Jean Smart on Her 'Fargo' Matriarch: "I Don't Think She's Afraid to Die"

Jean Smart Fargo - H 2015
Courtesy of FX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the Monday, Nov. 2, episode of Fargo.]

If you leave aside the triple homicide at the Waffle Hut, the vehicular manslaughter and processing in the meat grinder and the various high-tension threats and showdowns, the second season of FX's Fargo has kept a reasonable cap on violence.

Expect some escalation.

Monday's episode, titled "Fear and Trembling," began with a movie theater shoot-out, continued with a doughnut shop beat-down, built to Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) and the Kitchen Brothers sending a vicious, bloody message to the Gerhardt Family, and then climaxed with a pair of heated ultimatums extended between Brad Garrett's Joe Bulo and Jean Smart's Floyd Gerhardt.

It was a pivotal episode for Floyd, thrust into power after her husband's stroke. She already proved her mettle by standing up to slightly unhinged son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), but after making a steely plea to avoid bloodshed, Floyd ended the hour resigned to war.

Floyd's "When you look at me, you see an old woman" speech to Bulo expertly blended exposition and tension. It will certainly guarantee awards talk for Smart, a three-time Emmy winner.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Smart to discuss Floyd's ascension to power and what it means for this hardened woman to prepare for war, the challenges of finding the right Fargo-specific accent, and why Floyd's haircut was what helped the character click for her.

The fourth episode is maybe my favorite of the season, because I just love that "When you look at me, you see an old woman" monologue. It tells you so much about this woman. Did you know those details when you played her in one, two and three, or was this something that Noah [Hawley] told you before this episode?

Actually, that is the scene I auditioned with. That was great, because it definitely gave me so much information about her.

How much of a family tree did you get, did you want, did you need, to play her?

That made it pretty clear, and I had come up with my own ideas about why she was named Floyd. I did not ask Noah why he named her Floyd. I figured I would just wait until the season was over and ask him. I just came up with my own ideas. I don't know, it's always a combination of what seems right to you as an actor, your first instinct, but mostly the script. You just have to go with the script as your road map, so that's what you have to go by, and as you said, that scene is very telling about her and the life she has had. She had a hard life. I mean, she and her husband ended up being extremely successful, but they worked very hard.

Now, you mentioned this, when you have a woman named Floyd, it's kind of like "A Boy Named Sue" in terms of its specificity. What did the name initially give you to work with, and you say that Noah, you didn't discuss it specifically with him?

No. Later we did, after the fact. I just thought that possibly, actors come up with all sorts of things to see and hear the character in their mind, but I just thought she probably...maybe her father was the kind of man who, he was going to have a son named Floyd, come hell or high water, and maybe he never had a boy. So, I was Floyd. She probably grew up being treated, whatever this means, like a boy in the sense that they were farmers and ranchers, and hard work was just part of your daily routine. He probably taught her how to hunt and shoot and ride and all that kind of stuff from the time she could walk. I don't think she was brought up in the kitchen, darning socks and next to the oven.

Do you get the feeling that this is the moment she's been preparing for her whole married life or that this is the moment she's been dreading her whole married life?

I don't even think it's something that she necessarily thought about or dreaded. I think that she comes from the kind of people, the kind of background, where you just do what needs to be done. You don't have the luxury of looking forward to something or dreading something, you just deal with it. You know. Whether it's losing a child or anything else, you just deal with it and you keep breathing, you keep moving. She's not about to let what her husband has built go, that's for sure. She's not about to do that.

You say you heard her voice, and on this show in particular, the literal voices, the accents, but also the intonations, are so essential. How fast did you really feel the way this woman sounds?

Well, obviously when you're doing any kind of an accent, it gets a little bit harder because you have to be a little more prepared, because you want that to become second nature. If that's all that you're thinking about while you're doing your lines, that's obviously not good. You want it to become automatic. That's also the fun of being an actor. It's fun to do accents, it's fun to do different periods, that's why you become an actor. Because it's fun to be a storyteller and play make-believe.

