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[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Wednesday’s episode of FX’s Fargo, “The Narrow Escape Problem.”]
Fans of Fargo probably didn’t need to be told that trusting David Thewlis‘ menacing V.M. Varga was a bad idea, but the FX anthology series removed all doubt in the opening minutes of Wednesday’s episode when the season’s characters were reintroduced in the context of “Peter and the Wolf.” We saw Nikki Swango as the cat and brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy as different birds.
Varga was the wolf, devouring a decadent breakfast with relish.
We already knew that Varga, holding sway over Emmit’s parking lot business after a recent loan, was bad news, but what followed in the episode only confirmed. We learned that Varga is a bible-quoting agent of financial anarchy, that he grew up in poverty and that he’s incapable of holding down a meal.
What you choose to believe based on the evidence presented so far this season is up to you. Is Varga just a vicious, bulimic loan shark with no compunctions about murder? Is he an ageless creature of supernatural origin who can’t digest human food in a normal way? Or is he just like Lorne Malvo from the first season, a force of nature sure to leave unsolved mysteries and bodies in his wake?
One thing is for sure: David Thewlis was not going to tell me anything specific when we got on the phone to talk about embodying a wolf, the origins of Varga’s accent and the timeliness of the character’s message of economic disparities.
Alas, there was no time to discuss Thewlis‘ previous Coen Brothers work in The Big Lebowski or how his work in Naked is one of the great, underrated performances in cinema history. Next time.
The full Q&A …
Back in January at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, even before you’d shot anything, Noah Hawley had a test reel cut to “Peter and the Wolf.” Had he already told you then that Varga was the wolf, as it were?
I didn’t know that until I read episode four and we certainly didn’t talk about “Peter of the Wolf” explicitly, but it was always there at the start of that episode. And we didn’t talk in terms of creatures. The word “wolf” was never mentioned. I think there’s something always in Fargo in terms of the themes of the predator, and I think I was fairly clear that I would be this season’s predator and have people around me who would do that kind of thing for me. But “Peter and the Wolf” was not specifically mentioned then, no.
It’s such a great image and concept. Once you read the start of the fourth episode, then, what did being the wolf and having the horns as your representative instrument give you to work with?
In episodes one and two, we don’t see that much of him to begin with. They were the episodes I’d read. I read episodes one, two and three, but three obviously didn’t have that much relevance to me at all. Episodes one and two, I was like, “Well, this is a guy we’re not sure what he’s capable of yet apart from that he has the lawyer killed, so he certainly is someone who is extremely ruthless and will not let anything stand in his way.” So that had already been expressed by then, but in terms of how far he’s prepared to go to achieve his ends, whatever they may be — they’re certainly not that clear by episodes one and two and they’re not fully clear here and they’ll continue to remain enigmatic what it is he’s up to, but it’s certainly something that’s growing — what is sinister about it is the very fact that it’s mysterious and it’s not something that we can go, “Oh, this is what Varga is. This is what Varga’s up to. We can clearly see what his ends are.” Emmit and Sy are so terrified because they’re confused.
Then in episode four, we see firstly this intro where everyone is given their animal avatar, but then there’s the bestial thing of his bulimia, this almost savage expression and purging and a loss of control from a man who’s immaculately in control in every other part of his life and never does anything by accident, never does anything by impulse, never makes a wrong move in his status. He’s always the highest in the room and then we see there’s an Achilles’ heel to the man. So all that made it much more interesting to me to start to build something that wasn’t clear in the first two episodes.
As you say, the introduction for Varga makes him one of those Force of Nature characters that are supposed to keep audiences guessing on their true natures. He’s supposed to be all questions and no answers for viewers, but how much did you want to know or need to know from Noah to play this guy?
I read three episodes and I took the job. More or less I was going to take it anyway because it’s Fargo and it’s Noah and I’m a genuine fan of the film and two seasons before that. Noah was willing to tell me as much as I wanted to do know and I asked not to know too much because I I kind of liked it that way because it was new to me to do episodic TV and not know where the character’s going. I did, of course, say, “You do need to tell me if it’s something I must know, if by episode seven you’re going to reveal something absolutely key that I should have known back in episode two because I would have made a huge, glaring mistake in the portrayal.” So anything like that was discussed and i knew something about things toward the end of the story. But apart from that, the revelations appeared on my iPad as I received the scripts by a week or two weeks or threes before, however long they took to write. Noah was writing them as we were going, and we were still making this until a few days ago. It was already three weeks going on air and we were still making it, which has also been fascinating because it’s been this great pressure to get it made and still having it be revealed to us as we’re making it.
