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[This interview contains spoilers from Monday’s season two finale of FX’s Fargo.]
Following in the aftermath of last week’s Sioux Falls Massacre, Monday’s Fargo finale began with something of an elegy to the myriad characters killed through the second season. With a body count this high, the characters who didn’t die were notable for their mere survival.
Perhaps that’s why I missed the Easter egg teasing the future of Zahn McClarnon’s Hanzee, Native American enforcer for the nearly decimated Gerhardt clan. The finale ends with Hanzee contemplating cosmetic surgery, pondering revenge and taking out some frustration on some local bullies.
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, McClarnon offers insight into the direction Hanzee goes from here and a connection to the first Fargo season. The Longmire and Red Road veteran talks about Hanzee’s journey, the challenges of playing stillness and why he wouldn’t want to do anything like Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six.
So many people die in this season of Fargo. What did it mean to you that Hanzee survives?
It was a big surprise. Obviously we didn’t get the scripts until a week or 10 days before we started shooting each episode, so each episode was a big surprise and when I found Hanzee was going to make it through the whole season, it was wonderful to hear. But what was really cool was finding out who Hanzee becomes. Did you get that?
I’m not sure …
Hanzee goes and he gets his facial change, his operation and all that. And he says a line, “Head in a bag,” when he sees the kids. You know who those kids are, right?
Oh God! I hadn’t thought about that!
That was the deaf kid …
From the first season!
And Adam Goldberg’s character from the first season.
I honestly didn’t put that together until you mentioned it.
I know! That’s what surprised me. I didn’t put it together when I read the script. I got to the set and they go, “Zahn, did you see what that twist is?” And I go, “No, no. What do you mean?” He takes those kids under his wing. He turns into the guy in the first season who Billy Bob [Thornton] takes out. He’s eating fish soup in the diner and then Billy Bob, in later episodes, you know the scene where he walks into the building and all you see are gunshots, that’s where he’s taking me out.
That’s awesome actually. Thank you for reminding me about that.
Yeah, it is kinda awesome. I’m really looking forward to seeing how many people actually pick up on that.
Hanzee walks this interesting line. So much of what he does, no matter how violent, seems sympathetic and understandable, but he also kills several people arguably for no reason. How do you look at that line between heroic and amoral when it comes to Hanzee? Is he a moral character?
Moral? Killing people is moral? No, I don’t think so. A lot of this stuff isn’t really explained to us. It’s left up for the audience to decide how they feel about that character. I was pleasantly surprised when they did have some scenes in there for me to show a little bit more of a sympathetic view of Hanzee and allowing the audience to feel a little bit more sympathy for Hanzee. I think Hanzee went through a hell of a lot with the Vietnam War, the PTSD. He was sent down into tunnels to pull Vietcong out, basically. Anybody who does anything like that is affected, obviously. The Vietnam Era and people coming back from Vietnam, there’s a lot of damage done. I think that, plus being adopted, taken away from his family when he was young and being adopted into an even more dysfunctional family, the Gerhardt clan, I think that Hanzee had some issues and some problems. I’m glad that people are feeling a little bit sympathetic toward him and I’m glad they wrote those scenes in the script, because you understand a little bit more why he’s taken the route that he’s taken.
How much do you view the moment when he sees the plaque commemorating the Native American massacre outside the bar as being the moment of formulating a different agenda?
Yeah, I think that he probably had in the back of his mind, throughout the whole show, pretty much tired of the way he was living and the way he was being treated by the Gerhardts. The Gerhardts pretty much treated him like a dog, except Bear showed some sympathy for him. The backstory I had on Hanzee was he probably slept in that barn back there. He was never really too included into the family. The funny thing is we were going to put some scenes in where he was connecting with the housemaid, we never got to the scenes, but he connected to the Native housemaid, she’s in a few scenes. We didn’t get to those scenes, but I think he pretty much felt like an outsider all his life, being adopted and also not being around his people on the reservation. He’s a man without any country. I think in the back of his head he always had some sort of a plan of hopefully becoming an individual and regaining his autonomy.
When Hanzee takes out Floyd, that’s such a pivotal moment. How clearly did you have their shared backstory in mind there? What did killing Floyd mean to and for Hanzee?
What I had as an actor before that was that yes, this was my mother who raised me since I was nine years old, but we got back to that he was never actually treated as a family member. Who knows why Otto Gerhardt and Floyd adopted him. There was a lot of displacement in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s with Native American kids coming off of the reservation and put into urban settings and adopted out into white families, so a lot of that was going on. I think he was still looking for that maternal relationship. You see it a little bit when he meets up with Peggy. There’s a little sadness and needing a sister/mother and that’s why he probably felt safe with Peggy at that moment when he was getting his haircut. At the moment when he stabbed Floyd, it was something that had to be done.
