ABOVE: COLIN HANKS
Playing Gus Grimly, the earnest Midwestern police deputy facing off with a murderous Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo, Colin Hanks has found a role that perfectly harnesses the dynamic small-screen presence witnessed in spots on Mad Men and Dexter. Written by Noah Hawley, the adaptation of the famed Coen brothers film places him in exquisite company with co-stars Thornton, Martin Freeman, Bob Odenkirk and newcomer Allison Tolman. The darkly comic Midwestern crime caper makes great use of Hanks, who, since starring in Jake Kasdan’s 2002 cult teen classic Orange County, has maintained a tricky balance between humor and drama by alternating projects like Parkland, a 2013 dramatization of the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, with a turn on the genius comedy webseries Burning Love.
Hanks spoke to Interview over the phone from Los Angeles, having recently returned home from the Calgary set of Fargo, where the mercury remained uncomfortably far below zero during filming.
ADRIENNE GAFFNEY: The TV show’s relationship to the film feels innovative. It’s not really a remake, it’s not really a sequel. How did they explain it to you when you signed on?
COLIN HANKS: Before I’d even signed on, back when I was sent the script just going for the audition, I was warned beforehand, look, they’re not just remaking the movie. It’s all new characters, it’s all new stories, just read it, you’ll see what they’re doing. And I read Noah’s script and Noah’s script was so good, it was so well written, that it was obvious just from reading that that they were telling a different story. Tonally there were some similarities and certainly some characters have maybe traits that are connected in some ways to some other characters in the film but overall it was its own thing. A companion piece almost, if you will, to the movie. So when I read it, it was pretty obvious. When I talked to Noah they were very adamant like, “Look, we’re going to tell a very specific story, it’s going to have a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s going to be a 10-hour movie and this is what we have in mind for this story. These are the characters and where we’re going to go with it.” Because keep in mind, Gus is only in the one scene, 50 minutes into the pilot episode. That, in and of itself, is pretty unique. Actually, one of the things that really appealed to me the most about it was the fact that they were bucking normal television conventions. Most of the time you have to introduce the main characters all right there in the first 10 minutes of a show. Well, here there’s a main character that comes in later on. That kind of stuff was really intriguing to me. It was very evident very early on that they were doing something new and different but it wasn’t until, even as we were making it all the way up until the end that I realized just how far we were taking it.
GAFFNEY: Did you have a connection to the movie? Had you always loved it?
HANKS: I remember seeing the movie. I remember seeing it at the Tower Theater in Sacramento, California. That was my introduction to the world of the Coen brothers. So I definitely remembered the film. I hadn’t seen it since, and so when we were up there shooting the first episode I watched it again just for a laugh and still found it to be incredibly enjoyable. But that’s pretty much the only connection I had to the movie.
GAFFNEY: In your career, you’ve really done a great job of balancing drama and comedy. Do you think that made you a strong fit for this, which has a bit of a dark humor?
HANKS: I hope so. I’m always amazed that anyone is paying attention to anything that I do, you know what I mean? I feel like I’m constantly having these conversations with people where they’re saying, “I didn’t know that you could be serious,” and then other people are saying, “Oh, I didn’t know that you could do comedy.” And so I don’t know if it really helped too much with this. I like to think that it does, but really I think that the tone of the show is a little bit of both. It is a dark humor, but there are a couple of instances where I’ll be able to do certain physical humor. But really I think overall you just wanted to try to make it as real and as genuine as you could, and so you wouldn’t want to hit it like a punch line or a joke or something like that. The cadence of the speech and the words that Noah had written, it had its own sort of rhythm and really you were trying to focus on that as opposed to trying to hit some sort of punchline or anything like that.
GAFFNEY: Did you look to the film for inspiration or were you wary of relying on it?
HANKS: I watched the movie again once we had started filming just for my own personal amusement, but I didn’t watch the film for any sort of guidance or anything like that. Everything that we were doing was pretty much right on the page so I was more concerned with the show we were making as opposed to the movie itself.
GAFFNEY: I noticed that you were on an episode of Key & Peele. How did that come about?
HANKS: I’d met them and they were really funny guys and I was a huge fan of the show. They said, “Oh, you should come and do something one of these days.” And I said, “I would love to, please, by all means, let me know if you have anything.” And they actually had something and they called me and I did it and it was an absolute blast.
GAFFNEY: Wow. It must be so much fun to be on that set.
HANKS: They work hard. That show is so well written and it’s so funny but then also the way that every sketch is shot and the cinematography in it, everybody’s working their behinds off. And yet they all still seem to have a really good time.
GAFFNEY: I heard that they’re going to be on Fargo. Is that just a cool coincidence?
HANKS: Noah, at some point while we were filming, said, “Hey, you know we’re trying to get Key and Peele for roles coming up.” And I didn’t know what the roles were at the time but I thought oh my God, that would be fantastic. Because they are two of the more talented actors I know. And I mean that sincerely. Those guys are incredibly talented and so funny and so real. They’re always so of the moment with everything that they do that I was really excited. And again, they crushed it.
GAFFNEY: I can’t wait to see them in it! I haven’t seen them in anything beyond their show and Kroll Show, things like that.
HANKS: They’re really fun.
GAFFNEY: I really loved Orange County, and I rewatch it a lot. Have you found that it’s something that really resonates with people?
HANKS: Yeah. I’m not sure it resonates, I don’t necessarily think of it in that regard, but it clearly must in some way, shape or form because I’m surprised that people still talk about the movie. It was this really great movie that I’m incredibly proud of, obviously, and it was my most well known role, without a doubt. I guess we’re coming up on 15 years, or close to it, but I’m surprised people still talk about it. Without a doubt, when people tell me that they watched that movie a lot in high school or in college, it’s fun. It’s better than everyone forgetting about it.
GAFFNEY: Definitely. I watched it in high school and enjoyed it on its own then, but now I rewatch it and there’s John Lithgow, Lily Tomlin, Harold Ramis, so many amazing comedic talents that I maybe didn’t have a great sense of initially watching it.
HANKS: That’s all Jake Kasdan, the director, Mike White, who wrote it, and also Scott Rudin, one of the producers. They were all really smart and they realized that was coming out in the teen movie boom, you know what I mean? They were incredibly smart to have the foresight to realize, like, look these movies exist forever, we should populate it with as many great people as we can so that it stays funnier for longer than just its perceived shelf life. And obviously they were right because people still talk about the movie.
GAFFNEY: What do you have coming up next?
HANKS: I always laugh when people say what else do you have coming up next. I’ve been working on Fargo! This is the thing I’ve been working on. We just wrapped this a few weeks ago.
GAFFNEY: Oh wow!
HANKS: No, we wrapped on a Friday, went straight into a press push in New York and then premiered on Tuesday. So I’m just getting home. Now I’m trying to find the next acting job. I’m directing this Tower Records documentary that I’ve been working on for years and still continually plugging away on that, trying to get that done. And a couple of other projects, short type things I’ve been doing. But right now it’s just about trying to get home and get well because I’ve been travelling back and forth so much between home and Calgary that my body’s been a wreck.
FARGO AIRS TUESDAYS AT 10 PM ON FX.