Episode 617: Dave Foley on ‘Fargo,’ Jesmyn Ward, Netflix’s ‘How to Become a Mob Boss’

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Heard On BETA
'Fargo: Season 5' Episode 4 'Insolubilia' Pictured: (L-R) Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lorraine Lyon. Dave Foley as Danish Graves.
CR: Michelle Faye/FX. Copyright 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Comedian, actor, and Kid in the Hall Dave Foley talks about his “Fargo” character, Danish Graves. Author Jesmyn Ward on her novel, ‘Let Us Descend.’ And ‘How to Become a Mob Boss’ showrunner Jake Laufer is gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.

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  • Dave Foley on ‘Fargo’ season 5 and his malevolent character, Danish Graves

    Comedian and actor David Foley is a founding member and star of the Canadian sketch series, “Kids In the Hall” where he created so many memorable characters like, Jocelyn the sock puppet street walker, Bruno Puntz Jones (who Foley thinks would port to the Fargo-verse hilariously) and the victim of empty promises, Lex Hair.

    He’s also known to many as Dave from NBC’s hit ’90s sitcom, “NewsRadio” or, likely to many kids, for his voice roles in “A Bug’s Life” or “Monsters University.”

    Foley is adding a new unforgettable character to his resume with his turn as Danish Graves in the fifth season of FX’s hit anthology show, “Fargo” alongside the legendary Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm and (“Ted Lasso” standout) Juno Temple.

    He spoke with Doug Gordon, host of WPR’s “BETA,” about creating the character of Danish, working with these iconic actors, subtle KITH connections and of being a huge fan of “Fargo” the film, the TV series and of creator, Noah Hawley’s, writing.

    The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Doug Gordon: What can you tell us about your character?

    Dave Foley: First, that he has a wonderful name. And an equally wonderful eyepatch. And that he is basically the hatchet man for Lorraine Lyons, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is the queen of debt. She’s a billionaire. She’s made her billions basically on debt. And with all that, the damage that does to people.

    Whatever evil and manipulative things that Lorraine wants to happen to people, Danish is the guy who makes it happen. His world is all built around Lorraine; his career, his personal sense of power and his sense of belonging all come from Lorraine.

    The closest thing he has to a family or belonging anywhere is her family.

    DG: I wanted to ask you about the eyepatch, because I was very curious about that. Danish wears his eyepatch over his right eye. And I’m curious, is this a tribute to the “Twin Peaks” character Nadine Hurley?

    DF: (Chuckles) No, no, it wasn’t. At least not to my knowledge, it wasn’t. It was just written into the scripts and all it said was ‘due to a childhood injury.’ At one point, I tried to guess with Noah. I said, ‘Is there some symbolism to it? Does the eyepatch represent Danish’s ability to turn a blind eye to the evils that he’s doing?’

    And Noah said, ‘Mm, no, I just really like the eyepatch.’

    DG: I want to run the press kit description of your character of Danish Graves by you and see what you think of it: ‘Danish Graves is Lorraine Lyon’s in-house counsel and a primary advisor, a country club type who has never been in a real fight but sees himself as a winner when clearly Lorraine is the heavyweight champion and he just holds her spit bucket.’ What do you think of that? Is that a good description?

    DF: Yeah, a little bit, I think. Well, he’s more effective than just holding the spit bucket. I’d say that, you know, she wants someone’s life ruined, he ruins it. He formulates his own plans on how to ruin people’s lives.

    But definitely, all of his power and strength and every bit of ability he has to intimidate or frighten people in the world all comes directly from her strength and power. He is a reflection of her. He is not his own man in any way.

    DG: Did “Fargo” showrunner Noah Hawley allow you to modify the character at all?

    DF: Yes, he did in that he’s very hands-off. He doesn’t really tell you much on set. It took me a few days to sort of get a feel for whether he was happy or not because he doesn’t say much.

    We’d do a scene, and then you only know that he’s happy because he walks onto the set and starts setting up the next shot. And, you go, ‘Oh, we’re moving on. You must have liked what we did.’

    He’s not very effusive about it. He’s almost, almost Canadian, really, in his sort of laconic way of doing things. I mean, the writing is so clear that it’s hard to go wrong if you just pay attention to the script, and I just tried very hard to fight to represent everything that was written on the page as well as I could.

    DG: How did you go about developing the character?

