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Fargo Casting Director Rachel Tenner on Finding the Perfect Blend of Everything for the Show

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A scene from Fargo (Credit: FX)

FX’s Fargo returns for its fifth season, this time focused on a wife and mother named Dot (Juno Temple) and her curious connection to an old-fashioned sheriff (Jon Hamm). Joining the Ted Lasso and Mad Men alumni are Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joe Keery, Lamorne Morris, and a number of other great standouts.

Below the Line spoke to the woman responsible for finding this spectacular talent, casting director Rachel Tenner. She detailed her early association with the Coen brothers and the joy of finding the right people for this uniquely strange show. And it turns out that nailing that distinctive accent in the audition isn’t absolutely crucial.

Tenner was surprised to revisit just how many shows she’s worked on over the course of this past year, and after speaking on the day after the official end of the SAG-AFTRA strike, she joked about not remembering how to cast shows anymore after so much time off. But she’ll surely be back to work soon, with season two of Severance and more already in the works.

“FARGO” — Pictured: Rachel Tenner. (Credit Courtesy of FX Networks)

Below The Line: First, I have to know: when you are casting someone for Fargo, is there an accent test where somebody has to say a line of dialogue with that Minnesotan way, and if they can’t do it, then they’re booted? 

Rachel Tenner: Yeah, look, we ask people to do it with the Minnesota accent when they do their auditions, but there’s always the caveat of just do the best version you can. Keep it as grounded as you can, because ultimately, at the end of the day, we have a dialect coach that we’ve used every season so that there’s that continuity. Someone will work with somebody to get them there. I think we’re much more forgiving about that, even though you would think that it would be such a huge litmus test. I guess if it was super crazy, but, even then, it’s a hard one. I think it helps when you work with somebody to rein in it. Yeah, I don’t rule people out because of it.

BTL: This is the kind of show knowing who’s going to be in it, it is just so interesting. You have some bigger names and you also take people who come from radically different backgrounds for this kind of fare.

Tenner: That’s what this show allows you to do, one hundred percent. It allows you to think much more out of the box. Certainly, we’re in our fifth season, and it’s the same group of people that I’ve worked with since season one, between Noah Hawley and Warren Littlefield and MGM and FX. I think everyone collectively has this feeling that we can take the leaps we want to take. I can’t remember looking back at any season and saying, “Oh that was a miss.” You feel pretty vindicated and you feel pretty secure that your instincts around who can do this are right.

BTL: Well, let’s start with Juno Temple, because she’s somebody who was moderately well known before Ted Lasso in the US. But most people will instantly associate her with that role. How did she get cast?

Tenner: I think everybody, certainly in the casting community and the entertainment industry specifically, has known Juno for years and years and years. Even though they might not be big blockbusters, she’s been in major independent films and she’s done these beautiful performances. Honestly, the Juno I knew from all these performances has always been so complicated, thoughtful, but also quiet in a way too. Ted Lasso, for me to see, I know I’ve probably seen her do something more in that light before, I just couldn’t remember. She’s obviously much more outgoing and a different temperament of a character. And it’s funny that is now the role that everyone knows her that way.

I think it might feel now like we’re putting her back into something totally different for her, because that’s what we’re working from, but in reality, she’s been working for a really long time, and she’s just always been an amazing actress. That’s what’s fun about it. You’re taking the Juno that everybody knows from Ted Lasso and now we’re going to present her in a different way, and then she’s going to bring that same depth.

She’s such a good actor. She’s going to bring that depth and complicated persona to this character that I’ve seen her do in the past. She’s vulnerable. She’s tough. This is what the character needs. She’s funny. She can do drama. It’s a good package.

BTL: Before Ted Lasso, I had forgotten that she wasn’t American, which is obviously now hard to forget. Her accent work here is very good.

Tenner: Yeah, exactly. Thankfully, I don’t have to stay on that. I don’t have to be part of that journey as they get more comfortable with that. That’s when the dialect coach kicks in. I’m from Chicago – you can hear my A’s, and I worked in Minnesota, so I know my O’s, you know, that’s the sentiment.

A scene from Fargo (Michelle Faye/FX)

BTL: And then Jon Hamm is someone who is so iconically known for one role, and though he did play a villain in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this is a really dark turn for him.

Tenner: Absolutely. So much of this character, even though he’s such a bad guy, and so many of the bad guys in Fargo, the charisma piece of it all is such a big part of it. Like Billy Bob as Malvo, or later, Bokeem Woodbine, they all come with such charisma and a sexuality to them. Jon is another great example of that. They’re actors, right? I like to assume that everyone, given the opportunity, can really flex all the different muscles that they have.

For all of us, knowing Jon from Mad Men, even when we saw him in Bridesmaids, I can’t remember the order of things if that was the first time you saw Jon Hamm do something where you were like, oh my god, he’s funny. And then he was doing funny things for a while. I think that this character is very unique. He lives by his own set of rules and morality, and he thinks he is one thousand percent on the right side of every situation.

He just, again, brings that humor, the machismo, since he’s a sheriff and everything. The humor and the weight. It all rolls into one. I always say, when we’re casting Fargo, people go, “What are you looking for?” We’d say that it has to be somebody well-rounded. No matter how dark Fargo gets, which is dark, obviously, always, there’s always a little bit of humor in it. You have to find that person who can understand those levels and bring them to fruition.

BTL: How about Jennifer Jason Leigh? She’s got some Coen Brothers cred. 

Tenner: I know! Jennifer, that’s the easiest slam dunk of it all. Only because she was part of the Coen Brothers world, with The Hudsucker Proxy. “I’ll bet my Pulitzer on it!” She was such a character in that. You already know that she knows that world. She knows that tone, because tone is everything on the show.

