As Kirsten Dunst becomes the latest Hollywood star to step into our living rooms this month in the new series of acclaimed drama Fargo, Carolyn Moore looks at the appeal of the small screen for Hollywood’s big screen stars.
“It feels almost more special right now to be on an exciting television show,” says Kirsten Dunst of her decision to become the latest Hollywood actress to make the switch to the small screen. Premiering on October 18th on Channel 4, season two of the acclaimed drama Fargo sees Dunst take on the role of Peggy Blomquist, a small town beautician with big city dreams who can’t help but think that there’s more to life than Luverne, Minnesota.
“I only got to read two episodes before signing up for the series,” she adds, “but I knew that the trajectory of Peggy’s story was really something exciting. I knew that there was a lot in store for this character, and that she was very unique.”
Starring opposite Ted Danson and Breaking Bad’s breakout star Jesse Plemons, taking on a TV role was not something Dunst had to think twice about. “The role was just fantastic,” she says, “and the first season was done so well and shot so beautifully. I knew that I was going in to something of which I could be confident in the quality.”
Which seems to be a large part of the appeal for the growing number of bona fide movie stars who are now clamouring for space on a smaller screen. Though once the trajectory of stardom moved in the opposite direction, with TV stars viewing movie fame as the ultimate career goal, we are unquestionably in the midst of a “Golden Age of Television”, where prestige TV shows and mini-series now stand to garner more critical acclaim and accolades than even the most highbrow movie project. It’s also presenting, for women, an opportunity to explore characters infinitely more complex and layered than contemporary mainstream movies typically allow.
“I can’t pinpoint exactly why, but this was one of the hardest roles I’ve ever played ,” Dunst reveals. And she has much to compare it to. As bona fide movie stars go, for an actress of her age Kirsten Dunst has exceptional credentials. At just 33, she has 26 years of acting experience under her belt and over 50 movie credits to her name, making her a veritable veteran of the industry. From an impactful debut aged 11 opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt – “I peaked early,” she has joked of sharing her first kiss on screen with Pitt – in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, she has gone on to star in everything from the blockbuster Spider-man franchise, to the quirky indie-hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to the art-house masterpiece Melancholia.
A teenage stint on ER and several made-for-TV movies mean Fargo is not her first foray into television, but it’s something she wouldn’t rule out repeating. “I’m not in a position right now where I would want to dedicate myself to a long-running series, but I would do another mini-series or a movie for television for sure,” she confirms.
Shot in Calgary over five months, the new season of Fargo tells the story of the “Sioux Falls incident” alluded to in season one. While that season focused on the dogged detective Molly Solverson, season two rewinds to 1979 and turns the focus on her father, Lou, played by Patrick Wilson; his sheriff father-in-law, played by Danson; and a couple – Dunst and Plemons – who find themselves, in typically Fargo-eque fashion, inadvertently implicated in a mob war.
“It’s such a different universe to the first series. There are things that keep it Fargo – the way it’s shot and the music – but it definitely feels like its own, weird universe,” explains Dunst of the idiosyncratic world first crafted by the Coen brothers for their 1996 film of the same name. “I hadn’t seen the film in a very long time so I did re-watch that – just to have it back in my wheelhouse. It was more to get to grips with that “Minnesota Nice” veneer, that sense of nervousness of doing something wrong.”
Coming from Swedish stock, Dunst admits that while she struggled to identify with the character of Peggy – “she’s a bit of a nut” – she does feel a certain affinity for “the whole Lutheran Minnesota vibe”. “I grew up with my grandmother, she lived with us,” she explains. “She had grown up the youngest of 10 children on a farm in Minnesota. She didn’t really have the Minnesota accent, but she had a real Midwestern mentality. So I understand the mentality – but not so much Peggy!”
“She’s kind of stuck,” Dunst reveals of the character. “In reality, she’s quite delusional about what she hopes to accomplish. What happens in the first episode, though, kind of spins her off a little bit.
“She’s with a lovely man who wants to have kids, but she’s just not committed to that yet herself. She really wants this other life that she’s read about in magazines – her dream is to move to Los Angeles and become a celebrity hairdresser. She lives for her magazines where she reads about this other life she wants.”
But when it comes to making her dreams come true, what is Peggy capable of? While the intricacies of the plot and characters remain shrouded in secrecy, the teaser trailer for season two shows Peggy frantically washing blood red hair dye from her hands, clearly haunted by something she has seen… or perhaps done.
If the latter proves true, Fargo might be about to give us something so lacking from the current television landscape – a female antihero. In this golden age of television, showrunners like The Sopranos’ David Chase, Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner, and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan have given us an array of complex, violent, misogynistic, ruthless men; antiheroes we find ourselves rooting for despite their shortcomings. Female characters, meanwhile, seem to require an all-important “likeability” factor in order for us to care about their stories – and it doesn’t take much for us to reject them as “unlikeable”.
Unapologetic promiscuity? Unlikeable. Lack of maternal warmth? Unlikeable. Unsympathetic? Unlikeable. Unable to accept that your husband is a lying, murdering drug lord? Unlikeable. Recall the vitriol reserved for Skylar White as she tried to come to terms with the truth about her husband’s double life; the online abuse levelled at her by the same people who cheered as Walter left a trail of death and destruction in his wake. We have proven ourselves willing to accept despicable behaviour from our leading men – but only our leading men.
The head of FX, the cable channel that produces Fargo, John Landgraf finds our gendered acceptance of unlikeable characters “fascinating”. “We just have a really different, more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters in this society. It’s much harder to buy acceptance of a female antihero.”
But there are signs that this is starting to change. House of Cards’ cunning Claire Underwood; Homeland’s troubled Carrie Mathison; Scandal’s compromised Olivia Pope – all characters who wield their power and influence in an unapologetically self serving way that makes for compelling viewing but pushes their “likeability factor” to its limits. And then there is Annalise Keating.
Anyone who became addicted this year to the preposterous but preposterously entertaining How to Get Away with Murder, carried away by the exploits and travails of criminal defence attorney and law professor Annalise, will recognise in her all of the trademarks of a classic antihero. Ruthless but charismatic, manipulative but sensitive; whether she is defending the guilty or framing the innocent, she has you rooting for her all the way. This is largely thanks to the casting of the superb – and now Emmy award winning – Viola Davis, who imbues her with a humanity that keeps you in the palm of her hand, just as Brian Cranston once did with Walter White.
So if you find yourself watching Fargo and wondering where have all the good girls gone? Maybe they’ve just decided it’s so much more entertaining to be bad.
This feature first appeared in Like magazine, October 2015.