When Billy Bob Thornton first read Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” pilot, the Oscar-winning actor says he didn’t give much thought to the fact that the unconventional, gritty thriller would air on TV.
“That line between TV and movies is practically gone, so I never thought, ‘I’m not sure if I want to get into a TV series or not.’ I’d already been thinking about it because TV is such a great place,” he says.
Just as comedy and drama are melting into each other and viewers make almost no distinction about where they watch, actors are approaching their roles in a medium-agnostic way, finding that some of the best parts aren’t on the bigscreen.
“Generally speaking, the best actors will follow the best writers,” says FX president John Landgraf, whose network aired “Fargo.” “Almost anywhere there is a writer of great note and great talent in any medium, he or she wants to write a television series. And that’s really what’s changed in the last 10 years. It’s because of the greater adventurousness, courage, flexibility, the greater sense of risk and innovation that’s going on in TV. It’s less of a technical skill now and more of an art form.”
Playing the blackly funny, creepy center of “Fargo” earned Thornton — a self-professed TV junkie — his first Emmy nomination, along with several other freshman nominees who are primarily known for film, including “True Detective’s” Matthew McConaughey on HBO and Starz’s “Dancing on the Edge’s”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, both of whom earned lead actor Oscar noms earlier this year (McConaughey got the trophy); “The Normal Heart’s” Mark Ruffalo and Alfred Molina; and “Masters of Sex’s” Lizzy Caplan.
Though Emmy’s red carpet always sees its fair share of film star power via the movie/mini category, casting well-known faces these days is less about gaining attention for a TV project than it is about actors actively seeking out quality roles.
“I was very content with the career I was carving out for myself as a comedic actress,” says Caplan, who plays ahead-of-her-time sex researcher Virginia Johnson in the Showtime series. “But when they cast me for this role, that was it. It speaks volumes about how exciting it is to be an actress on television.”
“Orange Is the New Black’s” Taylor Schilling, who plays a woman in prison on drug-smuggling charges, is also enjoying her first Emmy nom (as are four of her castmates on the Netflix show). She credits show creator Jenji Kohan with crafting stories that feel immediate and vibrant.
“Her eye curated a group of women and men that are incredibly capable as artists,” Schilling says. “There’s a collective sense that what we’re saying is really relevant right now, and that brings a sense of purpose to the work.”
For “Fargo’s” Allison Tolman, this has been a year of firsts, including her first TV series and her first Emmy nom.
“ ‘Fargo’ is the only example that I have to compare anything to at this point in time,” she says. “What an incredible example to have at the very start of my career.”
Parlaying an Emmy nom into the next project is always at the top of any nominee’s list and Tolman received some sage advice from her co-star on being circumspect about the business.
“While we were still filming up in Calgary, I told Bob Odenkirk that I was just really nervous,” Tolman says. “What if I never booked anything else, and this (show) was a total fluke? And he said, ‘It is a fluke, but another fluke will happen.’ ”
Thornton knows all too well about flukes, having started his career as a musician who fell into acting.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved in any type of awards, and there were two or three lean years where I didn’t work much at all on anything,” he says. “So I feel like I’m starting all over in a way. In other words, I’m not jaded about all of it.”