The second episode of Fargo, a TV show inspired by the 1996 Coen brothers film, opens ominously. A drum kit crashes as a beat-up old sedan speeds through snowy, rural Minnesota. Two hit men, known simply as Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, are investigating a murder.
The two communicate with American Sign Language. Actor Russell Harvard, the kinetic presence behind Mr. Wrench, was born deaf.
He's been acting since he was a child.
"I saw my cousin play the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, and the next thing you know, I wanted to be the witch myself," he jokes in an interview with NPR's Arun Rath.
As devoted as he was, Harvard wasn't sure if he'd have career in acting. But then he got a part in the 2007 film There Will Be Blood. He recently starred in the off-Broadway play Tribes.
The role in Fargo finally gave Harvard a chance to be wicked. He says his friends often tell him his problem is that he's Mr. Nice Guy.
"And so I'm just so happy that I was given the opportunity to play somebody that's not myself, that's not me — you know, the villain, if you will. ... I've always been motivated to play something like that," Harvard says.
But being Mr. Wrench is good in a different way.
"This character is really nice because he doesn't have to use his voice; the communication skills are just through signing," he says. "And Mr. Numbers interprets for me in the show, which doesn't really happen often on TV, so that's nice."
Harvard says he believes the Fargo character will also help him further his career.
"The character is not really specific about being deaf, or having any related deaf issues," he says. "It's just Fargo, period."
Show creator Noah Hawley tells Rath he got the idea for a deaf hit man from spending time in Austin, where he lives part time in a neighborhood near the Texas School for the Deaf.
"As I was formulating the show, I kept seeing sign language around everywhere," he says. "It's such a compelling and visual means of communication, but it's also a language that most people don't speak. So it creates an amazing amount of privacy, for deaf people to be surrounded by hearing people and be able to communicate in a way that no one can really understand."
It struck him as the perfect dynamic for a Coen-esque pair of hit men. The result: the bearded Mr. Numbers, played by Adam Goldberg; and the tall, mutton-chopped Mr. Wrench, played by Harvard.
The pair spends several episodes hunting down and menacing the main character, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman).
In a scene in the third episode, Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers confront Lester in his office. Harvard's character signs directly at Lester, without interpretation from his partner (nor are there subtitles).
"It feels very aggressive, because it is a very aggressive thing that [Mr. Wrench is] saying, but it's also [that Lester] knows someone's saying something to him he doesn't understand," Hawley says. "He can't respond. He doesn't know how to get out of that situation."
It was a challenge for Harvard to translate his lines from the script into ASL, which has a very different structure and more limited vocabulary.
His colleague Goldberg, though, didn't know ASL. The show hired Catherine MacKinnon, an ASL coach and interpreter, to help Goldberg — and to let Hawley know when one of the actors had flubbed a line.
"We worked together with Adam directly to make sure that his signing was a little more fluent," Harvard says. "He had a lot of quirkiness in his signing. [But] he did a great job. There's no two ways about it."
Hawley says the signing had at least one unexpected side effect.
"I'd had the idea and talked with the costume designer about giving [the pair] this Midnight Cowboy dynamic — putting Russell in this sort of Joe Buck fringe and Adam in the Ratso Rizzo [look]," he says. "And the thing I didn't expect is obviously sign language is very physical, and when you put a fringe jacket on an actor who signs all the time, there's a lot of motion going on on the screen."
Harvard laughs at the mention of the jacket. "Everyone loved it. Everyone kept talking about that fringe coat. That's all I ever heard, so obviously it was a hit," he says.
Hawley says he ended up liking Mr. Wrench (and Russell Harvard) so much that he kept the character around for one episode longer than planned. Mr. Wrench's last appearance is this Tuesday night on FX.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you've just tuned in, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Roth. It's hard to be a scene stealer on the TV show "Fargo." It is stocked with peculiar characters. But there's one character who has generated a lot of buzz. And won more than a few fans - a menacing figure introduced in the second episode. In small-town Minnesota, a man connected to a crime syndicate back in Fargo has been murdered. And an unusual pair of hit men show up to investigate.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")
ADAM GOLDBERG: (As Numbers) We're from Fargo.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Good. They said they were sending someone.
GOLDBERG: (As Numbers) All right.
RATH: Doing the talking is Mr. Numbers, a short, bearded guy in a long black coat. Lurking behind is the more threatening Mr. Wrench - tall with mutton chops and a leather fringed jacket. He's silent but communicates with Mr. Numbers in American Sign Language. Listen closely for the sound of fingers flying.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")
GOLDBERG: (As Numbers) There's no library in this town. Why is there no library in this town?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Cut backs?
GOLDBERG: (As Numbers) He thinks every town should have a library.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I agree. Tell him I agree.
RATH: All that sign language is real, and the actor playing Mr. Wrench is really deaf. His name is Russell Harvard. His first big break was a small role in the movie, "There Will Be Blood," and he was recently in an off-Broadway show. We invited him and the show's creator, Noah Hawley, to talk about the character and the role. Now, a quick note before we start. Russell can read lips but he was at a studio in Austin, Texas and couldn't see me. Because of that, he wasn't totally comfortable speaking on his own.
