Q&A: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman talk about their ‘Fargo’ roles

Billy Bob Thornton sits in a darkened corner inside the bar of the Sunset Marquis hotel, his right hand cupping not a drink (it’s a bit early) but an iPhone showing the video image of his pal Martin Freeman. The stars of “Fargo,” FX’s mesmerizing riff on the Coen brothers’ 1996 dark, absurdist classic, are catching up, talking about their moms, facial hair (Freeman’s growing a beard for a play; the clean-shaven Thornton is sporting what he calls his “newborn pink rat look”) and music, as the camera on Freeman’s home office computer reveals a vast collection of vinyl, alphabetized (“Otherwise, it’d be years before I’d find that Jam record,” he says).

This leads to a discussion of 1960s R&B and soul (Thornton adamantly champions Stax over Motown), with Freeman remembering the time when he went fanboy over singer Mavis Staples when the two appeared together on a talk show, and then Thornton fondly recalling playing drums with Levon Helm and then, finally, after a long pause, saying to Freeman, “So ... ‘Fargo,’ huh?”



A previous version of a shareline on this story indicated that Martin Freeman plays Malvo on “Fargo.” Billy Bob Thornton portrays Malvo.


Sure. Why not? Let’s listen in as Freeman and Thornton discuss the intersection of their characters, hapless Minnesota insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Freeman) and Lorne Malvo (Thornton), the trickster hit man who changes Lester’s life.


Thornton: I didn’t notice until I started watching the show that Lester and Malvo share many of the same qualities. Lester has a hair-trigger temper and impatience. When they first meet in the hospital waiting room, once I get under your skin and present this thing that worries you, you yell at the nurse. Lester is so pent-up. He goes off really quickly.

Freeman: He does go quickly from a hunted animal who just reacts to his situation to someone who is able to calculate and manipulate. He starts to thrive with the chaos. He’s not as adept as Malvo, but he does begin to enjoy the game and do things that are slightly ... (and here Freeman uses a particularly British description of objectionable behavior).

Thornton: Malvo gets out of any situation instantly because he has supreme confidence. It’s like the guy who walks on hot coals. If you think it may burn you, it will burn you. But Malvo doesn’t think. He just walks across the coals. Whereas Lester, to get out of a mess, he creates another mess. When he’s kidnapped by Wrench and Numbers and has to get away, he gets himself arrested — even though he’s under suspicion for murder. Better to be in jail than murdered.

Freeman: Whereas Malvo, he does things none of us would ever dream of doing. My missus, Amanda, asked me the other night, “Is he meant to be the devil?” Because he seems untouchable, and he’s got that twinkle in his eye. It’s like he’s been beamed down from somewhere. I remember you telling me you never worked on a back story for him, which is absolutely right. We just want to see this fearless creature living in the moment.

Thornton: Yeah, even through all the evil or whatever and high jinks, Malvo says some things we think every day. Like when the motel lady tells him it’s $10 for pets. And I ask, “What about a fish?”

Freeman: It’d be boring just to play evil. There’s something very likable about Malvo, which makes him 10 times more dangerous. You want to follow him, which is there in that first scene between our characters. That was the moment when I read the script that I made my mind up that I wanted to do it.

Thornton: And you look at Lester then in that waiting room, this meek guy who’d just had his face punched, and where he goes from there ... he’s almost unrecognizable.

Freeman: He seems the last person on Earth who would be capable of what he does. But that’s 100% what I believe about people. Was Mrs. Hitler on Adolf’s 8th birthday thinking, “I bet this guy wipes out European Jewry”? Throughout history, as a species, we do things that go against character. We’re all made up of surprises. And Lester is the apex of that.

Thorton: Had you ever acted in weather like this? (“Fargo” filmed over six months in Calgary, Canada, during winter.) I had done “Pushing Tin” in Toronto, “Levity” in Montreal and “A Simple Plan,” but I was 17 years younger. Here you felt like the Donner party must have felt. It’s amazing when the Canadians — who seem to be eternally optimistic about things, a little like the “Fargo” people — would smile and say, “Hey, it’s going to be 6 [degrees Celsius] today!” And they’re thrilled.

Freeman: The first time I filmed outside, I think it was minus 10. I thought it was absolutely ... freezing. My lips and my tongue couldn’t really move. But a couple of weeks later, you had learned to treat minus 10 as fairly mild. It wouldn’t really kick in that it was cold until minus 18. Now, ordinarily in my life, minus 18 would have been the Antarctic. But when you’re there for that long, everything becomes relative.

Thornton: I was going to bring [partner Connie Angland] and my daughter, Bella. I’d never been away from her that long. Once they saw the pictures I sent home, they just decided maybe not. Maybe we won’t come up there and be stuck in the hotel room in a blizzard.

Freeman: It made me thankful that I live in a tropical city — London.

Twitter: @GlennWhipp