Ewan McGregor on the challenges of creating and playing two different characters in season 3.
Ewan McGregor likes being his own worst enemy. Twice on the big screen he’s double downed against himself, played opposing roles in the same film — first in 2005’s The Island as an evil designer and his good clone, and then in 2015’s Last Days in the Desert, playing both Jesus and the Devil. So we’re not surprised the 46-year old Scottish actor was lured to the small screen for his first-ever series TV role with the chance to play another double act in Fargo season 3.
However, portraying the slick Minnesota parking lot king Emmit Stussy and his and downtrodden parole officer brother Ray presented some unexpected obstacles. The actor recalls first sitting with showrunner Noah Hawley for lunch in Los Angeles after having shot Trainspotting 2 for which he got into the best shape of his life to play a junkie-turned-fitness obsessive. Hawley revealed “Ray” is heavy-set, and McGregor optimistically suggested using prosthetics and padding for the effect. Hawley looked him square in the eye, the actor recalled, and said: “You’re going to have to gain weight.” So McGregor did. Oh, and his characters’ wigs would fit better if he shaved his head — so he did that too. And of course, he has to master not one but two slightly different versions of that notoriously tricky Fargo-ian accent.
The actor gets to show off his gorging with a nude scene in the first episode as Ray. The Fargo team knew the transformation was effective when “Ray” confused newcomers to the set. Costar Carrie Coon recalls chatting with actress Olivia Sandoval (who plays officer Winnie Lopez) after she first met McGregor in his Ray costume during her first day on set. “She’d never seen it before, and she was just thinking, ‘Boy, Ewan McGregor is just not looking good,’” Coon says laughing. “She really thought he was letting himself go! That just speaks to the level of detail.”
Below McGregor spoke to EW about the roles:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how did a TV role — or in this case, two — first get on your radar?
EWAN McGREGOR: I was considering this other TV idea I had been approached about when I went skiing in Utah, and we bumped into a TV producer from FX. He asked me if I’d seen the Fargo series. I said no — I thought it was a silly idea to make a TV series out of such a well-known and -loved movie. I didn’t really get it. He said, “You should take a look and get back to me. We’re casting the third season now, and we’re looking for an actor to play two brothers who aren’t twins.” I thought that was quite intriguing. So when I got home, I watched [both seasons], and I thought, “F—ing hell, it’s so clever. ” [Showrunner Noah Hawley] made something feel like Fargo that wasn’t with the same characters or set in the same time, but he did it.
You’ve played two characters in the same project twice before. What’s the appeal?
I like the challenge of playing two different people in something. I thought it was a really wonderful opportunity, and I’ve been proven right. The cast is brilliant. I love the pace of it; we shoot so much more in a day than on a movie. It’s much more satisfying than when you have a big-budget movie and get only a couple shots a day.
That’s interesting because many movie actors who dip into TV complain about the pace; they find it too fast.
Yeah, it’s not true, really. I don’t like doing 20 takes. I don’t know what I’m doing differently after five. I tend to find what I’m trying to do in the first few takes. The other thing is having the director changing [as different directors shoot different episodes]. I’ve never experienced that before.
If the offer had been for only one of the brothers, not a dual part, would you still have signed on?
I don’t know. It’s possible, but I probably wouldn’t have been as excited by it. I might have been. It’s difficult to know because it was always going to be this way.
How did you go about helping to figure out how to play the two characters?
I concentrated on Ray to begin with. Noah wanted him to feel more downtrodden by life. I put on a lot of weight. I wear some padding too. We concentrated on his heft and receding hairline, and there are three pieces of prosthetics. We also got rid of my cleft chin. Once we got that look, we got into Emmit. It was Noah who thought, “If you’re going to get Ewan McGregor to play two parts, let’s have neither look like him.” I thought it was a great idea. Emmit is healthier and more upright. I wear a Spanx T-shirt that I squeezed into. It keeps me more upright too. I also wear brown contacts. But then I realized I had to make them feel different too. They couldn’t just feel like me in a costume. I wanted them vocally to be slightly different. I think it’s worked. I’ve seen the first two episodes. I wasn’t watching thinking, “That’s me,” I watched it believing in both.
I guess you had to not only learn the Fargo accent once, but two different ways then?
It’s tempting to look at Bill Macy [in the Fargo film] for the men as a go-to example. But his accent was very linked to that character. I think my accent is not as strong. But it’s a very difficult accent to do, because as a British person, a lot of it sounds Irish, and you can feel like you’re doing a bad Irish accent.
Which character was more fun to play?
Ray. Everybody enjoys Ray more on set, too. It’s really interesting to play somebody who’s so pissed off at life. He feels like his brother took advantage of him when he was younger. And when you see him with his cons, he’s quite a dick, but when you see him with Nikki [Mary Elizabeth Winstead], he’s a totally different guy. He’s completely in love with Nikki, this drop-dead gorgeous con. He can’t quite believe his luck. He’s waiting for the curtain to be drawn back and realize it’s all a hoax.
Emmit is interesting, playing him during this whole Trump affair. He sort of epitomizes capitalism and the businessman, and he’s got a very thin skin, and he’s quick to blame other people for his own mistakes. There are moments I feel like are his Trump moments.
I heard there were a couple of moments on set when people didn’t recognize you?
We did some pre-shoot camera tests, and I was dressed as Ray and talking to this car guy who came in to look after the cars. We had quite a long conversation, about a half hour, about Ray’s Corvette and what modifications have been done. The next day, they scheduled for me to do some driving with him to get used to driving on snowy roads, and this time I was dressed as myself. And he said, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you.” And I said, “No we met last night.” And he said, “Nope.” And I said, “We had a long conversation about the car.” And he was adamant he had never met me before. I pulled up a photo of Ray on my phone and said, “Did you meet this guy?” And he couldn’t believe it.
Ray and Nikki are competitive bridge players. Did you learn how to play for your scenes?
People spend a lifetime learning to play bridge well. I had an hour’s lesson, and I will never understand it. I learned how to move the cards about properly, and that’s it.
You were also shooting in Calgary where it was minus-20 on some night shoots, I hear?
It’s no joke. The cold, the hours in makeup, going from one character to another the same day — it’s a challenge, and that’s the kind of challenge you’re always looking for as an actor. I’ve had to stretch myself in order to do this, and that’s great.