From Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton)’s bizarre bowl cut in Season 1 to V.M. Varga’s (David Thewlis) rotten teeth in Season 3, the series makes surprising visual choices that defy understanding and elicit conversation. Alongside his henchmen, portrayed by Goran Bogdan and Andy Yu, Thewlis made the most of his Fargo experience, relishing the chance to gaslight and toy with the Parking Lot King of Minnesota.
Speaking with Deadline, the actor discusses his exciting first brush with episodic television, cultivating Varga’s physicality and his thoughts on Varga’s final scene.
Were you a Fargo viewer prior to entering this universe?
I was. I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers and the film—I’ve seen it several times. I was one of those people who thought it was a terrible idea to make it a series. Obviously, it wasn’t; it was a great idea.
I’d seen both seasons before talking to Noah about this, so I was very familiar with it. When my agent said, “They’re interested in you for Season 3 and Noah wants to meet you,” I jumped at the chance.
V.M. Varga is a rich, enigmatic character. How did Hawley first describe the character to you?
It was a little difficult, really, because there wasn’t a lot to go on at first. We only had three episodes written that Noah could show me—one of them being Episode 3, which doesn’t involve anyone but Gloria.
There were only the first two episodes, and Varga doesn’t feature that strongly in the first two, so it was a little like, “Is this a guest star type of part?” But Noah assured me, no, he would be a part that grew and grew and went some way to explaining how that would be happening.
Because, even when you watch the series, it’s rather enigmatic to grasp who Varga is and what he’s about, it was even more confusing for Noah to have to define him to me, with nothing really written yet, and for me to grasp the world that he was in.
As each episode came out, we’ve seen a little more of him, but there was certainly enough there in Noah’s description. I just trusted Noah Hawley, basically, seeing what he’d done in two seasons. I just had to wait and see as the scripts came in how I would develop this terrible fellow.
Is it a fun challenge to play a character like Varga, a villain of seemingly unlimited knowledge and power?
It’s always more fun to play someone who’s as complex as this, in nefarious ways. I’ve realized over the years I either play very good people or very bad people, and I think I always enjoy the very bad people more.
I enjoy things that are so far away from me; that’s why when I play things that are a little bit closer to me, I get really bored. When it’s something that’s the antithesis of what I am, there’s much more to lose yourself in.
I think I’ve had more fun playing Varga than I’ve had for quite a number of years, playing anything. It’s just so beautifully written. Every few weeks, I got a new script, I’d settle down with a cup of coffee like I was about to read Anna Karenina.
I was like, “Oh, I can’t wait to see how this character’s developing,” because that’s new to me. I’ve not done episodic TV, so I wasn’t accustomed to seeing a character I was playing develop as I was playing it.
That was a real thrill. When you read a film script, you get it all at once, and the mystery goes quite quickly, but the mystery remained as we were shooting it, so that’s been really good fun.
It’s funny you mention Anna Karenina—Fargo certainly has the qualities of a classic Russian novel.
I suppose—that’s a bit of a Freudian slip. [laughs] Yeah, there’s certainly something Russian going on in this. I never quite pinned down exactly what’s going on there, but I love this Russian motif running through the series, that’s running through Varga’s story. It’s never explicitly explained, but it’s a wonderful backdrop to the whole thing.
How much backstory were you given with Varga? His bulimia, his teeth and the way he dresses become critical aspects in understanding the character.
[The bulimia] wasn’t there when we had our initial conversation. One day, Noah called me before we started shooting, and said, “I find myself following this thread, and I’ve got this idea that he should be bulimic,” which was totally out of the blue, and didn’t fit in at all with what I understood of Varga heretofore.
But I’d not put him on camera yet, and I thought this was rather wonderful. This was something I’d experienced, not with myself, but I know bulimic people in my life, past and present, and it’s something I’ve been rather fascinated with, and that’s where the teeth idea came from.
Noah’s idea was that he would have these fractured teeth, and that became a whole series of meetings and decisions, without wanting to go too far. But this really helped me with the physicality, because there’s this motif of the predator and the prey that runs through all of Fargo—the “Peter and the Wolf” story explicitly in this when you first see his vomiting and the teeth explained.
He obviously is the wolf, even though I think there’s something almost reptilian about him, as well. I was thinking in those terms before I latched onto the wolf; what with my Harry Potter history, I don’t want to particularly feel like this guy’s a wolf. You often think of characters in terms of their animals.
