Meet 'Fargo' Season 3 Breakout Olivia Sandoval

Her character Winnie Lopez has quickly become a 'Fargo' favorite, and Sandoval has held her own with fellow co-star Carrie Coon as an intrepid traffic cop.
Courtesy of FX
Olivia Sandoval (right) and Carrie Coon on 'Fargo'

[This interview kinda has spoilers through Wednesday's episode of FX's Fargo, albeit not big ones.]

If the first season of Fargo was the season of Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, it was also the season of Allison Tolman. 

If the second season was a star vehicle for Patrick Wilson and Kirsten Dunst, it was also an introduction to Rachel Keller.

Noah Hawley's FX anthology series has been a showcase for all manner of big names wooed by the opportunity to do 10 episodes of well-regarded television, but it has also proved fertile territory for underutilized character actors to get their meatiest roles to date and for young performers to get welcome exposure.

So if the initial headlines of the third season have been about Ewan McGregor's double turn or Mary Elizabeth Winstead finally finding a perfect TV role or Carrie Coon's remarkable prestige spring, it probably shouldn't be surprising that one of the season's breakout turns is coming from relative unknown Olivia Sandoval. 

As plucky St. Cloud traffic cop Winnie Lopez, Sandoval formed an instantly winning duo with Coon and in an increasingly dark season, she's crafted one of those Fargo characters you hope ends up skirting the inevitable carnage and living to be Minnesota Nice another day.

If Sandoval is familiar, chances are good you spotted her appearances on Medium or possibly Bad Judge, series that also featured her father, consummate character actor Miguel Sandoval. This is her most substantive grown-up work, and it seems likely to spawn only greater visibility.

Before she makes the inevitable transition from Fargo to shows about talking dogs or trippy mutants, Sandoval got on the phone for a Q&A to discuss the nerdy parts of Winnie Lopez she related to, her secret handshake with Coon and which of her big name co-stars she was most excited to meet.

I find it interesting that Fargo is a show that has been so very star-driven, but it's also been this remarkably generous vehicle for young actresses like Allison Tolman and Rachel Keller. When you got the script, did you immediately think of that kind of those roles, those kind of actresses?

I have to make a confession. I had not seen the show when I got the script. I'd heard of Allison Tolman and her being discovered by Noah [Hawley] for season one, and my parents are maybe the show's biggest fans and have been trying to get me to watch it forever and so it was on the list. And then I got this audition, and of course I'm such a huge fan of the film and have been for many, many, many years. I thought any other audition I would have watched as much as I possibly could to get a sense of the tone of the show, but I said, "You know what? Why don't I just try one where I go in with just my own take on it? Why don't I just try one where I just see what happens?" because I had such a strong instinct about the character. And then after I was so fortunate as to book the role, I binge-watched every single episode in probably a matter of 72 hours. I kept spontaneously bursting into tears because I couldn't believe that I got to be on a show that was so fantastic, and seeing the way that those actresses, what happened to their careers, and just how good they were. It was incredibly inspiring.

It's notable how different Carrie Coon's Gloria Burgle is from the Allison Tolman role in the first season because she's got that sort of sarcastic side to her. Does Winnie Lopez feel to you more like the sincere heart at the center of this season's arc?

Yeah, I think that Gloria is a meat-and-potatoes kind of girl. She's really sharp and I love how impervious she is to B.S. It's coming at her from all sides, and she's just this rock. I think it says a lot about the character's intelligence, and also Carrie Coon's intelligence as a person and as a performer, that shines through so brightly in her work this year.

Whereas in a story that's often so dark, Winnie is conspicuously not that.

I think it was so much fun to play that. I got to have a great sense of humor, and obviously there's a lot of great comedic bits that happen. I think what's so attractive to me about Winnie as a character is she's so open and friendly and warm. I think it was Ben Nedivi, one of the writers, who said she's someone who you like because of her quirks, not in spite of them. She wears her quirks very proudly, and I think she's very comfortable. To play a cop who has such sharp cop instincts, but is also so warm and friendly, is a beautiful combination of razor-sharp instincts and Minnesota Nice — it's really done in a beautiful way with how Winnie's crafted.

When you had that initial audition and you decided that you wanted to do it without having watched any of the rest of it, what was the thing that you latched onto most immediately, that you said, "Okay, this is how I'm going to interpret her, and I don't want to see anything else — I want to keep this interpretation pure"?

For years when I was young, when I was in my adolescence, for years I'm always the person at a party who walks up and starts a conversation with someone and doesn't necessarily know when to get out of that conversation. There's an SNL skit called "The girl you wish you'd never started a conversation with at a party" and I hope I'm not that. I probably am. I would always go home and be like, "Dang it, Sandoval. Can't you just be cool and kind of quiet and mysterious?" I've gone through a big transformation as I've gotten older, learning how to accept and love that part of myself. 

