How ‘Fargo’ Star David Rysdahl Found His Joy

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Photo Source: Tommy Kha

Rysdahl plays Wayne Lyon on Season 5 of Noah Hawley’s FX anthology series “Fargo.” This essay has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

I grew up in rural Minnesota, where the idea of being a professional actor felt out of reach. So I went to St. Olaf College and majored in chemistry. I liked science, but I loved acting, and I spent more and more of my free time in the theater department. 

During my senior year, one of my professors, Dona Werner Freeman, encouraged me to audition for the Great River Shakespeare Festival. I went for it, and I got cast. My plan was to spend the summer acting and then prepare for my actual career in a science lab. But that experience changed my life. 

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I’d grown up in the church, and that summer felt like the closest I’d come to the divine in a long time. A visiting casting director named Tiffany Little Canfield was friends with the artistic director of the theater, and she encouraged us young actors to move to New York City. Something inside my gut leapt at the idea. It felt right. 

I painted houses for two months while I sorted out living arrangements through a friend of a friend, then I flew to NYC with a month’s sublease in Astoria, Queens. I moved five times over the next two years as I pinballed through the city. I made rent by working room service at the Standard Hotel and using my chemistry degree to tutor students. I was living the actor’s life—or at least I was trying to figure out how to live it. 

The next couple of years were both exhilarating and bleak. I loved the city; I loved how free and anonymous it felt. I loved diving into acting, and I was inspired by the cast of eccentric artists who called New York home. 


“Fargo” Courtesy FX

At the same time, I often felt lost. I was riddled with self-doubt and anxiety. I had no idea whether I was “good enough” or whether my work would amount to anything. I had some successes, but I was obsessing about my future. I always felt like I was missing something. 

I hit a low point shortly before my 27th birthday when I got dropped by my agency. I went out for coffee and asked myself if I really wanted to keep doing this. I needed a new way to look at acting, because I felt myself getting jaded, and I didn’t want to go in that direction. 

Some of the best advice I ever received about acting was to stop looking up and start looking around—to go deeper with those around you. My constant striving to get ahead was turning me into a more selfish person. I didn’t like who I was becoming, so I decided to try that philosophy. 

I threw myself into short films and improv, determined to bring my full, open self to everything I did, no matter how small. I stopped trying to look for representation and instead spent that time writing and working on scenes. I followed up with creators and nourished relationships that inspired me creatively. I found my joy again, and I stopped feeling that soul-sucking envy for other actors. I decided to start living in the present. 

The idea of “looking around” changed my life, and any outward success that has come in the last few years is because of it. I’m not saying I’m never sad, depressed, or jealous. But whenever I feel that creeping sense of anxiety or find myself looking ahead or googling reviews to find out what others think of me, I take a deep breath, look around, and remind myself that this is enough.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of Backstage Magazine.