The sheer effort that McGregor put into bringing brothers Ray and Emmit Stussy to life in Season 3 of FX's remarkable crime anthology series is probably enough to get him on that Emmy stage later this year. McGregor transformed his body, spent four hours getting in and out of uglifying makeup every day and developed two different, difficult voices. And that's without even getting into the emotional resonance of his performances.
The Stussy brothers couldn't be more different. Emmit, the older brother, is wealthy and successful, a pillar of the community and the "Parking Lot King of Minnesota." Ray is a broke parole officer with a beat-up, decades-old Corvette and a terrible haircut. Ray is filled with resentment toward Emmit for something that happened when they were teenagers that Ray thinks doomed him to his misfortunate lot in life, and perhaps their places would be switched if Emmit hadn't taken advantage of him.
It's a challenging proposition for any actor — two men who are obviously brothers but look different and act even more differently. McGregor has experience playing dual roles — he it did before in the movies The Island and Last Days in the Desert — but never on the level of complexity of Fargo.
The transformation into the Stussys started with dessert.
McGregor began discussing Fargo with showrunner Noah Hawley shortly after he finished T2 Trainspotting, he told reporters during a conference call Thursday. While working on Trainspotting, he got obsessively into running, under the tutelage of his ultramarathoner co-star Jonny Lee Miller. He says he was in the best shape of his life when he met Hawley for dinner.
"I sat down with Noah in October in a restaurant in Los Angeles and started talking about Ray and Emmit and started talking about Ray, specifically, and how he's gotta be heavier, and I suggested that maybe we use a prosthetic piece under my chin and around my neck to give me some weight," McGregor says. "And he just looked at me, and he took his time, and he said, 'Ewan, you need to put on weight.' So at that point, I ordered a massive dessert. I started putting on weight from that second onwards."
He doesn't know exactly how much weight he gained, but from October to January he ate whatever he wanted, and lots of it. He got fries with everything. He bought three pairs of Levi's with a waistband three inches larger than his usual pant size.
He had to gain the weight for a scene in the first episode where Ray is taking a bath with his girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He wears padding as Ray to look heavier, but he still had to gain weight to "justify the padding" for the nude scene.
It was ultimately kind of a drag for the health-conscious McGregor — "It's quite nice when you're ordering, you can get whatever you like, but the truth is I would go to bed every night not feeling very great," he says — but it was effective.
But then he had to play Emmit, who is not overweight. So when he's Emmit, he's wearing a Spanx t-shirt to compress his body. After the first episode, he was able to start losing the weight, which has ended up being helpful for Emmit, who's getting gaunter in the face as his story progresses and his stress increases (filming wraps May 5).
The Spanx and the padding (and the flab) helped him figure out each character's physicality. The tight Spanx makes Emmit stand more upright. The extra weight pulls Ray's posture down.
The padding is just one part of becoming Ray Stussy. McGregor spends two and a half hours a day in makeup. First he has to get his head shaved. Then come the three prosthetics — the one on his nose to make it a little wider, the one to hide his cleft chin and the one around his neck to give him some jowls. Then the wig and the mustache.
And often he plays both brothers in one day. Typically Ray's scenes are shot first, since it's easier to take the makeup off than put it back on, and the production can shoot other scenes while he's getting his makeup removed. That time also gives him a chance to transition mentally from Ray into Emmit. But it's grueling; he often puts in 18-hour days.
Then there's the accent. That Minnesota accent is tough for anyone to master, but McGregor says it was especially tough for him.
"It's probably quite difficult for an American person, but for a British person it's even more complicated because a lot of the sounds are quite Scottish, and that can lead me to think I'm getting it wrong, and then some of it sounds quite Irish, and as a British person I'm quite familiar with the Irish accent, and so sometimes I feel like I'm doing a bad Irish accent," he says.
Plus, he has to have two different voices. "The voices are similar, as they might be because they're brothers, but they hopefully do sound like two different people," he says. Emmit is tighter in the throat, while Ray is a little gentler.
All of this hard work cumulates in an enormously impressive pair of performances. Ray Stussy alone would be striking enough, and then he also does another subtler performance as Emmit. McGregor was nominated for a guest-starring Emmy back in 1997 for ER; the second time is going to be the charm. The Best Actor in a Limited Series race is his to lose.
Fargo Season 3 premieres Wednesday, April 19 at 10/9c on FX.