In ‘Fargo,’ A Deaf Actor Gets His Chance To Be Wicked

Summarized by Jennifer Reed, staff writer

The second episode of the TV show Fargo that was sparked by the 1996 Coen brothers film, begins in the countryside of Minnesota in the winter. A car speeds down snowy roads and two contract killers investigate a murder, communicating by ASL.

Former child actor, Russell Harvard, who was born deaf, plays the hit man Mr. Wrench. His desire to act began when he “saw [his] cousin play the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz.” He had doubt he could succeed in acting, but that changed when he acted in There Will Be Blood in 2007. More recently, he had a role in the off-Broadway play, Tribes.

Being known as “Mr. Nice Guy” by his friends, he jumped at the opportunity to play an evil character, so unlike himself.

The bonus to playing Mr. Wrench is that he can communicate with ASL and his cohort, Mr. Numbers, acts as interpreter for him.

Harvard thinks because Mr. Wrench’s deafness isn’t the primary focus of his character, this will increase his chances for other roles in the future.

Noah Hawley, the man who created Fargo says the idea for Mr. Wrench was sparked by living near the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin. He found communicating by sign language to be very captivating and thought it interesting because deaf people are able to speak privately among hearing people.

To be able to speak privately in this manner is an ideal ability for hit men, such as Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers, played by actor, Adam Goldberg. The duo, over multiple episodes, tracks the intimidating main character, Lester Nygaard, who is played by Martin Freeman.

When the hit men challenge Nygaard in the third episode, Mr. Wrench signs aggressively at him and, unless the viewer knows ASL, they are left in the dark with no interpretation or subtitles. Nygaard doesn’t know what Mr. Wrench is saying to him, nor does he know how to respond.

Harvard has to translate his script lines into ASL, which can be difficult because of the “different structure and more limited vocabulary.”

Since Goldberg did not know ASL, Catherine MacKinnon has been hired to coach him. She also alerts Hawley to any ASL errors. Harvard and MacKinnon worked with Goldberg to improve his smoothness. “He had a lot of quirkiness in his signing. [But] he did a great job. There’s no two ways about it.”

Hawley had imagined a “Midnight Cowboy” image for the hit men. He didn’t anticipate the physicality of sign language though, and found that the fringed coat he has Mr. Wrench wear created quite a commotion with its constant movement. “Everyone loved it.”

Because he liked Mr. Wrench (and the actor) so much, Hawley kept the character on the show for one more episode than he had originally mapped out. Harvard’s last appearance on the show was June 3, 2014.

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