Fargo, one of the most consistently superior and celebrated TV series these days is finally back for Season Three following a two year wait . Ewan McGregor, the second British actor to play the lead in three seasons, with Martin Freeman in the first series, plays a rather astonishing dual role. He is businessman and family man Emmit Stussy and his brother, struggling parole officer Ray Stussy. They have little in common except their desire to hold a family heirloom, a vintage stamp that hangs on Emmit’s office wall. The brothers look vastly different, speak differently and have no point of common ground from which to save their deteriorating relationship. Series Three opens in a small dark room in East Berlin, Cold War era in which a man is being interrogated by an officer with a solid agenda. It’s intense. Then the camera zooms into a photograph on the wall of a Minnesota snowscape. How does this relate to the battling Stussys? That’s the great thing about Fargo, it’s anyone’s guess. The series is deeply original and the casting of McGregor in dual leading roles continues its rare magic. We spoke with McGregor from New York.
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What kicks off everything is this spat between the brothers over a vintage postal stamp. Things spiral out of control and it seems this battle over ownership might lead to mayhem.
It’s a brilliant idea and a very old fable, two brothers fighting over their birthright but it doesn’t feel petty to either of them. Emmit who has had a successful life and is well off has a very rich man but also he has a rich successful life, he’s satisfied with his life. For Ray it’s the opposite, he is not satisfied with his lot he’s had a hard time of it, lived hard and looks like he’s unhappy until he meets Nikki Swango and that’s the beautiful thing about playing Ray; he’s the embodiment of someone who is falling in love. It makes him lovely to play whereas Emmit is less soulful. There is no heart in him.
He’s a faithful husband and he loves his family but in the sort of compartmentalised fashion, in the businessman’s way he has his work every morning, he loves to come home to his wife and daughter and the family is important to him but more in a structural way than and a deeply heartfelt way whereas Ray is the embodiment of falling love.
He’s an unlikely character for that storyline, and in any other movie of TV. he may not look like that but he does, For him its far from petty because he’s in love with Nikki and wants to give her everything, to propose to her, buy her a nice ring, he wants the world for her and for them together and this grievance with his brother is the reason he can’t give her what he wants to give her.
That’s a great place to start a story from. It’s a fight over a stamp and the stakes are high for him and he wants what he’s owed from his brother. Also he feels his brother has conned him and that’s a very difficult thing to swallow, to be conned by your brother and not to have a successful life and then you don’t. It’s far from petty.
The other thing is they have both got someone on their shoulder egging them on. In Rays case its Nicky Swango pushing him to get what she feels is his right, the money, the life, that Emmit lives should be his, With Emmit, it’s Sy his associate who is egging him on to break his ties to his brother. And Sy feels like Emmit’s brother, they have a bond that’s fraternal. Ray is very jealous of that. He sees his brother has this brotherly relationship with someone else but not him. So the pettiness of it is maybe for us to consider but for the characters it’s far from petty.
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You and Mary Elizabeth Winstead have wild energy onscreen. Was it immediate between you?
Yes. It’s very well written and they were so unusual so we both were fired by that. I just get on with her and we are similar actors, the scenes came alive when we played them, we did work on the lines, we shoot a lot in a day and for me with two roles to learn I really had my work cut out for me so I was keen to find actors before the scene and run the lines with them. Nice way to learn and it helps me get into the scene, and with Mary we would be on as soon as we started running lines.
She has quite a deep understanding of a complicated character and there is something funny about them. They’re odd, she loves bridge and he plays to make her happy by being her bridge partner. It’s another thing to do – she obsessed with bridge. We ran lines and wouldn’t even have to even try. On one occasion in the second episode where I come back to her apartment and we’re talking about what has happened and we got onset and ran with it and found the scene immediately. When we were leaving the director came up to us and asked if we had been rehearsing. We just ran the lines. There is something about the two of us that works.
There were considerable physical requirements including Emmit’s lean frame and Ray’s big one and the details of each. How did you establish their physicality?
I don’t weight myself. I met with Noah in October last year I’d just come off Trainspotting 2 and I’d got incredibly fit, very fit going in and became fitter and fitter and obsessively so. I have always been a running but became obsessively so making that film. There is a very beautiful mountain called Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh where we shot that I would run around. I was inspired by my friend Jonny Lee Miller with whom I had lost touch in the past 15 years and it was great to be back. Jonny is an ultimate marathoner. He does 50 and 100 miles races and he taught me to think differently about my running. I usually run for 45 minutes and started running 1.5 – 2 hours, so I was at the peak of my fitness ever as a 45 year old guy.
