After nearly two decades of important television dominated by “difficult men,” we may finally have the 21st century’s first truly great TV antiheroine.
From the moment Mary Elizabeth Winstead appeared on screen in Fargo’s third season as Nikki Swango, bridge-playing parolee to Ewan McGregor’s down-and-out parole officer Ray Stussy, it has been impossible to look away. When, in episode two, she spontaneously decided to leave her bloody tampon in the desk drawer of Ray’s brother Emmit, also played by McGregor, she was seared in our memory forever.
The third—and possibly final—season of Noah Hawley’s Coen brothers-inspired anthology series may not have been as exhilarating as the first or as beautifully constructed as the second, but it did have its standout moments. And many of them belonged to Winstead, who emerged as the unexpected protagonist by the end, seeking vengeance for the untimely death of her beloved Ray and teaming up with Russell Harvard’s Mr. Wrench (the only character to appear in all three seasons of the show) in an attempt to take down David Thewlis’ terrifying V. M. Varga.
Months after braving the “Calgary cold” of Fargo’s shoot, Winstead is back home in Los Angeles, where she caught up with The Daily Beast ahead of Wednesday night’s finale. She says the experience of playing the indomitable Nikki Swango has “spoiled her” to the point that she’s taking her time to look for the next project. And she’s not quite ready to say goodbye.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation, including major spoilers from Fargo’s season three finale.
Wow, Nikki Swango went through a lot of shit on Fargo this season. How are you feeling now that this whole thing is coming to an end?
It’s kind of bittersweet, the whole thing. It was such a profound experience for me playing her; it was such an incredible arc of a character, so much fun. I think I was pushed in so many directions that I hadn’t been pushed in before, so I don’t really want to say goodbye to Nikki Swango. It’s a little bit sad that it’s officially, officially ending.
How much did you know about the character when you signed on and what made you want to play her?
I really didn’t know anything about her when I signed on. I was totally on board even before reading anything or knowing anything, because when Noah [Hawley] called and asked if I was available, I jumped at the opportunity. Honestly, I assumed I would be playing a police officer or maybe a housewife or some sort of really nice, sweet, polite, fresh-faced kind of character. I didn’t expect Nikki at all. And I had talked to Noah a little bit before he gave me the script, and I still didn’t really get that much of a sense of who she was until I read it. I was very surprised, but pleasantly surprised, I think.
Yeah, I think as viewers we’re surprised too. She’s a lot more badass by the end than she was at the beginning.
Oh yeah. And that I didn’t expect at all. I had a vague sense of what her arc was going to be. I’d say by the third time or so that I met with Noah, he told me that Ray was going to die halfway through the season. So that was a big bomb drop. Because that told me that my role in the second half of the season was going to be completely different than what I thought it was when I signed onto it, which was this very specific kind of relationship that was playing out. As soon as that happened, I knew that it was going to be a whole new show for me—and kind of this whole new woman. So that was very exciting and unexpected to not know where she was going to end up at that point.
A lot of your scenes, especially early in the season, are with Ewan McGregor, who’s playing these two very different characters in Ray and Emmit. What was your experience like working with him?
I was just totally in awe of his work ethic and his stamina and his ability to change back and forth between those two people—to really be both of them so effortlessly to the point where, when he was Emmit, I felt like I didn’t know who he was. His whole persona would change and his energy would change completely, so it was much less comfortable to be around him when he was dressed as Emmit. And when he was Ray, it was so easy, because it just clicked. The writing was so clear and so good and the characters were so well-defined that as soon we stepped on set in the costumes and started performing the scenes, it just kind of came to life in this very real, effortless way, which is my favorite way to work.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the relationship between Nikki and Ray. Is she using him? Does she really love him? Where do you stand on that in terms of their relationship and how you approached it?
Their backstory could be complicated. That wasn’t something that we ever discussed in-depth. Maybe her intentions with him at the very beginning were something less than pure. That’s possible, I don’t know. But all that really mattered to me is that at this point in time it is pure and it is real and it is true. Whatever’s happened in the past or whatever brought them together in the first place—maybe it wasn’t the most morally sound way to meet somebody, a parolee and her parole officer—but ultimately, the relationship that they’re in now is very real and very loving and I think she would do anything for him and he would do anything for her. And that was a really important thing to be able to know, unequivocally, throughout the season, that that wasn’t going to shift or change. Because sometimes in TV it’s sort of scary to feel like your character is one thing and then you don’t know from episode to episode if it’s going to change. So I was really grateful to Noah that he told me that she really loved him. Because if that had changed halfway through the season, that would have been really confusing for me as an actor. That was really the linchpin of my whole performance, was my love for Ray.
And by the time you’re seeing him in a kitten, it feels like the love is very real.
Yes, exactly. [Laughing]
It also seems like the physical demands of the shoot must have been very intense. What was that like for you? Were you anticipating that and did it go beyond what you were anticipating?
