Yes, that was Andrew Bird on the two-episode season four debut of FX’s belovedly bloody drama Fargo playing conflicted beatnik funeral parlor owner Thurman Smutny. And if you ask the veteran singer/songwriter/whistler/violin player how he managed to add yet another notch to his already long list of talents, he’ll honestly tell you he has no idea.
“It came completely out of nowhere,” the low-key singer tells Billboard about his acting debut in one of the most anticipated series of the fall.
As he describes it, Bird was playing a gig in Austin, Texas, where show creator Noah Hawley lives, and afterwards Hawley stepped right up and offered him the role of in-over-his-head undertaker Smutny.
No audition, nothing. “Just a quick meeting with him and I was like, ‘What makes you think I can do this?’ And he said, ‘You’re a dad right?’,” says Bird, who noted that Hawley seemed “completely unconcerned” that Bird had never acted before. “It was pretty terrifying the first day I showed up on location for the first time.”
And though the 47-year-old singer — who’s been rocking stages for nearly 25 years — did what he thought he was supposed to and showed up on the Chicago set after prepping his lines for months, Hawley was not done surprising him.
“The first thing he did was give me completely different dialogue, which was maybe by design in case I was too prepared,” says Bird, who’s a suburban Chicago native. “I’ve never really understood acting. I’m a performer, but it’s a different thing to pretend to feel things that you don’t feel.”
If you’ve watched the Fargo kick-off, you already know that Bird completely disappears into the role of nervous Smutny, who appears to be sliding ever further into the mob muck thanks to a ill-considered loan he and his wife took out from local gangsters.
The singer, who also just announced his upcoming holiday album Hark! (Oct. 30) — which features a mix of originals, re-imagined Christmas classics and some choice covers of songs by John Prine, John Cale and the Handsome Family — had plenty more to say about his Fargo journey.
Check out Billboard‘s interview with Bird below.
This is your official acting debut, but are you telling me you never did any school plays? Nothing before this?
No, not at all. But on the other hand, every time I had to get up on stage or give a book report I was very awkward and shy, but as soon as I got up on the stage I’d be calm and collected and focused. This is different though, there’s cameras and sets and multiple angles that you have to shoot over and over again. It’s not like a live performance. I was thinking, ‘I can focus enough to do one take,’ but then they do that take and then take an hour to set up a different camera angle and you do that all day long.
Any tricks you learned quickly to sustain that performance since you’re used to doing it for an hour or two and then being done?
No. I really didn’t know if I was pulling it off as I was doing it. I got a lot of advice from actor friends of mine who made it sound like there was nothing to it: just learn your lines and trust in the power of editing. I really wanted to know, “What do I do? How do I think?” Nobody helped me with any of that.
Did Noah ask you to take acting lessons?
No, he didn’t want me to take any acting lessons.
It seems kind of daunting for a first acting gig, no?
Yes. I’m surrounded by career professionals, so it’s hard not to feel like a fraud. But at the same time, the actors on that show are so good that it helped pull me into it to step up to somewhat to their level. Everyone was very nice and encouraging.
You do have the most delicious name in Thurman Smutny. Who did you think when you heard your character’s handle?
It’s got a Victorian vibe to it, for sure. It was fun to work with the costume designer on what Thurman is supposed to look like… we talked about a hint of Victorian, with the string tie, but at the same time he’s a kind of modern, progressive guy.
One of the reasons Noah thought of me for the part was I assume partly based on my stage presence. I don’t really have an alter ego on stage, it’s just an amplified version of myself. So, if I’m feeling awkward on stage, I’ll share that with the audience. I think that he though Thurman Smutney was a nervous man in over his head and I’m an actor trying not to be nervous.
The season takes place in Kansas City, but it’s filmed in your old stomping grounds of Chicago. Did that help give you a bit more confidence?
Yeah. If it had been in Toronto, I would have probably felt more alienated. That’s the strange thing, going back to a place you’re familiar with to do something you’re so unfamiliar with… sometimes you can escape a place where you developed your identity and then you can create not a new identity, but once you leave that place you can escape the confines of it.
Do you have any music in this season?
There was not really an expectation that I would do music, but I did whistle on set in a scene that comes late on and I did some recording for the score, but I’m not sure it’s in there.
Again, not trying to blow smoke, but you are very good so far. Have you gotten any other offers now that you’re an official actor?
Yeah. I would definitely be interested in doing this again. Not just because I can’t tour right now, but that is one good reason. I find it really challenging and interesting work. I would be interesting to see what range I have beyond this character.
Check Bird out at the 40-second mark of the season four trailer below.