In Fargo (1996), Jerry Lundegaard is a desperate man. A hapless car dealer in Minneapolis, he’s got serious money woes, as well as a wife and father-in-law who hold him in open contempt. As a last resort to raise cash for a potentially lucrative parking lot scheme, he hires two men to kidnap his wife with the aim of extorting ransom money from his father-in-law. Jerry’s ill-fated plan soon unravels when a state trooper and two passers-by are killed by the kidnappers, leading heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to investigate.
One of the high-water marks of 1990s American cinema, Fargo is a hilarious, bloody black comedy and, for many, still the greatest Coen brothers film to date. The brothers won the Oscar for best original screenplay, and McDormand bagged her first statue for her vivid depiction of Gunderson. William H. Macy, whose portrayal of the tormented Lundegaard is one of many highlights, was one of five other nominations Fargo received. Meanwhile, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are terrific value as the chalk-and-cheese kidnappers – profanely loquacious and menacingly silent respectively.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Fargo’s release, Macy was happy to reflect on the making of the film and its impact. Speaking on the phone from his home in Little Woody Creek, Colorado, Macy – who goes by Bill rather than William H. in real life – was building a garden on the day of the call, but was sceptical about what his efforts might yield. He explained: “I don’t think we’ll get a crop in this year because the growing season in the Rocky Mountains is about four hours in August.”
Could you tell us how the audition process went?
When I read the script, I lost my mind. I still think Joel and Ethan are wonderful writers, Ethan in particular. I’ve seen a bunch of his plays since then. He’s one of the funniest writers I’ve ever met.
I read for the sheriff. Joel and Ethan said: “That’s real good. You want to go out and read Jerry?” They gave me about 20 minutes. I came in and read. They said, “That’s real good. You want to go home and work on it and come in tomorrow?” So I went home. Every actor I know did shifts [auditioning]. I went in and read it again. And they said: “That’s real good. We’ll let you know.”
I found out they were going to New York and holding a casting session there. So I got my Lutheran ass on an aeroplane and crashed the audition. I said: “I want to audition again.” Then I made the joke to Ethan, which was: “I’ll shoot your dog if you don’t give me this role.”
They’re very, very careful in their casting. They’ll see people many, many times. They think about it a whole lot. And sometimes, just when they’re about to cast someone, they’ll go a whole different direction, I’ve heard.
At any rate, I waited and waited. I had a little place in Vermont, a little cold-water cabin. I was all by myself and I got the call: “You got Fargo.” I didn’t have anyone to tell. I was running around in this 12-by-20 cabin screaming my head off. I ran outside. I was so excited because I knew it was a game-changer for me.
What made you want to play Jerry?
One reading of the thing and I totally understood Jerry Lundegaard. I thought: “I can endorse that.” He wanted to take care of his family. His wife is mouthy, and his father-in-law is overbearing and a prick. Jerry came up with this magnificent idea for a parking structure that was going to make somebody a lot of money, and his father-in-law, yet again, is just going to steal it from him. I think it was a good plan. It went wrong, but it didn’t need to go wrong. If it had worked and no one had known, all would have been well.
Did you have any reservations about playing him? He’s obviously such a weasel.
Oh no. He’s one of the best characters ever. The bad guys are so much better. I love playing the rascal, the bad guy. I’ve done very well by it. It really messes up an audience when they have affection for a terrible character. And I think people did. There was something about Jerry. He’s so compelling and he’s such an innocent and he’s such a fool. I think a lot of people, somewhere deep in the recesses of their mind, were hoping he would get away with it.
Do you empathise with him? Like him?
Yeah. I love the character. I love the way I played him, if I may be bold. And I think that’s the reason I got the part, because I’m pretty sure Joel and Ethan envisioned Jerry as being a different looking guy. The first script, which I no longer have, described him as being rotund, fat, bald. I’m the opposite of that. And I think it’s because I understood what his objective was, and what his goals were and how noble they were. I’m proud of that. And it’s also a complicated question because it changed my career.
After Fargo you went on to Boogie Nights (1997) and for the last 10 years you’ve been the lead in Shameless. So it did make your career, to some extent.
My goodness. Getting nominated for an Oscar is an excellent move for your career. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.
You’ve played some really interesting and unusual characters. Where do you think Jerry ranks among them?
Well, it’s sort of the prototype. After Jerry Lundegaard I was worried that I would be consigned to playing these loser characters all the time, but it didn’t turn out. I’ve played the strong guys and I’ve played the weak guys. But I’ve certainly had a good career playing the foolish fellow who’s so over his head. I’m good at that. I think an adjunct to that is the rascal, the Frank Gallagher kind of guy. I love playing those kind of guys too.
Have you got any anecdotes about the shoot?