She’s somebody who’s so well versed in it, and we just thought she would be really dynamic in this role. Again, another one who is very righteous, absolutely thinks everything she’s doing is one hundred percent the right choice. I think that’s part of where the humor comes from for a lot of these things. It’s a mix of people who are like, this is right, even though it’s so clearly wrong, and then the people who are floundering and finding their way, as they go through the journey.

BTL: It took me a minute, but I was surprised to recognize Lamorne Morris, who, again, this is not his world at all, but he’s a really cool choice.

Tenner: He’s so great in Woke. I loved him in New Girl of course too. I don’t know. Sometimes, you just have a feeling about people, that they’re just going to be the right fit. At the end of the day, I think we just felt like Lamorne embodied it. He has a lot more vulnerability. He’s grounded, the one person who’s like, everything you guys are doing is illogical. Here’s logic. This is logic. This is the law.

Everybody else is just going crazy and we knew he would be able to bring that humor and the charm and the charisma to it. Seeing him in Woke and everything, he brings all the heavy too. He felt like a good choice. And then Noah met with him and was like, that’s our guy.

A scene from Fargo (Credit: FX)

BTL: There’s one other Fargo actor I want to ask about, Sam Spruell, who has a very intense, dialogue-heavy, intellectual performance in Chile’s Oscar submission this year, The Settlers. Here, he’s a terrifying brute. I don’t think he’s famous enough for people to know where they know him from, but he’s exceptional.

Tenner: He brings such a weight and an oddity. The most I can compare it to is Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Javier. It seems like he comes from another world and speaks in his own specific way. He’s very enigmatic that way and lends this unease around him. He makes the stakes a lot higher because he’s so unpredictable. He’s great. To be honest with you, I did a huge search for that role. We really reached out all across Europe and everywhere actually. At the end of the day, he just did such an amazing job. And they gave him a look to add to it. 

BTL: This season also feels, even more than season one, like the movie in a lot of ways. Was there any looking back at the original film for any sort of inspiration when it came to casting? 

Tenner: No, but I know that film inside and out. Weirdly, I was in the casting office that did the location casting for Fargo when I was first starting. I remember Kristin Rudrüd, who played Bill Macy’s wife, the one who gets kidnapped, we were there for those callbacks and everything. Some actors came from Chicago, where I was casting, where I was working.

That movie is kind of engrained in my brain. I didn’t have to go back and watch anything like that. When I came to LA, I worked for Ellen Chenoweth, who is Joel and Ethan’s casting director, starting with O Brother. I worked with her on eight movies for them. I feel like that world is very imprinted deeply into my psyche. I don’t have to do that much work around it when I’m working on Fargo.

BTL: And now you’re so enmeshed in the TV world! You have six other shows that aired this past season or this past year. Severance doesn’t really count because it didn’t air recently, but it was on and it will be on. There’s Painkiller, High Desert, Fatal Attraction, The Consultant, and Upload

Tenner: It’s a lot of stuff. It’s funny, because not all of that was done at the same time. Studios certainly can hold on to those shows for a long time. But yeah, you’re right. I didn’t even think about that, but they all got released at the same time. And then Severance, we’re obviously in the middle of season two. Now that the strike’s up, we’re going to get back to it. That will be great.

BTL: Do you want to give me some great spoilers about Severance?

Tenner: Oh my god. No, I feel like the Severance police will kill me. 

BTL: I feel even just the character descriptions may be spoilers. That what you’re doing to find people, even just sharing some of that would be giving something away, only on that show. 

Tenner: I would literally never, because I feel like I would step in it and give something away inadvertently, and then I would rue the day, as they say. But it’ll be good. Ben Stiller I’ve worked with for a long time. We did like Escape at Dannemora together, too. This is the mantra for the last five years, but TV really does have such remarkable stuff to be able to work on. It’s really such a blessing.

BTL: Before I let you go, I need to ask you about a show I’m sure you don’t get asked about very often, and I wish that wasn’t the case. Let’s talk about Perpetual Grace, LTD. 

Tenner: Oh, Steve Conrad’s the best. Did you watch Patriot? Patriot is so awesome. This was the show we did after. But yeah, talk about tone. Interestingly, Steve wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I was on, that’s how I met Steve, because Ben directed that and that was my first thing with Ben.

He’s got such a unique, singular way of writing. His tone, his vision. He casts the way I love to cast. He celebrates the same things I celebrate. I think, actually, most of the directors I work with, we all seem to have that same celebrations of actors. I love that show. It’s a shame it didn’t quite get into the world as much as it should have. You have to watch Patriot.

BTL: Do you have anything else that you’re working on in the near future, aside from top secret Severance stuff? 

Tenner: I’m doing a limited series, Robert De Niro’s first limited series, called Zero Day. That’s a political thriller. Because of the strike, things are coming up that were almost done. So there’s a really great, I’m not supposed to call it a Western, so I forgot what the word is I’m supposed to use, but Pete Berg’s doing a great big piece. It’s kind of like a Western, but it’s not really. So that’s going to be finishing, and then I think we’re just waiting on a couple of things to get going. Literally, this is the first day after the strike ended. I don’t even remember how to cast. I don’t remember how to do my job anymore. There were too many months off. Now I’m like, I have no idea what I’m doing.

Fargo season 5 is now airing on FX.

Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzer has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them. He has attended numerous film festivals including Sundance, TIFF, Tribeca, and SXSW, and was on a series of road trips across the United States with his wife, Arielle, before they moved to Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer for Above the Line, Awards Radar, AwardsWatch, Below the Line News, CinemaDailyUS.com, The Film Experience, Film Factual, and Gold Derby.
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