Blood Brothers: Saying Goodbye to Ewan McGregor’s Dazzling Double Act on ‘Fargo’

Ewan McGregor
Photo by Maarten de Boer/Contour by Getty Images

Hundreds of actors have gained weight for lots of reasons. Typically, it’s for a career-changing movie or multiple episodes of a big TV show or a season on Broadway. They often don’t get hefty for a very short nude scene. Unless they happen to be Ewan McGregor. The Scottish thesp, 46, put on an estimated 20 pounds this year to play the pudgy Ray Stussy, one of his two roles in the heralded (and just as deliriously wild) third season of FX’s Fargo.

“I had to gain the weight!” the actor says. “Ray needed to look real when he was naked. It needed to justify the padding I wore on my stomach and chest for the rest of the series.” McGregor also portrays Ray’s older brother, Emmit (aka the Parking Lot King of Minnesota), who is richer, thinner and caught up in a bad business deal with nefarious, torture-happy investor V. M. Varga (David Thewlis)—and may or may not have intentionally scammed his younger sibling out of his inheritance. It depends on who you ask. And as is often the case with the bloodletting on Fargo, getting attached to one or both of these men would be ill-advised. McGregor, who recently returned to Los Angeles from the show’s wintry Calgary set, gave us the, ahem, skinny on his first leading TV role and the hush-hush (and likely crime-littered) season finale.

FARGO - Ewan McGregorAs with many other Fargo alums, you braved the bitter cold of Calgary and lived to tell the tale.
It was minus 29, minus 30 when we started filming. Centigrade. It was brutal, but it was great. I mean, that’s why they shoot it out there because we need the snow and ice, and there’s something about the weather that totally helps us with the story somehow. I think there’s a reason it’s set there. It’s very particular, isn’t it?

Were you familiar with the previous seasons of Fargo when they originally aired? No. When the producers approached me, they asked if I had seen the first two seasons, but I hadn’t. I just thought it was a bad idea to make a television series based on a movie we all know and love. But they said the first two seasons were strong, that I should watch them, and they were casting someone to play two brothers who weren’t twins. That’s all they told me. Then I watched—and I was hooked. I became really keen on meeting the show’s creator, Noah Hawley, because he was the guy who came up with the whole crazy concept in the first place.

How do you play two men who are sort of similar but sort of opposites on the same show and sometimes in the same scene? I just tried to play two unique individuals. Although they were brothers, my challenge was to create characters so different the audience wouldn’t be distracted by me playing both. I wanted them to be well-rounded human beings, so viewers could follow the story of Ray and Emmit, not of me playing them.

Was there a secret to each character? When I was losing the weight, I would jam my stomach into a really tight Spanx T-shirt while playing Emmit. It would compress my belly and gave me a sort of uprightness. Ray does not have that. Poor, stubbornly rounded Ray! He’s a soulful man and has a great deal of heart—he’s a romantic. His older brother is much more of a capitalist, and his focus has been making money and his family, which he can compartmentalize. Ray wears his heart on his sleeve a little more. And even though they had the same accent, I had to find separate voices for them. So I leaned more into the accent for Ray. As a probation officer, Ray spent his life working with criminals and lowlifes, whereas Emmit spent the last few decades working with businessmen.

Would it be fair to say there is a bad brother and a good brother? No. None of the characters on the show are strictly good or bad, apart from Varga, who is clearly evil and torturing Emmit. It’s not that simplistic. And, when you’re an actor, you don’t set out to play a bad person or a good person. You set out to play merely a person, since they do all kinds of different things.

How did you film the scenes that featured both men? I had two other actors to help me, one to play Ray when I was Emmit and one to play Emmit when I was Ray. First we’d rehearse the scene with me playing both men. They’d watch how I played both men and try to mimic that when we were shooting.

Which part would you tackle first? Ray, because he took longer to get. And it took me about two-and-a-half hours in makeup to get ready for Ray versus about one-and-a-half for Emmit. If there were any wide shots or special-effects shots that had both brothers in them, we would shoot Ray’s parts first.

Emmit and his resourceful fiancée, Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), play competitive bridge, interesting since some episodes are titled after moves in the challenging card game. Did you learn it? I tried! Mary and I took a few lessons and we learned how to look like we knew what we were doing. But the actual game of bridge takes a lifetime to master. I don’t have that type of brain: I’m not the guy who’s good at numbers or math.

Though we’ve already been clued into a, let’s say, notable revelation regarding the fate of one of the Stussys, do you think that both Emmit and Ray will truly get the ending they deserve? Yes. [Pauses] Maybe. I’m not going to spoil anything! I actually haven’t seen the finished version to the end. I’ll be watching it too, at home.

Fargo, Season Finale, Wednesday, June 21, 10/9c, FX