I love the idea that Hanzee and Peggy are, to some degree, kindred spirits in looking for their real individual identity and that they have that one moment where they meet up and they recognize something that they have in common. Leading up to that moment, had you recognized that there were those similarities in those arcs?
Yeah, I recognized the similarities, but I think that was more sitting in the room with Kirsten [Dunst] and just connecting in a different way. It was kinda unexpected, the way I felt in that scene, and I just went with what was happening between us in the moment. I’ve seen some people who did pick up on that moment between Peggy and Hanzee and I know the other actors in the room picked up on it, because Jesse played off of it, in a way, like “Don’t you dare touch my wife.” So it kinda worked. It was more an organic thing that happened within the scene.
You’ve said that Noah Hawley’s important character direction for you was “stillness.” As an actor, how scary and uncertain a thing is “stillness” to play?
We’re all actors and we all want to emote emotion, so there were moments where it was extremely difficult to be almost robotic, but obviously being human and trying to be focused and determined without showing those emotions. I had a hard time doing it in moments, but other times it was a little bit easier. After a while, I started actually having fun with it.
But it’s the kind of thing where you can tell afterward if you nailed the stillness, if you achieved the right tone?
Yeah, it’s hard when you’re shooting. You’re hoping that it’s going to look good on a screen and it’s gonna edit together well. I’m extremely grateful for what Noah and his team, John Cameron and Warren Littlefield and the editor, did. I feel very fortunate to be a part of something like Fargo. It’s just been a great experience.
Noah is obviously grateful as well, since he’s said that he had worries about being able to cast Hanzee at all, but then you came in and he knew he had it. When you read the script did you have a similar reaction that this was a part that you had to play?
Kinda. I can relate quite well to these tragic characters, very flawed and tragic characters. It’s very easy for me to relate to them, because my background, I had a rough upbringing. A lot of people have, but I’ve been through the wringer with quite a few things in my life. I didn’t read a script. All I had was sides, because Hanzee doesn’t say a lot. The scene I auditioned with the first time was the scene where I bury Skip [from the typewriter store] and there’s only a couple lines there, little one-liners, so there wasn’t much to audition with. Then when I went to Noah for a callback, they came out with the garage scene, talking about being a tunnel-rat, so I had a little bit more material to delve into. The first audition, I think I screwed it up pretty well. I kinda walked out of that first audition thinking that I wasn’t gonna get a callback and when I did meet Warren and Noah, we went over the scene in the garage and then I did the scene with Rachel and the rabbit with Noah and after I stopped, I said, “Do you want me to make any adjustments?” And he just kinda looked at me and said, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” And that was it, which was just a wonderful experience.
Noah’s an intimidating guy. He’s a little guy like me, but he’s an intimidating guy. He’s got a steely gaze. I’m gonna call him a genius, because everybody else is and I really, truly think he is. The guy is just so, so talented. So it was amazing when I did get the call for the job.
I have to imagine in your career that you’ve had experiences with parts that read well on the page, but then as things shifted on-set or as you got more scripts, they became stereotypical or troubling as they progressed. How do you know when you’re in good hands creatively?
Yeah, I’ve had quite a few of those experiences, actually. What’s positive is a lot of people nowadays, producers and directors, are actually listening to specifically Native American actors to correct a lot of those stereotypes. When I met Noah and the first thing he said to me was “still,” I kinda knew that I was in good hands. Plus I’d seen the first season of Fargo. That season was brilliant and I knew going in that I was working with a team of people that is considered the best in Hollywood right now, so I knew I was in good hands going in.
So how does an experience like this color the way you look at future scripts? Has it changed the way that you look at roles for yourself going forward?
I hope more opportunities open up and I do hope that people see me in possibly a different way or give me a chance to do something a little bit different. Unfortunately, at this moment and this time in my career, it’s hard to be picky and choosy. I need to continue to work, but I’m not going to go do Ridiculous Six, you know? I’m just not gonna do something or be a part of something like that. I wasn’t there. I didn’t read the scripts or anything. But I would have a hard time being involved with a project like that. I get the humor, but I wouldn’t want to offend my mother.
What did you think of the Fargo season finale? Sound off in the comments, below. Click here to read Bokeem Woodbine’s thoughts on the season.
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