They are known simply as Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, two mysterious characters who arrive in Bemidji, Minnesota and make Lester Nygaard’s life a living hell.
On Fargo, a show that is enjoyable on so many levels, one of the clear highlights has become the dynamic between these two enigmatic characters, who have clearly spent too much time together.
We recently caught up with Adam Goldberg, who plays Mr. Numbers, to talk about the show and his relationship with Russell Harvard’s Mr. Wrench. We also talked to him about Saving Private Ryan, Dazed and Confused and the Freudian underpinnings of his acting career.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide that’s what you wanted to do for a living?
Well, I think really young, like maybe six or something like that. And, so often times when I’m acting, and if I’m not completely fulfilled, I remind myself that I’m living out the dreams of a six-year-old, and that sort of explains it to me.
So yeah, I’m 40-years-old, but I’m doing something I wanted to do when I was six. So that’s why I definitely had to sort of temper my acting career with other passions.
I’m a child of divorce, you know, only child. I’m trying to get to the root of this here. And then I think I saw some kind of rendition of Macbeth at a church community center. And then that evening, maybe later that night or the following day, my father came to pick me up from my mother’s house for the weekend. I sold him a ticket in order to watch me perform the sword fight scenes, or a sword fight scene – I don’t know that I’ve seen Macbeth since – with my mother and my mother’s boyfriend, using knife sharpeners. So that’s what my poor father had to endure when he just wanted to pick up his little boy for the weekend. The Freudian underpinnings are rich.
Yeah, that’s pretty Freudian. Dad shows up, you’re holding a knife sharpener, there maybe something.
Yeah and then my mother and my mother’s boyfriend. Yeah, good times.
But yeah, back then I was way into the Rocky. It was a combination of being influenced by film a lot, in terms of how I wanted to live my life, and then actually wanting to be part of the movies themselves. So that’s really sort of what this movie I made years ago, called I Love Your Work, that’s what it was about. And then I started taking acting classes, and I started studying when I was in high school, you know, actually sort of studying seriously.
What it was like being in Saving Private Ryan? And what is it like looking back now on being in such an iconic film?
At the time, I thought, “Oh this is sort of like the second really important experience for me.”
Well, I guess it would the third, because the first for me was Dazed and Confused. And then the year prior to Saving Private Ryan, I wrote and directed my first film. So that was sort of the summer before, and the next summer was Saving Private Ryan.
But yeah, I thought unless this is one of those things that just goes terribly wrong, which is possible, I mean [Steven] Spielberg just blows it, you know this is going to be a very important project. So, all of us involved could not really have taken it more seriously, except for maybe for one person.
Giovanni Ribisi and I were friends. In fact I said to him, “I got this role in this one movie. I can’t do it by myself and you’ve got to get a role in it.” And he’s like, okay, so he went and did that. And then we spent the intervening weeks in study groups. Study groups when we were training, taking boxing lessons together and all this kind of stuff. Although by the time we got there we were still nowhere as fit as Tom Hanks, who could outrun any of us. But he’s Forest Gump, so you know.
That’s what he’s known for is the running, so it makes sense.
Jesus Christ, that guy is resilient. All of us were just in horrible shape. I mean, Vin [Diesel] was strong, but nobody had the wind like Hanks.
But he’s the nicest guy in Hollywood though, right? So he wouldn’t point that out to your or anything. He probably was pretty cool about it.
I just got a package from Fargo literally just five seconds ago. It was just brought into my house. I wonder what it is. I’m terrified it’s going to be a human head. It’s just like a box. I’m sorry, say again, “He’s the nicest guy in Hollywood.”
He’s not going to –
He’s a nightmare. That was my line when we were doing this press junket. Because everybody there was like some three-day marathon press junket. And so after about 12 hours talking about how nice Tom Hanks was, I had to start spreading horrible rumors about him. It was the only way I could keep myself occupied. It made Jeremy Davies very uncomfortable though.
What do you get recognized the most for on the street?
