Colin Hanks has a knack for playing good guys — which has not always been a good thing.
Hanks made his mark in 2002’s teen film “Orange County.” Since then, his boyish looks, lanky frame and amiable personality have been his calling card and have led to memorable roles in the sci-fi drama “Roswell,” HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and the short-lived Fox buddy cop comedy “The Good Guys.”
But in the age of the antihero, those same good-natured qualities may have worked against landing more complex parts. To burnish his darker side, Hanks even took a showy turn a few years ago as a serial killer on “Dexter.” But he always seemed too decent to break bad.
“That’s the stereotype of me,” said the 36-year-old actor, who is the son of actor Tom Hanks. “That’s the pigeonhole I’m in, and I’m constantly trying to break out of that.”
His latest role in FX’s critically acclaimed 10-episode dramedy “Fargo,” which wraps up its season Tuesday, may help him do just that. As with the movie, which served as its inspiration, the TV series is flavored with darkly comic moments, offbeat characters and gut-wrenching moments of explosive violence.
In the series, Hanks plays a familiar morally upright, sympathetic and occasionally hapless police officer named Gus Grimly. But it quickly becomes a more complicated portrayal when his character meets up with the evil Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Hanks’ single parent character backs down — a decision that might have saved his life and kept his daughter from becoming an orphan, but also one that costs the lives of many more residents of the quirky community.
“A lot of Gus was frustrating to me,” Hanks said during a recent sit-down at his publicist’s office in Beverly Hills. “He’s got a lot of the nice guy stuff that I’ve been trying to buck. But the way it was written and directed, it’s the best version of this type of guy.”
His performance in the original adaptation of the 1996 Oscar-winning film from Joel and Ethan Coen is generating some of the most favorable reviews of his career. The praise has caught him a bit off-guard.
“The reception we’ve gotten has been rather overwhelming,” said Hanks. “I’m not necessarily used to being in something that has grabbed attention like this. Usually, it’s a little bit after the fact.”
“Fargo” creator Noah Hawley had high praise for Hanks: “Colin was born to play this role — it really shows what he is capable of. He’s got that impossible-to-quantify likability, but he’s never been put through his paces like this.”
Hanks is part of a high-powered ensemble that includes Oscar winner Thornton, Martin Freeman, Keith Carradine, Bob Odenkirk and Oliver Platt. And it’s his character’s romantic relationship with the smart and persistent Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) that serves as the loving, beating heart of the drama.
However, Hanks’ Grimly doesn’t appear in the series until about 10 minutes before the end of the first episode. In that moment, he pulls over Malvo on a routine traffic stop.
But when Malvo calmly threatens the life of Grimly and his teen daughter, the scared officer lets him drive away. The tense exchange is one of the highlights of the pilot, and it defines Grimly’s character in just a few minutes.
“That scene is about what Gus is doing and not doing,” Hanks said. “It’s a very relatable scenario — he’s frightened for himself and his daughter, he wants to protect her, so the best thing to do is nothing. But although technically he did the right thing, the rest of the series revolves around him living with that guilt. In the eyes of everyone else, he did the wrong thing.”
The only character who doesn’t judge him is Molly, a grossly underrated police officer in her own right. Hanks said he and Tolman “just really hit it off. I was just blown away by how effortless she makes everything seem. She was very comfortable, and that put me at ease. “
Bonding with Tolman and the rest of the cast helped Hanks tolerate the often brutally cold weather conditions (the series was filmed during winter in Calgary, Canada).
“When they’re wrapping the camera in an electric blanket, that’s not a good sign. But the cold is a character,” said Hanks. “It’s what people remember from the film, along with the accents and the wood chipper.”
Hanks said he doesn’t have any immediate projects but is hopeful that “Fargo” will open up new and more diverse roles: “The kinds of things I want to do may become a little more possible now.”
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)