This is Mike Yanagita! Fargo star Steve Park on the movie's strangest scene, 25 years later
The story behind a key scene in the Coen brothers' classic that still perplexes many viewers.
Even Mike Yanagita himself wasn't sure what was up with Fargo's Mike Yanagita scene at first.
After filming his unforgettable one-scene role in Joel and Ethan Coen's tale of Minnesota manners and murder, Steve Park was uncertain he would even make it into the finished film. "The thought did occur to me that my scene might get cut, because it seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie," Park tells EW via email 25 years later. But he was grateful for the experience all the same: "The idea of limited screen time never occurred to me. I was working on a Coen brothers film, for God's sake; it was such a huge deal for me. I put everything I had into it."
The result was one of the most memorable scenes in the Coens' wintry classic — for a few reasons. About an hour into the movie, after receiving a call from a former classmate out of the blue, small-town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) meets him at a Minneapolis hotel to catch up. It doesn't go well, to put it mildly: Yanagita haplessly tries and fails to seduce Marge and soon breaks down crying over drinks.
It's a masterpiece of cringe comedy, but its significance to the film as a whole has flummoxed many viewers for a quarter century now. (To this day, Googling "Mike Yanagita" will turn up numerous debates and discussions over the scene's meaning.) Almost every other sequence in Fargo drives the intricate crime-caper plot forward, while Marge's encounter with Yanagita has no apparent purpose beyond its own, self-contained pleasures.
But we'll come back to that. To mark the 25th anniversary of Fargo rolling into theaters (on March 8, 1996), we asked Park what he remembered about working on it. Did he have answers? Oh, you betcha.
"Internally, I was screaming in anguish"
In classic Coen fashion, Mike Yanagita is realized with remarkable specificity and detail in only a few minutes of screen time. His fumbling, awkward demeanor quickly drops to reveal a deep well of sadness and pain, as he explains his wife died of leukemia, clumsily comes on to the pregnant Marge ("You were such a super lady!"), bursts out, "I been so lonely," and bursts into tears.
"I almost passed on the audition when I first read the character description," says Park, known at that time for his one-season stint on In Living Color and for movies like Do the Right Thing. "I thought the character was too old for me to play and so far away from me. But after working on it, I realized I understood the loneliness of the character and the pain he was in."
Park flew from Los Angeles to New York to meet the Coens and their casting director "on a rainy Saturday morning," as he recalls. "I wore this tie that had a stain on it and I was kind of disheveled, and that helped me get into character," he adds.
On set, that physicality was heightened: "Hair and makeup had aged me a bit. I had my hairline shaved a bit higher, and a padded belly, and some gray added to my hair." A vocal transformation was required as well; like most other characters in Fargo, Yanagita speaks in an exaggerated Minnesota accent. (The Coens' screenplay specifies certain pronunciations like "yah," "ya know," and "whyncha.") "I'd been working with the dialect coach, Elizabeth Himmelstein, and I remember needing to get used to how much she was having me push the vowel sounds," Park recalls.
The loneliness he connected with in Yanagita became crucial to his portrayal as well. "What I remember about my internal process when it came time to shoot the scene was that I had tapped into some real personal pain," the actor explains. "Internally, I was screaming in anguish and was so desperate for connection and doing everything in my power to cover it."
Doin' really super
Despite that, Park recalls filming the scene — over a single day at a Minneapolis Holiday Inn (not a Radisson) — as an enjoyable and easygoing process.
"Fran [McDormand] is a very easy person to get along with. Joel and Ethan, too. Very down to earth and relaxed," he says. "We just played with the scene and found different things along the way. I remember finding the moment when I cut Marge off and say, 'I always liked you so much,' and Joel and Ethan really liked that."
The Coens famously don't give much direction to actors on set, but Park never felt adrift during shooting. "They knew exactly what they wanted, and that was communicated to me because everything was in the script," the actor says. "Improvising never occurred to me because you couldn't come up with something better [than what was] already on the page. The writing was so specific and brilliant, including the 'umms' and all the little hesitations people have when they're speaking. It was all there.
"I think by the time I was in front of the camera, I knew who this character was, and they just tweaked my performance," Park adds. "So, they didn't give me a lot of direction. I felt like we were all in sync."
Acclaim for his performance began right away. "I remember Fran telling me soon after we shot the scene that the crew really loved it," Park says, "and how that was a very good indicator if a scene was really good or not, if the crew liked it." But it took time for the actor himself to be able to appreciate his own work.
"I was very self-critical when I first saw myself in the film, but I never enjoyed watching myself and back then I had very little objectivity," he explains. "I remember Ethan calling me and telling me after one of the first screenings how funny everyone thought my scene was, and I was like, what?! For me, playing the character was just painful, so I was still in that [headspace] about it. When some time had passed and I could watch my scene objectively in the context of the rest of the movie, and see how funny it was, that was when I was able to appreciate my performance."
Cracking the case
As noted, it also took some time for Park to realize what the point of the scene was, as it did for many viewers. "It really wasn't until I saw Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese talking about this scene that I learned my scene was the catalyst for Marge to realize that Jerry Lundegaard was probably lying to her, just like Mike was," he says.
Later in Fargo, Marge speaks to another old friend on the phone, and learns that Yanagita's story about his wife was a lie. The woman he said was his wife is still alive and well, and they were never married. Soon afterward, the good-hearted, trusting police chief decides to re-interrogate Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who she now correctly suspects may have lied to her during their first interview. So, in fact, the Yanagita scene is integral to the plot, but in an indirect and unexpected way. (That's the common interpretation, anyway; The Dissolve's Keith Phipps raised a thoughtful alternate read on the scene in a 2014 piece.)
For Park, though, those concerns were immaterial while working on the film; asked if he ever discussed the scene's significance with the Coens, he answers simply, "No." As the actor recalls, he was just thrilled for the chance to dig into a complicated and all too human character.
"I told [the Coens] that the character of Mike Yanagita was the most interesting Asian American character I'd ever come across in a film script," says Park, who famously released a "mission statement" in 1997 calling for better treatment of Asian Americans in Hollywood. "I got some criticism from some in the Asian American community who felt I was perpetuating a stereotype of the weak, emasculated Asian man. However, I was also supported by other Asian Americans who felt that this was an authentic and interesting character, not a stereotype.
"I understood where the criticism was coming from," he continues. "However, it's ironic how much praise I've received for this performance from people of all backgrounds, and how so many people either identified with Mike Yanagita or were just moved by him. Loneliness and desperation, unfortunately, are universal." The true reason, perhaps, why the scene still resonates 25 years on.