Q & A: Oliver Platt Talks ‘Fargo’, Playing A-holes and Why He Considers Himself Lucky
Oliver Platt thinks that we are living in another Golden Age of TV and with the advent of limited-series, he thinks it’s a “marvelous thing for actors.” Because, he said, “you don’t have to sign your life away.”
Platt is currently starring in one of those limited-series, Fargo. The show is an original adaptation of the Coen Brothers Academy Award®-winning film, Fargo. Written by Noah Hawley, the 10-episode limited series features an all-new story and follows a new case and new characters. The show also stars Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Allison Tolman, Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Kate Walsh, Glenn Howerton, Adam Goldberg and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
Platt plays the supermarket “King” Stavros Milos and he recently participated in a conference call to talk about his role on the show, shooting in freezing Canada, playing a-holes and why he thinks he’s lucky.
Fargo airs on FX on Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m.
How much of a back story were you given by Noah [Hawley] in order to prepare for your role as “Stavros”?
Oliver Platt: You know, we developed this idea that he had come from Chicago with his family, and that he was just on hard times; a devout man on hard times who is given this “gift” if you will. That was pretty much it. The material, itself, is pretty alive. That was pretty much it.
When did you find out about the connection to the film?
Oliver Platt: We got the episodes as they were written, and when I read it.
You shot in Calgary and Alberta, it was actually the coldest winter in 20 years, apparently. What were your experiences like here, and how did it help with your performance?
Oliver Platt: Well, it was funny. It was very, very cold when I was there, but then we also—there was a little bit of the chinook, too— but apparently the chinook wasn’t visiting with the frequency that it usually did. There’s a scene that takes place in Episode 6 that—it was pretty intense, and we were in, I think, ten degree below weather doing this stuff over and over again. What can I tell you? It helps. It’s like in terms of you’re putting yourself in the position of what the character’s going through with Mother Nature giving you a huge assist. The landscape—it’s a very, very well chosen location in terms of feeding that sense of the expanse and sort of the desolation and maybe the loneliness of those people.
Did you have any right of first refusal or any input on anything on the guy you got to play the young you, and how close was he?
Oliver Platt: I thought they did a sensational piece of casting there myself. I was really surprised, and I thought that it was—clearly they had that crossfade in mind, and if you’re going to sell that there better be some architectural similarity there, you know? I thought he was marvelous, I really did.
You’re looking at him and, as you said, the flashing ahead to your character. Is the challenge of this guy, or maybe the challenge as an actor—because this guy was so used to being in control, like he was out of control when he was young then he spent most of his adult life in control, and I guess, is the fear of it now that it’s spinning out of control for him again? Is that the challenge to play as an actor?
Oliver Platt: Absolutely or, rather, the fun of it. Not knowing why his head has been so successfully messed with, so artfully screwed with, and it’s just a delicious sort of menu of obstacles for an actor to—is it God, is it my ex—who could possibly be doing, or orchestrating these things. On top of that, the way they’re messing with…the way his medication has been messed with so that the way he’s perceiving it is—orchestration actually isn’t a bad word to describe the whammy that Billy Bob [Thornton’s character “Lorne Malvo”] put on me.
When you did the scene with all of the crickets, was that all CGI or did you have to contend with real-life insects?
Oliver Platt: It was a pleasant mix. There were inanimate crickets, there were animate crickets, and then there were imaginary crickets. It was one of those classic green screen situations where you sort of—yet, with a lot of motion to it, too. It was a lot of fun to shoot, it was a lot of fun to shoot, and I thought that the way the concentric circles of chaos that were created in the market, itself, was delightfully realized.
I think that so much of this stuff can be sort of laced in, in post. I don’t remember doing a tremendous amount of takes.
How do you see the evolution of television from when you started to when you were a guesting on shows like Miami Vice?
Oliver Platt: [indiscernible] depending on who you talk to we’re in either the second or third golden age of American television, and the advent of the limited miniseries, as you observe, a marvelous thing for actors because, as you said, you don’t have to sign your life away. It’s also allowing television to do what really only television can do, which is novelize a—use the format, the serialized format, to tell us a story over a period of time and really get under the character’s skin. Television’s going strong.
You were saying that the writing is so alive on this show. Do you think that the stuff you were looking at in the ages was written with less detail, maybe?
Oliver Platt: Yes, certainly. Network television was very, very different and, again, it was about having closed episodes. Like I say, the fun part is to take part in a story that’s unfolding. People walk up to you on the street and they grab you by the lapels and they say, what’s going to happen next?
