Life after 'Fargo'

Late one night last fall, Kristin Rudrud played the bongo drums in a Manhattan subway station. She pounded until her hands bled. Riders dashed by, barely pausing to throw change in a hat.

Late one night last fall, Kristin Rudrud played the bongo drums in a Manhattan subway station. She pounded until her hands bled. Riders dashed by, barely pausing to throw change in a hat.

Rudrud traveled to New York to see a physical therapist for her ailing knees. As she shambled through the station, lost in thought after a Broadway show, a group of street performers called her over.

"It was like suspended reality," the Fargo actress says. "But to me, it was more real than how I normally behave, which is so safe."

Those who know the 50-year-old tell of two Kristins. One is an introvert who relentlessly doubts herself. The other is an unhinged, spontaneous risk-taker. Aside from subway platforms, that Kristin bursts out most readily on the theatre stage and movie set.

In much of the decade since her career-making turn as the brittle, repressed Jean Lundegaard in the Oscar-winning film "Fargo," Rudrud stayed away from these locales.

She created for herself a small, quiet universe centered on motherhood. But in the past couple of years, as daughter Cora, 13, waded into acting, Rudrud has reconnected with the local acting community - and her louder, messier self.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Rudrud picked up a dust bunny from the stage of Fargo's Discovery Junior High auditorium. The piece became a prop in her performance as Bananas, the quirky, delusional housewife in John Guare's "House of Blue Leaves," a role that had whisked her to a national speech tournament in high school and helped her ace professional auditions since.

As she crushed the dust bunny with her long, bony fingers, the story started pouring out, hushing the ninth-grade drama class. She was a little dazed, almost apologetic as she snapped out of character. "She was goofy this time," she said. "She's never come out like that before."

That's how forcefully Jean Lundegaard, the equally shrill kidnapped wife in "Fargo," took over Rudrud 10 years earlier. Lundegaard claimed Rudrud a year after she moved back to Fargo, got married and had her daughter. She'd had a distinguished East Coast run, playing with Ian McKellen in the Broadway production of "Amadeus" and reading off-Broadway with Al Pacino.

"She was a woman who took risks and was dangerous in her acting, which was so exciting to watch," says "Pulp Fiction" casting director Ronnie Yeskel, who knew Rudrud on Broadway.

Propelled by a knee injury, "I had come here to hide and pretend I didn't want to be an actress any more," she says. But news of the Coen brothers' movie found her. The insecure Kristin arrived on the set after storming into a Minneapolis Holiday Inn and dropping $5 for an onion she could fall back on for her tearful kidnapping scene. Once on set, the liberated Kristin took over, making a vegetable chopping session a study in fragile desperation.

Once the movie buzz hit, Rudrud felt torn between the pressure to cash in and the fear of missing out on her daughter's childhood. She did several small, quirky movie parts and bungled numerous auditions for roles she didn't really want. After "Drop Dead Gorgeous" in 1999, she hid again. She craved quiet, passing up on cell phones and shutting out the babble of talking heads through a media deprivation regimen. She and Cora saw operas, plays and symphonies.

"The joys of motherhood kept me fed," she says.

The flighty Kristin who had infused Rudrud's roles with nervous energy, lacked the consistency parenting required. Rudrud shooed that Kristin off, but if she wanted to revisit her, she knew where to find her.

When Cora was 5, Rudrud audited a beginning acting class at Minnesota State University Moorhead and soon afterwards, she signed on to a yearlong Trollwood project with severely emotionally disabled eighth- and ninth-graders. She scoffed at the label, and together they brainstormed new spins on it, like "superbly emotionally delightful."

Her students fell for her vulnerability, the restlessness of somebody who doesn't quite fit in, who talks in circles rather than neat sound bites. "She came in, and those kids instantly related to her," says Trollwood artistic director John Marks. "She got them to feel comfortable with who they were."

On a recent Sunday, Rudrud, with penciled-on whiskers and a strawberry-blond wig, slunk across a Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre classroom, goading a giggling jumble of kids with paper cat ears and whiskers she had drawn on their faces in black pencil. She sported her own pair of penciled-on-whiskers and a strawberry blond wig she occasionally wore while she debated dying her hair.

Sporting black-pencil spots on her face, Cora had drifted away from a rehearsal of the upcoming "Stuart Little" in a nearby auditorium. She watched from the sidelines - a Dalmatian in feline company - as Rudrud helped fellow actors unleash their catness. And though Cora plays a dog in the show, it wasn't long before she dove into the jumble.

Two years ago, Cora acted in her first FMCT show, "Cinderella." She came home from rehearsals charged with contagious creative energy. Rudrud, recently divorced, dropped off her daughter at the theatre and picked her up after rehearsals. Gradually, she lingered and got involved.

Rudrud started seeking out opportunities to act, landing a spot on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" and taking beginning acting classes at Concordia College and North Dakota State University. She came in apologetic about her rusty acting skills, but, "Once on stage, she was completely unafraid," says Concordia professor David Winterstein.But the liberated Kristin came out the most when Rudrud tried to free students she coached, such as a teenage actress named Emma Davis, who impressed Rudrud with her talent and flawless technique. "I just wanted to mess up her acting," says Rudrud. "Life is just really messy. To have things all planned out, it doesn't look quite right."

In practices that stretched for six hours at a time, Davis recited Juliet's monologue while Rudrud hurled pillows at her, made her march around the room or shouted "Breathe!" until Davis surrendered control of the words, and the flushed, longing Juliet emerged.

"Sometimes I think I don't miss acting," says Rudrud. "But when I do something, I feel like I am breathing. My lungs are filling to capacity when I act. Otherwise, I am breathing like a little bird."

These days, Rudrud leaps out of bed at 4 a.m. to scribble down fundraising ideas for the Fargo Film Festival and its "Fargo" anniversary bash. She calls old buddies from the movie set to lure them here.

"There's a bounce in her hair, a lift to her step, and a sparkle in her eye that's not there when she's not engaged," says the Fargo Theatre's Executive Director Margie Bailly.

Rudrud feels on the brink of something new. Whether it's a career in coaching or a return to acting, she's not sure. But, "I feel I've been in a cocoon, and I'm starting to step out of it and step into my life again."

Rudrud's roles since Jean Lundegaard

Role: Amelia Robling

TV series: "Chicago Hope" (1997), third season

On-screen personality: Mom of a seriously ill child who cannot afford hospital treatment

Rudrud's take: "It was great to work with those guys. The script was great."

Role: Mary

Movie: "Pleasantville" (1998), with Tobey McGuire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy and Joan Allen

On-screen personality: Prim and proper member of Joan Allen's bridge club of uptight housewives

Rudrud's take: "I read the script at Starbucks, and I laughed and sobbed hysterically. I begged to be in that movie."

Role: Connie Rudrud

Movie: "Drop Dead Gorgeous" (1999), with Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards and Kristie Alley

On-screen personality: Former small-town beauty queen and overzealous TV spokesperson for a pork products company, sporting a gigantic parka

Rudrud's take: "I loved that part, that she was really goofy. She came out of me like she was nuts, and I couldn't stop her."

Role: Gloria Swanson

Movie: "Herman USA" (2001), with Michael O'Keefe

On-screen personality: The disgruntled wife of a Herman, Minn., husband who crashes a bachelor function

Rudrud's take: "It was a homegrown Minnesota project. The entire cast and crew was from Minnesota."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529