The actress, whose character Nikki Swango has taken a beating in recent weeks, discusses Nikki’s ice bath and why she’s sure Nikki truly loved Ray.
[This interview contains spoilers for Wednesday’s episode of FX’s Fargo.]
Mary Elizabeth Winstead has had quite the odd year on the small screen.
Last summer she tried to stop brain bugs from taking over Washington. Then she spent a few months on PBS practicing medicine during the Civil War.
On Wednesday’s installment of FX’s Fargo, Winstead had the peculiar acting challenge of doing a scene, while suffering serious wounds, in a bowling alley meant to represent something a bit like limbo, talking to a kitten that was really her reincarnated fiancé and a wandering, Hebrew-speaking stranger played by Ray Wise. That was after she and a deaf hit man (Russell Harvard’s Mr. Wrench) escaped from a prison bus and decapitated a mask-wearing stranger.
It’s also been a rough couple episodes for Winstead’s Nikki Swango: She got beat up by V.M. Varga’s (David Thewlis) henchmen, said beloved fiancé was killed by a wayward shard of glass and then she was thrown in jail as a suspect in his murder. That’s a lot for a bridge-loving ex-con to handle.
Winstead got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the purity of Nikki’s love for Ray, the truth behind her emotional ice bath scene and why “cat wrangler” could be a new line on her CV. The actress also explains what she’s learned from her TV experiences over the past few years.
You’re standing in a bowling alley acting with a kitten, as Ray Wise recites Hebrew next to you. What’s going through your mind?
(Laughs) It’s quite surreal, I think. As surreal, almost, as the scene itself. But it was so great. I was so looking forward to doing that scene ever since I read it the first time. I just thought, “This is going to be such an incredible moment.” Ray Wise is so wonderful to watch that I was just completely mesmerized by him as he was saying those words, which I think Nikki was as well, so it was quite easy to play off of him in those moments as well.
And how was the kitten to work with?
There were two kittens. One of them was quite a bit better than the other one. One of them was a bit feisty and clawing at me and not quite as loving as you would think Ray the Cat would be toward Nikki, so we tried to use the calm cat as much as possible, but they were so frickin’ cute. I enjoyed myself very much. It was nice. I was playing the scene, but I was also cat wrangler at the same time and trying to keep the cats calm and it was an interesting challenge to try and do a scene and contain a cat’s emotions at the same time.
How much do you think Nikki is able to process what’s happening in that scene?
I think she’s so exhausted and drained and confused and I don’t think she’s fully processing it, but I think she knows something really important is happening to her in that moment and so she’s trying really hard to take it in and to process it as much as possible, but I don’t think it really hits her until later, probably when she’s driving in that little Bug that they pull away in. That’s where it all starts to dawn on her what’s just happened. It’s all too strange and surreal for it to really hit in that moment what’s going on.
This is a character who, as much as possible, has been really quick on her feet all season. Is this the first time that she’s at a loss to some degree?
I think so. I think there’s been flickers of it throughout the season. I think when she goes and meets Sy [Michael Stuhlbarg] in the parking lot, for example, I think she’s a little bit feeling like she might be in over her depth, but she pushes past it, because that’s the type of person she is. She keeps pushing through, but I think there were glimmers in that episode of, “Am I doing the right thing?” and “Am I going to get out of this OK?” and then she pushed past it. This just takes it to a whole new level like, “Sure, she’s a small-time criminal, but she’s never decapitated anyone in a forest before.” So I think she’s never really imagined herself in the position she winds up in, so it certainly does push her back on her heels a little bit, at least in the pure exhaustion of it, but like everything else she pushes through it and she figures out how to get through it and on to the next phase of her mission. She’s resilient, to say the least.
How much of severing D.J. Qualls’ head did you guys get to do as practical effects on-set?
