While fans know Joe Keery as the likable Steve Harrington in Netflix’s Stranger Things, it’s his performance as the tough but insecure Gator in Noah Hawley’s fifth season of FX’s Fargo that is turning heads and showcases Keery’s range and a promising career on the horizon.

The anthology series was created, written, and directed by Hawley and was inspired by Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film of the same name. In the latest season, Dot’s (Juno Temple) idyllic life is upended when her abusive ex-husband, Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm), discovers that she’s still alive, sending his brash deputy sheriff son, Gator, to hunt her down.

Keery’s Gator is a shadow of his father’s prominence and entitlement. He is constantly trying to earn Roy’s approval but frequently missteps due to an unfounded arrogance that masks his deep insecurities. The Free Guy star is charming and sympathetic as Gator charming and sympathetic while donning a buzz cut and wearing tactical gear, showing depth to Gator’s tortured past and how it’s influenced his present-day brash defensiveness. Keery credits the other actors on the show for teaching him about staying loose and removing the distractions of real life.

“The most important thing that you can do, as an actor, that is often so overlooked is just to simply listen to the other person and the words they’re saying,” shares Keery. “I find that people who are really successful at this job can kind of let everything else floating around, whether it be difficulties that they’re in their personal life or things that are going on set, and just let all that drop away for a little bit and focus on this interaction between these two people.”

Keery spoke to Awards Focus about living on location in Calgary, Canada, under Covid restrictions, whether he’s able to shake off intense scenes, how the cast bonded during the six-month production, and what he takes away from the experience of working on this season.

Awards Focus: How has the experience of going through an awards campaign been for you?

Joe Keery: It’s fun to look back on what it was like working on the project. I feel like a lot of the job is looking forward. You’re always kind of looking forward to the next thing that you’re going to be doing. It’s really nice to take some time, reflect on what it meant to me, think about the lessons I learned during the project, and bring them into the work I’m doing right now.

AF: What are some of those lessons?

Keery: I think a lot about relaxation and how important it is to be loose. That was a really big takeaway from this experience. That’s the most recent one, but I’m sure things will keep bubbling up as it goes on.

AF: How long was your time on production, and were you living on location?

Keery: I was living in Calgary, Canada, which is where we shot the season. I was living in an apartment in Inglewood for about six months. We took a break for Christmas, but for the most part, we were stuck there because there were guidelines for the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. It was a Fargo Christmas for me that year.

AF: Did those restrictions bring you together, those living on location, through that time?

Keery: We were all pretty tight. I spent a lot of time with the castmates outside of work. John [Hamm] and I saw a lot of hockey. I think we did a group dinner at least once a month. It’s great working with everybody and getting together outside the work schedule. I feel like it really puts you at ease when you’re on set. It’s great to form those relationships and always be happy working with a normal, well-adjusted, cool group of people.

AF: How do you like to describe Gator?

Keery:  He’s a real byproduct of his father. His father’s inability to show him any love has created this void within Gator and the unfortunate cycle of constant disappointment that he’s always serving up to his dad. He’s always trying to read Roy’s mind, do what he wants, and do the right thing. Gator could be seen as a success in his father’s eyes, but nothing that he ever does is enough. I thought that it was a testament of nature versus nurture. I would like to imagine if you took Gator and you put him in some other circumstance, some different childhood, maybe he would’ve flourished in a different way, but due to the circumstances, he was destined for inevitable failure.

AF: What was it like going out for dinner with the cast and switching off from these characters?

Keery: It’s pretty easy for me to shake it off. Obviously, when you’re working, the whole shoot is important, but there are definitely key moments for the character. I’d say those key moments stick around a little bit longer or you feel like maybe a little bit of a funk. But I like to leave it all at work and not really take it home with me. Especially if you’re playing a character and you spend so much time thinking about it and working towards it outside of work. It is nice once you’re finished with your day to let it lie and either get dinner or occupy yourself with some other hobby. That usually helps me.

AF: Were hobbies easy to come by in Winter in Calgary?

Keery: I did a lot of snow running. I’ll tell you, I was running in the snow a lot [laughs].

AF: How did you start shaping Gator’s physicality and voice, and what were those conversations with Noah [Hawley] during the preparation period?

Keery: Noah had a pretty strong idea visually with what he wanted to see. He was really collaborative, and we talked about that haircut, and together, we decided upon those little lines that are on the side of Gator’s head, all the props that he has, and his clothing. It’s basically this shell that Gator forms around himself to hide who he really is, that he has this weak, inner child that he’s afraid is inside of him.

