Ewan McGregor plays two brothers in the new series of Fargo, coming to Channel 4 soon. Here he talks about working in a brutally cold climate, ordering chips with everything and making Bridge sexy…
You star in season three of Fargo. What attracted you to the project?
I was in Utah, skiing with my family, and another family, who are friends of ours. We stopped for lunch, and they introduced me to this guy who is one of the head producers at FX. I’d been contemplating this other TV idea, which would have been a different ballgame – it would have been signing up for several years. So I was talking to him about that, just because I wanted to get some feedback about the idea, and he just said “Look, have you seen Fargo?” I hadn’t, so he suggested I watch them, and said that they were casting the third season, and they were looking for an actor to play two brothers who weren’t twins. He suggested I have a look at it and get back to him, so I went and watched them, and I thought they were amazing. Noah Hawley has managed to catch the essence of Fargo, but without it being the same story. It’s just brilliant, it feels like the movie. So I met him, and he let me read the first episode, and I was in. It’s the most amazing writing, that’s the truth. It’s just blinding writing. And the opportunity to get to play these two very different people, and try and make that work, and try and create two unique characters, has been really exciting, I loved it. I’ve done it before, I did it in The Island, and in a film called Last Days in the Desert. I played two characters in those films, but not nearly to this extent.
Presumably, as brothers, you have to play them as very similar in some ways, and subtly different in others – that must be a fine line to tread?
Well, I think of them as being completely different. I don’t worry about the similarities, because I’m playing them both, so that’s going to be there automatically, I don’t have to think about that. When I play Ray, I feel totally like Ray, and when I play Emmit, I feel totally different. We spent a lot of time, Noah and I and the hair designer and the make-up designer, talking about the looks of them, how they should feel. And then sort of evolved. Initially we thought Ray should have brown eyes and Emmit blue eyes, but when we tried it, it felt like it should be the opposite – Ray should be the blue-eyed one. Things like that happen just by trying them. Wig makers always send the wigs with very long hair, so that the hair designer can cut them the way they want to. And when I put it on, it was very long, and it just felt right for Ray. We cut it a little bit, but he’s got this long, receding haircut. I’ve realised on Twitter and Instagram just how shallow everybody is. All these girls talking about “I really like Ray the best, even though he looks like that!” They just about manage to like him the most, even though they’re really just taking him solely on surface level, and they’re like “ew!” Actually I think Ray looks like a fucking dude.
You had to bulk up a bit to play Ray. How did you find the experience of putting the weight on, and of carrying it around with you?
I’d been waiting all my career for someone to tell me to get fat, and I did it wholeheartedly. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and I made sure I had chips with everything. And I got to a point where I felt like I was heavy enough. I had to be on my Christmas holiday like that – I was bald and fat on my Christmas holiday, because I had to have my head totally shaved to play Ray. I plateaued over Christmas, and then two weeks before we started shooting, I started loading it on again. It’s not very comfortable, to be honest. You feel like you need to excuse yourself all the time to people. “Oh, I’m this weight for a role.” But I stopped caring after a while. I quite liked my belly. But I literally couldn’t fit into any of my trousers – I had to go up into a 34-inch waist, and I couldn’t fit in any of my t-shirts, so I had to get a whole Fargo wardrobe, the “fatboy wardrobe.”
How did you find mastering the accent – it’s got a very peculiar and unique quality to it, doesn’t it?
The accent is the hardest I’ve done, I think. I’ve never spent any time in Minnesota, and it’s not really in my ear. Even when I was doing it right, I didn’t feel like I was doing it right. Some of the sounds are so close to Scottish, and a lot of it sounds like a bad Irish accent, and for maybe the first month, I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right. It certainly got more comfortable for me the further into the work we went, and now I feel very happy with it. But it’s something I really had to work on. When playing a standard American, we know what that sounds like, because we’ve seen it in million of movies. I live here, I know what the American sound is. But the Fargo accent has been a challenge. It is very funny, though, and it’s sort of what makes the TV show feel like the movie. Everyone in the cast does it to different degrees. Michael Stuhlbarg does a really pronounced one, the actress Winnie Lopez, who plays Olivia, has got a really strong Fargo-y accent, and then Carrie Coon less so, Mary Winstead is playing it as Chicago, like she’s not even from here. I’ve got a lot of scenes with Mary, and so initially it was easy to fall in with her sound. So it was hard work.
You filmed in Calgary in the winter. Did it feel cold, even to a hardened Scot?
Oh yeah! It was minus 29°C when we started, which is really brutal. I have to say, I’ve been so impressed with the crew here. I really like it here. I almost got killed in this town filming The Wrong Way Round. I got rear-ended by some kid on my motorbike in the fast lane of the highway, just north of Calgary. We were here in the summer then, and they have this enormous rodeo called The Stampede, and the town felt very different. I came back, and it’s freezing cold, but the crew are amazing, I really like the people, and it’s a nice small town, so you can get to know it quite quickly. If you’re working somewhere away from home, it’s nice to be somewhere where you can quickly find the places you like. But the crew were great, they just get on with it when it’s minus 29°C. They can film outside all day long in those temperatures. And they make sure that the actors were kept warm – we can’t always wear Canadian goose jackets, we’re in costume – they’re a really great bunch of people up here. I’m really sad we’re going to finish filming in a week’s time.
The show’s already out in America. What’s the reception been like?
It’s been really good. I mean, I never read reviews or anything, but I get a sense from Instagram and Twitter that people are really enjoying it. It’s got a long way to go, and I know how the story twists and turns and darkens – it’s really good. It’s been one of the most satisfying jobs I’ve done in many years. I’ve loved it so much. I’ve loved the relationship of Ray and Nikki Swango, I’ve enjoyed creating that with Mary Wanstead. It’s been a very easy process with her, and she’s an actor that I admire. And then, to get a chance to work with David Thewlis, who’s been a hero of mine since he did Naked with Mike Leigh back in the 90s! I remember seeing that film and it changed me. I loved it, it was so clever. So he’s always been a bit of a hero of mine, and I’d never worked him before. So I was so excited that he was playing Varga. And as Emmit, I get an awful lot of screen time with him. And Carrie Coon I worked with more towards the end of the season, and Michael Stuhlbarg I’d worked with before, and I really enjoyed working with them. It’s really nice to work with people you like.
All things considered, has this been one of the biggest challenges of your career?
It was, in terms of developing the characters of both guys, and making sure they felt unique. You can theorise about it all you like, but it’s not until you actually get to do it that you can really make sense of it. I got here and I was like “Shit! I’ve got to play these guys. How will they not feel the same?” And, of course, they don’t look the same, but that wasn’t enough. They have to feel different, to be different people. I just trusted my instincts in the end, and I went with it. I wear padding for Ray, and cowboy boots and ong hair, and it just makes me feel like him and walk like him. Emmit’s much tighter and more reined in. It takes a long time to get ready, it takes two-and-a-half hours to become Ray, and an hour-and-a-half to become Emmit, so that gives you enough time to get into their mindset in the make-up chair. But once I’d started, the one thing I hadn’t really thought about was that I’d have two leading roles to learn! That was massive. If I wasn’t on set as Ray or Emmit I was either becoming the other one, or I was sitting learning lines. And there’s more dialogue in TV than movies. And also I’ve got that accent. The workload was heavier than anything I’ve ever done. But I’ve never been more satisfied. I loved it.
Bridge is a game that my parents always used to play. Do you think, after Fargo, Bridge is going to become the hipster’s choice of card game?
I think we are the first show of any sort that has made bridge sexy. I’m very proud of that. I think bridge has got a new future. A sexier one.