Fargo at 20: William H. Macy recalls his wonderful wintry freakout
Twenty years ago, Joel and Ethan Coen told a “true” story that took them to the next level as masters of cinema and earned them their first Oscar nominations. Fargo was a darkly comic noir set against the white-out conditions of Minnesota and North Dakota winter. Frances McDormand played the pregnant police chief from Brainerd whose genial manner and sharp investigative eye uncover the links between a multiple murder, two contract hitmen, and a bungled kidnapping.
To commemorate the film’s anniversary, EW spoke with William H. Macy, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman at the heart of Fargo‘s crooked criminal plot.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your audition process like?
WILLIAM H. MACY: Crikey. Well, I read the script and loved it inordinately immediately and desperately wanted to do it. I was originally asked to read for a smaller role, the [deputy] detective, and when I went in, Joel and Ethan said, “That’s real good. Do you want to read Jerry?” I said, “Yeah.” So I went out in the hall and looked at [Jerry’s lines], walked in, and read for him. They said, “That’s real good. Want to work on it and come tomorrow?” I said, “Yeah.” Then I called everyone in L.A. that I knew, and they all did rounds. I was up all night. I learned the entire script. I worked it and worked it and worked it. They said, “That’s real good. Thanks.” I found out that they were auditioning in New York still, so I got my jolly, jolly Lutheran ass on an airplane and walked in and said, “I want to read again because I’m scared you’re going to screw this up and hire someone else.” I actually said that. You know, you can’t play that card too often as an actor. Sometimes it just blows up in your face, but I said, “Guys, this is my role. I want this.”
RELATED: 19 Movies That Became TV Shows
What about Jerry convinced you that you had to play him?
It’s an actor’s job to fall in love with his character and fight for that character. I’ve seen actors fall afoul of this without even knowing it. You say, “Hey, you got a role. What is it?” “Oh, I’m playing this a–hole. He’s sort of stupid and backwards.” I’ve always thought, That may be true, but don’t you say it. You’ve got to figure out what’s cool about this guy. Immediately, on my first reading, I thought, Here is a good guy, a family man, who’s fighting for his family against stupidity and prejudice. The prejudice came from his father-in-law, who decided that Jerry is stupid. Jerry is not stupid. He had a plan, which was a solid plan, to ensure the financial future of his family. That’s a noble thing to do, and I didn’t think he was a bad guy. I think the result of that is that I’ve heard from friends, “What a jerk you were in that movie! But I was horrified with myself, I was rooting for you!”
How did filming go, apart from being cold?
First of all, it wasn’t cold. I think we were there in January/February. It was one of those winter thaws. Normally, it would be below zero every day, but it was as warm as could be. There wasn’t much snow. As a result, a lot of rehearsal that we were going to do had to be canceled because Joel and Ethan kept going farther and farther north, looking for snow. In fact, they ended up trucking in a lot of snow, bringing snow-making equipment. In at least one scene I was in, I was to drink hot tea, so that you could see my breath.
It was just planned very well. Even though the budget was somewhat small, it was a simple film, so there was plenty of time. And they had time to do crazy stuff. I was in the car dealership waiting while there was a short set-up between shots. Rather than go back to my trailer, I just sat there, and I was doodling nervously. Ethan came around the desk and said, “What are you doing?” They loved it and got a shot of me doodling, which made the cut. I guess I had started it during the take with [Frances McDormand], pretending to write.
The other thing I remember is that they would not let us come into the house without stomping our feet. Every single time you came in, you had to stomp your feet.
I have to ask about the windshield scraping scene. That’s had a life of its own.
If it wasn’t script, it was Joel’s idea that I start scraping the window and just lose my s–t. I think they sort of left it to me as to what that would look like. We might have done it twice. I remember that there was an issue, that they would have to re-frost the window. They were worried about that, but it wasn’t an issue. It leads me to believe that we got it on the first or second take. That’s right out of my wheelhouse. That’s the way I lose it. I’m Lutheran. I rarely blow, but when I do, it has nothing to do with reality. It looks like that, ineffectual and kind of silly.
As someone who grew up outside of Chicago, I always related to this. Those things never worked.
And you break them. Or somebody took it out of your car. “Where’s the goddamn scraper?!”
What was difference in your career pre-Fargo versus post-Fargo? Was it a demarcation point for you?
Interestingly, you don’t get the benefits from it for about a year. I’ve heard this from others too. It takes about a year. Everybody says, “What about that Macy guy?” But it’s about a year later. Absolutely, Fargo was a demarcation point in my career. I didn’t have to audition after that. I started making money. I was considered for bigger roles. I had a short run of it that I did a lot of the big movies. I got to do some Hollywood blockbuster movies, which was great fun. I owe them everything.