In terms of the accent, people always talk about that accent as being an extremely friendly, optimistic accent. Of course, people make fun about it and then have exaggerated versions of it and everything. For Kirsten [Dunst] and Jesse [Plemmons], it's perfect for them. That wouldn't work for Floyd, particularly, if she was like "Oh, yah, you know...." It's just this slightly different version of it. Plus, it's got the German influence from her husband and family, and her family. It's not quite that, "Gosh darn it. I don't know what to do with you boys," you know.

When you're out there and you get into all of these period details and the costumes and the hair and all of that, was there a particular piece of Floyd's get-up, Floyd's ensemble, that really helped this woman lock in for you at all?

Absolutely, absolutely, no question, the hair. The hair. When they cut and dyed and curled my hair, that was...I went, "Oh my God. There she is. There she is."

What did that tell you, when you looked at yourself in the mirror with that hair?

I looked just like my mom. My mom would always say, "We don't look anything like her." Then she saw a picture of me and she went, "Oh my gosh, you really look like me." It's just that a 60-something woman in the late '70s, that's how you dress. That's how you wore your hair. Not to mention the fact that she's a rancher, and you don't want to have hair that you have to bother with. She's a practical person, you just cut it off and curl it, and maybe once a couple of weeks, she'd go into town and have her hair re-done so that she could not think about it for another two or three weeks. It's just, hair and makeup is not something that she has time to fool with.

I'm intrigued by what you have to work opposite with in the scenes with Michael Hogan, particularly after he has his event in the premiere. How committed was he, and what was the energy he was giving you while also doing what he was doing there?

He was amazing. I remember there was one scene, we're outside shooting. It was so cold out, and he was sitting on the porch in a wheelchair, with a blanket over his lap, that was it. No hat or anything. It was cold. If you didn't wear hats in those scenes, your head felt like a block of ice. He was just out there, not even able to move around or anything, and the director took pity on him and said, "Michael doesn't need to be in the background, put him back in the house. He doesn't need to be in there." He's the kind of guy that comes from the theater, doesn't complain about anything. He's quite talented and takes it very seriously.

He was a lot of fun too, but there's a scene on the porch, I'm not sure which episode it is, where I'm smoking my pipe and we're sitting outside, and I'm covering him with a blanket and talking to him, and I decided that maybe part of the reason she's smoking the pipe with him is he can't smoke and she's smoking for the two of them, very very close together. They're obviously bonded to each other.

This episode, the fourth episode, also has the beautiful wordless scene in the car with Floyd and Dodd, where twice he looks to her for comfort and she pushes him away, and then she pauses, and then she reaches out to console him. Could you talk just a bit about her thought process in that moment?

I think she feels that Dodd just basically almost has signed their death warrant. She is enraged with him and also scared and sad. She just thinks that he just killed them all practically, in the sense that she's basically saying, "It's war now," basically. So Dodd, basically, we've lost everything. We've lost everything, and so it's not that she's giving up, but she's sad that she can't control him. At the same time, she's a mother. That's her biggest dilemma, is she can be very hard and very practical, but she's a mother. He's begging for forgiveness or condolence or something.

This episode begins with the flashback where we see Otto take control, and we see what war looks like to Otto. Without necessarily spoiling anything, can you tease anything about what war looks like to Floyd?

I haven't seen that first, I wasn't part of the shooting of that, so I don't know exactly how it turned out. She wants to do everything she can to avoid a war, because she knows that basically all it does is cause a lot of bloodshed. She doesn't want to lose more children, and if something could be done to make a deal and avoid a war, she'll go to any length to do that, but at the same time, she says, "I'm not afraid of a war," because she's grown up seeing that kind of thing. I don't think she's afraid to die, but she doesn't want to lose what they've spent their life building, she doesn't want to lose any more kids.