Actor Matthew Elam’s newest acting gig is a role that’s well-known in parenting circles: the son unwilling to follow in his parents’ footsteps.
Instead of running guns and collecting loan-shark payments, his “Fargo” character has aspirations to become a musician, much like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
“My character wants to do my own thing, and Noah [Hawley, the series’ showrunner] described me as kind of like an alien to that world,” said Elam. “Especially when you have a father figure who is adamant about passing his legacy on, or wants to craft you in the same mode. You have a passion that is non-traditional, especially to a man like that. Of course you’re going to have to be a little revolutionary or radical in that sense.”
In Season 4 of FX’s anthology series, Elam plays Lemuel Cannon, the eldest son of Chris Rock’s Loy Cannon, the figurehead of a 1950s Kansas City Black crime syndicate.
One of the season’s main storylines details the complexities of a decision made by Rock’s character: to send his youngest son to live with rival mobsters of Italian descent. In exchange, a son from the Italian crime family goes to live with the Cannons in order to ensure an uneasy partnership.
“In principle, it makes sense,” said Elam, a DePaul theater school alumnus. “You have this rival group to keep your child safe, so in return you also keep their child safe, which keeps the peace between you — it works in theory. … I think the concept of the principle is a beautiful thing if you have two different groups who are about love, about understanding one another, and hopefully that power dynamic doesn’t prevail as much.”
Elam, a Southern California native, made adjustments to the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic as the series wrapped up filming in August and September in a “bubble” similar to the approach of many sports leagues worldwide. The season was filmed in numerous locations in the city proper and in suburban Blue Island and Elgin.
“Every other day, I had a doctor sent to where I live to give me a COVID test, and that was weeks before I even started going on set,” said Elam. “Once I got on set the doctor is still there. … But now they’re [doctors] part of the team, and then you have someone that reminds you to have your mask on. … They really took care of us; I never felt like I was in jeopardy showing up to work.”
During his time in the bubble, Elam was the recipient of sage wisdom from Rock and fellow cast member Glynn Turman.
“He and Glynn gave some game [advice] about how to navigate and maneuver throughout my career,” said Elam. “One thing they really touched upon was picking the things you want to do and make sure they’re in alignment with your integrity. Our work is reflective of who we are, and if you settle for something because it’s convenient — or it’s for the money — oftentimes in the long run that might damage your career or make it harder to move forward.”
In 2019, Elam received rave reviews for his role in the play “Pipeline” during its Chicago premiere at the Victory Gardens Theater, and he sees similarities between that role and his “Fargo” character.
“They’re both kind of rebellious,” said Elam. “I understood Omari [in ‘Pipeline’] because it’s set in a contemporary setting and his father was absent. I understood Lemuel because he’s going against his father in many ways trying to do his own thing. It was interesting to see how, in retrospect, that prepared me.
“As an actor, theater is totally different from TV and film. TV and film is a much more technical medium, so I’m having to be so much more specific in choices that can be subtleties in TV and film that communicate a whole other world of what a character is thinking as opposed to theater.”
And what should viewers expect from “Fargo” and Elam’s character?
“I think you [viewers] should be prepared for anything to happen; never feel like the world is set in stone,” said Elam. “Yeah, there’s very few things that are permanent, as we know in life, but in Noah’s writing, never get too comfortable. I think he always wants you to be on your toes. ... I think he’s got a few little dips in there that can shake you up a little bit.”