We actually did have a moment where it got a little bit scary. Every time we would be doing it, D.J. would be holding the chain with his hands to protect his neck a little bit, so it was a little bit fake. We were in snow and it’s wet and it’s cold and there are all these elements and his hands slipped and so he actually, at one point, he basically went into a panic attack because he thought we were really going to choke him and he just stood up and it was a really scary moment there for all of us, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. We were shooting that whole sequence so fast and so there was definitely an element of insanity going on through that whole thing. Thankfully he was fine and it was just a scare, but it was a terrifying moment. I don’t want to choke D.J. Qualls. I certainly don’t want to decapitate him. That would not be nice. Thankfully, everything turned out OK.
Compare the relative discomfort of full days shooting outside in the Calgary winter to the day shooting that single-take shot in the ice bath.
The only discomfort of the ice bath, because it wasn’t real ice, it was plastic ice — I hate having to admit that, because it sounds much cooler to say that I was sitting there in ice all day — the only real discomfort in that scene was how small the tub was versus how large my body is. [Showrunner] Noah [Hawley] was there that day and he basically said, “We’re gonna rehearse it and see if we can do it this way, because I’m not sure if we can fit your enormous body into that tub.” That was the quote of the day and has continued to be; I refer to myself and my “enormous body” all the time now. But we managed to do it and I was very, very proud of myself for folding my limbs into that thing.
Now I need you to know that when I talked to director Dearbhla Walsh, she kept that secret and talked about what a trooper you were!
(Laughs) Hey, I think I could still be called a trooper! There was lot of plastic in that bathtub. It was pretty tough.
Going back to last week’s episode, how big a fan of the first season were you and what was your reaction to seeing who Nikki would be sitting next to on that prison bus?
I was a huge fan of the first season and I was incredibly excited. I heard about it before I read it. Noah had mentioned that I was going to be paired up with Mr. Wrench at some point later on in the season, and I just thought that was going to be so cool and I was so excited about it. Then seeing how it was gonna end up in subsequent episodes, I just went, “I can’t believe I can go on this epic action journey with this actor, it’s gonna be so much fun.” Then when we met and started working together, it was incredible. He’s just the loveliest and sweetest and we were chained to each other for weeks on end, and it was an incredibly bonding experience for us and I will love him always.
What was the dynamic you guys established as you got to go all The Defiant Ones out there, given that the characters can only actually communicate to a limited degree?
That bond, what was happening onscreen, was happening in real life, because Russell is actually a deaf actor and he mostly reads lips, but all of that stuff was night shoots, so even the reading lips part was very difficult because of that. Everything was in the dark. He would have this buzzer that was meant to be used so that he would know when they were saying “Action!” and “Cut!” and things, but half the time it doesn’t work, so we really just relied on each other. We’d have all these signals for “Action!” and “Cut!” and different ways that I would touch him or squeeze his arm. Just by the end of it, I don’t know sign language, but I picked up a few things and ultimately we just ended up having this easy, wordless communication with each other. We could communicate with each other in a way that other people couldn’t and by the end of it, it felt like this special bond that I really enjoyed.
Nikki’s taken a hell of a beating in the last couple episodes. What are the challenges of still projecting the qualities that attracted you to the character, while also projecting the weakness or maybe vulnerability that she’s now experienced?
That was something I had to keep in mind. I didn’t want to lose her personality in all of the struggle that she’s going through in these episodes. Gosh, she’s really being taken through the wringer, and the reality of that is that you would kinda lose your spark as a person if all these things were happening to you. You would be exhausted. Your energy would be totally drained. But Nikki is all spark and energy. That’s what makes her who she is! So I was a little bit worried about losing the character in all of the action and messiness of everything, so I guess I just felt like, as long as I have an awareness of it and I’m still trying to bring her spirit underneath all of this, that I just hoped it would still shine through. But that was absolutely on my mind the whole time.
How hard is it to keep track of all of the individual places and ways she’s been hurt? How do you remember, “I’m limping on this leg, but I got kicked on this side and I fell on this ankle” in the moment?