    DF: Just really trying to understand his relationship to all of the other characters. What it was that drove him and what it was he got out of these relationships.

    What would become a conflict for him? What kind of moral lines does he have? And they’re pretty vague, the ones that he does have.

    And then there is also just settling in on the look of it. The eyepatch obviously makes a big difference.

    And working on the accent with the dialect coach Tony Alcantar. And part of it was weird little things, like I realized that I tend to talk with my bottom teeth showing in normal life. And so, I wanted Danish to talk with his upper teeth showing as much as possible. Which to me felt a little more animalistic.

    DG: That’s interesting about the dialect coach. I watched the first two episodes and I thought, okay, ‘Is Dave going to have kind of an accent?’ And it kind of sounded like you did. But it was subtle. Would you agree with that?

    DF: With Tony we worked on it, and I think what Noah wanted was different characters have different degrees of the accent depending on how you want them perceived. I think where there were characters with more menace to them, the accent is subtler. The more likable the character is, the stronger the accent is in some ways.

    DG: I imagine that your creative process for developing the Danish Graves character would be very different from the way you would create your “Kids in the Hall” characters. Is that the case?

    DF: In some ways. But, in other ways it’s sort of similar in that with the “Kids,” we tended to play comedy very much on the subtext. We always tried to play comedy as though it was drama, or as we say in Canada, “DRAM-uh.”

    You look at the scene, and you look at what you need to accomplish in the scene, what you need to provide to the other characters in the scene, and that becomes a big part of it.

    DG: How much does Dave Foley have in common with Danish Graves?

    DF: I hope very little. There are things I definitely sympathize with Danish about. I think Danish’s deep need to feel connected to somebody. I think I shared that with Danish, that desire to connect somewhere and maybe my own limitations as well in that field.

    DG: You feel you have limitations in your ability to connect?

    DF: Oh, yeah, definitely. But, I think that’s part of being Canadian, too. Or, I was raised by an English woman, so, you know, that doesn’t lead to a lot of connection.

    DG: Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lorraine. What was it like working with Jennifer?

    DF: Oh, fantastic. Although, some pressure because I’m such a fan of hers and she’s such an incredible actor. I definitely felt like, I hope I can stay in these scenes. I hope I’m good enough to where they don’t just have to play everything on Jennifer, and I’m just a voice off camera, you know? Because she’s so good.

    But she’s also such a really generous and kind and nice person to be around. And as an actor, too, she’s very, very giving on set. And it’s very collaborative. So, it was really fun. To get to do all those scenes with her was really a thrill.

    DG: I’m curious, did you have any scenes with Jon Hamm?

    DF: Oh, I do. Later on.

    DG: Can you tell me about working with him?

    DF: I could tell you how much fun it was to work with Jon because I’ve known Jon for several years now and hung out together in various places over the years at various states of inebriation at times over the years. But he is a great guy. And he’s a huge comedy fan and brilliantly talented comedic actor.

    So, it was great to get to hang out, spend some time with Jon in Calgary and to get to be in some scenes. He’s so good in this. His character is just phenomenal. I think people are going to really love it.

    DG: What can “Fargo” fans expect from season five?

    DF: I say you can expect another exploration of moral themes. This time out, it’s about the morality of debt and indebtedness and the power and the power structures that debt creates. Also, a lot of great characters with some great names and a lot of really amazing surprises and some really visually stunning things coming up.

  • Jesmyn Ward talks about her first historical novel, 'Let Us Descend'

    Jesmyn Ward is one of the most imaginative writers working today and she has the awards to prove it. She’s won two National Book Awards and received the prestigious MacArthur “genius’ grant.” Ward is the youngest person to be awarded the Library of Congress’ Prize for American Fiction.

    She recently released her first historical novel, “Let Us Descend.” It’s a book which Ward almost didn’t write. Fortunately for us, she did.

    The novel tells the story of Annis, an enslaved teenage girl who is sold by her white father after she is separated from her mother.

    Ward effortlessly weaves elements of “Dante’s Inferno,” magical realism, the voices of the Earth’s spirits and slave narratives together to create a powerful story about rebirth and reclamation.

    This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

    Doug Gordon: Can you tell us about your protagonist, Annis, and the role that she plays?

