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On FX’s crime drama Fargo, the sing-songy Minnesota accent often serves as a mask. For some, it covers murder, but for Bill Oswalt, the former Bemidji deputy played by Bob Odenkirk, it disguises incompetence.
The newly installed chief of the sheriff’s department has been an obstacle to catching fumbling murderer Lester Nygaard (as played by Martin Freeman) even as Deputy Molly Solverson (newcomer Allison Tolman) gets closer to cracking the case. But while speaking to press ahead of this week’s third episode, Odenkirk focused on the good in his bumbling character, Fargo’s mixture of exaggerated reality and Midwestern pathos and his own straddling of the comedic and dramatic realms in series like Breaking Bad.
“If you saw the other night, you saw how Bill feels,” Odenkirk said of his character. “You started to scratch the surface of what Bill thinks his job is – which is, I think, his notion of to protect and serve, the motto of many police departments. I think he takes the protect part a little too far. He’s literally wanting to protect these people, in this case Lester, from suspicion. … He thinks it’s his job to believe in his local community, and in this case, he’s defending this person he’s known his whole life from even being investigated. I think he’s a frustration if you’re the character of Molly, but he’s a good guy. He just wants to believe in the goodness of his community and that’s a good instinct for a police officer to have, so it’s a conflict and it will put him in a vice as time goes by in this show. That’s all I can say, an emotional vice.
“It’s funny because he’s wrong and he’s floundering a bit and you can feel it. I think people maybe they’re used to me being funny. I don’t know. I just naturally go for small, funny human moments; I just look for that because it’s what I’m trained to do.”
Despite his history in comedy and his tendency to play more broad parts on film, Odenkirk only had one reason for looking at Fargo: nervousness. “I got the script and my first instinct on it was ‘Please don’t ruin the movie I loved,'” he laughed of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning original. “And I would say by about page eight or nine of reading of the script I felt, ‘Oh, man, this is great. This is everything good.’ They took all the great vibe from the movie. They took the darkness and the comedy, and well, Noah Hawley is the writer, and he did all this work and he took what you can take and not take the specifics of the movie; and I could just tell it was very entertaining.
“And then I was just surprised at how it grew over time as we were shooting it and how my part, Bill Oswalt, without giving away too many spoilers or any spoilers, he gets to go somewhere emotionally and it’s pretty great,” the actor said, comparing the role to his famed part in AMC’s Breaking Bad. “One of the reasons I was interested in it truly was how different he is from Saul. This guy is, he’s defiant, innocent and he’s fighting like hell to hang on to his innocence about the people around him; and then Saul is cynical and clever and he’s ahead of everyone and builds behind everyone and trying to maintain that. So, yes, just having played Saul, I was eager to play something like this and this is a great part for that reason.”
Another major draw for Odenkirk was the exaggerated nature of the show – one of the core Coen brothers staples that Fargo draws on for its murder plot. “I think the signal is sent to the viewer that this is a performance, this is a story that you’re being told and you’re not forced to wallow in sort of up close darkness,” he said of the series’ violence. “It’s allowed to be a story point and oftentimes I think a darkly funny one and that comes from the Coen brothers, that tone. It’s a little bit of a distance, honestly, on the violence; it’s not asking you to feel the pain. It’s more like you watch it as a story point and it’s gruesome and it shocks you, but it makes you laugh.”
That balance between comedy and drama is something that fits Odenkirk, who started his career as a writer for Saturday Night Live before creating the cult sketch-comedy series Mr. Show with David Cross. Those comedy instincts have carried into Fargo in some ways, although the actor stressed he plays his characters as written.
“I put the moustache on and I got the Super Cuts haircut, those weren’t in the script, but other than that, I did it the way it was written to me,” he joked. “Breaking Bad was getting a script and not attempting to manipulate the words at all. My challenge with Breaking Bad and with Fargo was how do I do this part as written literally word for word — it was my goal and is my goal — and how do I make those words come to life and be a character and be natural and what do those words mean. I really take them apart, so really I approach these shows purely as an actor, and it’s been refreshing and a new way to look at acting. I think it’s allowed me to be a much better actor than I was when I was constantly messing around with the words because I was either the writer on the project or I felt like it was my job.
“I wouldn’t say I approach [comedy and drama] differently, but they’re pretty fundamentally different,” Odenkirk added. “My experience, and it might be just the kind of comedy that I do, which is usually sketch comedy, is that there’s a lot more texture and sort of subplot in drama than in comedy. In comedy you can read the script and you can know the motivations and the reason for the character very quickly and off a simple quick first read. With drama my experiences – and it comes off Breaking Bad – is as you read the dialogue, which at first might look like just argument or obfuscation or something, you start to see these inner drives of the characters that were planted there by the writers; and so it’s a more focused and it reveals itself to you, whereas comedy is just kind of right there when you first read it.”
Moving forward into the season run, the actor said Fargo viewers can expect a tougher road for Bill. “I have some scenes in the latter half of the season that took some concentration and effort, but that’s incredibly rewarding,” Odenkirk said. “I think that acting is no fun unless it’s hard. I’m not titillated by acting or being an actor unless I have to work hard because otherwise you’re just a prop that talks, but if you have to struggle to feel those feelings and to understand where the person is, the character you’re playing, and you can feel like you can get there with some truth and dignity for the character, even if it’s an undignified scenario or situation, then that can feel really great. It really can be a trip into another person’s experience and it’s really rewarding.
“So, yes, I would say there are some scenes in eight, nine and 10 that where you see a whole ‘nother side of Bill and those were work, but they were great. I’m not intimidated by it; I’m thankful for it.”
In the end, the actor hopes his part in the drama is a testament to the movie he loved. “I love Fargo. I had so much fun making it and we could all tell we were making something pretty great around, I’d say, week three or four, and it’s so nice when it turns out and everyone is hoping that it’ll turn out and working towards that. But the vibe around it was so good and it just got better as we made it, so I’m thrilled that it’s playing well for people.”
Fargo airs tonight at 10 ET/PT on FX.