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Headlinesn > Entertainment > How do you play a 400-year-old sin eater? Terrifyingly if you’re ‘Fargo’s’ Sam Spruell
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How do you play a 400-year-old sin eater? Terrifyingly if you’re ‘Fargo’s’ Sam Spruell

Debt is a theme running through Season 5 of “Fargo,” and there was no more terrifying bill collector in Noah Hawley’s latest seriocomic venture into the dark whiteout of the Upper Midwest than Ole Munch. Nor so poignant a creature, either, as portrayed by English actor Sam Spruell. Both the failed hired kidnapper and unlikely rescuer of Juno Temple’s protagonist Dot, the centuries-old sin eater pursues his own peculiar morality, burning malefactors’ eyeballs and demanding pancakes along the way.

Speaking via Zoom from the Hackney, London, home he shares with costume designer Natalie Ward and their 14-year-old son, Spruell looks tan (spray-on, he notes, for his role in the upcoming season of the British heist series “The Gold”) and sounds articulate, a far cry from his ruddy, cryptic “Fargo” apparition. Spruell mostly plays villains; a racist cop in “Small Axe: Mangrove” and “Doctor Who’s” Swarm are recent examples. But as Ole Munch’s season-capping moment demonstrates, Spruell finds the transcendent in the terrifying.

How much of Ole Munch was on the page and what was your creation?

Lots of it was in the script. Noah Hawley was quite clear when I met him who the character was. He started off by saying Ole was 400 or 500 years old, began in Europe, maybe has been in America for 200 to 300 years. He hasn’t spoken for a century. He has an eye-for-an-eye, Old Testament kind of code that he can’t relinquish. If he feels like the scales aren’t balanced between action and recompense … Noah described it as like an itch inside of his skull that he needs to scratch.

That was quite helpful. But what really unlocked the part for me was the sin-eating. Because he was poor and desperate, he was almost forced to eat the sins of the rich. People unable to break their cycle of poverty and crime because they’re not looked after by the rest of society, that was a very strong notion that I could build a character around.

Sam Spruell plays killer Ole Munch in “Fargo.”

(Michelle Faye/FX Networks)

Ole exudes intimidation. You seem friendly, though.

I suppose some people have access to the ability to play lovers or turn on tears very quickly. My kind of capacity as an actor is darkness — and I’m not a very dark person! I’m reasonably happy, I’ve got a family who have stuck with me, but I can access darkness and intimidation. You never really play it, though; you’re playing someone who’s damaged through the whole series of events in their lives. You think about that, maybe, rather than playing a villain. Or scowling; I worked with Ridley Scott early in my career, who told me, “Just do a little less with your face.” He gave me that note when I was playing a really scary guy in “The Counselor,” and obviously it stuck.

So many memorable, specific aspects to Ole, like his third (or is it fourth?) person syntax and sibilant voice.

Noah saying that he hadn’t spoken for 100 years was enormously useful. Your ability to form sentences in, maybe, your third language … it doesn’t flow. It’s not fluent, it’s broken, the sounds are malformed, if you like. Once you throw in that he’s got a Norwegian name, you throw in some Scandinavian sounds, so with the voice coach I built it out that way as well.

And he wears a skirt.

It’s so funny. Noah and Carol Case, the costume designer, wanted to make him timeless, but also somebody who was not moved by convention. I was coming to the same conclusion, and weirdly I sent her an email saying, “Maybe he should wear a dress?” Kind of as a joke, kind of a tryout, but Noah had said the same thing to Carol or the other way around. She started sending pictures of kilts, and I felt this was exactly right. It’s got a weird historical thing going on.

A tight black-and-white portrait of British actor Sam Spruell.

“The great thing about ‘Fargo’ is it creates characters with a real interior but who have these physical and eccentric attributes that you can really go for,” actor Sam Spruell says.

(Oliver Mayhall / For The Times)

There’s so much that’s bizarre about Ole, yet at the very end he’s beaming.

The great thing about “Fargo” is it creates characters with a real interior but who have these physical and eccentric attributes that you can really go for. That’s the joy of it, being allowed to go for something that you’re trying to make naturalistic but is completely unnaturalistic as well. It’s a fine line, but if you feel like you’re onto something and you’re able to achieve it in a scene, there is nothing better as an actor than playing that size a character.

That all comes out in the remarkable final sequence, where only Dot knows that Ole’s come to threaten her cluelessly welcoming family, but ultimately makes him smile — perhaps for the first time — with a Bisquick biscuit.

He’s arrived at her home because of, again, that itch inside of his skull. He set her free from her imprisonment on the ranch, but there was no quid pro quo and he’s troubled by that, so he returns to gather the debt. The understanding that she’s not gonna pay it and that he’s actually got to forget about it runs through that whole scene. But the kindness element is so interesting. In preparation, I had all these boards written in my Calgary apartment: He’s never been touched, he’s never been shown any kindness, never been shown any affection or love. That scene, suddenly, he’s just wrapped up in a family’s love — ever so incrementally, so delicately, that he doesn’t even know it’s happening to him.

That final act, where she gives him something made with love and he accepts it, is I guess the first step to him having a chance in life.

Is Bisquick a thing in Britain?

It’s not. Bisquick were in touch with my manager in the States because they wanted to gift me a box or something. It was very funny. We haven’t followed up on it yet, but maybe I should get it delivered to my home and have a proper taste of it with my kid.

Speaking of family, how has your mother, Linda Broughton, influenced your craft and career?

She is still an actor; she’s 77. She’s mainly had a life of theater, mine’s been predominantly film and telly, and it’s been a really good conversation between the two of us. We have different approaches but we’re both kind of after the truth. I did an audition tape for the part of Ole Munch, and it was my mum I’m reading the lines with. I feel incredibly lucky to have had her counsel. Hopefully I give her something in return when we talk about how to be better actors.

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