    Jesmyn Ward: She is an enslaved person on a rice plantation with her mother who is also enslaved. She and her mother are very much a family. She loves her mother; her mother loves her very much. And her mother is intent on teaching her what she knows of the world in order to help and better navigate it.

    Then they’re separated because her mother is sold away from her. And that sort of begins its own journey into greater and greater depths. (Annis is) later sold after her mother. And by sold, I mean that she is sold to a person who sells enslaved people and that person walks her south to the slave markets — the slave pens of New Orleans — so that he can then sell her to a plantation owner in the South for more money.

    And so she takes a physical journey, but she also takes an emotional journey because losing her mother is this first step in this journey where she’s dealing with really heavy grief, and she’s trying to find her way towards a different tomorrow without her mother in it.

    DG: Very well said. I found it very interesting that you said you wanted to look at the hard truth from your past to explore what it would have been like to have little to no physical agency over her own body. One of the things that I really enjoyed about your writing, besides it being so poetic and beautifully written, were the physical descriptions. There were so many physical descriptions of what characters were doing, more so than I think I read in a lot of other novels. Can you talk about the physical agency and how you employed that in the book?

    JW: Yeah, it was important for me to sort of crowd the reader into Annis’s experience by using lots and lots of sensory details.

    I was sort of attempting to mimic this really powerful section in Colson Whitehead’s novel, “Underground Railroad.” There’s this point in “Underground Railroad” where Cora, who is an enslaved woman who is fleeing slavery and who is on the Underground Railroad, hides in an attic. And the writing in that section is so rooted in that experience. There are so many strong sensory details. It’s so powerful that I really felt like I was with Cora in that attic.

    And I realized when I was reading it that I had never read a novel about an enslaved person that rooted me so firmly in that experience. I felt fear. She’s watching white supremacists gather in the park across from the house. Her awareness of how close and hot and dark the attic is, her awareness of her … bodily functions. And so you’re just so rooted in her experience. I wanted to use that as a model to sort of crowd my readers into that experience with Annis. So they’re there with her in body every step of the way.

    DG: I love that phrase you used, “crowd the reader,” because there is this sense of claustrophobia, especially early on in the narrative. This is your first historical novel, so I’m guessing you must have done a lot of research. What were the most surprising things you learned?

    JW: I think one of the most surprising books that I read was a book called “Slavery’s Exiles” by a writer named Sylviane Diouf. That book was revelatory for me because it’s all about maroon communities and maroons in the United States of America. So not in the Caribbean, but there were communities of formerly enslaved people that were established in the swamps of Louisiana that were also established in the Great Dismal Swamp in the Upper South.

    Sometimes, when people escaped slavery, they would exist on the borderlands of the plantations. So that way they could still trade with people who were still enslaved and not be totally self-sufficient, but still be free. I didn’t know that people who were still enslaved resisted by then taking things and giving them to the people who were living on the borderlands.

    I didn’t know that when people were in the slave pens and in the slave markets, they were given sort of scripts (to follow) by the people who were selling them. They were told that they were a private hand or, you know, or a cook or whatever. And they had to support that narrative and play along with it during their selling, which is terrible.

    But if the pretenses under which they were being sold were a lie, they would sometimes push back and say, “No, I don’t do this, and I can’t do this.” And they would also advocate so that they wouldn’t be split up from people that they loved. So they would enter into argument with the people attempting to buy them and they would say, “Can you buy this person too, can you please keep us together?”

    And so there are all these ways that enslaved people resisted their enslavement that I had no idea of before I began researching. And I’m really grateful that writing this book led me to that knowledge.

    DG: You almost did not write “Let Us Descend.” If you don’t mind my asking, why not?

    JW: Because my partner, the father of my children, passed away in January of 2020 from a respiratory illness. And so at that time, I was around three chapters into “Let Us Descend.” And I had been struggling with that for a long time. I think what was troubling me was that I couldn’t get beyond that fact that Annis has little to no physical agency.

    And so my partner died and I stopped writing. And I didn’t write for around six months. To go so long without writing was strange for me. And I think I was so hopeless and so mired in despair that I just couldn’t. I couldn’t because I think that all of my writing is borne from a place of hope and borne from a place of love.

    My grief had just sort of driven any sense of hope out of me. So I sat with that and it felt really bad and it hurt. And it felt painful to think that maybe I was done. But then this voice spoke up and this voice said — my partner’s name was Brandon, and I called him “B” — and so the voice said the last thing that B would want is for his leaving to make you stop writing. And I was like, that’s very true. If that is true, then I have to get back to work.

