Warning: spoilers for Fargo: Season 4 follow below.
Ever since she started her career in Hollywood, 20-year-old E’myri Crutchfield has played teenagers — in the 2015 adventure comedy Vacation, in the 2016 miniseries remake of Roots, and most notably, in the short-lived Amazon comedy The Kicks. In Fargo, the critically-acclaimed Noah Hawley anthology series that is now midway through its fourth season, Crutchfield is still playing a teenager — but this character, 16-year-old Ethelrida Pearl Smutny, is different. The daughter of a Black mother and a white father, the preternaturally intelligent Ethelrida spends her days annoying the racist faculty at her school, who can’t seem to wrap their head around the idea that the smartest kid in the room is a young Black woman (“a student of exceptional virtue and high achievement,” as she describes herself in the season’s first episode). When she isn’t feeling like an outsider in the alienating hallways of her high school, she’s usually at home, poring over more books for pleasure. She even taught herself French!
Despite her proven perspicacity, however, Ethelrida is mostly underestimated by others. Her teachers assume she’s up to no good, her parents try to keep valuable information out of her reach, and Oraetta Mayflower (Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley), her white neighbor, routinely derides her with microaggressive remarks. But in Sunday’s episode, “The Birthplace of Civilization,” Ethelrida finally gets to show that she’s more than meets the eye. After discovering a treasure trove of incriminating evidence proving that Oraetta has made a habit of unceremoniously murdering the patients she cares for, Ethelrida decides to take matters into her own hands and report the young nurse to her supervisor. Her plan may not pan out as expected — and neither do her efforts to protect the hiding spot of her outlaw aunt — but if nothing else, it signals more to come from the character down the line. No longer satisfied with sitting back while the less intelligent adults around her call the shots, Ethelrida is ready to take matters into her own hands.
NYLON hopped on the phone with E’myri Crutchfield to talk about embodying Ethelrida, working with Noah Hawley, collateral damage, overcoming her fear of astrology, and what it was like to work with a 20-year-old director for last year’s outstanding Burning Cane.
You say that Ethelrida is a much different character than you're used to. In what ways was she a departure from your past roles?
Being that I'm young, I still get a lot of younger roles. It's rare that I get older roles. It's mostly kiddy stuff. I have to be bubbly and “sunshine.” That's usually what I'm used to, which I don't care for. I like drama — good drama — and it's hard to come around that type of stuff, especially at my age. So when I saw Ethelrida, I was like, "Wow!” She was a character that I had to break down, read in between the lines, research, Google words and meanings… Me and my acting coach were in awe over the writing. We were like, "Who is this? What the hell? This writing is amazing." There was so much that went into Ethelrida and I was ready for that challenge.
How was it working with Noah Hawley?
As an actress, I do trust my instincts, especially when I know I’ve done my research. But without even knowing that he was teaching me this, Noah taught me how to trust myself even more and how to stand by the decisions that I made for Ethelrida. He gives you so much freedom to do whatever you want to do. It's more of a collaboration than him directing you. I would do something and then look at him like, "Was that good?" And he's like, "Don't look at me. Was it good? How did you feel? Don't look over here. Don't ask me anything. This is your role. I chose you for a reason. Do what you need to do.”
Usually, if a director says something, I think it's just that. He said to do it this way, so that's that. But [with Noah], if I didn't agree, as the character, I could say my opinion. As the character, I do not agree with your direction that you're going in. If I felt like Ethelrida wouldn't do this, but you feel [they would], then we'd talk about it. We’d find the in-between, a medium with each other. He really taught me to trust myself and stand by my character.
That’s funny since so much of Ethelrida’s character is intertwined with her own self-assurance. She’s smart and knows she’s smart, even when others around her might underestimate her intelligence because of her age or race. Even her parents try to shelter her. How did you balance playing this “good” character that still has to bend the rules occasionally because she thinks she knows more than others give her credit for?
I think it all boils back down to her intelligence and a lot of people dismissing or underestimating how intelligent she is. Even her parents, to an extent. Her biggest thing is that she's a problem-solver. She thinks things. She can access things you think are the most inaccessible. Like Chris Rock’s [character Loy Cannon] — she thinks she can help her parents with the hole they dig themselves into with [Loy]. Or thinking she can figure out Oraetta and pinpoint what is off about her. She's a problem-solver, but a lot of people dismiss how intelligent she is, which makes her want to show them even more. Like, I got this. I know what I'm doing. I'm very intelligent for my age and you should never underestimate me, a young black woman. Don't undermine my intelligence.
In episode five, Ethelrida, under an alias, decides to expose Oraetta to her employer. It’s an interesting development because, up until this point, she had been pretty powerless. But this decision is a moment where she can take some control, a powerful move.
It was a very powerful moment but I think it was also very intimidating for Ethelrida. That's a lot of information to come across, and it's like, What do I do with all of this? How do I go about knowing all that I know? So I think, even with her writing that letter, it was more intimidating than powerful for Ethelrida, because at the end of the day, who's going to believe her? Oraetta even says that: “Who's going to believe a young Black woman over an established white woman?”