With the clothing, there are lines referring to why he dresses like he dresses—this is a $200 suit, this is a secondhand tie, I fly coach—all that business of hiding his extreme wealth to hide away from the retribution he believes is coming from the poor. It’s a strange philosophy [laughs]—he’s living in this truck and he’s like, “Well if you’re rich, you’re not living the life of the rich man,” apparently.
We didn’t really talk a lot about where Varga was when he wasn’t in Minnesota. There’s been virtually no backstory, to be honest. It didn’t seem necessary with this because Noah wasn’t interested in doing that, and I thought that was, for me, a different way of coming at things. I’m not sure it would have been useful, in this particular case, to overload him—unless one day Noah writes him a series of his own, and then we can go see where else he goes.
The only hint at any backstory is him mentioning that he was a housemaid’s boy and grew up in the kitchen below the stairs. I thought that if he’s going to be English and working class, I’ll give him this particular accent.
You were doing an accent? I thought you might be, but if you were, it was quite subtle.
My accent goes all over the place, depending on where I am. Right now, I’m in London, and when I come to London, I tend to speak a bit more London. I’m actually from the north of England—from near Manchester—so it’s not my natural accent or Varga’s accent.
Varga’s accent is a London accent—that’s simply because we don’t know where he’s from. He’s almost invisible, and he wasn’t identified as British in the first two scripts.
He could be Eastern European if we’re going that way. Noah said, “No, no, he’s not Eastern European, he’s not French, Italian, no.” Is he a bit Irish? “No.” Scottish? Welsh? Right, he’s English, because I do have to open my mouth and talk at some point.
I had to give him an accent, and he said, “English, yeah, but not super posh. Not upper class.” There’s a few little vowels and contestants, and those little things, and then the teeth.
When we did rehearsals, I always had to have the teeth in—I couldn’t really do it without the teeth. It didn’t sound right. I’ve brought the teeth back to England with me, in case I had to do any ADR. They’ve not asked for them back. [laughs]
What were your personal thoughts on the roots of Varga’s bulimia?
There are two thoughts about it—whether you think it’s the one area of his life where he’s not in control, or an area of his life where’s he’s supremely in control. It’s obviously an expression of extreme greed, which is oozing out of Varga, but he’s such a controlling figure in every single way.
I’ve gone into detail with some people I know. Obviously, one thinks of young girls when thinking of bulimia and anorexia. I know a man who is bulimic—a very smart man, but also quite a controlling man, and a man who is very much in charge of the rest of his life. He’s not open about it—it’s something he doesn’t even know I know, to be honest.
This particular character wasn’t a million miles away from my thoughts, funnily enough, before I learned Noah wanted to include this facet to his character. I often draw from people in my own experience to base a character on, going back to my days with Mike Leigh.
What was it like working with Ewan McGregor and Michael Stuhlbarg, as their antagonist? You’re constantly gaslighting their characters throughout the series.
I like the term “gaslighting” and it comes from classic [Patrick] Hamilton, I understand. I think I’ve heard it in reference to Trump, in terms of gaslighting the whole f*cking country.
I really like it very much. With Ewan and Michael, it was a little different because Michael’s an actor who does remove himself from the chitter-chatter that takes place in between, when everyone’s hanging out, which I kind of like and understand.
I do that myself sometimes, and yet Ewan wasn’t like that. It was great fun, actually—the amazing scene with the dick in the cup. I love Michael Stuhlbarg in this—I think he’s the standout character in the whole thing.
We’re all actors who take the craft seriously, but there’s a lot of great fun, and you might say Varga was just total fun for me to get my teeth into if you’ll excuse the pun.
What did you make of Varga’s final scene this season?
I must say I love the scene. We decided it might be cool if possible to actually shoot that as the very last scene of the whole season, and that’s what we did, so there’s very high pressure to that.
It’s a fantastic scene, and it’s so unexpected, I think. I don’t think people are going to think that’s the way the scene’s going to end.
In your mind, is this character emblematic of our times?
I think that’s certainly how I approached it. The series was created in the first 100 days of Trump. It was obviously conceived just before that, but Noah was still writing it as we were making it.
There’s clear references in there to what’s going on, and Varga is a supreme example of this bullsh*t, quite honestly. I love the conspiracy theories falling in there, and my research was really just watching American news when I was in North America.