Can you talk more about what attracted you to the role, and why you decided to take it?
Oliver Platt: Just such a muscular arc, you know? One of the first things you’re looking at is, where does the guy start and where does he end and how do they get him there? That’s what we yearn for as actors, is that sort of distance to travel, and Noah laid that out in spades. It was a story that took this guy and took everything that he believed in and turned it on its head, and he didn’t know who it was, who was doing it to him even though he had his—and that’s the brilliance of the scheme, is the ninja mind tricks.
Did you have any trepidation at all about starring in a show that’s based on a movie that’s so critically acclaimed that people still hold so dearly to their hearts?
Oliver Platt: The answer is, absolutely. The stuff that I was shown, the story that I was told, the fact that Joel and Ethan [Coen] had blessed it was not insignificant. I have to say, I think that Noah’s done a pretty remarkable job of sort of threading that needle of writing in their tone, but sort of—he had his own voice, if you will and, to me, it’s pretty impressive stuff.
You mentioned a few minutes ago that some people are claiming we’re in a golden age of TV, but I wasn’t clear if you agree with that. I’m wondering if you do and, if so, what would be some of the top shows that you either like to watch or that you think personify this golden age?
Oliver Platt: I absolutely agree with that. One of the shows that I’ve been watching, I like to watch—obviously Breaking Bad, and there’s that classic—Breaking Bad. I’ve been watching The Americans, the second season of which has been pretty sensational, I think; I’ve been watching—I’m blanking here a tiny bit. I absolutely feel that we’re living in a, again, depending on who you talk to, a renaissance of—
Do you think that’s on cable, specifically, or would you say it also extends to broadcast?
Oliver Platt: I think that cable creates the environment that’s most friendly to it for obvious reasons because of the obsession with serialization, or rather of syndication is not really there. I’m trying to come up with a couple other shows for you, though.
We see “Stavros” kind of go from being sort of broken, and he believes God gave him this money, and then to who he is now, this man who has so much power, and he’s even calling himself the king. How do you think he evolved into the man he is when “Malvo” comes into his life?
Oliver Platt: Well, he built this extraordinary supermarket empire, and he’s been very, very focused on the externals. You get the sense that “Malvo” detects a certain amount of…there, and he just has a nose for that kind of thing. He’s all about how everything’s looking. Obviously he doesn’t really feel he deserves it, which is probably why he’s on some level, which is why he’s so focused on the theatricality of it all. I think that that’s where we are when “Malvo” shows up.
Noah Hawley recently referred to your character as a typical Coen blustery autocrat with a very inflated sense of self, and he used some examples; Nathan Arizona, from Raising Arizona and the Big Lebowski character from the Big Lebowski. Given that the Coen Brothers, their humor, the way they use humor is very unique, did that effect your performance, or did you let it all come from the writing; like your timing and things like that?
Oliver Platt: Yes, that’s usually the way you want to go about it, is to let the writing tell you, inform your own sense of—guide your own sense of rhythm, and it’s very much in there. Yes. In the best case scenario you can’t see the joke. You know what I mean? It’s just arising organically out of what the conflict that’s been created between the people in the scene, and the way the guy regards himself and all this stuff. It’s happening on a lot of different levels, and you just get on the horse and you ride.
You have said in other interviews that your family has kind of changed the way you approach certain jobs; you’ve focused less on theatre over the years. You have an amazing body of work, and I’m wondering, what is it that you still find the challenges or the entertainment of doing this, or is it more of a job for you? Do you still feel like you did when you first started, that thrill of doing this given that you’re doing a job where it’s negative degrees for most of the filming? What do you find that still brings the passion to you?
Oliver Platt: You know, that’s a really great question. I consider myself blessed that I—I just get a kick out of figuring out what it is. The thing is, I’m just interested by the next thing that comes along that’s probably—hopefully a little bit different than something I just did, but it’s a mysterious—the attraction is mysterious, and I don’t necessarily understand it; I’m not sure I want to, but it’s just something that I get a kick out of doing. I consider myself lucky to continue to get opportunities to do it.
Your character is sort of an a-hole. I’ve been watching you for decades, and I’ve been hearing you talk now and you don’t seem like an a-hole. How do you approach playing an a-hole?
Oliver Platt: Well, the first key is that you don’t look at the person that way, you look at the person, you say, how does he think he’s helping, how does he think he’s making the world better. You catch an actor judging the character that they’re playing, and it’s not terribly interesting. Much more importantly, I think that Noah appreciates those aspects of “Stavros,” too. He has that perspective, and it’s something that we talked about.