I didn’t want to know too much, because for some reason I thought that’d be more enjoyable to have it that way and indeed it has been.
So what were you using as the pegs around which to develop Varga’s mannerisms and particularly his voice and accent?
It was just trial and error, really. It wasn’t immediately clear even where he came from in my initial conversations with Noah or there in the script. There’s this kind of gag in the first episode where they say “Where is it you’re from?” and he says “America,” and I think in the script in parentheses it says, “He’s clearly not.” But it didn’t say what he was! So at first I was like, “Well, he’s clearly someone who travels a lot,” is “a citizen of world,” as he says. That’ll continue to be something he confuses people with. But I was like, “I do have to speak eventually and there’ll have to be an accent there, unless he’s lying about his accent and his accent’s going to change every week, so where shall we set him?”
Then there was a key in this episode where he says to Emmit’s wife, “I’ll let you in on a secret, madam. I was a housemaid’s boy and I was raised in two rooms.” And I was like, “Ah-ha-ha! Right! Noah’s given me something of a backstory there. If, indeed, that’s true.” We certainly agreed that he would be English, but that his English accent could be a little bit more tending toward the working class. The English dialects are so varied. I’m from the North of England, near Manchester, but there are so many different accents within Britain, and if I’m playing a British person it’s always getting that exactly right. Playing this man who is in America and is up to something extraordinary, it wasn’t quite clear where he should be from. There was a lot of trial and error before I knew how I was going to do it and then on day one you start to speak in front of the camera and that sets it in stone. Unless he’s lying about where he’s from, we’ll assume this is who he is.
When he gives details, though, about his upbringing and whatnot, how much should audiences trust anything at all that Varga says?
I don’t think they should trust anything that happens in Fargo at all, and I’m sure Fargo fans know not to make the mistake of trusting too much. The beauty of the character is that he’s a mystery, an enigma. It’s very strange even to do these interviews because I’m under strict instruction not to give too much away anyway. I’m sure you guys wouldn’t want to know too much until it’s revealed in the episodes anyway and to see what is true and what is not true.
It’s one of the great themes of this season is, truth. What is truth? What is a true story? Who is telling the truth and and what is truth in this world today? This is a season that’s been written in the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency and truth, you will continue to see, is something that is explored and what it means and where we are with this human concept today in 2017.
In this episode, Varga evokes that very specific contemporary economic image of the 1 percent controlling 85 percent of the wealth. Do you think that’s the speech he’s always given in that moment? Or do you think he’s tailoring the message for Emmit in particular, for 2010 in particular?
This is a series set in 2010, so we’re certainly dealing with the ramifications of the economic crash and looking at people who exploited and continue to exploit that situation and people who thrive in the mess of the world, people who learn how to exploit it to their own ends. I think Varga is a manifestation, certainly, and someone who can thrive and profit from the world’s failure and has worked out the operation, whatever the operation may be, that he’s about, which will remain a mystery. It’s more than money-laundering, I think. It initially looks like he’s just going to put money through the business and we’re going to learn more about what that is about. This is something unique to Varga, I think, what he’s up to and we’ll see the extent of it as the series goes on. That’s the entertainment, is to see what he’s up to.
Do you have a sense of how many Emmit Stussys Varga has had over the years? How many people he’s been in this position to?
In terms of things I’ve discussed with Noah — whether you’ll find out so much about his history remains to be seen and I don’t want to give to much away in answer to that without saying what it is that he’s doing — I have some private backstory just with myself and then we have some stuff that I’ve discussed with Noah and things that I know with Noah that may never be revealed to you guys.
I think that’s a Fargo thing. Lorne Malvo has many questions left unanswered by the end of that season, and my understanding of people’s love of Fargo is that people love to interpret these things and try to guess them for themselves, and I think that’s one of the things I’ve loved doing with the previous two seasons. There’s lots of that to indulge in with this season, especially with Varga in terms of who he is, what he’s up to and where he’s going with it.
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