Chris Rock Challenged Physically and Emotionally in 'Fargo' Role: "This S**t Is Hard"

Chris Rock as Loy Cannon in FARGO.
Elizabeth Morris/FX

Rock on the set for the fourth season’s opener, “Welcome to the Alternate Economy.”

The actor-comedian has been famous for nearly two-thirds of his life but until he showed up on set of the FX series, he rarely pushed himself this far.

Chris Rock signed on to star in the fourth installment of FX’s Fargo before creator Noah Hawley had written a single word. Rock’s "yes," which was immediate and emphatic, had everything to do with the quality of what had come before — specifically, the show’s nuanced treatment of another Black character, season two’s mob henchman Mike Milligan, played to perfection by Bokeem Woodbine.

"No matter how good somebody is, you don’t know how they’re going to handle Black," says Rock, noting that writers and directors too often "cut corners" when they’re not in their comfort zone. "I knew that wasn’t going to happen here because that character was so Black, but not one ounce of it was stereotypical."

Rock would come to feel the same way about his character, Loy Cannon, a brilliant mob boss, though getting comfortable in such a role would take time. It was as much the part — "very straight, relative to what you would expect Chris Rock to play," says FX chief John Landgraf — as the format, a sweeping period ensemble that invited very little improv or spontaneity. "This shit is hard," he kept telling Hawley, who directed the first two episodes, giving him a chance to work closely with his star.

"The biggest thing I did with Chris was to try to get him to relax that part of the brain that needs to be in control and that needs to monitor the performance experience," says Hawley, who notes that there’s no performer with a greater need for control than the stand-up comic, who’s not only timed out his or her exact words but also the pauses between. With Rock, Hawley found he’d often be in the scene but also outside of it watching himself, a habit that he was ultimately able to break as production went on.

Rock’s the first to admit that Fargo required much more of him than he’d anticipated, as he’d never before starred in a TV series. Plans to work on new stand-up or take improv lessons were quickly scrapped, as he had to devote himself fully to the show. "Doing a movie is like playing a game — doing a series is like playing a season," he says. "Even Michael Jordan, at 50-something, could probably kick some ass if you had him play one game right now. But a season? He’s not retired because he can’t play basketball, he’s retired because he can’t play a season."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.