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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Monday’s episode of Fargo, “The Gift of the Magi.”]
Ronald Reagan has been all over FX’s Fargo this season.
With the 1980 election on the horizon, posters of the actor-turned-politician have been in the background of many shots, while a couple fictionalized Reagan films have served as the backdrop for both the season’s black-and-white cold open and for the movie theater shootout that brought Michael Hogan’s Otto Gerhardt to power.
The former California governor and upstart presidential candidate made his first in-person appearance on Fargo in Monday’s episode, as a campaign jaunt took him through Minnesota and earned him an escort courtesy of State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson). The episode captured Reagan’s almost hypnotic power over the disenchanted electorate, but a men’s room conversation with Lou also proved Reagan’s limitations.
Fans have been eagerly anticipating Reagan’s presence since it was announced that Evil Dead and Burn Notice star Bruce Campbell would be playing the role, reuniting him with Fargo executive producer John Cameron, a friend dating back to their high school days in Michigan.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Campbell, a busy man after Starz’s early renewal of Ash vs. Evil Dead, about tapping into his inner Reagan and the challenges of making this a performance rather than an impersonation.
I know that you and producer John Cameron go way, way, way back. Was that how this opportunity made its way to you?
My buddy John and I go back to high school and had always imitated Reagan shamelessly, like a lot of my contemporaries. My kids grew up in a Reagan Era, they were young during that decade, so we mocked him good! So that must’ve been how that came in, that John was like, “OK. I’ve seen Bruce do Reagan for years” and I’m sure Noah Hawley was at least intrigued.
But then this opportunity comes to you. What is your reaction to being asked to actually play Reagan on-screen?
Terror. And fear. Mostly because this is a show that has won some Emmys. I don’t usually do the Emmy. That’s not really my bag. I do B-television and B-movies. I got nervous. I shot it in advance and sent it to them to see what they thought. Like, “If you want to fire me, do it now, because this what I’m going to do.”
From your point-of-view, what is the key to playing Ronald Reagan as a character, rather than just doing a Ronald Reagan impression?
For sure! You have to think about what he was up to at that particular time, which was campaigning. He changed his philosophy. He was much more liberal. He solidified some of his opinions and beliefs when he worked for GE for five years as a spokesman. That got him really good at speaking and he became good at extemporaneous speaking and that got him into the whole corporate thing. I think mostly with Reagan, you’ve got to believe what you say. He believed what he said. He was a true believer in himself. I don’t think he was a bullshit artist.
How important is it for you to remember that this was 1979 Reagan and not the 1980s Reagan who comes to mind first for many of us now?
Yeah, he wasn’t the jelly bean Reagan. This guy was on the move. He hadn’t been shot yet and he was still a very vital guy. … We wanted to make sure that the hair was right. I’ve got enough hair left so we just beefed up what I had. But Reagan, boy that guy had hair. And the other thing is that he told jokes a lot before his speech. It was really crazy. There’s a lot of footage. He’s a modern president, so a lot of his stuff is available to watch and he’d start with a Russian joke. He was always taking cheap shots at the Russians. He wanted to impress upon the American people that Russians were really just a bunch of backwater schmos run by an idiot and that we shouldn’t worry about them like, “This is what these people are up against over there. They need to revolt.”
I don’t know how he did it, but boy he sure made life simple. “Things can be good again. Things can be great again.” And it was amazing how the ‘80s became the ‘50s again in a weird way. But the one thing I noticed about his cabinet, even at that time, is they were all old men, they were all doddering old men. That’s fine. They had a lot of experience. But I just felt, even then, that they were completely out of touch.
You were a young man at this point. What are your memories of the 1979 that Reagan was rising in?
I’ll tell you what, 1979 sucked, aside from us making Evil Dead. The investment climate was gnarly. Interest rates were bad. I remember the lines at the gas pumps very specifically. … It wasn’t a very happy time. People weren’t happy with Carter. They thought he was weak. And Reagan, it’s pretty telling that literally like the day after he was inaugurated they freed the hostages and that was something Carter had really been working on and I think basically he was sending a message of, “You’d better f—ing release those hostages now that I’m running the show or it’s over.” It was reminiscent of the George W. [Bush] approach: “We are still the superpower. You will listen to us. And if you f— with us, you’re really going to regret it.” It’s just different approaches.