Noah and I were in a restaurant in Los Angeles talking about Ray and how he’s got to be heavier. I suggested we use a prosthetic piece under my chin round my neck to give me weight. He just looked at me and he took his time and said “Ewan you need to put on weight”. So at that point I ordered a massive dessert and then started to put on weight from that second onwards.
From October to January when we started filming in Calgary and I just started eating whenever I wanted and made sure I ate carbs and French fries with everything. If you spoke to a dietitian I probably did it all wrong, but I certainly got heavier. I had to gain weight for this one specific scene in Episode 1 where I’m in a bathtub with Mary and I get out of that bathtub and you see my naked body. I wear some padding for Ray to make him heavier this scene had to justify that padding. It wouldn’t make sense to wear padding and not be heavy getting out the bath. So when I got out I was probably pretty overweight.
It was quite nice ordering whatever you like but I would go to bed at night not feeling very great and I’m a small guy not used to carrying weight. I like to feel fit and healthy but it was effective and it worked. Once I’d played that scene I had to play Emmit and I didn’t want him to be overweight, so I wear Spanx when I play him and its unbelievably effective compressing T shirt that I had help getting into and out of and it makes Emmit. Now I’ve lost that weight over the course of filming and we still have to shoot until May 5th, so I still have time but because of the storyline the nature of wearing padding for Ray I’ve been able to lose that weight as we go along. It’s been quiet helpful in my storyline with Emmit and the fact that he gets more gaunt in his face, and it’s quite useful to the story.
The other part is their voices. I have that very tricky Minnesota accent which is quite difficult for a Brit, probably quite difficult for an American, but for me even more complicated, sounds are quiet Scottish and Irish and I think I’m getting it wrong. That’s been tricky enough on its own but then I ahd to have a voice for Emmit and a voice for Ray. I had some thoughts about it sort of external ideas about that, playing the scenes and how I felt as Emmit and Ray I feel like the voice is similar, they are brothers, they have like two different people.
Were there days on set when you had to play both brothers and if you went back and forth?
Yes we often had to play the brothers in the same day. There were scenes when the two brothers meet, and we would start with Ray because Ray’s makeup takes longer, about two and a half hours. That involves a head wet shaved and three prosthetic pieces, widen my nose, cover my cleft chin, and a heavy metal piece on my neck. It’s enough with a moustache and receding long hair wig. I turned up 2 hours early and the days were long for me, often 18 hours. Putting makeup on buys me time to stop to come out of one character and go into another. It’s less jarring that way. It always gave me time to think about them. I found it very seamless.
I’ve done two films where I played two characters in the same scene. In The Island with Michael Bay in 2005, I played a clone of a guy and several scenes where they meet and I learned that you need someone to act with. My stand-in on that film was a rather good actor and he would play opposite me. You need an actor to act with you so when you cut both scenes together you really are communicating. The other film was Last Days in the Desert by Rodrigo García. I worked with Nash Edgerton, Joel’s brother, a great filmmaker and stunt man. I asked if he would act opposite me. I was playing Jesus and The Devil and often in the same scene. Nash would swap and it was effective.
In Fargo we’ve gone one step further. It was Noah’s idea to cast two different actors opposite me, always me playing Emmit and Ray they cast a guy named Paul who played Ray when I played Emmit and he was physically a better match for Ray. Steven plays Emmit when I was Ray so I had two different faces to look at, so there were two different people to act with. So I played Ray and was looking at Steven playing Emmit and then we’d swap and they would try to copy the rhythms so the timing worked. Both were skilled actors, so it was effortless.
Are you closer or more sympathetic to either of the men?
I love Ray. He’s loveable and an oddball and when he’s with his convicts as a parole officers he could be a complete dick to them, impatient and not nice. But with Nicky he’s transformed and seems a different guy. It’s almost like two sides of him. There is something hard about him because of his life, but it’s being softened by his love for Nicky. With Emmit it’s interesting to play this capitalist, soulless man in this Trump era and it’s been interesting as a reflection of what’s going now. Both are good but I don’t have a favourite. The crew prefers Ray for sure you can tell they like it when he’s onset.
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by Anne Brodie, BFCA BTJA AWFJ TFCA FIPRESCI