At the beginning of the thing, I walk into a bar to meet the two guys who are going to do the kidnapping. I believe it was the first scene that I had seen Peter and Steve. It was a big bar and there was a long walk from the front door. And I thought: “Okay, as Jerry, these are rough guys, one of them’s probably been in prison. I’ve got to be on my toes here because when you get in bed with thieves, anything can happen.” So I thought: “Jerry’s going to put his best foot forward.” And I walked in in such a way that they wouldn’t mess with me. I straightened my back. I took longer strides, and I walked in as if I had a gun strapped to my hip. I walked in like the baddest ass, looking around. And Ethan erupted laughing. He just thought it was hysterical. And he says: “Yeah, that’s so funny. But no, don’t do that.”
It was my gag to practice the phone call before I called Wade. If memory serves, I just said, “I got an idea,” and that’s what I did. And it made it into the film. I don’t think that was scripted. It was to a certain extent putting a hat on a hat because if it was scripted, I think Jerry launches into it: “Oh my God. She’s been kidnapped. It’s terrible.” She goes: “Hold on. I’ll put you through.” We kept that joke, but I thought it would set it up even better if I go: “Oh my God, it’s terrible. She’s been kidnapped. You got to call the police. No, don’t call the police. Oh man. I don’t know what to do.” And then you heard: “One moment, I’ll put you through to Wade.”
You talked about that scene with Steve and Peter. I read you wanted to go out and get drunk with them. Did you get a chance to?
No. We did a reading of it, and Steve Buscemi does that lowlife character so well. He’s so good at doing it. And Peter Stormare’s a scary motherfucker, but you know what? He’s not. It turns out they’re both really serious about their craft. And I kept saying: “Hey, I’ve been here before. I know Minneapolis,” because I was at the Guthrie Theatre. I did a season there. I said, “Come on, there’s strip clubs,” and they wouldn’t go with me.
One of the fascinating relationships in the film is the one between Jerry and Marge. How was it working with Frances?
She’s an actor’s actor. She loves actors and she loves to talk about acting. She’s one of those actors, though, who loves everyone except herself.
She kept saying: “Oh, that was terrible.” And I would say: “No, I’m sorry, that was a really great take you just did. You’re on it.” The few scenes we had together, she was just hard on herself. She’d say: “Can I do one more? I’m awful.” I’d say: “No, you’re not.”
She really is allergic to the trappings of acting, and likes to keep it as low-key as possible. There was a rumour once, she was the lead on some film. She said: “I don’t want one of those big trailers. I want an Airstream.” An Airstream is a little aluminium bubble. You got to step outside to change your mind. They’re so small. Me, I got no problems with that shit. Give me a big trailer. Huge.
We had a lot of friends in common because we were both New Yorkers and theatre folks, and we’d heard of each other.
You would think they would run a funnier set, but it’s not. They are delighted to make film. They being Joel and Ethan. And Frannie’s the same way. But the work ethic is very, very strong. There’s not a lot of farting around. They shoot quickly. When they get it, they move on. If you want another take, you better have a good reason for it. I mean, they’d always give you another take. But there’s something about those guys, when they say: “No, we got it.” They don’t bullshit.
Is there any final, overarching thought you have now looking back on the film?
Well, I love the way they dealt with the violence.
I’m not a big one on violence and I find great fault with our industry, the way we deal with violence, because I think a lot of it is bullshit. It’s not truthful violence shown, and I believe it’s doing us harm as a society. The old trope used to be: “Hey, we’re just the messengers. The world out there is violent, we’re just a reflection of the society.” But that’s not true anymore. Not if they make these movies where there are 16 bodies in Manhattan and not a cop to be seen. This is not realistic. It’s operatic violence. It’s funny violence. And I think it’s doing us harm, and I think it’s hurting our children to see so much of that violence.
Getting back to Fargo, there’s a truth to the way those guys deal with violence, which I appreciate. And I guess I appreciate it mostly because it’s shocking and upsetting and abhorrent. It’s awful when you see it and it’s awful in a truthful way. And I also love the banality that they put to their violence. It’s not cool violence. It’s not quippy, jokey violence. It’s banal and it’s horrifying. And I really liked that. And those guys, there’s a lot of violence in their films and I wish there weren’t so much, and I hope going forward that there isn’t as much, but I do appreciate how truthful and banal they make it, and horrifying. That’s, I think, a lot of responsibility, and I look back on that.
A good example is when Peter Stormare grabs the poor cop and shoots him point blank, and Buscemi’s sitting there going, “Oh mama”, because he can’t even talk. And I thought: “Oh, okay. That’s great.” As opposed to some joke that Hollywood loves to do. “Well, I guess you won’t be giving any more tickets.” Kaboom. But Buscemi’s face, “Oh mama,” it’s horrifying. And that’s our responsibility, to make it as horrifying as it actually is.
Fargo is back in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, in a 4K restoration from 11 June 2021.
Todd Melby’s A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo is out now. Find out more and order a copy.