Is it possible for an actor to win two Emmys for one TV show?
In Season 3 of FX’s Fargo — premiering Wednesday, April 19 at 10/9c — Ewan McGregor is attempting maybe the most difficult acting feat of his career: playing the dual lead roles of feuding Minnesota brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy. For him, that meant 18-hour shooting days and hours upon hours of makeup and costume changes… not to mention all that dialogue. “That means two roles to learn. And they can be quite wordy, the scenes,” McGregor says with a laugh. “I’ve really had my work cut out for me.”
But he’s not second-guessing his decision. In a conference call with reporters, McGregor said his Fargo double duty “has proven to be a great challenge, but a really satisfying one.” Part of that challenge is playing two very different brothers who find themselves on opposite ends of the American dream: Emmit is a wealthy business tycoon known as the “Parking Lot King of Minnesota,” while Ray is a balding, overweight parole officer scrambling just to make ends meet. And because of a bitter family dispute that dates back decades, Ray blames Emmit for his lifelong misfortune. “It’s a very old fable, isn’t it? Two brothers fighting over their birthright, if you like,” McGregor says.
Ray’s love for his ex-con girlfriend Nikki Swango, played by BrainDead‘s Mary Elizabeth Winstead, leads him to his brother’s door, asking for money to buy Nikki an engagement ring. “There’s something kind of hard about him, because of his life, I think,” McGregor says of Ray. “But it’s being softened by his love for Nikki… whereas Emmit is far less soulful. He’s got far less heart in him.” In fact, Emmit reminds the actor of another powerful man in the news these days: “In this sort of Trump era, it’s quite interesting to play this sort of capitalist, soulless man… it’s been interesting as sort of a reflection of what’s going on in the world at the moment.”
With a tight shooting schedule, McGregor sometimes had to play both Ray and Emmit in the same day, which involved an hours-long makeup and costume change. But he actually appreciated the downtime in between: “The process of putting the makeup on… buys me the time to sort of come out of one character and go into the other one.” And to help him out in scenes that featured both Ray and Emmit, two actors were cast to play the other brother Ewan wasn’t playing. “I had two different faces to look at” while shooting, he remembers. “They were both skilled actors… so they made that pretty effortless, really.”
It did take a bit of effort, though, for McGregor to put on the weight required to play the pot-bellied Ray. After being “at the peak of my fitness, ever, I think” while shooting the Trainspotting sequel, he remembers meeting Fargo creator Noah Hawley at a restaurant and being told he needed to gain some weight: “At that point, I ordered a massive dessert, and I started putting on weight from that second onwards… I made sure that I ate carbs with everything, and French fries with everything.”
Then to film scenes as the slimmer Emmit, McGregor had to wear Spanx underneath his costume: “It’s a really effective compressing T-shirt that I had help getting into… and help getting out of.” As the shoot went on, McGregor lost weight, and he says that helped him in his performance as Emmit, as the events of the season begin to wear on him: “The fact that he gets more gaunt-looking in the face is really quite useful for the story.”
If all that weren’t enough, McGregor also had to tackle the infamous Minnesota accent — the one he’s already called “the hardest accent I’ve ever done.” The Scotland native says his British upbringing was actually a hindrance in mastering that distinctive Fargo twang: “The sounds are quite Scottish, and that can lead me to think that I’m getting it wrong. And then some of it sounds quite Irish. And as a British person, I’m very familiar with the Irish accent. So I sometimes feel like I’m doing a bad Irish accent.”
At least there was one aspect of his characters’ lives he didn’t have to worry about mastering: Ray’s bridge-playing skills. Ray and Nikki make extra cash competing in bridge tournaments, but the classic card game’s intricate rules are still a foreign language to McGregor. “I’ll never be able to play bridge. I don’t have that kind of brain,” he admits. He and Winstead did take lessons and sat in on a local bridge tournament to learn the game’s rhythms, but he didn’t sweat the details: “It was just much more of a case of, like a lot of acting, looking like you know what you’re doing.”
Even if you don’t know a thing about bridge (like McGregor), the fast-paced scenes with Ray and Nikki competing in tournaments are still a marvel to watch. “It’s the first time in history, possibly, that bridge has ever looked so sexy, that’s for sure,” McGregor concedes. “Noah Hawley has definitely achieved something that may have been unachievable: He’s made bridge look sexy.”