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‘Fargo’ role another strong one for Chicago’s Carrie Coon

Carrie Coon stars as police chief Gloria Burgle on the third season of "Fargo" on FX. | Chris Large/FX

Carrie Coon knows exactly what she wants when it comes to choosing her stage and screen roles. She gravitates toward strong, smart women, she says, because at their core, they remind her of the Midwest, of the women she has grown up with her entire life. They are characters so well-written, it’s rare, Coon says, that an actress has the opportunity to take them on. Her latest such role is that of Gloria Burgle, the chief of police in a small Minnesota town in the Emmy Award-winning FX series “Fargo.”

The show’s third season, premiering at 9 p.m. April 19, is set in 2010 Eden Valley, with a storyline that centers on feuding brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy (both portrayed by Ewan McGregor). Emmitt is a stamp-obsessed real estate developer, the self-proclaimed “Parking Lot King of Minnesota,” while Ray is a down-on-his-luck probation officer who must grovel for cash at every turn. The dark tale of the brothers’ anger-fueled relationship is peppered with a quirky set of supporting characters including Ray’s savvy bridge-playing fiancée (and recent parolee) Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). There’s murder and mayhem aplenty, thought it plays out quietly and at an ingenious snail’s pace.

For Coon, “Fargo” arrived at the perfect juncture in her career. She’s concurrently starring as Nora in the HBO series “The Leftovers,” which just began its series-ending season. Movie buffs might also recall her from a key role in the film “Gone Girl.” Closer to home, Coon is a familiar face to Chicago stage audiences, having starred at Steppenwolf Theatre in productions of “Mary Page Marlowe” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (she received a Tony Award nomination for the latter’s subsequent Broadway production). “Woolf” is where she met Steppenwolf ensemble member and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, then her co-star and now her husband.

“My friends sent me picture of the New York subway where there’s a poster for ‘Fargo’ next to a poster for ‘Leftovers,’ and that was pretty weird,” Coon said amid laughter, during a recent phone conversation from Calgary, Alberta, where the actress is filming “Fargo.” “But honestly, I think a lot of people really don’t connect me to both projects from the posters, so that’s flattering, because they are two very distinct women. Although both share a dry sense of humor and tenacity, I suppose.”

Coon has not watched her “Fargo” episodes to date, “I like to watch the episodes with my husband in our house in Wicker Park … not on my computer in my little apartment in Calgary. But I do watch my [screen] performances because it’s how you get better. You look at the acting.”

Carrie Coon stars as Nora on the HBO series “The Leftovers.” | HBO
Carrie Coon stars as Nora on the HBO series “The Leftovers.” | HBO

Much like what drove her to her role on “The Leftovers,” Coon says she was immediately drawn to the character of Gloria on “Fargo.”

“I would have said yes without reading a script,” she admits. “Because I’d seen the first two seasons of [‘Fargo’] and thought it was so smart and well-written [by creator Noah Hawley]. Gloria is very much in my DNA because I grew up in Ohio and I went to school in Wisconsin. … What I see is Noah writing women that I know. … [The same] for Nora [created and written by Damon Lindelof for ‘The Leftovers’]. These women look like the women I’ve known and respected my whole life.”

Coon’s life includes being born and raised in Copley, Ohio, a town founded by her ancestors in the late 1800s. (“My father ran the auto parts store in Copley Circle; my parents grew up a block apart.”). She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her acting career began there out of necessity and logistics.

“I was in Wisconsin at least eight months out of the year, so I got my storefront theater experience in Madison,” Coon said. “I kept trying to transition to Chicago but Wisconsin kept giving me work. And I was doing motion capture work for video games in Madison and some corporate voiceover work, so it was difficult to get to Chicago and work. But the directors I was working with in Wisconsin were mostly Chicago-based, and eventually James Bohnen [of Remy Bumppo] gave me my first job in Chicago in ‘Bronte.’ And that was my big Chicago break. The second play I did there was with Anna Shapiro at the Goodman, who cast me in ‘Magnolia.’ And then my third play was ‘Virginia Woolf’ at Steppenwolf. And by the time ‘Virginia Woolf’ was slated for Broadway, that’s when I started working my way back through Chicago theater, at Writers, Next Theatre.”

Coon would return to Chicago to star in Steppenwolf productions of “The March” and Letts’ adaptation of “Three Sisters,” which “I wasn’t originally supposed to be in. I just took over a part. And of course, ‘Mary Page Marlowe’ [another Letts vehicle]. … It’s been an unusual trajectory because most actors come up through Chicago storefronts and then crack [companies like] the Goodman and Steppenwolf. I just had a very different path.”

The actress says Chicago remains one of the best theater cities in the country, regardless of the “second city” bias that still exists, wherein Broadway casting agents and producers too often overlook the city’s hugely gifted talent pool.

Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” | Photo by Michael Brosilow
Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” | Photo by Michael Brosilow

“There’s a bias. That’s why I respect Steppenwolf so much because they really try to maintain their cast when they go to New York. We really need that for our actors. I tell young actors all the time to come to Chicago when they’re starting out because there’s so much work happening and because the only way you get better is by actually being on the stage. You don’t get better by waiting for the phone to ring. …

“Tracy and I talk about it all the time when we’re being interviewed: Chicago is dominated by the ensemble aesthetic. Companies like Steppenwolf were founded in that city and they became the model for [the work] that young actors graduating from school who move to Chicago want to make. … Typically, in Chicago the most important thing [about a play] is the story. It’s not about one person standing out and doing an aria. The story always dominates the decision one makes when putting together a production, and I don’t find that true elsewhere. In New York, it’s such a rat race. And everyone who has a job is using that job to get to the next thing. And so, you can’t ever really BE in the thing that you’re in.

“In Chicago, nobody’s getting famous. It’s not the place to get famous. They don’t have enough TV and film work there. It’s getting better and I’m glad to see our Chicago actors getting those jobs. I’d like to see them treated better. I think the shows are realizing when they come into Chicago there’s this depth of talent there that they can take advantage of. But they also need to start paying Chicago actors what they’re paying when they bring in the leads from New York or L.A. I’d like to see actors in Chicago being considered for those leading parts.”

And when she actually gets time off to return to her Chicago home, Coon says it’s all about just spending quiet time with Letts. “I’ve rarely been home [in the past three years],” Coon says. “Tracy and I have a beautiful home in Wicker Park, and we love just being home together. We have a great grill and we like to cook, watch PBS news, read the New York Times over coffee. And just take walks. [Coon says she’s also his first reader on all of his finished scripts].”

And when it comes to cooking, she says they’re pretty even. “None of us is naturally gifted,” she says with a laugh. “We just love being in the kitchen together.”

Her go-to dish is a chicken with lemon, olives and carrots, “a good one-dish meal.”

Letts, she says, “makes a pretty mean fried chicken; he’s a Southerner. And he also discovered when we got married that you can make your own pasta sauce, not out of a jar. So now he refused to eat pasta sauce out of a jar. So he’s always experimenting with his own sauce.”