    I wrote forward from chapter three, and it was a very different process. It helped me to understand what Annis was struggling with and what nearly every enslaved person that she meets, what they were struggling with.

  • Be a mob boss in your own town. Here's how!

    These days, if you want to learn something, there are “how to” videos on just about every topic.

    How to retire, how to lace your sneakers, how to fry an egg. But let’s dig a little deeper and find the good stuff.

    For that, we need to turn to Jake Laufer. He’s one of the folks behind Netflix’s “How To Become A Tyrant,” “How To Become A Cult Leader” and most recently, “How To Become A Mob Boss.

    WPR’s “BETA,” thinking about a career change, decided to chat with Laufer about this idea of becoming a mob boss and how Laufer and his crew put together this most informative series.

    Laufer somewhat dampened our excitement about becoming a mob boss with his initial remarks concerning this “how to” series.

    “The very premise that anybody should become a mob boss or a cult leader or a tyrant is preposterous on its face,” he said. “So when we decided that this was the approach we wanted to take, it stood out that we needed to make sure that people understood that this was satire, that this was not something we were telling people they should be doing, but rather a fun exploration. If you’re so dedicated to amassing this sort of power, how would you go about doing it?”

    We were crushed. But upon reflection, we decided a career in public broadcasting wasn’t that bad.

    Actor Peter Dinklage brings a sinister vibe to “How To Become A Mob Boss,” with his over-the-top narration and clever script writing from Laufer and crew.

    “The only sort of guide through this sort of journey would have to be a character-narrator who does have a very dark view of humanity,” Laufer explains. “When we tie that into characters that Peter Dinklage has portrayed in the past, we landed on one that could really sell the premise and show that this is how a devil on your shoulder would guide you into becoming this sort of person, which led to a sardonic, satiric approach.”

    “Peter is a great collaborator,” Laufer said. “We generally would have our scripts ready to go before we would go into session, but Peter would often suggest how to make it even sharper, funnier and more to the point we’re trying to make.”

    In this time of polarized politics, it’s rare that the subject of amassing power doesn’t get pushback from one side or the other. However, although “How to Become a Mob Boss” may push some political buttons, Laufer thinks both sides can agree on its substance.

    “It’s a political show, but it’s definitely not a partisan show,” Laufer argues. “And I think we’ve gotten an equal response on both sides of the political aisle, particularly for shows like ‘Tyrant,’ where they say, ‘Yes, this is like the tyranny we’re experiencing right now.’”

    “Some would say it’s the tyranny of the left, and some would say it’s the tyranny of the right. You can see all aspects of this in our society. ‘Mob Boss’ is a business show. It’s about achieving money no matter what,” he added.

    Each of the six episodes focuses on one particular mob boss’s career.

    People like…

    Al Capone: “…definitely the embodiment of the American dream. A self-made man, son of immigrants, came with nothing. Through a combination of his business acumen and a little bit of good luck, he was able to make it to the top.”

    Frank Lucas: “A lot of these folks did have difficult origin stories, and it doesn’t excuse who they became by any means, but it seems to have colored his opinion on what is a ‘polite society,’ what he would need to do to get ahead. And what he did was sell a very deadly product that ruined a lot of lives.”

    Pablo Escobar: “Most people would say he was the most powerful person in Columbia then. He had his fingers in everything. There was a period when he was beloved by some people. A lot of people saw him as a Robin Hood. And then he became one of the greatest murderous terrorists of all time.”

    “How to Become a Mob Boss” also includes profiles of other notorious gangsters like Salvatore “Toto” Riina, John Gotti and Whitey Bulger. Each one had their unique way of rising through the ranks and became some of the most ruthless, influential people of their time.

    Laufer cautions us, though, that the life of a mob boss, with its money and power, is not the best path.

    “It’s definitely a tightrope act. How do you have a fun journey of imagining yourself in these people’s positions without forgetting who they are and the lives they ruined? How do we do this and still be respectful and sensitive to the people who have suffered?” he said. “Hopefully, people understand what we’re trying to say with this series and that we still don’t shy away from the suffering and the horrors that these people did perpetrate.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Dave Foley Guest
  • Jesmyn Ward Guest
  • Jake Laufer Guest

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