Patrick Wilson had a big moment in episode three of Fargo‘s second season, where his character, Minnesota cop Lou Solverson, faces down the criminal Gerhardt family in a tense meeting outside the Gerhardt compound.
Between takes, however, Wilson’s mood was considerably lighter. It almost felt like a family reunion to him.
“First of all, I was so excited to do that scene because you’ve got Jean Smart, who played my mother in Barry Munday,” Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You’ve got Angus [Sampson] playing Bear — we did two Insidious movies, and I do more with him in Fargo than I did in two Insidious movies with him. Jeffrey [Donovan] I’ve known — we’ve got mutual friends. He knows my brother, and a couple of his college buddies are my friends, so it was a very, very cool, exciting set.”
Wilson also discussed playing a version of a character audiences have already met, the unconventional place he turned for advice on set and playing an adult in the period when, in real life, he was just a kid.
You’ve said that neither you nor Noah Hawley wanted to do an impression of Keith Carradine’s Lou from season one, but it does seem like you studied some things about the character.
What I wanted to do was capture the soul that I saw him give, really — the soul of his performance. I never talked to Keith about it. What I gleaned from his performance is that [Lou] is a very steady guy, a very solid guy. Don’t make light of his folksy nature; he means business. That’s what [showrunner] Noah [Hawley] was probably talking about too. He didn’t want me to get caught up in feeling like I needed to do an exact replica.
What’s interesting is walking away from it, with a combination of the writing and my wanting to capture the spirit of it, I think they’re pretty closely related. I can kind of watch it objectively. It’s not like I was trying to do something totally different. It just wasn’t a performance where you sit there and listen to speech patterns and [look at] the way he walks and try to establish exactly what he did.
The show is set in a time when you were six years old. Can you contrast living in that time with the character with what you remember from then?
I certainly have memories, I remember ’79. It’s always fascinating to play somebody from a different time, because even though you may have been alive, you certainly weren’t dealing with adult issues. Even looking at things like waiting in line for gas, and we’ll see it in the coming episodes, Reagan coming into power and campaigning. Those sort of politics I find very interesting now. … What’s fun is to look back on it with the obvious innocence of hindsight. That’s always fun, to play someone not understanding where the country was going, when obviously we know where it went.
You don’t want to get too caught up in, “Am I playing all the themes of the series?” The show is so well-written that you can go along for the ride for a lot of that. You take what you can use, and I think one of those is — my father was in the military. He did not go to Vietnam; he was transferred to Panama. I had some other relatives who did go to Vietnam, and I always wondered what it was like coming back.
Not to go on a non-sequitur here, but I remember going to a midnight showing of Platoon with my dad. The whole back of the theater was vets in wheelchairs. That hit me at 15. … As a filmgoer, you really got that and Born on the Fourth of July for our generation [to understand] what was it like coming back. Lou is a different side — of course he’s a vet, but the war hit him differently. … That is fascinating to me. I’ve always been strangely obsessed with what that is — what men go through, the violence within men, what happens when men see that kind of violence. That’s something that was really rewarding to explore.
Lou is really good at compartmentalizing — how does he handle it?
He definitely compartmentalizes it, and as a Midwesterner, I’m sure it’s even moreso. … These are not the passionate, Southern people I grew up with who scream and yell at dinner and throw the whiskey back. That’s not Lou. Obviously he deals with that horror a much different way. That’s incredibly exciting to play.
Did you talk much with Noah about playing what was under that placid surface?
A couple times. And then with each director — we had some who were more emotionally driven and some who were more technically different, and that’s always interesting. … There were only a handful of times where it was, “Let’s bring this out a little more.” And they had been with Noah and discussed it with Noah. So even if Noah or the other writers weren’t on set — that is one thing about this show. There is a tone through-line from showrunner to writers to directors to actors that is pretty seamless. I think that reflects in the work. Every time you talked to a director, you knew they had talked extensively with Noah about this moment. … That was a real blessing.
What will the fallout be from Ben Smith [Keir O’Donnell] not having Lou’s back with the Gerhardts?
With Ben, that will come to a head. I don’t think that’s shocking to anyone. He and I spend a lot of time together, because while Lou wants to pursue this, Lou also respects [Ben’s] jurisdiction. Keir and I, I just love working with that guy. Keir is just an awesome guy and such a solid actor to be able to go from drama to comedy. As the story goes on, he’s got some amazing moments. I love that push and pull with him, the different styles of police work, the different types of people he and Lou are. And he’s also a vet. So why did his experience make him this kind of cop, and why did mine inform the way that I act? That is a great relationship.
And now that he’s on the family’s radar, presumably there’s more confrontation to come?
I relished those moments [with the Gerhardts]. The still photographer on set was a former cop for about 30 years. So every take I would run up to him and say “How do I look? Am I holding the gun right?” He was so helpful to me. It was just little things, like keeping your hand always on your piece.
Those moments where the strength of Lou’s stillness [shows], that was in there. There are all these crazy characters around you — you’ve got the German frau in front of you. You’ve got Angus eating with the filthy cast, and then Donovan rolls in like a crazy villain. (Laughs.) That was one of those moments — there are some very character-defining moments. Then you see your buddy cop that has no respect — he obviously realizes, ‘Wow, these guys just own you,’ and that is not the way I roll. I loved just sitting back into my holster and saying, “Bring it.” That was a big episode for Lou’s character. … He’s understated so much that you have to see him in those situations, both with Donovan and with Bokeem [Woodbine] that you go, ‘OK, that’s the type of cop he is.’ That sets itself pretty good going forward.
I also want to ask about working with Cristin Milioti. There are a few things going on there, with Betsy’s cancer and her being a cop’s daughter, but you two seemed to settle in really well.
We did from the get-go. There were some of those dinner table scenes where you see she is her father’s daughter. And what’s really fun is to see how that translates into Molly. You see how Molly takes after both of them, both mom and dad and grandpa. That’s cool. It’s very exciting for fans of the show. All of the values and the strength that Allison [Tolman, who played Lou’s daughter Molly] had in season one, you see here how that starts.
Fargo airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on FX.