you create them. When I did “Bad Santa,” someone asked me if I felt horrible being mean to kids. Not really. When I do an acting job, I just go do it.
Q From what I’ve seen, the series, in some ways, is funnier than the film.
A That’s a testament to Joel and Ethan in a lot of ways. They set the ball rolling in the film for humorous possibilities. But they only had two hours to tell their story. Now the humor can be doled out over these 10 hours, and we can take our time with it. It’s not an A-B-C plot. I don’t know what that says about me, but I think it’s hilarious.
Q I found myself, at times, rooting for Lorne. And, at other times, I was appalled by his actions. The same thing applied to Freeman’s character. Do you think the viewers will watch with conflicted feelings throughout?
A That’s the way television is these days. All those shows like “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire” ... are pegged to so-called antiheroes. I love it. In many ways, television – not the movies – is the place to be these days. There are no rules. The sky’s the limit, and people are making some great, complex stuff.
Q “Fargo” is full of creepy images, including those bangs you’re rocking. Whose idea was that?
A It wasn’t an idea as much as it was an accident. I got a really bad haircut one day, and my hair wouldn’t comb over to the side real well. I kept looking more like Moe (of the Three Stooges) or the bass player in Buffalo Springfield, circa 1966. I thought: Here’s a guy doing lots of dark things, and he’s got these bangs. How great is that?
My manager saw some dailies and thought I was trying to channel the dark side of Ken Burns.
Q And you were fine with that?
A Oh, sure. Ken is too nice. I’m here to mess with him.