'Fargo' Star Rachel Keller on Simone's Long Walk Into the Woods

The Minnesota-born actress talks accents, Coen Brothers inspirations and getting slapped by Jean Smart.
Courtesy of FX
Rachel Keller of 'Fargo'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the Nov. 23 episode of Fargo.]

With Noah Hawley at the helm and the prestige of the Coen Brothers brand, FX's Fargo has never struggled to attract big-name stars. But while the Billy Bob Thorntons and Martin Freemans and Patrick Wilsons and Kirsten Dunsts get the most initial attention, Fargo has proven itself a creative arena in which less familiar actors can make their mark as well.

The first Fargo season saw Allison Tolman go from unknown Chicago comedienne to in-demand Emmy nominee.

This season, Fargo has breakout performances from Bokeem Woodbine and Zahn McClarnon, who may have been familiar from dozens of TV and movie appearances, but are making the most of career-best parts. The Mann Brothers, Allan Dobrescu and Angus Sampson have also stood their own against vaunted co-stars.

Looking for a Tolman-esque breakout, though? Try Rachel Keller, a 22-year-old Carnegie Mellon grad who was probably only familiar to fans of Starz's acclaimed The Chair, as one of the leads in Hollidaysburg.

As Simone Gerhardt, overlooked and underestimated part of a North Dakota crime dynasty, the Minnesota-born Keller brought vulnerability, sass, dreaminess and one of the show's most convincing accents to the season. Simone stared down abusive father Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), talked back to intimidating grandmother Floyd (Jean Smart) and introduced a little kinkiness to Mike Milligan's (Woodbine) life. But maybe Simone shouldn't have been palling around with Mike and the rest of the Kansas City gang.

In Monday's episode, Simon and Uncle Bear (Sampson) took a long drive out into the countryside. 

And Bear returned alone. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Keller about Simone's demise, getting slapped by Jean Smart and the Coen Brothers movie she looked to for inspiration.

I've been approaching this season a bit like Game of Thrones and there was a part of me hoping that Simone was going to be sitting on the Iron Throne. Had you hoped or fantasized that she could come out ahead here or did you always assume this was where she was heading?

Originally we were given six episodes and that's all I had to work with for a few months. I got Episode 7 while we were filming the fourth or fifth episode and I remember shock. So I don't think I was prepared. But, in a way if we look at it, she's just making choices that are constantly backfiring in her face, so I guess it makes sense. 

What do you view as the major flaw or major misstep that was her undoing?

Whoa. I just had an instinct to go to her defense and be like, "It's not what she did wrong!" I've getting a lot of, "Are people empathizing with her or do they just not like her?" and I'm like, "I don't know!" My family is like, "We don't really like her, but we get, because was abused." It's an interesting situation. I don't know. Maybe Mike Milligan, maybe the moment she batted her eyelashes, that was the tipping point.

In this episode, Floyd has the harsh burn where she calls Simone basically her father's daughter. How much do you think that was a true read on the character?

Yeah, I loved that. I remember talking to Keith [Gordon], one of the directors, at one point and we were talking about children of abuse and how, in a way, getting abused is them getting attention, so they come to prefer to get attention, which makes me think that she is similar to Dodd in her needing validation and making big bold choices and just sticking with them. 

You mentioned you were shocked when you read the script for this episode. Did you have no warning of what was coming? Nobody tried to break this to you gently?

(Laughs) It's fun. People were asking me, my family and friends were asking my, "Do you die?" And I was like, "Is that really the right question? Do I die? Or is 'How do I die?' the right question? It's Fargo!" So no, I had no idea! I knew I was going to die. I think I knew! I don't even remember, but I do remember being shocked and I got a lot of texts from other cast members going, "Shiiiiiiit!" and that was fun to share reading it for the first time with the cast

As you say, this is a show where many or most characters ultimately end up dying. Is there a ritual on-set with the actors as they pass, how everybody else treats them in their last days and then afterwards?

I remember that day when I filmed with Angus [Sampson], Keith was directing in the woods there. I graduated from Carnegie Mellon last May, May of 2014, and booked this a few months later, so I had a constant fear of, "They're gonna find out that I don't know what I'm doing and they're gonna ask me to politely leave." I had gotten to that point and I looked around and I was already feeling emotional. It looked around and I felt like the entire time we were filming that scene, I was saying, "Good-bye" to the experience and the people and Simone, so that was an incredibly unexpected therapeutic experience for me. John Cameron, one of the producers, came to my trailer afterward and gave me a big hug and so yeah, I think it was dealt with in a really special way. But everyone has their own different deaths, so there were different kinds of celebration and that was a very special, rewarding, strange day for me.

As you say, everyone has their own different deaths. Was this how you would have liked for it to go down? It could be hail-of-bullets or people are getting their heads chopped off. This is more tragic and poetic. Which would your preference have been?

I want tragic and poetic forever! That's how I want to live every day. I read it and I was equally terrified that I was the one who had to do the scene, but also so honored, because it was so well-written and sad and, of course, a nod to Miller's Crossing and John Turturro's performance in that movie is one of my favorites. So I watched everything and made sure I was familiar with how the Coen Brothers executed that scene. So no, I was so excited. I got a great email from Noah [Hawley] that said, "I'll pour my 40 on the floor when she's gone" or something. It was great.

As you were playing it, was there a specific moment at which Simone truly realizes what's happening, what's coming? either in the truck or as the walk into the woods begins?

