‘Fargo’s’ Mary Elizabeth Winstead Talks ‘Painful’ Getaway Shoot, Learning Sign Language on Set

“I had a lot of cuts and bruises on my wrists,” actress tells TheWrap

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango

(Spoiler alert: Please do not read on if you haven’t watched Wednesday’s episode of “Fargo”)

Nikki Swango was on the run during Wednesday’s “Fargo,” and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead tells TheWrap that the action-packed, breathtaking episode was even tougher to shoot than it may have looked.

The FX drama series’ latest installment picked up from last week’s bus crash that left Nikki and seat partner Wes Wrench (Russell Harvard) fighting for their lives while Varga’s henchman tried to take them out. This led to Nikki and Wrench — whom fans will remember as the deaf assassin from Season 1 — racing through the frigid woods while shackled together, struggling to communicate and dodging arrows from a crossbow.

“Russell and I ended up being chained to each other for weeks because of just how long all that took,” Winstead tells TheWrap. “By the end of it, we were bonded for life. It was one of the most wonderful, challenging, rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

The pair wore actual handcuffs throughout the shoot, and the actress says she was left with cuts and bruises as a result. Making matters even more complicated was the fact that Harvard is deaf, so the pair had to figure out a means of communicating, which led to impromptu sign-language lessons on set.

Winstead also discussed what’s next for her character, how Ray Stussy’s (Ewan McGregor) death affected her and what it was like to share a puzzling sequence with Ray Wise and a less-than-friendly cat.

TheWrap: What was the toughest part about shooting the episode?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead: How ambitious it was, combined with the time constraints of shooting television — even when I read it, I just thought, “How are we going to do this?” If this was a movie, we would spend two months just on this. When you [watch the episode], it all moves so quickly that maybe it doesn’t seem as [difficult] as what we really had to shoot. It was at night and freezing cold. And just to be chained together and not be able to communicate in the way that you normally do, I don’t think I’ve ever been in quite a unique situation like that before.

How did you and Russell Harvard manage to communicate?
I think we kind of fell into it pretty easily and quickly. He started teaching me sign language, and I really loved it, and we just kind of fell into a really nice rapport. In between takes, we’d be learning songs together, and he’d be teaching me sign language through song, and we really just loved one another and had an easy friendship from the get-go, which I think expedited that process. I would help him know when it was “action” and “cut” based on certain signals I would give him. When someone gave me a note, I would explain to him what they said to me but without using any words. It was really nice — there was something really special about it.

How physically demanding was the shoot?
They were real handcuffs — it was quite painful a lot of the time, especially the part of the bus where he’s punching and hitting. I have to go with him for every punch. I had a lot of cuts and bruises on my wrists, and my arm being pulled all over the place. It was quite physically challenging, every moment of it. Those are challenging stunts regardless, but you add a metal chain and handcuffs to it, and suddenly you’re at each other’s mercy.

Your bowling-alley scene with Ray Wise comes as a bit of a relief, with its absurdist homage to “Big Lebowski.”
I love that scene — when I read it, I cried. Such a great, surreal moment in the midst of all this action and craziness that’s just transpired. That was the last thing we shot for that episode, and the whole time, I was so ready to get to that scene. It was so wonderful, and Ray Wise was so great and totally mesmerizing to watch.

It’s interesting to see Nikki become the hero of the show. How will fans react to where the rest of the season takes her?
She’s evolved so much — I don’t think I ever would have imagined that she ends up in the places that she goes to in the second half of the season when I started. Noah had told me that when I signed on, that she would be the heart of the season. I think [fans will] be continually surprised — I know I was in reading it. Every turn, I felt something was happening that I didn’t expect and that I was totally shocked and excited by. Nikki continues to stir things up in a way that you hope she would. She doesn’t give up because that would be totally out of character for her. She keeps fighting the good fight.

It sounds like it was tough for the show’s team to say goodbye to Ray Stussy.
It was incredibly sad. It was weird — we all just felt so depressed that day that they shot the death scene. For Ewan and I, that was our show — that was the show we were doing. It really did feel like ending one show and starting another. When a character feels that real and is written and played that well, sometimes that’s the way that if feels.

Any mishaps on set with Ray the Cat?
I was so in love with Ray the Cat, who’s the sweetest, most adorable thing. There were actually two cats — two little kittens. And one of them was much happier than the other one, so every time we had a take with one of them, it would just be clawing at me and trying to get away from me, and I would just be trying to calm it down. I preferred the calmer cat, but it was an interesting challenge in a scene with a cat meowing and clawing and trying to get away from me. It certainly added an obstacle, something to deal with in the scene, which made it interesting.

“Fargo” airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.