Before Jessie Buckley could start chatting about her role as an evil Minnesotan in “Fargo,” a fan stopped by to gush.
“She’s got the best part,” said Chris Rock, hugging his co-star in a Pasadena hotel ballroom that was commandeered by the press two months before the pandemic would bring almost all TV production to a halt.
The 30-year-old Irish actor isn’t as famous as the A-list comic, who plays an intimidating gangster in the new season of the acclaimed FX series. Give her time.
Buckley’s screen career has been on a fast track since 2018’s “Wild Rose,” in which she played a Scottish singer with Carrie Underwood’s voice and Janis Joplin’s antics. Since then, she held her own with Oscar-winner Renée Zellweger in “Judy” and earned high praise for Netflix’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” nailing the role of a college student who can rattle off a Pauline Kael film review at breakneck speed.
But “Fargo,” which returns Sunday, is her best chance yet at becoming a household name.
The fourth season is set in 1950 Kansas City, where two gangs are fast approaching a turf war. At first glance, Buckley’s character, caretaker Oraetta Mayflower, seems out of place, pouring on the TLC while she sweetly boasts about hailing from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“I’m a people person, don’t cha know?” she proclaims shortly after we meet her.
But it doesn’t take us long to realize she’s 10 times more diabolical than Nurse Ratched.
In an early episode, she knocks off one of her patients as if she were changing a bedpan, cooing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as she sucks the ring off the dead man’s finger.
It’s as if Javier Bardem’s hit man in “No Country for Old Men” had slipped into “Miller’s Crossing” — and baked an apple pie for the occasion.
“She’s bad-ass wrapped up in a lovely chocolate sweet,” Buckley said of her character after Rock departed. “I don’t think you can expect anything from her.”
The chance to sink one’s teeth into a rich, enigmatic role is why top talent has been lining up for “Fargo” ever since series creator Noah Hawley got inspired by the Coen brothers’ hit movie.
Hawley gets a lot of credit for capturing the St. Louis Park duo’s writing style and eccentric approach to storytelling, but his casting choices are also a big reason for the show’s success.
“I tend to just have an instinct for who should play the roles,” Hawley said. “I also am a firm believer that if you’re talented, you can do anything unless you prove otherwise.”
For Rock, it was the rare opportunity to show he can do more on screen than serve as Adam Sandler’s sidekick.
“I was just happy to be offered a decent part that was well-rounded,” said Rock, who takes full advantage of playing Loy Cannon, a crime family head who intimidates anyone who dares to get in the way of his dream of putting a credit card in every Missourian’s wallet. “It’s like I kind of got really famous at 35 or whatever, 37, and everything that’s offered to me, it’s like I’m kind of like a man-boy. So, it was great to actually play a grown-ass man.”
Jason Schwartzman, who has made a career out of playing spoiled brats, also relished the chance to join the “Fargo” family.
“It is such a unique situation to love something that exists, and then you get to become a part of it,” the Wes Anderson favorite said about playing a tough guy who goes toe to toe with Cannon. “It’s like if you love a band, and then, all of a sudden, they say, ‘Would you like to come play on the next record?’ To say it was a dream come true would be an understatement.”
Since the show’s 2014 premiere, Emmy nominations have gone to 11 different “Fargo” actors ranging from established names like Billy Bob Thornton to up-and-comers like Carrie Coon.
In Season 2, Kirsten Dunst forever buried her cheerleader image in some Luverne, Minn., cornfield, playing a bored hairdresser who uses a hit-and-run accident as an escape hatch out of rural America.
In the following season, Ewan McGregor took sibling rivalry to a new level, portraying twin brothers whose lives have gone in opposite directions. The only thing they have left in common is the way they talk.
“It’s the hardest accent I’ve ever done, and I did Dutch once,” the Scottish actor told the Star Tribune at the time.
Buckley can certainly relate to that challenge.
Before filming started last October, she went beyond just working with a dialect coach, absorbing podcast and radio shows emanating from Minnesota.
“It’s always terrifying and probably the worst thing you’ve ever done until you’ve come to grips with it,” she said about tackling the distinct accent. “It isn’t just a mechanical thing. Her voice informs the character and the speed of her thoughts, how her physicality changes when she speaks. It’s all put into a big pot of stew.”
While preparing for any role, Buckley, who first garnered attention in a stage revival of “A Little Night Music,” assembles a playlist for inspiration. For Oraetta Mayflower, she landed on singer Edith Piaf.
“I don’t know why. I was just drawn to her,” said Buckley, sporting a checkered long coat and bluejeans. “The music and rhythm just seemed to match the character.”
When we chatted in California, the cast was halfway through shooting in Chicago. The coronavirus forced a six-month hiatus until August, when the final two episodes could be completed with restrictions firmly in place.
“It was definitely frustrating to stop when we stopped, because you feel like you’re on a roll,” Rock said earlier this month in a teleconference that took place one day after final production wrapped. “But honestly? The break allowed me to recharge my battery. It helped me. I don’t want the world to have COVID, but I think my last two shows are my best.”
It also gave Buckley a chance to revisit a character that is almost guaranteed to earn her an Emmy nomination — and move her one step closer to Rock’s status.
“It’s very rare that you get to explore a space like this or a character like this, where they are so extreme, like a corkscrew twisting slowly into your side,” Buckley said in January.
As the interview ended, she wondered how Minnesotans will react to her accent. “I hope I do you proud.”