One weird thing about being an actor is that you’re walking around with some of these physical attributes for about six months. You feel a little out of your own body for a bit, but it wasn’t a severe enough change to totally throw me off. It was just enough to get excited about when I could cut the hair off and get out of the tactical gear.

AF: The tactical gear was no match for Sam Spruell’s character, Ole, who continuously takes Gator down a few pegs. What were those scenes like to film with his creepy character, especially after creating a friendship outside of production?

Keery: It was a real rush for me to be able to know Sam pretty well. Then, to see what he has brought to this character, I mean, he’s personally one of the highlights for me in the show. I respect him so highly as an actor and watching his process.

So, for me, it was like an education almost every day. Acting the scene is one thing, but being able to watch the scene afterward was really cool because you realized throughout the season that Gator thinks he’s toe-to-toe with this guy. He thinks he’s right up against him, but it’s so clear as an audience member that he is just so deep out of his league. He thinks they’re speaking the same language when, in reality, Ole is playing with his food. So I didn’t necessarily feel that way on set because you have to fully dive in and fully believe what you’re doing.

AF: Is there a part of Gator that was leading towards becoming his father, or do you think his good side, the one craving nurture, might have come back eventually?

Keery: John [Hamm] ‘s character makes mistakes. He makes a lot of mistakes throughout the show. He’s just in the power position at the top of the totem pole and has the brute force to negate his mistakes and shove them under the rug. Gator would probably do the exact same thing. I can’t imagine that Roy’s relationship with his father was a very strong one either. I think it’s a negative cycle that we’re to repeat.

AF: Was it a relief to share scenes with Juno Temple when Gator lets his guard down and, in a way, reverts to this child that might’ve turned out differently?

Keery: Those were great because those scenes showed she knew him when he was a child. As an actor, scenes that you have with different characters all allow for an opportunity to reflect different traits of the person that she’s playing. So, to have these scenes with Juno just gave me the opportunity to think about what is this side of Gator and what it says about him. You do all your homework, and you think about it, but then when the day comes, the real fun of it all is just trying to be truthful and let down your guard and use what the other person is bringing.

I was really just so lucky to have a scene partner like Juno, who, I mean, I don’t know if I’ve ever really worked with another actor who was as supportive and extremely interested in the details. She’s so thorough and committed to her craft, too. When Juno was on set, it inspired everybody to rise to her level.

AF: Is that what you meant earlier when you said that you learned to stay loose, that back and forth between actors as the characters?

Keery: A hundred percent. I love being on set and just observing the whole process of how it all comes together. But that’s not really my job. I’m supposed to be an actor. The most important thing that you can do that is often so overlooked is just to simply listen to the other person and the words that they’re saying. Sometimes, trying to hear them new for the first time can be challenging. I find that people who are really successful at this job can kind of let everything else floating around, whether it be difficulties that they’re in their personal life or things that are going on set, just let all that drop away for a little bit and just focus on this interaction between these two people. Just trying to be there and present. I guess that’s what I mean, and I think that that is such a simple and easy thing to do in theory, but then when you actually get to it, you can be so easily distracted. Trying to focus and learn from my coworkers is the kind of lesson I’ll take away from this experience.  

About The Author

Partner, Deputy Awards Editor

Matthew Koss is the Deputy Awards Editor at Awards Focus and a Senior Film and TV coverage Partner.

He is the host and creator of the weekly YouTube series The Wandering Screen with Matt Koss, which features dynamic reviews of all the latest film and TV releases. His writing has also appeared in The Movie Buff, Voyage LA, and ScreenRant, and he is a moderator for post-screening Q&As.

Since joining Awards Focus in 2020, Matthew has interviewed A-list talent, including Academy Award nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emmy winner Alex Borstein, and Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors, across film and TV. He also appears on red carpets for major studios and film festivals, most recently with Netflix's The Crown and Hulu’s The Bear.

After moving from Melbourne, Australia, to Los Angeles in 2014, Matthew has worked in various areas of the entertainment industry, including talent and literary representation, film/TV development as a Creative Executive, and at film festivals as a Regional Manager. Matthew is also a screenwriting consultant, most recently partnering with Roadmap Writers, where he conducted private, multi-week mentorship consultations, roundtables, and monthly coaching programs.

Matthew is also a producer, and he recently appeared at the Los Angeles Shorts International Film Festival with his film Chimera, directed by Justin Hughes.

He continues to work with entertainment companies such as Warner Bros. Discovery, Zero Gravity Management, Sundance Institute, and MGMT Entertainment.

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