Colin Hanks, one of the stars of the new FX series Fargo, knows that there are three things everyone remembers about the Coen brothers movie, which serves as the inspiration for the limited series. "Everyone remembers the snow, everyone remembers the accents, everyone remembers the woodchipper," Hanks told The Wire in a recent interview.
The show—which has the Coens' blessing, but features a new story—touches on all of these things. The show's marketing makes it clear that the show has snow aplenty, plenty of strange, bloody crime is written into Noah Hawley's scripts, and, of course, watching an episode of the show, which begins tomorrow night, will leave that Upper Midwestern sound ringing in viewers' ears. It just wouldn't be Fargo without that cheery lilt attached to even the most dramatic dialogue.
But how did the actors get the accents down? Hanks, actress Allison Tolman, and dialect coach Tony Alacantar discussed the process with The Wire.
For their auditions, actors like Hanks, and Allison Tolman, who plays the Marge Gunderson-like Molly Solverson, did their own versions of the accent that they knew they'd have to refine if they actually got their parts. "I remember when I went into the audition I sort of told them, my accent that I’m going to do for this audition is somewhere between Chicago and Canadian, but if I get the job I promise I’ll whittle it down to Minnesota," Hanks said.
Tolman, who is originally from Texas, had a sense for midwestern cadences thanks to having lived in Chicago since 2009. Still, she explained, her initial take on the accent came with help from the 1990s cartoon Bobby's World, in which the titular Bobby's mother would throw around "dontcha knows."
"I’ve been doing a kind of silly version of this accent for years because it was always the accent that I used when I did mom characters when I did sketch comedy—Minnesota mom, kind of like Bobby’s World," she said. "For my initial taping I just sort of took that accent and diluted it a little bit." When she started working with Tony Alcantar, the show's dialect coach, she honed in on the accent's specifics.
The performers had help on the page, thanks to Hawley, who wrote all ten of the show's episodes. "Noah has done a great job of capturing the feel for the region and it’s made my job easier because sometimes the dialect is just buried within the syntax, the structure of the sentence," he said. An example? "I'm going to go play pool, I'm thinking," Alcanter suggested, as opposed to "I'm thinking about going to play pool." With Hawley's dialogue helping him out, Hanks said it was then his job to simply hit the beats. He threw in a couple of "uff das," after cast member Tom Musgrave, who hails from North Dakota and plays insurance guy Bo Munk, explained the phrase.
The lead actors were instructed to handle the accent with care, however, and leave some of the more over-the-top inflections to performers with smaller parts. "There are some minor roles to the story were allotted a little bit more local color because the producers didn’t want the main people to be caricature. It was sort of like Fargo the movie minus 20 percent," he explained. "The mandate was, they’re not cartoons. Yet, the day players, some of the locals, have to carry the flavor of the location a little bit more. "
So Hanks' Gus Grimly—a small potatoes Duluth police officer, who makes a big mistake in the first episode—might sound more Fargo depending on his mood. "I sort of figure it’s a nervous tic for Gus," Hanks said. "And then there are sometimes when it much more reserved because there are sometimes when Gus is quite somber." For his entire performance, however, Hanks wanted the accent to be "evident" but not overpowering. "You’re never calling you’re callin’," he said. "Things like that. That one was always weird because I just felt like I was saying my name."
Alcantar described his job on the Fargo set as akin to "putting an orchestra together," trying to figure out what skills the actors have to begin with. "It was somewhat dizzying I have to tell you," he said. "Just to get all the pieces together and so that they don’t all slip into their natural sound and/or the Fargo stereotype because we weren’t looking to duplicate that." Alcantar worked with the leads—including the British Martin Freeman, who requested "a lot" of time with Alcantar—ahead of shooting. When production got under way, he was on set to advise. "The truth of the matter is, under the stress of a performance—meaning, hit your mark, do your thing, punch the guy in the face, run down the corridor, say your line, don’t trip over the other actor—things either fall into place or fall out of place, so I would be there to hope things fall more into place than out of place," he explained. Tolman said that Alcantar would keep her from mispronouncing the name of Freeman's character. "It's Nygaard and I keep saying Nygerd," she said. "He's there to keep us in line."
Hanks consulted an MP3 he got from Elizabeth Himmelstein, the dialect coach that worked on the Coen's movie, that featured the voices of three men speaking in different, but thick Minnesotan accents. "I would listen to every now and again just to touch base," Hanks said. "We had a Canadian crew, which kind of helped, a little bit." Hanks would also rely on Alcantar. "I was sort of constantly always looking at him going are you happy and if he was happy then I would put anything I was wrestling with to bed," he said.
Letting It Seep In
Fargo wasn't even filmed in Minnesota—Calgary was its stand in—but, according to Alcantar, being around the accent so much had its impact, and soon enough everyone was throwing around an "oh ya" or two. "I listen week by week by week the cast and crew are getting infected by just the sound of the actors as well," Alcantar said. It even followed Hanks back to California. "I would come home to LA to my wife and she would go, 'oh my God, what are you saying?'"