‘FARGO’ Q&A: Brad Garrett On Noah Hawley’s Intensely Written Dialogue and Characters


Brad Garrett as Joe Bulo copyPreston Barta // Editor

This season, FARGO has continued to solidify its mark as one of television’s more quality shows, especially after last night’s episode. The stakes are being raised higher by the week. Just you wait until next week’s, which will leave you slack-jawed to say the least.

One of the reasons why this show keeps us coming back is Noah Hawley’s intensely written discussions between characters, and next week features a great one between mafiosa matriarch Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) and Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), a middle manager for the Kansas City mafia.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to speak with Garrett, who’s best known for his role as Robert Barone on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. We discussed his character, performing Hawley’s rich dialogue, and the transition of genres.

Brad Garrett as Joe Bulo. Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

Brad Garrett as Joe Bulo.
Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

When you read a script by Noah Hawley, there are moments with that are kind of left for audiences to fill in and draw their own conclusions. From a visual stand point, we know it’s ambiguous, but when you’re reading it do you question [Hawley] and the other writers about it or do they say, “Yeah, there may or may not be aliens involved, we don’t know?”

Brad Garrett: “I had very few questions with it. They’re very collaborative in their ways. That’s just the way it works. If you have any questions of anything, he’s happy to answer them. You pretty much read the scripts you’re involved in and you’re not really allowed to read the other scripts that you’re not in. So there is a mystery part of it that I think you just have to let go, but when you read the alien thing, for example, in the pilot, it’s open to interpretation for the actors, I think, as well as it is for the viewers. Was it an alien? Is it something he saw? He was losing blood at the time, was he hallucinating? That’s what makes FARGO so amazing because there’s so much that’s open to interpretation and it all comes down to how the actors play it as well and I’m sure if [Hawley] wants to see it a different way, he has no problem saying that to you. He just has a great way of communicating with actors– and like I said, when you have amazing writing on the page it just makes our job so much easier.”

There’s a particular scene in next week’s episode and it involves a deal between you and the family; it’s one of the more intense scenes of anything I’ve seen on television. There are words exchanged about fighting to keep what’s yours and what you’re willing to do to show commitment. I’m really curious to know how you originally reacted to reading that scene and how it was shot?

Garrett: “Well, there was a lot of need for Joe Bulo and it was just a great scene for him. The writing has a lot of layers to it and in that scene, it’s like any other scene for an actor, it’s what do we want, what does the character want, what does the other character want, and how to we go about getting it.

What I really liked about Joe Bulo is there’s a vulnerability to his character that [Hawley] was able to really get on the page. He’s a guy who might be a little over his head and maybe just want to get back home. I feel that the field isn’t the place that Joe Bulo has spent a lot of his time, I think he’s more of a guy that’s used to running things from the main office. So when he was out there, there was a vulnerability I think he discovered as things got thicker so he may have a side to him that is just a little softer and that’s what I loved about him. He just wasn’t one of these goombas that was going to go in there and kick a little ass. I thought it would be interesting if he was a guy that for a minute questioned where he was, was he over his head, did he meet his match. So I think in that one scene, the key for me was to make some deal and just make my boss happy and just get back.”

I feel like [Hawley] has a particular language that he writes. It reminds me a lot of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, where it’s dialogue not necessarily to be read but performed– it’s very chewy. How do you, as an actor, casualize that language? Or, do you plug into after a while and then it begins to become natural to you?

Garrett: “Well, as far as my process, and I think, a lot of actors may be feel this way, when the writing is that pure you throw it away. You just have to say it. And of course, you got to put a little mustard on it in some areas, but less and less when a line works. When a writer writes like we speak there’s no denying it and that’s what was great about. It’s so funny, it’s like, I had an acting coach when I started out and he goes, ‘You don’t memorized lines, you learn them.’

And it’s so much easier to learn when you can just tap into a character but with the dialogue, it’s a lost art. You mentioned Sorkin and that’s a great comparison because it’s about the great dialogue at the end of the day. I just found it one of the easiest transitions I ever had because when the dialogue is filtered or it doesn’t work or it isn’t natural that’s where you get into trouble.”

