How 'The Fargo Effect' puts actors you'd never expect to see in its villain roles (2024)

By Hugh Hart

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When Jon Hamm swapped Don Draper’s sleek suits for a 10-gallon hat to play a wife-beating cowboy in Season 5 of “Fargo,” he became the latest actor to enjoy a hard pivot thanks to the show’s perception-shattering casting practices.

“Fargo” executive producer Warren Littlefield explains writer-director Noah Hawley’s nonformulaic formula that keeps fans on their toes. “‘Fargo’ walks in the shoes of comedy, and also tragedy,” Littlefield says. “When they collide, that’s when you have great ‘Fargo.’”

Starting with its first season in 2014, “Fargo” — based on the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie — enabled actors known for their comedy chops to get serious. Nick Offerman came from “Parks and Recreation” to play it straight on “Fargo,” as did “Cheers”-famous Ted Danson, Brad Garrett of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and Dave Foley (“News Radio,” “Kids in the Hall”), who showed up this year as a smooth lawyer who never gets around to explaining why he wears an eye patch before being shot dead.


Littlefield credits casting director Rachel Tenner with a key role in assembling the show’s quirky ensembles. “Probably the only suggestion the Coen brothers gave Noah and myself was that Rachel did local casting when they made ‘Fargo,’ and ‘She really got us.’ We love Rachel’s sensibility.”

Here’s a look at the backstories behind five actors who have benefited from the “Fargo Effect,” thanks to their stereotype-defying performances.

How 'The Fargo Effect' puts actors you'd never expect to see in its villain roles (1)

Funnyman Martin Freeman lets out the monster inside him in Season 1 of “Fargo.”

(Chris Large / FX)


Season 1

Martin Freeman
(as Lester Nygaard)

A meek insurance salesman from Minnesota, Lester beats his wife to death with a hammer. Emmy nominated.


Previously known for: The U.K. version of “The Office,” as Ricky Gervais’ droll underling Tim and “The Hobbit” trilogy in the role of heroic Bilbo Baggins.

How he got the part: “Lester’s a guy who’s going to be bullied,” Littlefield says. “Martin is small, he has humor and we thought, ‘Wow, people would root for him.’ Then we reveal there’s a monster inside. We had conversations with Martin, and we just clicked. He understood the character and had a wild excitement for it. We were a little worried about the accent but we gave Martin time to work with a voice coach and took the leap.”

Post-“Fargo”: Dramatic roles in “Black Panther,” “Sherlock” and the recent U.K. series “The Responder,” which stars Freeman as an anguished cop.

How 'The Fargo Effect' puts actors you'd never expect to see in its villain roles (2)

Jean Smart, here with Angus Sampson, plays the crime family matriarch with designs on keeping a tight hold on her territory in Season 2 of “Fargo.”

(Chris Large / FX)


Season 2

Jean Smart
(as Floyd Gerhardt)


The cold-hearted crime family matriarch uses her sons as foot soldiers to fight off crime syndicate interlopers. Emmy nominated.

Previously known for: “Designing Women,” playing ditzy office manager Charlene.

How she got the part: “We were very seriously thinking about offering the role to an Academy Award-winning actress but she wouldn’t read,” Littlefield recalls. “Then we hear that Jean Smart wants to come in. You wouldn’t look at Jean’s filmography and say she’s a natural for a crime boss, but this was one of those unexpected surprises you get from our casting process because we looked at the [audition] tape and said, ‘Pretty damn good.’ We were delighted to put an actress out there whom the audience knew but had never seen in this way before.”

Post-“Fargo”: Emmy-nominated dramatic roles in “Mare of Easttown” and “Watchmen,” followed by a return to comedy with two Emmy-winning seasons of “Hacks.”

How 'The Fargo Effect' puts actors you'd never expect to see in its villain roles (3)

Ewan McGregor plays two roles in “Fargo,” Season 3: Brothers Ray, above, and Emmit Stussy.

(Chris Large / FX)


Season 3

Ewan McGregor
(as brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy)


Ray is a balding, pot-bellied parole officer who goes rogue and kills an adversary by dropping an air conditioner on his head. Ray resents his handsome older brother, Emmit, the “parking lot king of Minnesota.”

Previously known for: the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy as young Obi-Wan Kenobi following his breakthrough role as a Scottish heroin addict in “Trainspotting.”

How he got the part: “Ewan’s done tremendous dramatic work, of course, but there’s also a lightness where he’s able to hear the tempo and the rhythms to undercut the drama with comedy,” Littlefield says. “That nimble-ness was very much what Noah responded to. For Ewan, the commitment of spending 2½ hours in prosthetics and makeup [to play Ray] didn’t phase him at all.

Post-“Fargo”: “A Gentleman in Moscow” limited series stars McGregor as a dapper aristocrat confined to a hotel during Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution.

How 'The Fargo Effect' puts actors you'd never expect to see in its villain roles (4)

Comedian Chris Rock stars as the very serious crime boss Loy Cannon in Season 4 of “Fargo.”

(Elizabeth Morris / FX)



Season 4

Chris Rock
(as Loy Cannon)

The ruthless-when-necessary boss of a Kansas City, Mo., criminal outfit in 1950, Loy Cannon leads his men against mafia interlopers.

Previously known for: Comedy specials beginning with his classic stand-up concert “Bring the Pain.”

How he got the part: “Because I’d been sniffing around, I happened to know that Chris Rock is a tremendous fan of ‘Fargo,’ and I think Noah got excited about that possibility as he put the character on paper,” Littlefield recalls. “When we reached out to Chris, he’s like ‘My kids love “Fargo.”’ I’ll have credibility.’ Chris was a moth to a flame. He has an unbelievably well-developed comedy muscle but never broke into that in ‘Fargo.’”

Post-“Fargo”: Rock is reportedly in talks to direct a biopic about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

How 'The Fargo Effect' puts actors you'd never expect to see in its villain roles (5)

Jon Hamm goes full on bad guy in Season 5 of “Fargo,” with Joe Keery.

(Michelle Faye/FX)


Season 5

Jon Hamm
(as Roy Tillman)


Tillman is a vicious, shotgun-toting North Dakota sheriff who’s obsessed with hunting down the battered spouse (Juno Temple) who fled his abuse. SAG Award-nominated. Strong Emmy contender.

Previously known for: “Mad Men,” which earned Hamm an Emmy award for his performance as brooding, womanizing ad man Don Draper.

How he got the part: “Noah had worked with Jon in his movie ‘Lucy in the Sky.’ The moment Noah put Roy Tillman on the page, he said, ‘Wow I think this would be fun to do with Hamm.’ For a lot of people, it was like, ‘Who knew Jon would be such a great heavy?’ When you remember how polished Don Draper was in this slick world of advertising, well, there’s none of that polish in Roy Tillman. Jon enjoyed the sharp edges. One of the first things we did was give him horseback riding lessons in Griffith Park. I still have his cowboy hat in my office.”

Post-“Fargo”: The upcoming “Wilder and Me” features Hamm as actor William Holden.



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How 'The Fargo Effect' puts actors you'd never expect to see in its villain roles (2024)
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