Ewan McGregor loves Spanx.
They started as a necessity. They became a joy. He recently asked a stranger to take a photo of him posed in front of a Spanx store at an airport.
“I’m doing their next campaign, I think,” he laughs.
At the moment, McGregor is not wearing the control garment. We are on the set of Year 3 of Fargo in Calgary, where the Scottish actor is playing two characters, brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, whose rivalry sparks the bloodshed staining the wholesome Minnesota snow this season.
In fact, not only is McGregor not in Spanx, he is wearing a padded belly, his head is bald, and he appears to have a double chin. There’s the cheap cowboy boots, too, serving up the backwash Bud Light aesthetic of a lonely country singer after his gig at the county fair.
This is not what one imagines Ewan McGregor will look like when one fantasizes about interviewing him. The charm lives up to the hype, though. Just listen to how he talks about Spanx!
McGregor, of course, is the big movie star get of this season of Fargo, which has specialized in big movie star gets in its previous two award-winning outings, from Billy Bob Thornton to Kirsten Dunst.
The idea of casting the same actor, executive producer Warren Littlefield says, came from the estimation that “we could hit a Ewan McGregor-like stratosphere of star if we made it one actor playing both roles.”
Does McGregor pull off the double act? If you watched Wednesday night’s premiere, you already know the answer is a hearty, “You betcha.”
Emmit and Ray Stussy’s friction goes back to their father’s death when they were teenagers. Emmit was left a Corvette. Ray was left a stamp collection. Ray obviously was annoyed and—though the brothers disagree on whose idea it was—they trade wares.
The stamp collection turns out to be worth a fortune, minting Emmit’s golden life: he’s attractive and has a loving family, a massive house—complete with a towering stuffed bear—and the reigning status as “The Parking Lot King of Minnesota.”
The Corvette’s sheen wears off, and so does Ray’s luck. While his brother runs an empire off the money he made on a collection that was originally his, Ray is a parole officer. “He works in a job where he watches men pissing in cups all day long,” McGregor says. “He gets piss on his boots. He’s not a very successful man, you know?”
While Wednesday’s Fargo premiere builds up the big bloody misunderstanding that sets the season in action, it hits an early climax about midway through the episode when McGregor faces off with…McGregor—the first time Ray and Emmit share a scene together.
It’s Emmit and his wife’s 25th anniversary. Ray is begrudgingly there with his girlfriend, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango. Ray and Emmit speak privately in Emmit’s office, where Ray brushes aside his ego and asks his brother for money to buy Nikki an engagement ring—a slight that escalates into violent chaos.
It’s a great scene. Especially when you know what it took to pull it off.
“Our goal was to not make either one of them look like Ewan McGregor,” laughs Gail Kennedy, Fargo’s makeup department head and special effects makeup designer.
It takes about two-and-a-half hours to transform McGregor from movie star stud into balding, paunchy Ray, she explains, juggling the “chicken cutlet” prosthetics she uses in her hands: one that creates a double chin, another a tiny nose bridge, and “a chin piece that fills in his adorable cleft chin.”
Kennedy had originally visualized prosthetic teeth to rough up Ray, too, but balked out of compassion for her actor. “He’s Scottish and doing an excellent job on that Minnesota [accent] twice and differently, so to add something in his mouth that was going to be an obstacle was kind of nasty on that part.”
Achieving Emmit’s debonair look takes about 45 minutes of make-up and 15 more to apply the curly wig McGregor wears. “I call it Ewan in his glam makeup,” Kennedy says. “He’s got more glam makeup on than the girls. He’s got highlights and shadows and is sculpted, and everything is perfect.”
That extends down to the wardrobe, and the pointed decision to have Emmit wear a white tuxedo jacket instead of a black one when we meet him at the anniversary party.
“It’s a very James Bond look,” Fargo creator and all-powerful ruler Noah Hawley says. “I think that really tells you a lot about who he is. Clearly he’s a man who feels he has a fashion sense.”
For scenes like the one in the pilot, where McGregor shot both sides of the conversation separately, it saved time to film first as Ray and then as Emmitt. By the time we talk, McGregor and Kennedy say they’ve got it down to a science. A very stressful science.
