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Repopulating “Fargo” – An Interview With Casting Director Rachel Tenner

By: Marjorie Galas

With the ice-cold conclusion of the second installment of the “Fargo” securely set in the books, casting director Rachel Tenner took a moment to consider the process of inhabiting the town’s quirky characters.

“It was a whole new cast; we did not get the luxury of getting any leads back,” said Tenner.  “This is not a bad thing.  It was a much bigger cast, the tone was different; we were able to start the whole process over.”

Tenner was one of the many creative department heads who returned for the second season of “Fargo” after forging a strong relationship with creator/producer Noah Hawley during season one.  When first presented with Hawley’s concept of a series based around the world presented in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1997 Oscar winning film, Tenner was immediately intrigued.  Working as an associate with casting director Ellen Chenoweth, Tenner helped select actors for many of the Coen’s films including “Burn After Reading” and “No Country for Old Men.”  She was adapt at identifying the type of characteristics the Coen’s looked for in their casting choices.   Despite having focused her attentions primarily in features, she joined the “Fargo” team after reading Hawley’s outline.  With no actors pre-cast, her work in populating “Fargo” resulted in her first Emmy nomination and win.

“It sounds like a cliché but it truly is nice to be nominated; your peers have recognized your efforts.  When you achieve that it is rewarding,” said Tenner.  “It was particularly exciting to see the way the actors were embraced by everyone.  It started with Noah, then the studio, and ultimately by the public and Television Academy as well.”  (In addition to an Outstanding Mini Series Emmy win, actors Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks received Emmy nominations.)

Built as an anthology, the second season of “Fargo” presented an entirely new cast of characters and a late 70s time period.  Period casting often presents its own set of needs, for instance people with specific physicality or unique vocal intonations.  The “Fargo” residents Hawley created held enough unique characteristics, however, enabling the period tone to be masterfully handled by returning department heads Carol Case (costume designer), Warren Alan Young (production designer) and Jeff Russo (composer) and allowing Tenner to focus specifically on personalities for every role – as with the first season no actors were pre-cast.   Using the outlines in the source material, Tenner starts by bringing ideas and options to Hawley, who would agree and adjust choices accordingly.

“Noah’s writing defines the world we’re creating,” said Tenner.  “I come in with a point of view and bring big ideas to the table.  The goal is to find tastes that mesh.”

Sometimes, the perfect actor will come to mind quickly, as in this season’s casting of rising star Jesse Plemons as husband Ed Blumquist (“I had turned on an exit while driving home when I realized he would be great for the part,” said Tenner).  Other times, such as filling season one’s role of up-and-coming police officer Molly Solverson with actress Allison Tolman, Tenner will engage in an exhaustive search that stretches far beyond Los Angeles or New York.  She’ll use social media and the internet to assist in finding the best fit.  Social media helps get the word out about casting needs, and custom built websites have aided in finding undiscovered talents in rural areas that don’t necessarily cater to fledgling actors.  The sites help the talent prepare sides as well as record and upload video clips.

“It helps someone who’s never done this before, and I get exactly what I need,” said Tenner.

Recognizing early on that season two would be shot in Canada, Tenner reconnected with local casting directors Stephanie Gorin and Jackie Lynn.  The three women worked in tandem to discover local talent who fit in well with the roles.  Early in the casting process Tenner will fill a wall with pictures of actors that are being considered for each role.  Ensuring chemistry exists between actors is estimated and confirmed when the actors audition together.  Once actors were cast, Tenner communicated with talents’ agents to ensure each individual was aware of the frigid location conditions and to address any difficulties that might arise due to scheduling needs or the remote local.

Despite her welcomed turn to television, Tenner remains as active as ever in feature casting.  Up next, her eye for building the best cast possible will be seen in the much anticipated “Zoolander 2.”

“The script was so funny, it was fun hearing the scenes read,” said Tenner.  “The movie had so many challenges and I was really kept on my toes, and I had a lot of fun.”