Brad Garrett really shouldn’t have trouble playing the heavy.
In fact, at a towering six foot eight and possessing that trademark deep, booming voice, the 55-year-old actor could easily seem like an imposing figure if we had never seem him before.
But, of course, we have seen him before. So when news spread that the actor would be coming to Calgary to play Kansas City gangster Joe Bula in the second season of FX’s Fargo, it seemed like deliciously offbeat casting. After all, the comedian kicked off his career by becoming a Star Search grand champion in 1984 and is still best known as Robert Barone, Ray Romano’s insecure sad-sack older brother on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, which ran on CBS from 1996 to 2005.
“I’ve done a little bit of drama in the past, but it’s something I’ve really wanted to branch out to,” says Garrett, in a conference call with journalists earlier this week. “It’s our job as actors to reinvent ourselves when we get the opportunity. My reps vigorously went after the chance to audition for the role.”
But while it may seem like against-type casting, it actually follows a tradition of putting funnymen, and women, amid the blood, snow and brutality of Fargo. Season 1 introduced the world to Allison Tolman, a relative newcomer who had received comedy training at the Second City in Chicago. Among her co-stars was standup and sketch-comedy veteran Bob Odenkirk, who would show up at open-mike nights while filming in Calgary.
Season 2, which takes place in 1979, has an ensemble cast includes sitcom actor and humour writer Nick Offerman, who plays a drunken lawyer and conspiracy nut improbably named Karl Weathers, and sitcom icon Ted Danson, who plays befuddled good-guy sheriff Hank Larsson. Bruce Campbell, the cult king of tongue-in-cheek camp, will eventually show up as Ronald Reagan. Fargo has always possessed a healthy sense of dark humour, going back to the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name that inspired the series. Now three episodes into its second season, this strange “true crime” tale is arguably funnier than the majority of sitcoms on television right now.
“The humour comes from character, never from jokes,” says Garrett. “So there’s a real nuance to playing that. I know it’s cliché to say it, but there is such a thin line between comedy and drama. And I think when you come up in comedy, drama is almost more fun to play because you can let it breath. You can take those beats. You can have the silence without waiting for that laugh. It’s just a lot more intimate.”
It’s important to note that while Joe Bula may be perfectly willing to order lethal hits on people, he is hardly a raving lunatic in the Joe Pesci mould of the mobster. As part of the Kansas City syndicate, he is a middle-aged middle manager who gives presentations and makes offers. As Season 2 begins, he is hoping for a peaceful takeover of the territory controlled by the violent Gerhardt clan led by matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart) and her three doltish sons (Jeffrey Donovan, Angus Sampson and Kieran Culkin.) He’s pragmatic and weary and just wants to go home, which makes Bula the perfect fit for Garrett’s deadpan delivery.
“That’s what was so attractive in the beginning (about) this character,” he says. “He’s someone who is humorous in spite of himself. It’s great to play someone who doesn’t mean to be funny. He’s just odd and quirky.”
While Garrett may be best known for his work in mainstream television, his career path has certainly had its own quirks. After winning the Star Search competition in 1984, one of his first followup TV jobs was as the voice of Hulk Hogan in the Saturday morning cartoon Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling. At the height of his Emmy-winning success as Robert Bartone, he switched gears in 2002 and offered an uncanny and surprisingly dark portrayal of his hero Jackie Gleason in the CBS TV-movie, Gleason.
When he arrived on the Alberta set to be a part of Fargo, he was already a true believer in creator Noah Hawley’s vision and eager to join the cable-led golden age of television.
“I don’t watch a lot of TV,” he says. “But I was a huge True Detective fan and Fargo, of course. It comes down to the stakes you see with characters; what they have to go through, the conflict. It’s just all about cable right now with television. They are mini-movies and that’s what Fargo has been able to create … There is a huge amount of trust that is handed over to the creatives in cable that just doesn’t happen in network.”
As for what is in store for Joe Bula, Garrett has of course been sworn to secrecy. He did say that we will learn much more about the gangster as the series progresses. While careful not to give away any spoilers, he also provided one clue that suggests Bula could eventually be facing some peril.
“I’m not a very good runner,” he says, when asked what he discovered about himself during filming. “It’s a very physical show, obviously, and has a lot of wonderful character actors doing their own stunts. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t get a Jew to jump off a porch. So when I had to do things that were a little more physical it was really kind of interesting. I sometimes had to go back to my trailer and weep.”
Fargo airs Mondays on FX Canada.