RUSSELL HARVARD: (Laughing) That's not how we roll.
NOAH HAWLEY: That's not how we roll, we have the interpreter here.
RATH: So, in the interview, you'll hear some quiet from time to time as his interpreter, Stephen Nugent, interprets his questions. Listen closely and you'll hear the brushes and taps of the ASL. Then, just like now, you'll hear Stephen's voice as Russell signs the answer. You'll also hear Russell laugh or say a thing or two here or there. Here in California, "Fargo" show runner, Noah Hawley, joined me in our studio. I started by asking Russell if he thought this role could help him break out and really make a living as an actor.
HARVARD: (Through Stephen Nugent) Oh, yes. I think so, yes, very much because the character is not really specific about being deaf or having any related deaf issues. It's just "Fargo." Period.
RATH: And Russell, have you always wanted to be an actor?
HARVARD: (Through Stephen Nugent) I have since I was a little kid. Yeah. I saw my cousin play the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard Of Oz." The next thing you know, I wanted to be the witch myself. And so, I've been playing on stage ever since then. But for some reason I always knew that, you know, maybe the acting thing won't happen for me. And so maybe I'll have to become a teacher. And then "There Will Be Blood" came along and I got it.
RATH: And what do you like most about this character that you're playing in "Fargo"? Obviously, he's not a nice guy.
HARVARD: (Through Stephen Nugent, laughing) Well, I have many friends that have said that the problem with you is that you are the Mr. Nice Guy. And so I'm just so happy that I was given the opportunity to play somebody that's not myself - that's not me - you know, the villain if you will. And that's - I've always been motivated to play something like that. But this character is really nice because he doesn't have to use his voice. The communication skills are just through signing. And, you know, Mr. Numbers interprets for me, in the show, which doesn't really happen often on TV. So that's nice.
RATH: Well, I'm happy to hear that you're not that guy.
RATH: Noah, I wanted to ask you - this show is your brainchild. Where did the character of Mr. Wrench come from?
HAWLEY: Well, Russell's in Austin right now. He's an Austin resident and I also spend a lot of time in Austin. I lived there for a few years. I have a home there. And I'm in a neighborhood called Travis Heights, which is very close to a large school for the deaf. And as I was formulating the show, I kept seeing sign language around everywhere. And it's such a compelling and visual means of communication. But it's also a language that most people don't speak. So it creates an amazing amount of privacy for deaf people - to be surrounded by hearing people and to be able to communicate in a way that no one can really understand.
And to put in a context where you might have characters coming in who can communicate in that way can be really unsettling for characters like Lester or other characters who are confronted. You know, there is a scene in the third episode where Russell's character confronts Lester directly - signs directly at him. And it feels very aggressive because it's a very - it is a very aggressive thing that he's saying but it's also - he knows someone's saying something to him. He doesn't understand. He can't respond. He doesn't know how to get out of that situation.
RATH: That's Lester played by Martin Freeman.
RATH: How did you handle the script in terms of writing Russell's part and how he would deliver his lines in American Sign Language?
HAWLEY: We had a sign language interpreter, who was on set at all times, who would tell me when they were getting their lines right because, like any actor, you can flub a line. And Adam Goldberg had never spoken sign language before we hired him for the job. So he had a steep learning curve to get in there and make himself seem like a natural. There is an art to it. But he - I feel like Adam really rose to the occasion. But Russell should speak to the actual translation of the lines.
RATH: Yeah, Russell?
HARVARD: (Through Stephen Nugent) Catherine MacKinnon was the translator and the ASL manager there. So I got her the job, so we worked very closely together. And we did some the line translations together. And we also worked with Adam directly to make sure that his signing was a little bit more fluent. He had a lot of quirkiness in his signing - which, he did a great job. There's no two ways about it. We just put our ideas together. And it really meshed and just took off from there. It was just like we were the bad guys, in real life, that we had always been since we were born. That's exactly how it came off.
HAWLEY: Yeah. And I had the idea and, you know, talked with the costume designer about giving them this "Midnight Cowboy" dynamic of putting Russell in the sort of Joe Buck fringe and Adam in the Ratso Rizzo. And the thing I didn't expect was, obviously, sign language is very physical, and when you put a fringe jacket on an actor who signs all the time, there's a lot of motion going on.
HAWLEY: Everyone loved it. Everyone kept talking about that fringe coat. That's all I ever heard. So obviously, it was a hit.
RATH: Russell, are you going keep the fringe coat?
HARVARD: (Through Stephen Nugent) I wish.
RATH: That was Russell Harvard, speaking with the help of Stephen Nugent. Also with me here in the studio at NPR West is Noah Hawley, creator of the show "Fargo." Thank you all very much.
HAWLEY: Thank you.
HARVARD: (Through Stephen Nugent) Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.