I remember she says something like, "I'm the victim here" and I remember echoes of Martin Freeman, of Lester Nygaard saying, "I'm just the victim here." So I think she does know, but I don't think she'll let herself really realize that in the  same way that when he's running across the pond, you don't see him go, "Oh well, I guess the jig's up." You see him running till the very last moment, so I think that was a cool parallel, my own parallel that I made up in my brain, that she's fighting to the very end, even with her pleading and begging. That's all she knows, really.

Simone spent a lot of time standing up to threats from some very intimidating characters and some intimidating actors. Which of your co-stars got the most intense in the scenes where they were threatening you?

Well, I worked a lot with Bo[keem Woodbine] in the beginning and he was so wonderful and then I worked a lot of with Jeffrey Donovan and he was also just so incredible. Angus and I became very, very good friends and so I was nervous about doing those last scenes with him. I was wondering if that was going to work to my advantage or if it was going to be even harder and I think it was both. In-between takes, I'm not kidding, he would like hold me. I was a mess and in his great, gruff, Australian accent, he was like, "You've gotta save it, girl!" So that was... Not the question you asked. But there's an answer.

It's an answer of sorts! And then Jean Smart slaps you in this episode and I can imagine her being really intense in that moment and also sweet and apologetic immediately afterwards.

Oh yeah! Jean! It's hard to say anything, because she's just the best human. Jean is the consummate professional. She is so good at what she does. She's like a master class. I'm watching her in this going, "What the heck? I didn't know you were doing this the whole time!" So working with her, I was like, "You can slap me all you want. I just wanna be able to watch your face while you do it." It was an honor to be slapped by Jean Smart.

How many time did you have to be slapped by Jean Smart?

I remember that Jeff and I did it way more times. Jean is like a two-shot wonder. She'll do it amazingly the first time and everyone looks around and they're like, "Well, we should get another one for safety. I guess." She is incredible. So I think she did it once? I don't remember, but not a lot because of her track record. 

I like that there's a time loop with you and your character here. You grew up in the '90s, but what's the challenge of playing a character who grew up in the '70s, but wished she'd grown up in the '60s?

My generation, I know a lot of my friends, we spend a lot of time talking about what we wish we were, maybe that's just being in your 20s, but I can relate to, "This isn't the right time for me!" I get it. I get that. I remember talking to my mom a lot, because in 1979, my mom was 17, so a little younger than Simone. So I did a lot of, "What were you thinking at that time, mom? What were you feeling and listening to?" So she was a really great resource, as were my aunts and uncles who were alive at that time. 

Have you personally had that "I really wish I grew up in the..." '80s, '70s, '60s, '50s, whatever?

Yeah, but I have an opposite approach. I want to be from like 30 years from now. So maybe I'm just backwards. I constantly want to be older than I am. But I'm grateful for growing up in this era. Thinking back, I'm like, "I couldn't have handled any of that." Now I feel so protected and safe. It seemed a little dangerous back when.

You mentioned your mother and you're actually from Minnesota. So even though you're playing a North Dakota character with a Germanic ancestry, how quickly did this voice come to you? Could you base it on anybody you know or are related to?

Yeah, growing up in Minnesota, I heard a lot of different variations of it. My parents have a slight accent and my sister, but my family that lives out in the country in Minnesota, they have a really strong accent, so without wanting to offend anyone, I definitely would call my cousins just to get into it. I remember when I got the accent, I thought, "Well, this could go any way, but at least I've got the accent in my back pocket." I definitely felt comfortable with that and the dialect coach David [LeReaney] and I became super-close.

How instinctive was it for you to critique your co-stars who maybe aren't as native?

David would ask me sometimes, "How would your family say this?" but no one else asked me, which I was really grateful for. They were all doing their own work. That was part of it, too, being in a cast of people who have been doing this for a really, really long time, I had more questions for them than they did about my accent. I had more like, "What does this all mean?" kind of questions and they were doing the accent better than I was at that point, so there were no conferences about accents.

OK. Colder production experience: Pittsburgh for Hollidaysburg or Calgary for Fargo?

Whoa! That's crazy. You know what's crazy? I remember sending a text to the director of Hollidaysburg saying Pittsburgh might have been colder than Calgary was, because Pittsburgh was freezing when we shot and Calgary was getting to be more spring. So I would pick Calgary, because Pittsburgh was brutal.

I remember how often the cold kept coming up during production on The Chair, but I also know folks up on the Fargo set like to talk about the chill there.

Pittsburgh was freezing. That was hands-down. There were a couple nights in Calgary where we were shooting late, shooting in the middle of the night to get the lighting right or whatever, so that was pretty cold and Simone is far too cool to button her coat, so I'd always have drafts and breezes and I'm like, "I'm freezing!" They would line my pants and my tank-top with hand-warmers so that was fun, me and the costumers got quite close.

How strange was Hollidaysburg as an early production experience for you? You hadn't done anything like that at the time and then there you were doing this movie that was also a TV show.

It was kinda bizarre, but I got used to it. I remember in the beginning I was like, "I'm having lunch. Why is there still a camera crew going?" But The Chair was far more about Anna [Maremucci] and Shane [Dawson] than it was about me and Tobin [Mitnick] and Claire [Chapelli]. I wasn't the main point-of-focus. Perhaps in Hollidaysburg, but definitely not in The Chair. So I got to kinda watch everyone else flounder and be like, "Oooh. That's weird. That's hard. That looks weird," so I learned a lot from watching them.

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