‘Fargo’: Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Nikki Swango, ‘The Big Lebowski’ and the Bowling Alley Scene

Courtesy of FX

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Who Rules the Land of Denial?,” the June 7 episode of “Fargo.”

When Wednesday night’s episode of “Fargo” begins, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango has already been beaten severely by two mob thugs and knocked unconscious in a prison bus accident. By the end of the second act, she wandered bleeding through the Minnesota snow, a crossbow wound in her leg, into a bowling alley, where she sits down and orders a double whiskey. The scene is reminiscent of a particular classic Coen Brothers movie. It is also a critical moment for Swango, whose fortune appears to finally change after being on a steady downward trend.

Winstead spoke with Variety about the bowling-alley scene, the movie that inspired it, and how her character has defied her expectations.

How much did you know about Nikki before you signed on to do the show?
Literally nothing. I had talked with Noah [Hawley, creator and executive producer] about the third season. We had talked about the first two seasons as well. Nothing ever materialized or worked out. We were always saying that we wanted to work together. He called and asked if I was available for Season 3. I had just finished working on something, and I was like, “Yes. Whatever it is, yes.” I didn’t really care what the role was. At that point I had seen both seasons and was so in awe of what he was doing that I just really wanted to be a part of it. By the time I got the script, I was already doing the show, but I hadn’t been told anything about the role. So once I read it, I was floored by this character, and really surprised by her, because I wasn’t expecting to play someone like that.

What was it that surprised you about her?
I guess I thought I’d be playing a really nice Minnesota cop or a really sweet Minnesota housewife. I didn’t expect to be playing this brash, sexy, confident, bold fighter of a woman. She’s just so much woman. I guess I hadn’t really seen myself that way before doing this. It’s definitely brought me a whole new level of confidence now that I’ve played her. But going into it I thought, “Am I the person for this? I don’t know if I’m enough woman for Nikki Swango.”

But you still got to do an accent.
She’s from Chicago, so I got to do sort of a Midwestern accent — still in the same world, but a slightly different version of it. It feels like Minnesota, but Nikki Swango’s version.

When more scripts came in and you saw what the path for the character would be, was it what you anticipated?
Oh my God, no. Where she ends up at the end of the season versus where she starts out — when we started, I was taking bridge lessons. I thought I would be playing bridge all season long.

Did you expect it to get as physical as it does? Nikki seems to endure more physical pain than most “Fargo” characters.
No, I didn’t expect that at all. Starting episode five and continuing on for awhile, it was incredibly physical for me. I’ve done a lot of stunts in my career, a lot of being drug through the mud, beaten up, and all of that. But I just somehow didn’t expect it to happen on this show. Luckily I enjoy that, so it worked out for me. But it’s definitely not where I saw Nikki Swango heading.

In episode eight, when she goes into the bowling alley, she has been shot with a crossbow, been in a bus accident, still has the injuries from being beaten up by Meemo and Yuri. But when she’s sitting there with Ray Wise’s character, it seems like she is no longer conscious of all that pain. Was that an explicit decision on your part?
Yes and no. It’s such a surreal moment. That whole scene is sort of not quite reality. Leaning into the surrealness of it was something that I opened up to. In the writing, you could sense that that pain was no longer there. She was drained and exhausted, and unsure if she’s dreaming. She’s on some transcendental plane there where she’s not really in her body anymore. I don’t think it was a fully conscious choice. But it felt right.

We know that Nikki’s sort of a spiritual person. In that bowling-alley scene, does she accept what’s happening as being real?
I think she’s trying to process it in the moment. I think she’s so exhausted for most of it, she isn’t sure if it’s real or not. But she wants it to be, so she’s trying to hold on to every word and take it in, even though she’s so exhausted that her mind can barely function. At the end of it, when he tells her to go get the car, she’s hoping that she’s not dreaming and that it’s real. I think when she goes out and sees the Bug and the door opens, that’s when she says, “This is real. We’re getting out of here. I’m going to go avenge the love of my life.”

Is the scene a hat-tip to “The Big Lebowski”?
Oh yes. I think that was pretty explicit as we were shooting it. Even reading it, it was like, “Oh, this is the ‘Big Lebowski’ moment.”

That scene frames Nikki as being on the side of good in a fight against evil. But Nikki has also killed someone. Do you see her as a good person?
That’s a difficult question. As the person who played her, I had to see her as a good person, because I had to make my piece with some of her decisions and why she does the things that she does. I think she’s very misguided often in the choices that she makes. But I think they come from a place of need for love and truth and all the things she aspires to in her life. But she comes from a place where you do what you gotta do to survive and to get what you want — and that’s she thinks you’re supposed to do. I had to find that understandable in some way to play her. “Fargo” is never black and white. You root for people who do bad things.