Did you watch Season 1 when it came out?

Garrett: “I was a real fan of season one, as most people were, and I’ve done a little bit of drama in the past but it’s something that I really wanted to obviously branch out to. It’s our job as actors to reinvent ourselves when we get the opportunity and my reps vigorously went after the chance to audition for the role, and [Hawley] and Warren Littlefield (producer) were nice enough to bring me into read, and here we are.”

You mentioned getting to stretch your legs in drama, and obviously when people think about you they think comedian. It’s great seeing when you tap into this. What I like about about this role it seems like you can do a little bit of both because there’s that dark undertone but yet there’s some ironic dark comedy along with it. Is that what you excited you about the character?

Garrett: “Yeah, that’s what was so attractive in the beginning to play this character is that he’s someone that humorous in spite of himself and it’s great to play someone that doesn’t mean to be funny that’s just odd and quirky and that’s, again, what’s so great about their writing, the humor comes from character never from jokes. There’s a real nuance to playing that and I just find it great. I know it’s cliché to say it but there is such a fine line between comedy and drama and I think when you come up in comedy, drama is so much more fun almost to play because you can let it breathe, you can take those beats, you can have the silence without waiting for that laugh and it’s just a lot more intimate than comedy is. I just had a blast.”

L-R: Brad Mann as Gale Kitchen, Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan, Todd Mann as Wayne Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

L-R: Brad Mann as Gale Kitchen, Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan, Todd Mann as Wayne Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Chris Large/FX.

I really like your character’s relationship with Bokeem Woodbine’s character, Mike Milligan, and just your guy’s unique chemistry and your different approach to things.

Garrett: “[Woodbine] is, first of all, he’s just so amazingly gifted as a actor and right away we really kind of zoned in on what our relationship is. To Joe Bulo, [Woodbine] probably has a lot more ability and talent than maybe Joe does. Joe is more old school and this is the first time that we’ve really been in the field together. [Woodbine’s] character, this is kind of what he does and I think they just kind of sent Joe along to kind of keep an eye on everything. I think early on Joe figures out that this is the new brand. [Woodbine’s] character is maybe the new enforcer from their company. This is the guy who’s on the up and up and definitely a guy who’s going to surpass Bulo and we wanted to kind of play a little of that where I definitely have the upper hand out there in the field but probably down the line this is the guy who’s going to probably be making the calls and I’ll be sent back to Kansas City.

What was fun about that, the teaming of the two characters is, you know, that’s an extra thing to play, which gives me other obstacles and stacks. I really need to make the deal right with the Gerhardts, I need to really show that I could come back with the deal done and it definite a different style than [Woodbine] is that’s going to reveal itself as it goes on.”

What was it like to do all that with the cars and the costumes? Did the time period help with the themes that the season is looking at this year?

Garrett: “Well, politically it was a very, very diverse time. I was nineteen in seventy-nine so I was coming from a different area in 1979 than a lot of this portrayal lends itself to but it was just a really great era politically and I think following the crazy sixties and the reaper of so many things in America in the sixties and I think the seventies was a correction to some degree especially politically, maybe an over correction in some areas. Just a great time because the aftermath of Vietnam was I think more prominent. Obviously in the late seventies you really got to see where that mess got us.

As far as the styles and everything, it’s fun to play a period piece but I think it just, you know, the music that [Hawley] picked all the music and he’s so brilliant, before we started he sent every actor a CD of the music that he chose just to help us get into character and it was something that we all just listened on our iPods or on our iPhones and just to help us get into character and get the vibe of that time and the way he did the split screen stuff which was very prominent in a lot of seventies cinema, all that stuff just helps get into it. It was a great era. I didn’t think that the seventies would have been has fun to portray, but it was an interesting time.”

The fourth episode of FARGO, “Fear and Trembling,” airs next Monday, November 2 at 10 p.m. E/P on FX.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.