I saw that so much in Winnie. I said, "I know exactly where she's coming from." I love that Winnie doesn't seem to even have an inkling that it would be in any way strange to talk to a complete stranger in a bathroom about trying to get pregnant. I don't think it even occurs to her that that would be strange or inappropriate in any way. I think she's gotta say, "Oh, my gosh, it's another female in uniform, and she seems so nice, and why not have a conversation with her?"

When I first read that scene, I just went, "I know her. I am her. I know her." I really wanted to come in with that security in who she was.

I love that in that opening scene, when she blurts out all of her exposition to Gloria, that's pretty much all we know about her backstory. I don't feel like we've gotten any additional details since then. What did you get from Hawley, and what did you build up yourself in terms of additional facts about this woman that maybe we haven't learned about, but that you knew yourself?

I never had a conversation with Noah about it. Winnie's personal life is always just on the outskirts there because she and Gloria are in this righteous, relentless pursuit of truth together, which takes over their entire lives for quite some time. I definitely did a lot of actor's homework on needing to really know who my husband Jerry, who's the name of my husband, we haven't met Jerry, and I needed to really know, because I think family is super-important to Winnie, even though it doesn't come up a lot in the story. This is almost as big a part of her life as being a cop, is wanting to be a mother. I think she genuinely loves her husband very much, and I think that gives her something to fight for, too, so I was trying to keep that in my mind. 

I'm married. I got married a year ago, so I've been exploring getting to know this wonderful world of marriage. I had a lot to feed off of in my personal life, thinking about, "Wow, what if I was a cop putting my life on the line?" and every time I drew my gun or there was a scene that put me at risk, I would think, "I gotta get home to Jerry." That was the thing I kept thinking was, "I gotta get home to Jerry."

The relationship between Gloria and Winnie is such a great and immediate empathetic and relatable relationship. How quickly did you and Coon find the rhythms of that dynamic together?

It was one of those incredible, amazing things that as soon as I met Carrie for the first time and gave her a hug, I could tell that this was gonna be an incredible professional relationship. Obviously we're also very good friends. She's such a giving scene partner and we really have fun with it. There was a very lighthearted feel to everything we did, despite the dark storylines that we were finding ourselves immersed in. 

We had all these little quirks. We had a secret handshake dance. It's hard to describe over the phone, but basically we would try to hold our torsos as still as possible and then do this little shuffle with our legs. It was our little fist bump before we would go on and solve the crime. It all happened very organically. We learned how to communicate to each other with just a look within the first day of shooting. She was just so incredible to me as a newcomer, just for the mentorship she offered and was constantly giving me advice. We just had so much fun. It was really difficult to let go of when it was all said and done. The chemistry we have as actors I think is really special.

I interviewed Dearbhla Walsh last week, and she pointed out how frequently the directors have intentionally framed Winnie and Gloria in the same shots together throughout the season to sort of associate them with each other in the minds of the viewer. Having talked to her, watching episode seven, I'm like, "It's actually totally true." Is that a formal choice that you're aware of when you're there?

People wouldn't talk about it directly, but I noticed it was always the 50/50 with Gloria and I. A 50/50 shot. I remember once Sandi [Cameron], the script supervisor, came up to us in episode six when we were shooting the scene where we were interrogating Ray [Ewan McGregor], or no, that's episode five, and she said, "Just so you know, the shot with the two of you there, it's badass." I think that Carrie and I both really mastered the death stare by the end of the season. When you've got four eyeballs looking at you, with Gloria and Winnie on your trail, you're about to get caught.

Looking at art imitating life, when you have a rapport or a dynamic with a character that's as important as what Winnie has with Gloria, does that make the unease that Winnie feels when she's alone — like in the restaurant scene in this episode — does that make that even easier to play when you suddenly find yourself without your most familiar scene partner?

Definitely. Like you say, art imitating life. Winnie really looks to Gloria for her mentorship and really looks up to her and her fearlessness because Gloria is very fearless, and nothing can stop her when she's on the trail. When I shot that scene, when we leave the St. Cloud police station, I'm ready to pack it in, like, "There's no way. We're busted. Gig's up. It was fun while it lasted, but that's that." She kinda literally shoved me out the door toward the restaurant, and Winnie in that scene is doing a couple of things for the first time, being on her own, being a detective essentially, and also delivering the news that someone's brother has been found murdered. 

I really love the way the scene is written because it starts off, she has this really horrible news to deliver, and then all of the sudden Emmit [also McGregor] comes out with that, "I've been here since six," and Winnie on the spot has to shift to being, "That changes things." I don't think she comes into that scene thinking that Emmit might be a suspect, but she leaves thinking that he is. 

You've been around the acting world basically your entire life, but was there anyone in the cast who you were particularly, I don't want to say star-struck by, but impressed with coming in?

(Laughs.) Everybody. Everybody! It was such an amazing cast. When it was looking like I was going to book the role and I hadn't really allowed myself to think about it and I trying to protect myself. "Don't get your hopes up. It's a long shot." All that stuff. I wasn't looking at who had been cast. I just had it in my periphery.