Carter, aside from the fact that he’s a very caring man who obviously cares about humans, but I don’t think the impression of him was that good at that time. So ’79 was kind of crappy. I can see why a guy could come in and rally everybody out of their stupor and who better than an actor? And I have to say this: I also have stuff in common with him. I’ve done plenty of B-movies, so I kind of get that. We’re both from the Midwest. He’s from Illinois. I’m from Michigan. So it wasn’t a big stretch like coming up with a “Hahvahd accent.” I didn’t have to do anything silly like that.
Reagan does, however, have that very distinctive voice and cadence and you’re doing the quieter version, as opposed to like the Phil Hartman SNL version. How did you decide when you had enough Reagan that people would recognize it, but not too much Reagan?
I just think he has a cadence whether it’s loud or small. He was a good speaker! Some people don’t remember, but he did radio forever. All these old-timers did radio. So I think that was mostly just how he spoke. And I also wanted to avoid the Johnny Carson version of Ronald Reagan, too. (Shifts to Carson-Reagan) “Mmm-hmm.” That was just completely over-the-top. But you still pick out mannerisms in each of those. Whether it’s Phil Hartman or me or Johnny Carson, there’s still aspects that are always going to be there about him. The way he shook his head, a little bit. Everybody, when they speak, they have a certain thing they do with their body language, so it was really that. It wasn’t anything over-the-top. And my suits had to fit. I had to make sure they fit, because that’s important.
I love the scene with Reagan and Lou at the urinal, because that scene seems to capture both Reagan’s believable empathy, but also how superficial and empty he could come across. How did you approach that scene?
(Laughs.) He doesn’t have an answer! He doesn’t have all the answers. We can say that we have all the answers. We can get up there and give speeches and tell people, “You know if you want a great country again, here’s what we have to do,” but it doesn’t stop people from getting cancer. It doesn’t stop their lives from being discarded. Speeches aren’t going to stop anything. So yes, the theory is great. “Let’s pick ourselves up by our bootstraps” and he honestly believes that as an American you can overcome anything, even your wife who’s dying. He couldn’t abandon his approach, but it does show a little bit of the fallibility of it, that it is a pie in the sky theory. Instead of being the president goes, “I feel your pain, all you poor people, we’re going to help you right now,” that was not the approach. If you were poor, that was your fault. Americans can do anything. Why are you poor? “You just have to work a little harder.” He’s still stuck with the attitude at the time, “Well, if you just roll up your sleeves and sweat a bit…”
What was it like rolling into a show like this as the special guest star of the week? And not just the special guest star, but playing freaking Ronald Reagan?
It’s all about the material when you get on shows like that. It’s not about blowing up cars. It’s about acting and directing and storytelling. It was great. Look, I’ve done the TV shuffle for years, so I get it. When you’re on somebody else’s conveyor belt, just be ready. It’s the same thing with television, you’ve just got to be ready. If they’re moving quick, you’ve got to be moving quick, too. If they’re moving a little slower, “Fine, I’ll slow down.” But that’s TV. That’s the beauty of TV. No one dicks around in television.
And before you go, congrats on the early renewal for Ash vs. Evil Dead.
I assume y’all had to see that renewal coming, that it wasn’t a surprise?
Honestly, as you prep for season two of anything, we had to get a writers’ room going again right away, we had warehouse spaces locked down, the same crap you have to do for any TV show. I think they saw the enthusiasm for the show. Every show will have to prove itself over time if they can sustain it, but I think they saw how big the fan base was. They saw it at San Diego Comic-Con and they got a taste of it when they showed the first episode at New York Comic-Con. These are people who light their hair on fire when they like something. These are great fans and I think they got it.
What didn’t hurt is the fact that Evil Dead started overseas. It couldn’t get released in the States until we made money overseas in England, with Palace Pictures. I think they went, “Oh, we can sell this foreign, too.” Not every show can translate across The Big Ditch. So we had a couple distinct advantages. Starz wants to do shows that people don’t like a little bit. They want to do shows that people like a lot. That’s their current current mantra and I think we fit into that.
Fargo airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on FX. Ash vs. Evil Dead airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
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