SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of Fargo‘s Season 3 finale.
After turning heads and winning praise for her turn as a struggling alcoholic in the indie film Smashed, Mary Elizabeth Winstead raises her game as a damsel who absolutely refuses to be in distress in the third season of FX’s Fargo. During FX’s TCA session in January, a Fargo sizzle reel played set to the tune of the David Bowie-narrated Peter and the Wolf. Winstead’s character, ex-con Nikki Swango, was described as the cat, and you can say she always landed on her feet no matter what odds she faced: Whether it was picking herself up from a fight, escaping a overturned prison bus, to annihilating the nefarious V.M. Varga’s men (David Thewlis) and sending the bastard on the run. Says Fargo series creator Noah Hawley about selecting Winstead for the role of Swango: “She’s very funny, you saw that in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She played this elusive, beautiful woman, but she also had a sense of humor. I needed someone who could fit in this world, who at the end of the day could fire a gun and throw a grenade through a window and be physically capable; who you could believe was smart enough to outsmart the mastermind.”
How did Fargo come your way? Did you have to read for the role? Your attachment seemed to happen fast in the wake of CBS’ BrainDead.
I sat down with Noah (Hawley) about the first season. That’s when I first met him when they were looking for someone. I don’t think it would have been the right fit at the time. We hit it off and both wanted to work with each other. They called me about a second season cameo, but that didn’t work out. I wanted to be on the show after seeing the first season. I was like ‘Wow, this could be cool.’ At first, I didn’t know it was going to be so great and I was in awe of what he did, and how great the performances were. By the time he called about season 3, I was like ‘Oh, yes, put me in, however many lines.’ I was fully on board before I knew the role which turned out to be unexpected and a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t the type of character I was expecting to play.
Which role were you in talks to play for season one?
Molly Solverson, who Allison Tolman wound up playing. It all worked out. Allison was so perfect for the part. I never expected to play Nikki Swango. It’s suited for me after all. I thought I’d be playing a part similar to Carrie Coon’s role [police officer Gloria Burgle], but Nikki came out of left field.
It’s as though Noah played both Nikki and Gloria off as doppelgangers. That was the feeling at the onset of the season when the two of you passed each other in the diner. It almost felt like you were related.
I do think Nikki and Gloria were on parallel paths, the inverse of one another. That’s been really interesting to watch through the season. Even though Gloria is on the hunt for Nikki, there’s a kindredness between them, this understanding. It’s not like Gloria has it out for Nikki, there’s just something she understands about her fundamentally before they actually connect.
Even though Fargo has always focused on the power of women, it felt like that theme was more prevalent this season than others. There’s that side-by-side shot, which speaks volumes, of your character in the cell and Gloria’s.
You get a double dose of that theme this season where the really smart women are being underestimated constantly by the men around them. Gloria and Nikki are up against that all the time and it reveals itself in different ways. That’s where they have this unspoken connection. They’re both so smart, so good at what they do individually that they’re underestimated by how they look. In Gloria’s case she’s diminutive and makes the men think she’s not as strong as she is.
And then there’s your great silent moment where Nikki is being grilled by Shea Whigham’s police chief Moe Dammick. He thinks he’s cornered Nikki, but from the look on your face, it’s obvious, you have the upper hand.
Nikki knows these people, she knows these types. She’s been around the block to know what happens in this type of situation. She knows these types of men and how they operate. The writing on the show is so clear. It’s not overly descriptive. Noah has his hand in everything, and gives thoughts and ideas. These scenes were so easy to understand on a deep fundamental level. I’ve been playing Nikki for a while, and I know what her silence means. It was a knowing kind of silence and that was a fun thing to get to play.
Why was Nikki the type of character you weren’t expecting to play?
Because initially after reading the first episode, I wasn’t sure if she was the femme fatale. It wasn’t clear if she was someone you would root against or was a villainous character. I wasn’t really sure of what to make of her. I was used to Fargo and I’ve often played nice, polite people, and thought that’s why Noah wanted me for the show. It was sort of a turn for me to play this person with her sexuality, her confidence, her brashness and boldness. I’ve played this before in subtle ways, but never ever to this extent. I was like ‘Wow, I didn’t think many people would think of me for this.’ That’s what makes Noah great at what he does: He spots the right people for the right roles, which are so subversive and never cliché. They’re always going to be complex. By the second reading, I saw that Nikki wasn’t the femme fatale. She’s inspiring, sweet, not hardened. Once I felt she wasn’t this hardened criminal, then I was able to open up and bring a real lightness to her, something that was very suited to me and I created a character that I was comfortable with.
Were the stunts on Fargo more intense than your previous roles? I mean, you flip over in a bus.
On the sound stage, we did a real flip. Everything was real and I was chained to Russell Harvard [Mr. Wrench] for weeks on end. We were really chained. I was covered in bruises head to toe. It was so much fun, and these were the most challenging stunts I’ve ever done and I’ve done a lot of stunts before in movies. There was this incredibly ambitious schedule with various elements to the shots. But it was such a cool sequence and completely rewarding. It felt a little bit like 10 Cloverfield Lane. That was physical and low budget and we had to do things on the fly. Nikki is very different character from Michelle in that movie, but they’re similar in their resilience and their will to survive. We had one stunt rehearsal for Fargo, a couple of hours on a Sunday to block out what was going to go down. We just went in there and did it, bruised, soaking wet from the snow, just trying to get through it. That’s what our characters were doing. Nikki was just surviving, clawing, scratching her way out.
For years you starred in such horror movies as Final Destination 3, Black Christmas, and The Thing. Was it a challenge to change casting directors’ perceptions that your talent could lend itself to other genres?
I like the horror movies I was part of. There was never really a stigma that sort of deprived me in the sense where ‘Oh, we don’t want to see her for this interesting artsy movie because she’s a horror movie actress.’ I just did what I liked to do. I did want to stretch and grow as an actor and not do the same thing. I sought out a movie like Smashed. It took a little while for my career to be impacted by that movie, but it did overall change everything. I can say that everything in my career stems from somebody seeing me in that movie.