Oh my God, it could be anything. it could be 2 Days in Paris, it could be Hebrew Hammer, it could be Friends, it could be Entourage, it could be Dazed and Confused, it could be Saving Private Ryan, it could be that someone actually knows my name. So it really depends.
Is there anything you still get recognized from that you’re surprised has endured?
No, not really. I mean everything has been as I kind of expected it would be. Whether good or bad.
I mean, Dazed was clearly in it’s day definitely iffy. But, the point was everybody in town wanted to be in that movie, and that was like the most exciting thing going. Whether or not it was going to do well or not is another story, and I guess really it didn’t. And that’s a whole other story about the distribution of that movie.
But, I mean it was just a pedigree to get to be that, you know Don Philips, who cast Fast Times, and Jim Jacks and Shawn Daniels. And there was just this kind of idea that we were going to be – although the film itself didn’t seem to bear any kind of aesthetics, or structural resemblance to those films as Fast Times – in that kind of lineage of high school movies.
But we always knew what would probably be though. I think that at some point it was like, “Oh right, we’re in a cult movie” because of just how the distribution process was going.
How did Fargo come together? How was the audition process for you, or did you audition? How was the role described to you initially?
I didn’t audition. It was offered to me.
You know, Noah [Hawley] and I had done on The Unusuals together years before, so he was really clear that he wanted me to do this. And then I was just sent some pages from the script, just so I could see what the role was. You know, it was like, “Come on, this is a no-brainer.”
But the problem was is I was sort of tied up with another deal at a network, and so they had to spend. It was very close to not happening, because the network, or the studio, I can’t remember which, wasn’t going to back down. And Noah had to make a lot of phone calls just so that I could help out for a couple of weeks, so it was very close to not working out for me. And then when it did, I sort of freaked out because I realized I had a lot of sign language to learn.
But I was in the middle, literally, of directing myself in a film. And the first shoot take, my fly date, my departure date, was two days after wrapping this film, you know that I’ve been working on in one variety or another for years. And I didn’t want to obviously do anything to jeopardize my movie, but I thought it was clearly very important that I try to figure out how to make this role work.
But I just didn’t want to not be able to do it justice, and certainly I didn’t want to not be able to do the ASL stuff justice. So I was really freaked out about it. But I had worked with Katherine, my tutor during my shooting of my movie on a day off, and sort of was going to take the temperature of that to see whether or not I really felt like I could pull it off. And you know just decided to kind of take the leap and do it. So actually, much of my movie is edited by me in a hotel room in Calgary while I’m on my days off.
How much sign language did you end up learning for the role?
Just enough to do the scenes. I mean, other than the alphabet, and then when we would talk, Russell [Harvard], and Katherine, and I. Sometimes I would say, “Hey, I need to say this, and how do you say that, and how do you say this, and how do you say that,” in general to have some communication skills. But, I mean really it was just enough time for me to just learn the actual language required for the scene.
But that wasn’t just as simple as learning the language. Like anything you would have issues with, “Well, would we really say this, and would these two guys sign this, or would we sign it this way?” And so, it was kind of operating on two levels, one was okay there’s three or four different ways we can say this. How would this character use the sign language versuses how would Russell’s character use it? So there was always that kind of working out process for each one of us in the scene.
Does that make it harder to do the scenes? Are you more self-conscious in your acting doing that? Or are you able to just sort of process it all?
There’s no question it’s more difficult.
For instance, I don’t sit and study my lines necessarily for my English lines, spoken lines. In general I usually kind of work that out either the morning of, or working it during the rehearsal of the scene. You know because that’s the only way to get it into your body. You know how and where you’re standing, what you’re doing, it becomes, the act of speaking, kind of muscle memory too in a sense. So once you kind of get into that flow, it’s like playing music a little bit, where you stop thinking about the person that you’re playing and you’re just sort of playing it, hopefully.
That’s where I was trying to get to anyway. The time acting-wise, I don’t know if it’s episode four, but it’s this dialog scene where it’s entirely in sign language. It’s just between Russell and I, there wasn’t anything spoken in English. And it was difficult for me to figure out how much I would verbalize something or not.
