Interview: Billy Bob Thorton and Martin Freeman share their ‘Fargo’ experiences

Preston Barta // Film Critic

Red Carpet Crash recently had the chance to sit down and speak with actors Billy Bob Thorton and Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit” trilogy) of FX’s “Fargo.” We talked about their new show, their rough around the edge characters and talking like they’re from Minnesota.

Mr. Thorton, How exactly do you convey menace, both physically and emotionally? Is it in your eyes? Is it in your tone?

Billy Bob Thorton: “Well, that’s a good question. It is a tough one. When you weigh 135 pounds and you’re telling people who are six-four, 250 to get out of your way, how do you do that? Well, a lot of that is exactly what you said, which is in the eyes. If someone is talking to you and tells you that you ought to do something and you can tell they mean it, those are the scary people.

And I worked in a prison years and years ago on a movie and I was told by these guys— there were all these guys with the Aryan Brotherhood and some of them had tattoos and they’re big, muscled guys and everything and this one guy told me, he said, ‘Do you see that little skinny guy over there in the corner, the one that’s not talking, just kind of sits by himself? That’s the big guy right there.’ He said, ‘That’s the guy you don’t want to mess with.’

And I talked to the guy ultimately and I could tell that he meant what he said. So those are the people you want to watch out for. And it’s like maybe I can break this guy in half, but he would hunt me down, he would crawl until his fingers were bloody on the asphalt to get me. So those are the ones.”

And I look at Malvo as a type of sort of snake charmer. Once he looks at you, you’re under some sort of spell.”


One of the things that I really like about Lester is how complex he is. He’s a little rough around the edges and I feel like he’s one of those characters that we’ve kind of been gravitating towards lately, if you look at Walter White in “Breaking Bad” or Don Draper in “Mad Men.” What do you think that says about us as an audience that over the past five or six years that we’ve been kind of starting to gravitate towards these rough around the edge kind of characters?

Martin Freeman: “Maybe it means that we are, well, it might mean we’re getting smarter. We’re demanding more of our characters and of our dramas. It might mean that we are less sure of ourselves, I suppose. So we want to see that reflected in the people we follow on TV.

For me, I mean, I don’t know where it started, but this modern trend, I think you can put a lot of that down to Tony Soprano— the sort of very, very flawed hero, anti-hero— confounding your expectations of what you think that character is going to be, capable of doing terrible things while also being very attractive and funny and likable.

But, again, those things go back to Greek theater. That in itself is not a new thing. But you’re absolutely right; it’s becoming more common on American television. And there is some extremely good American television where that happens more these days.

Maybe it just means we’re getting a bit more sophisticated and demanding a bit more than kind of black and white characters, which I’m all for I must say.”

How did you core understanding of Lester change from when you first started playing to where he ends up?

Freeman: “Well, you have to go a lot on trust, really, because I signed up just on the strength of the first episode. I kind of saw a rough character outline that Noah Hawley wrote, but it wasn’t specific and it wasn’t detailed. It was a general idea of where he wanted to go with it. He certainly knew a lot more than I did and he knew a lot more than he was telling me and he was quite careful with what he leaked out, do you know what I mean?

So I wouldn’t really have any particular clues as to what was coming. So we would all get kind of drip fed the scripts when he was ready to show them to us and when he had finished them. Like all writers, he didn’t want to show anything until he was absolutely happy with it. And so I would get each of the scripts and it was all pretty much a surprise.

The stuff that Lester would be doing, I mean, unless Noah had kind of hinted at something, which was rare, it was all a surprise. So I would read episode four and go, ‘oh my God, that happens?!’ And then I’d read episode five and think, ‘wow, I didn’t see that coming.’

So it was all a surprise. And so, in that sense, you have to just be ready to go with it and not make too many decisions and prepare too much and just be open and just be ready to move in whichever direction this character is going to go in because you, as the actor, don’t dictate it, that’s for sure. It was all at Noah’s command as a writer.

And I kind of liked that, I liked that surprise. Because it’s when you’re not in charge and when you don’t really know what’s going to happen that you’re pushed. You allow yourself to be really, really pushed and challenged and stretched, which is all those things actors want to have.

Your understanding kind of evolves the more you read because, obviously, by the end of episode 10 Lester was capable of things that you never would have suspected in episode one. So you have to just be on the ball and be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”


Billy, you’ve written and directed a handful of projects before. Do you ever find that your own ideas as a writer and director ever intrude on projects where you’re working strictly as an actor, like “Fargo?”

Thorton: “Not so much. When I go there as an actor, I like to just go in and do my job. Every now and then, you kind of, maybe if you’re working with a director, and this has only happened to me a couple of times ever, you go in there and you’ve got a director and maybe it doesn’t quite get to the plan.

You might end up kind of thinking, you know, ‘hey, are you sure you want to do that? Are you sure you want to put the camera there?’ You find yourself every now and then kind of thinking it. But I try not to say anything. You just try to do the best you can.

And one of the best ways to do that is when they tell you to do something that you know is wrong, you just nod your head and say okay, and then go do what you want to do anyway. That’s about the only way around it really.”

The lines in the script— it’s pretty specialized dialogue that everybody says. Not everybody says ‘foot in the toaster oven’ when referring to a weird thing they’ve seen.

Thorton: “Right. Exactly. That’s something that he has in common with the Coen Brothers, actually. Their scripts are very tightly written and if you don’t say those words the way they’re written, it doesn’t come across as well. I’ve been largely an improvisational kind of actor most of my career, except for when I’ve worked with the Coen Brothers.

And now that I’m working with Noah, I rarely change anything with Noah because it’s a very specific point of view and type of language and maybe sometimes something might sound a little formal even, even that Malvo says, maybe it’s not something that would just naturally come out of my mouth.

But once you plug into that, then it becomes natural to you and I respect him as a writer so much that I defer to him and I think I would say the same thing about the rest of the cast. I mean, there’s very little discussion on the set about changing things. We don’t come over to him and say, ‘hey, instead of this, I think I’ll say this.’ We don’t have a lot of that around that set.

And the same experience, like I said, with the Coen Brothers. You just do it because there was a reason he wrote it that way and it becomes clear to you when you see it and when you perform it.”

“Fargo” premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.

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