Juno Temple as Dorothy "Dot" Lyon in Fargo season five
Jon Hamm as Sheriff Roy Tillman in Fargo season five
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Fargo season three
Kirsten Dunst in Fargo season two
Jesse Plemons in Fargo season two
According to Jewish folklore, if you play matchmaker for three couples who eventually marry, your spot in Heaven is guaranteed.
If that’s so, casting director Rachel Tenner is already two-thirds of the way there, purely from her work on FX’s Emmy-winning series Fargo. “I like to say that Fargo is for lovers,” she says with a laugh. “I should put it on T-shirts.”
Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons met in season two, and then Ewan McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead connected in season three. The couples, who fell in love while making the show, have three children between them. Talk about a mitzvah. The spectacular chemistry on set reflects Tenner’s work. It exemplifies what a casting director does — put the right actors in the right roles, to the point where scene partners are becoming life partners.
“It really is a weird testament to their chemistry together,” says Tenner, who won an Emmy for casting the first season of Noah Hawley's show and was nominated four more times (twice for Fargo and once each for Escape at Dannemora and Severance). “I’m always intrigued by how it keeps happening. It does give me a lot of pleasure, that these people met on something that we helped create.”
Those love matches illustrate what sets Fargo apart — whereas most shows have a consistent core cast, this anthology has an entirely new cast each season. Repeatedly casting from scratch provides opportunities that a more static ensemble doesn’t. The team can take bold chances, often putting actors in roles they wouldn’t normally get, like Dunst as an accidentally murderous beautician, McGregor as maladjusted identical twins, Chris Rock as a 1950s gangster and Jessie Buckley as a homicidal nurse (season four).
That freedom also allowed Tenner to discover Allison Tolman, who played the first season's main character, police officer Molly Solverson. The actress had no major credits when she was cast, yet her performance defined the show's first season — and she landed an Emmy nod for her work.
"She just understood it and executed it," Tenner recalls. "First of all, it was nice to have the option to discover someone, to really open it up. But the role was so specific, not everybody clicked into it. I saw an enormous amount of people, and I used to say that Allison was my palate cleanser. I'd watch so many auditions, and then I would watch her [tape again] because she always made me laugh. Casting someone who's unknown, there's a great big high from it. You get so much pleasure."
Tenner uses the word "specific" a lot when talking about Fargo, since each role calls for something special and unique. That lets her explore more possibilities than other series might offer, allowing her to think so far outside the box, the box might as well be in another city. "So much of it is tone," she says of casting. "It's about who can navigate both the darkness and the humor. Like Billy Bob Thornton as Malvo in season one. He had so much mischief to him, even though he was such a horrible, bad guy. At the end of the day, the people who get the parts are the people who can find the humor, and obviously also go to the depths that they need to go."
Tenner began her career in her hometown of Chicago, after attending NYU and failing to get a job as an NBC page, a gig she was sure would lead to a spot on David Letterman's Late Night writing staff. While interning at a talent agency, she left to intern at a casting agency, which led to working with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen on their 1994 movie, The Hudsucker Proxy. That was the first of nine collaborations with the duo, one of which was the Oscar-winning film that inspired the FX series. There is not a shred of doubt in her mind that Fargo creator Noah Hawley hired her in part for her experience with the film and the Coen Brothers.
“A hundred thousand percent,” she says with a laugh. “Totally. The Coens weren’t very involved with the show, but I know my name came up that way, and Noah liked the connection.” Specificity and a unique casting sensibility carry over to the new season, which premieres November 21.
Juno Temple plays a Minneapolis housewife with a secret past, Jon Hamm takes on the darkest role of his career and Joe Keery shows up as a damaged deputy who’s desperate for approval from a withholding father. Temple’s Dorothy “Dot” Lyon will come as a big surprise to those who know her only from Ted Lasso, for which she earned three Emmy nominations. Having seen much of Temple’s indie film work, however, Tenner saw her as a perfect fit for the mysterious Dot.
“Juno has been doing such great work her whole life. Ted Lasso was a different side for me to see of her,” Tenner says. “I think this character is a great follow-up to that character. She’s so grounded and present in it, and so lovely.”
Hamm worked with Hawley on the writer’s feature directorial debut, 2019’s Lucy in the Sky. He’s made a career of playing antiheroes, but there’s nothing heroic about Sheriff Roy Tillman, whose attempt to kidnap Dot sets the new season into motion. For Tenner, Hamm’s turn as a pure villain typifies the show’s casting philosophy.
“I mean, that is the juxtaposition,” she says with a smile and a shrug. “That’s the fun you try to have, taking people that you don’t get to see tackle these roles.”
Keery was another counterintuitive choice. He’s won millions of fans as Steve Harrington on Netflix’s Emmy-winning sci-fi hit, Stranger Things, but they'll be taken aback to see him as Roy's son Gator, a deputy who can't get out of his own way.
"Joe is so charming, and it's great to see him play that darker kind of character," Tenner says. "The thing that made it so hard to cast that role was finding somebody who's able to navigate that strength and meanness, and portray a character who, at his core, is like a child needing validation. It's heartbreaking."
A season of Fargo would not be complete without one great acting discovery, and this season it's David Rysdahl, who plays Dot's gentle, loving husband, Wayne. He's not exactly unknown — he did have a minor role in Oppenheimer — but Rysdahl really delivers in Fargo.
"David's tape was one of those moments when you see somebody do exactly what's in your mind," Tenner says, shaking her head. "You know what I mean? When you read something, and you can see it. I just sent it on to Noah and said, 'He's the one.'"
Navigating this complicated world is part of what makes the job so exciting for Tenner. That, and the freedom that comes with being able to go to places other jobs might not allow. "That's what's special about Fargo," she says. "The creative limitations do not exist. You could come up with the craziest idea, and people will celebrate it. It makes a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of actors to dive in and explore characters that they don't normally get to do, and to show what they can do. That is an incredibly exciting place to work."
Noah Hawley is showrunner, executive producer, writer and director of Fargo. Warren Littlefield also serves as executive producer along with Steve Stark, Kim Todd and Joel and Ethan Coen. The series is produced by MGM Television and FX Productions in association with 26 Keys and The Littlefield Company.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #11, 202 under the title "Perfect Match."