No, I certainly didn’t expect that. I mean, I’ve done a lot of action in films and horror movies, so I’ve been put through the ringer quite a bit in my career. But for whatever reason I just didn’t expect that to be the case on Fargo. I thought it would be a lot of sitting in rooms and talking in funny accents. Even though, looking back, of course there’s massacres and bloodbaths and all sorts of things that happen on the show. But it didn’t really cross my mind that Nikki Swango would be so involved in that. I wasn’t expecting it, but I was so excited by it and so game and ready for whatever they were going to throw at me—although it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do physically, because the pace of it is so different from doing a film. We’re trying to get so much work done in such a short amount of time, almost guerilla-style when it comes to the action stuff. There were a lot of bruises and aches and pains and scrapes and just kind of getting it done, but yeah, it was a process for sure.
Episode eight, which begins with the aftermath of the bus crash, that episode almost veers into horror in some ways. Did you draw on your experience working on those kinds of films at all?
Oh, absolutely. I feel like it’s somewhat second nature to me now, those types of sequences—struggling and surviving. That’s something that comes pretty naturally to me now, so that was kind of nice, because there was a lot of difficulty logistically in filming those things. So it was nice that a lot of what I had to do as an actor was kind of second nature; I didn’t really have to think about it, I could just be in the situation. So logistically, I could handle everything else they were throwing at me on top of it—being chained to another person, arrows flying at me and sign language. It made it a little easier for me to navigate all of those things.
And then in the next episode you have that big face-to-face confrontation with Varga. What was it like doing that scene opposite David Thewlis?
I got such a rush when I read that scene in the script. I was so excited to get to work with David. He’s so immensely talented and had been doing such incredible work all season long. He is also the loveliest person. So that was something that I was just over the moon to have the chance to have a big, meaty scene with him to do. And again, it’s a similar thing with Ewan. With some actors, it’s just so easy that it’s almost embarrassing, like I can’t believe I get paid to do this, that this is a job. There’s nothing that could be easier than playing opposite David Thewlis and just reacting off of what he’s giving me, because he’s so incredibly brilliant and does so much with the role.
He’s obviously the big bad villain of the season, but it’s interesting that you really emerge as the main hero. We may have thought it was going to be Ray or thought it was going to be Gloria, but it really does feel like it’s you by the end of the season. Given the morally questionable nature of Nikki, do you view her that way?
I do. I mean, my feelings about her are strong because I played her, so I really love her and I’m really proud of the arc that she goes on throughout the season. And I’m just so thankful that I got to go on that alongside her, because it’s a really rare opportunity to start in one place and end up somewhere so different—and to really get to see somebody’s real metal, how much they really have inside of them to give. I think those are my favorite types of characters: people who will do whatever it takes to get what they want. Sometimes those are good people and sometimes they’re morally ambiguous people. Nikki definitely falls in between or maybe more on the morally ambiguous side, given some of the things that she’s done. But it still makes her so fascinating to watch and to play—the fact that she never gives up. And her reasons for doing what she’s doing are very pure and relatable. She’s doing what she’s doing out of love, whereas Varga has no concept of love, doesn’t know what it is, and finds even the thought of it disturbing and disgusting. So, I think that’s what makes you able to root for Nikki, regardless of the fact that she’s doing things or has done things that wouldn’t be considered “right,” her motivations behind them are something that feel more valid than something like money, which is all somebody like Varga really believes in.
Yeah, we see her give up almost all of the money in this final episode, so that does also speak to her character.
Absolutely, it doesn’t matter to her. She’s not interested in money at all; she’s very one-track mind, and that is getting vengeance for the person that she loves.
But sadly, that desire for vengeance does end up getting her killed.
She comes so close to getting away. Why do you think it was so important for her to try to finally take down Emmit?
Well, I think it was just such a personal mission for her and I think too, after that meeting in the bowling alley with Ray Wise, I think she hears that message very clearly, which is that she is meant to do this. And that she’s been chosen to do this. I think she really believes that and she believes that this is kind of her purpose in life. And so in a way, as awful as it is and as hard as it was for me to read, I think it’s sort of OK that she dies the way that she does, because at least she died fulfilling her purpose—even if it doesn’t get fulfilled until a little bit later.
She doesn’t get to see that Mr. Wrench comes back and finishes the job years later.
I know. It’s tragic.
How do you think she would feel about that if she knew?
I think she’s certainly disappointed that she didn’t do it herself, but you know, as long as the job got done one way or another, she’ll be happy in the end.
Now that this project is officially over, do you feel like it’s changed the direction of your career or made you want to go after different types of things?
Any time you do something where the material is at such a high level and everyone around you is working at a really high level, it really just makes it difficult to find something that makes you feel that way. So that’s really all I’m doing now, is trying to find the next thing that makes me feel the way that Fargo did, which is you’re surrounded by people you’re totally inspired by, who stretch you and make you want to be better. And material that feels so good to perform that it feels like you’re not working at all. That’s what I’m always looking for, to be honest. But every now and then you do a project that makes you want to step it up even just that much further, and Fargo was definitely that for me.