In those moments, at least for me, I really rely a lot on the director and the script supervisor and I ask questions and I check and see, “OK, where I am I at this point?” That’s something that has to be somewhat collaborative, because a lot of time none of us are really sure and we all have to take a second to go, “OK, let’s look at the script and let’s think about this. How much pain would you be in right now?” In the speed of how fast TV shoots, especially, it’s really easy to lose sight of those kinds of things, so that was definitely something that I wanted to make sure we stopped and thought about and discussed. There were a lot of different levels that I felt like I wanted to be on the same page with everybody on that, because that was just a delicate balance to be showing too much or too little of those things.
Going back to the beginning, when you got those first few scripts, how much convincing did you need from Noah or just internally regarding the genuineness of Nikki’s feelings for Ray? As we’ve gone forward, it’s become increasingly clear that she did love him, but that’s not something that was instantly clear.
Noah, from the very beginning, that was my first question for him before we ever started shooting and he answered it so clearly and simply and just said, “Yes, she really loves him and yes it’s real love and they’re a real couple.” That was all I needed to hear. There really weren’t any other questions about that afterwards. That’s pretty clear and stated definitively. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t go away. If anything, it just grows, especially after episode six when everything changes for her and this love that she has for him turns into her new mission in life. Yeah, that was always very clear from the beginning and something I held onto for the entire show and was very, very important for the show in every scene and every aspect.
And you never needed to have any middle-of-the-scene “Wait, why does she love him?” reminders?
No! It was always so clear. I feel like Noah and all the writers certainly know how to keep a heartbeat going through a season and a storyline and I think that heartbeat really jumped off the page all the time for me, so I never questioned it.
Nikki’s bridge playing was one of the very first things we learned about her, and it hasn’t really been the ongoing detail I kind of suspected it would be, but when you get a detail like that, is it still the sort of thing that informs how you play the character throughout?
Yeah, I mean, I’m really thankful that we didn’t see that much more of her bridge playing, because I would not have been very good at it. In the beginning, I thought it was going to be all about bridge, or I thought the character was going to be all about bridge! So was I, like, “I’ll take lessons! I’m gonna learn this thing. I’m gonna be an expert.” And I very quickly learned that I was absolutely terrible at it and I was never gonna really understand it. So I’m glad that it went away in that aspect, but the great thing about that being such a big part of her character is that it says so much about who she is. Especially after I got some vague understanding of what bridge is, I went, “OK. This girl is smart. She is strategic. She is savvy. You can’t get good at this game and not have all those qualities about you.” So it certainly crystallized that, for me at least, that’s just who she is in every way in her life. It was good for telling me a little bit about who Nikki is.
Do you know or have some sense of the pivot in her life that led her from promising young woman to her life of crime, as it were?
I don’t know. Her backstory wasn’t something that I carved out really carefully or anything, because she was so alive from the second I started playing her that I didn’t have a lot of those questions. I definitely talked to Noah about why she went to prison initially and what she was involved in and where she came from, a little bit of stuff like that. I feel like she’s always been this girl. I feel like she’s always been really smart and probably smarter than all the other kids in her class, but she also probably got into some real bad shit, even as a kid. I don’t ever feel like she was a good girl. I don’t think she was a good, smart girl gone wrong. I think she always had all of these qualities mixed up in her, that she’s been stirring the pot probably her whole life.
In recent years, you’ve done a TV buffet: a little cable, a little network, a little PBS, a little anthology. Have you learned anything about what works for you and what you want to avoid going forward?
I have! I’ve had a great couple years’ experiences. Everything has been wonderful and the people have been wonderful, and I feel like with each one I learn a little bit more about how the current TV sphere is working and how I want to choose my projects. I think, especially with Fargo, really seeing how a showrunner like Noah Hawley works and how he’s able to really have his hand in everything, but delegate to other people, it’s been a learning process for me coming from film into TV, because I’m used to everything being so director-driven. Now, understanding the showrunner role and how that works, this is something that is really just now coming into focus for me and thinking about what kind of showrunners I want to work with and what material I want to work with, who the writers are. Obviously directors are incredibly important, too, but that’s not the singular drive the way that it often is in film. I’m starting to understand all the machinery of it and how that impacts everything. Ultimately, like anything else, it’s material-driven at the end of the day.