Once I booked it, it started really sinking in that I was going to get to work with Ewan McGregor, that was, like ... I mean ... he's one of my favorite actors on the planet, and I was, like, "I get to work with him!" And David Thewlis, ever since I saw Naked, I think he's one of the world's finest actors and artists, he's truly an artist. Working with him, when he walks in as Varga, it's a different person. The way that he crafted the details of that character, it reminded me of why I wanted to be an actor in the first place, seeing him work. And Michael Stuhlbarg! Really, I could go on about everybody. But of course the first day that I was on set, and I had the opportunity to meet Ewan, I was just thinking, "Just be cool. Just be cool. You're just here to do your job, we're all here to do our jobs." Then, of course, we all became such great friends, so that was a bonus, as well. 

You've got this particular acting challenge in that Winnie, like so many of the characters in the story, is pretty much bundled up the entire time. She's wearing these really bulky, winter-appropriate costumes with no mobility. That limits your physicality so very much. How did that impact and inform the rest of your performance?

It was a really important, if not the most important, part of crafting my character. I feel like the moment I really knew who Winnie was was the moment when I put my gun belt on because it's so heavy. Winnie had every single piece of gear. This was very important, and I would talk a lot with Greg [Auch], the prop master, about how I feel like Winnie's always waiting for the apocalypse. Even though she's a beat cop and doing mostly traffic enforcement, she's prepared for a lion. 

I always wanted the cold gun, the real weapon without live ammunition, rather than the rubber gun because that weight affected the way that she walked and how she could sit. That scene in the bathroom where I'm introduced, coming out of the stall with this incredibly heavy gun belt, and hooking it up, and latching it up, and taking it out ... and also obviously all of the parkas and stuff that they have you in and taking those things on and off and going from heated inside to frigid outside. It's exhausting. I said to Carrie the first day we were working, "I have so much respect for police officers just in the wardrobe." It's so much gear, and it really doesn't sink in how much it affects you until you have it on, and it completely informs the physicality of the character.

How long was the process of workshopping the correct accent and also the Minnesota Nice smile that Winnie has?

I lucked out because I was an only child and I had a lot of time on my hands and I would do really nerdy actor things, like I would collect dialects. I would say, "This month I'm gonna learn Irish, and next month I'm gonna do Cockney." 

When I saw the film Fargo for this first time, I was maybe 9 or 10 at the time, I was, like, "I gotta get that accent down. That's a cool accent." I had never really heard of it before. I did it as a hobby, and then it became something that my friends would say at parties as a party trick — "Hey, do Fargo." 

When this audition came along, I was, like, "I'm gonna go do that Fargo dialect." That was really fun because if you would have asked me when I was a teenager, "In your wildest dreams, if you could do anything as an actor, what would it be?" I'd be, like, "Well, I'd like to go back in time and be in Fargo." I kind of got to live out that fantasy, which is incredible. 

The smile is pretty similar to me, actually. I tend to have a pretty big grin on my face at most times. Just tapping in the dialect, plus thinking about my Midwestern grandmother, that's where I found her.

You don't have that many adult acting credits, but TV acting is baked into your DNA. How do you look back at those early experiences acting on so many of your dad's shows when you were just a kid?

I feel incredibly fortunate to have grown up in this business, as surreal as it was at times, and to have my father's mentorship and his teachings because I think it put me, certainly, at an advantage. I didn't enter into the adult portion of my career with any misgivings of what it was gonna be, feel or look like. Of course, so much you don't know until you're there experiencing it. I had a lot to learn and that's what that's been for the last five years, but I never had any sort of fantasy that it was just all gonna work out, that I was just gonna walk into a room. I knew it was gonna be a struggle. I knew that there was gonna be a lot of rejection. I think that gave me a little bit of a thicker skin at times. Of course, I've had my fair share of disappointments, but I was always very realistic about it. That's really helped me through the tough, slow years that have been, really up until Fargo, most of my life. 

I really feel for my friends that have to learn that all on their own, on their feet, in the moment, on the fly. I got to have a little bit of a precursor, so I think that helped me tremendously.

One of the things that's been interesting for a lot of the actors who have gotten bumps out of Fargo is figuring out how they're going to parlay this into the next steps of their careers. It took Allison Tolman a long time to find the right vehicle to follow it up with, Rachel Keller had Legion almost immediately, etc. Are you beginning to see scripts coming in off of this, and are you starting to look at where you want to go coming out of this, in terms of your next move?

I'm certainly thinking about it a lot. I'm in this strange and really fun transitional period right now. I have a fantastic agent and manager, and they're working very hard to get me out there. I'm having first experiences with press. I got a lot of really good advice from veteran actors on the show about just what you're talking about, the importance of the next job. It's a little bit intimidating to think about it, but I've always just wanted to work. I just cannot wait to do more work. I think I'm only truly 100 percent happy, perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, might be a bit of hyperbole, but I'm certainly at my best when I'm on set, without a doubt. I love being in the trenches, and I love being part of the whole machine. I could never imagine doing anything else with my life.