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How Chris Rock helped Noah Hawley shape the racism depicted in ‘Fargo’

Noah Hawley portrait shot with blue tints among glass walls.
“We were one of the test cases to come back early, and I was very proud of us for sort of pitching a perfect game,” showrunner Noah Hawley says of the return of “Fargo” to production after a shutdown.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“It was one of the most stressful weeks of my life,” says “Fargo” showrunner Noah Hawley, summarizing his decision to shut down production on the fourth season of his Emmy-winning limited series in March 2020. “On Monday I was directing re-shoots in Chicago, when we learned that someone on another crew had tested positive, so each day we had this escalating sense of fear,” says Hawley, speaking from his home office in Austin, with the desperation of those days now far behind him. “At the same time, I was trying to negotiate with the corporations who were quite rightly worried about the cost of shutting down.”

By that Thursday, Hawley pulled the plug with eight episodes in the can and two more to go. “There had been a desire to shoot for a few more days through the weekend, but as the boss responsible for the crew’s safety, I said no, it’s not worth putting people’s lives in jeopardy. At that point, nobody argued with me.”

During the unplanned hiatus, Hawley’s team hammered out a 40-page document spelling out rules for how to shoot safely under pandemic conditions. Production on the 1950s period piece, starring Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman as rival Kansas City gangsters, then resumed in late August without incident.

“We were one of the test cases to come back early, and I was very proud of us for sort of pitching a perfect game,” Hawley says. “But it was also a testament to how desperate everyone was to come back and finish what we’d started. Jason Schwartzman said he didn’t shave his mustache the whole time, because he was terrified he’d lose that connection to the character. I’m sure his wife was like, ‘No, you can shave it and then grow it back and no one will know.’ And Jason was like, ‘I would know.’"

We sat down to a virtual dinner with creator Noah Hawley and the cast of “Fargo” to discuss Season 4 and America’s enduring affection for criminals and crooks.

In its final form — Hawley added an 11th episode to accommodate the thicket of story lines populated by 18 characters distributed across three families and one semi-corrupt law enforcement agency — Season 4 dramatizes a theme inspired by a line from the Coen brothers’ 1996 “Fargo” film. “The phrase from that movie that always stuck with me is, ‘Here you are on a beautiful day, and for what? A little bit of money.’ That idea led me to explore the death of the family business and the rise of corporate America in Season 2. Season 3 was about this postcorporate off-shore account billionaire. For Season 4, we’re looking at the original sin of capitalism, which is the exploitation of free and cheap labor. It’s slavery, it’s immigration, it’s the last guy off the boat who will always do the work for cheaper.”

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Season 4’s Black and Italian American antiheroes circumvent honest, underpaid labor by embracing the “alternate economy,” a.k.a. crime, as Rock’s Loy Cannon and his gang battle the local Mafia outfit led by Schwartzman’s Josto Fadda. Hawley pictured Rock as the ambitious Loy — “Chris Rock is a self-made man,” Hawley observes. “He came from humble beginnings and created a global brand literally using just his wits. I just felt like, that’s Loy Cannon! Chris brought an authenticity to the role. He’s not acting like an entrepreneur. He is an entrepreneur.”

With Rock setting aside his stand-up comedy persona to play a tightly wound Loy, Irish actress Jessie Buckley wound up delivering the show’s most flamboyantly quirky performance as the mysteriously hobbled homicidal nurse Oraetta Mayflower.

“I thought it was funny that Oraetta is in a completely different movie than the rest of the show,” Hawley says. “Here’s this Mafia gangland crime story, and Oraetta’s in the angel-of-mercy story pretending that she’s not a psychotic murderer. She’s pretending to be helping people, but she’s not. There’s a particular kind of American madness that comes from pretending that you’re not who you are.”

Hawley fancied Buckley for the part after watching her movies “Beast” and “Wild Rose.” They first met on FaceTime. He says, “I could see that Jessie had a great sense of humor and was very Irish in a winning way. Oraetta has to carry a lot of comedic energy while still being really unsettling, so I thought: ‘OK, Jessie will be great.’”

As with previous seasons, Emmy-winner Dana Gonzalez’s elegant cinematography heightens the storytelling with an attention to detail that has define the “Fargo” aesthetic since the show’s launch in 2014. “Detail is where comedy lives, and detail is also where character lives,” says Hawley, citing Anton Chigurh’s famously bad haircut in the Coens’ movie “No Country for Old Men” as an example. “If he thinks that looks good, there’s something wrong with this guy. You have to be open to the fact that comedy in moments like that isn’t always funny. Sometimes it’s horror.”

In researching Season 4, Hawley absorbed reams of details about race and class during post-World War II America, but one of the most chilling pieces of information about mid-century racism came directly from the show’s star.

“Chris Rock said I should look at the specific Jim Crow laws in Kansas City in 1950, because every place had a different law,” Hawley says. “Chris told me his mom wasn’t allowed to try on clothes, so she had a piece of string that was her waist size and a piece of string that was her shoe size. That’s how she tried on clothes. Details like that — you can’t make up how terrible people are to each other.”


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