Being a speaking/hearing person is not the same thing as someone who’s known sign language from birth, you know grew up speaking sign language and who grew up not speaking verbally. So I was having actually a quite difficult time trying to figure out like: how am I acting? What does he act like when he’s only using sign language? And that didn’t feel super intuitive until we did it enough times where I started to really kind of get to a place where I was like, “Okay, yeah I would totally say something at this point.” And it took a little while for it to get into my bones.
But in general it seems to like, because we didn’t rehearse this stuff, Russell and I and Katherine, before the shoots days. You know we would kind of get together the day before. And it became in our bones, and it just felt like anything else.
Your relationship with Russell Harvard is one of the best aspects of the show. There’s a great dynamic between you two. Will that be delved into deeper? Will we find out more about these two guys, or will they remain mysterious, with their relationship to one another left ambiguous?
I don’t know. I mean, should I tell you that?
I think basically you’re left to interpret who these guys are to each other. And, in fact, we obviously made the decision where I wasn’t speaking with an accent. I mean, Noah’s direction is just simply, “You’re from anywhere.”
And that could be really maddening or it could be liberating. And I decided it was going to be liberating, which is weird because I usually make things maddening. I mean, I make things challenging, but I didn’t want to create some sort of whole bullshit backstory for this character, nor did one exist. I wanted to really feel like the guy that existed out of this space, at least I was just sort of like existed for this particular purpose. You know born at this age, existed for this purpose, and there’s something almost kind of mechanized about it. And I don’t know, it made things very uncluttered. I don’t know quite how to put it exactly. It just made things sort of feel clean.
You both are very Coen brothers-esque characters, where you just arrive from nowhere and you don’t quite exist in the same world with everybody else, which is really fun to watch.
Yeah, exactly. I really thought that if you can hear my accent or you give them too many sort of sign posts, then that starts to kind of go away a little bit.
I mean clearly there’s an element in our relationship that’s like an old married couple, and that we’ve been together for a long time. But beyond that, explaining why he’s deaf or who I am, explaining these things even for me personally, after understanding them I think would really kind of start to remove yourself from the what feels a little bit like the magic in that show.
I mean it’s sort of like what existed with Billy [Bob Thorton]’s character, you know? I mean, I just know personally as an actor, I’ve got myself in trouble when I’ve over-thought things. And I’m prone to sort of concern myself with the past, and not so much the moment. I just think my acting is better, I feel better as a performer when things are a little less cluttered, I guess.
“Old married couple” is actually a really great description for your dynamic. You and Russell Harvard have a really great chemistry with each other, and a really great back and forth. Was that pretty organic?
Absolutely. We got along really well, and I was just like, “Oh, thank God.”
You know I met him through FaceTime when Katherine came over to give me my first ASL lesson in Los Angeles. When we started, I was really freaked out. And he was just really reassuring and grateful that I was taking this challenge. And I thought, “Jesus, what a fucking warm, genuine guy.” You know and there’s a lot of sort of touching that goes on that you can’t always communicate verbally. So we bonded very fast.
What would you do for a living if you never got into acting?
Well, I do other things that I don’t necessarily make a living at. I’ve made three records. I’m considered a professional photographer. So there’s things that I do that I’m not necessarily known for. So, I guess it would be one of those things.
So it’d still be something creative though, something in that kind of –
I’m afraid it would be, yeah. Unfortunately, yeah.
You don’t have to apologize, it’s all right.
Honestly, I wish I could make furniture. That’s what I wish I could do. I wish I could create something with my hands. And the closest I get to that is making music or making photographs or making films, I guess. But it doesn’t give one either financial stability or necessarily emotional stability, but it’s not a choice I’d ever have to really make, which I like.
What style of music do you do?
I would just listen. I mean I guess you could Google. I mean a lot of people make certain comparisons, The Flaming Lips and The Beatles and things like that. But they’re out there you can listen.
What does the future hold for you?
Oh god, I don’t know. I just hope I don’t get hit by a car or something.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Fargo airs Tuesday nights at 10 pm.