In the very first episode, Ethelrida poses the question, “If America's a nation of immigrants, then how does one become American?” Much of the season explores this question, which I can’t help but think about in tandem with our upcoming election, where immigrant rights are a huge talking point. Did you think about that connection at all?
It's so ironic because this was all just Noah’s idea of the storyline he wanted. But now, here it is, coming out at this time. For it to be so relevant is such a coincidence because, at the time he brainstormed this storyline, I'm sure there wasn't this much chaos in the world. It's crazy to me, but so needed. Also, Fargo is [viewed by a] predominantly white audience. For Noah to tell this story, knowing who his audience is, that could have bit him in his butt. People could have been very offended by this show. For him to use this platform to bring awareness to something so relevant, so serious, and such a huge part of a lot of people's everyday life, [is admirable].
I'm young, I'm Black, and I've faced discrimination before. I've been in these situations. I'm fighting for my American dream. And yet, I played Ethelrida and she has opened my perspective. I wouldn't have thought that my perspective could be opened any more because I face all the trials that Ethelrida faced. So for my perspective to still be opened up, and for me to look at things in another light, I'm like, Wow, I never thought of things like that. So I think it will be very impactful for the people who never even faced the things Fargo is showing.
One of the scenes that’s stuck with me is the conversation between Deafy and Ethelrida, where Deafy basically threatens to have Ethelrida expelled from school if she doesn’t give up the hiding spot of her aunt and her aunt’s lover. Too often, Black people are written off as collateral damage, and I think that’s exactly what we see here — where, despite Ethelrida being a straight-A, rule-following student, she’s faced with expulsion simply because one of her relatives is wanted by law enforcement.
Being Black, when you're in higher positions, you naturally keep yourself from getting caught up in collateral damage, if that makes sense. If I wanted to use an example: Let's say you work at this prestigious company and you guys are having a Christmas dinner and you're allowed to bring one extra person. You will sit there and go down the list of who would be the best person to come to this dinner because [you know that] one little thing they might do that might seem unusual to your peers could affect your position.
So going into that scene, I think the biggest question was, What is the right decision? Of course, my future is on the line. But then, my auntie’s is on the line as well. Neither decision felt right. Making the decision to tell him where my auntie was didn't feel right. It was disheartening because, usually, Ethelrida has it figured out. She’s a problem solver. She knows how to fix things without burning or damaging something else. She usually has all the answers. She knows how to act accordingly to get her way. But in that situation, she didn't have any answers, and Ethelrida's not used to that.
Last year, you were in Burning Cane, which was one of my favorite films of the year. I met director Phillip Youmans at a screening, and he's such a rare talent. How was that experience, especially since Phillip is only 20 years old, the same age as you?
Me and Phillip go way back. We both started off in acting class [when we were 13 or 14]. That's how I met him. We were the only young ones in this adult acting class, with this hardcore, older Black woman. She made me cry almost every day, but my mama kept bringing me back. That woman was amazing. She held so much wisdom, just so powerful, a force to be reckoned with.
But we were in her acting class and then I stopped going. Then, out of nowhere — I think this was my junior year because I had just got my license — Phillip texts me, "Hey, I have this thing I'm working on." So we get on FaceTime, he sends me the script, and he's like, "Can you just play this part?" And I'm like, "Yeah, no problem." But I'm not really knowing how amazing [it’s going to be]. I thought I was just helping a friend for something quick and small. And then we start filming and everyone was 20. Do you hear me? The cameraman? 20. Wardrobe? 20. We had one wardrobe person that was a friend of ours, just getting clothes from thrift stores.
That was a beautiful experience, just watching them take initiative. You don't think you can do something like that. You wouldn't give yourself the benefit of the doubt. You’d say, “I'll wait until I'm older.” So for him to actually do it... And he was saving money for that. He went broke filming it, honestly. He was working hard at this little 24-hour café in City Park, in New Orleans. When he wasn't on set with us, he was there making money. And whatever money he made, he put into Burning Cane. He really put his blood, sweat, and tears into that. He deserves everything.
Final question. In one of their more lighthearted exchanges, Oraetta gets Ethelrida’s birthday and tells her that she’s a Sagittarius, even though Ethelrida has never heard about astrology. (Granted, astrology was not nearly as popular in the 1950s as it is today, so it makes sense.) I'm just curious, are you into astrology at all?
No. But it’s something I'm definitely interested in. At first, I was scared of astrology. I'm from New Orleans, where voodoo is very relevant, and I'm scared of it. So I saw this theory on Twitter about astrology, manifestation, and how it's all the devil's work. That got into my head and I was like, "Oh my God, I don't want to be doing anything related to that." But then, I was talking to this woman who was making very valid points. She was like, "You pray for things. You pray that something will happen in your life or that you want something. It's the same thing as manifesting. You're manifesting what you want in life." She really was playing with my head and I'm like, "You're right." So I'm not scared of it anymore and I want to dive headfirst into it. I don't know where to start, though. I don't know what books to get. But I am very interested in it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
New episodes of Fargo air on FX every Sunday at 10pm EST.