Complicating matters, at least initially, was the fact that in addition to the two-hander in the premiere, there is a scene of McGregor as Ray getting out of a bathtub naked. A prosthetic belly in the water, Kennedy says, would have been a fiasco. So McGregor made himself fat.
“For the first episode I ate from October to January when we first started,” McGregor says, so that his protruding stomach would be convincing. “Just anything I wanted. I put on a lot of weight. I had quite a belly. I’ve lost it now, really.” He then sheepishly pats the padded stomach he’s wearing now as Ray and smirks: “Not all of it. but some of it.”
The Spanx then—a two-person endeavor to squeeze into—were initially born out of necessity for when he played Emmit, who is supposed to be so attractive and svelte that Kennedy says her housekeeper mistook her early PhotoShop renderings of the actor in character for a photo of John F. Kennedy.
“I wanted [Ray and Emmit] to not be the same shape,” McGregor says. “So the Spanx started off being a way to compress my Ray stomach, and then I just kept it because it feels like Emmit now.”
This is actually the third time, McGregor says, that he’s played two characters who share scenes with each other. He did it first in 2005’s Michael Bay thriller The Island, and then again in 2015 for Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert.
He took a trick he employed on both films to the Fargo set, in which another actor that looks and talks like his portrayal of the character will act opposite him as he shoots either side of the scene. Fargo actually cast two different actors to play his doubles for Emmit and Ray, since the brothers have different body types.
He’s also found it particularly interesting to dissect where he’s getting his inspiration for their different swaggers.
“It’s been quite interesting with the whole Trump thing, because I feel sometimes there’s moments that I’m channeling a bit of Trump here and there with Emmit, like his thin skin and the way he can react when the shit goes down. He doesn’t react very well,” McGregor says, pointing out that Emmit, too, has his own machinating flunky. “Which is why he’s got Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), his righthand man. You get the impression that he’s sort of Bannon, you know what I mean? He’s better at dealing with stuff, I guess.”
(He adds that the idea of whether the truth matters further adds shades of Trump to this year’s Fargo outing: “There’s some very beautiful work by Noah where he’s slipped in here and there little comments about what’s going on politically at the moment. Not heavy-handedly. You wouldn’t necessarily notice. But there is that idea about what a fact is. That alternative-facts idea is slipped in here and there.”)
It’s funny that, certainly visually and maybe even in the manner of his success, McGregor most closely resembles Emmit Stussy. Family photos hanging on the wall of the Stussy mansion use hardly any digital trickery to alter McGregor’s Adonis-like appearance in early glamour shots. But in terms of the warmth McGregor radiates and the closeness he invites with excitable broguish charm, it was a surprise to hear that everyone on set has a soft spot for Ray.
“I told him this the other day, a few weeks ago,” Kennedy says. “I said I don’t know what it is, but when you’re Emmit I’m afraid of you. I’m reserved on set. I approach him cautiously. When he’s in his Ray persona, it’s hugs and everything.” She smiles with the kind of contentment of someone reminiscing about a high school crush. “We all love Ray.”
In terms of how McGregor even found himself in Calgary playing the dual roles, however, that’s a story that seems much more like Emmit.
He was on a skiing vacation when he bumped into, through a friend, a producer at FX. McGregor had been mulling a turn to television, but it would be a five-year commitment and he wasn’t sure of the idea. He asked for advice and the producer asked if he had ever seen the Fargo series—famous for attracting movie stars with its strict one-and-done season commitment policy.
“I said I hadn’t, because I hadn’t wanted to see it,” McGregor laughs. “I loved the film and thought that was a terrible idea to base a series on a film we all loved. But he said, ‘Look, you should watch it because we’re looking for someone to play these two brothers, and they’re not twins. I thought, that is interesting.”
He went home and bingewatched the two seasons—backwards, by accident—and loved it. He signed on after meeting Hawley and reading the first script.
“His writing is so Fargo,” he says about Hawley. “I don’t know how he managed—it’s not just the accent. It’s the rhythm of the speech. It’s the humor, the black humor. The violence. It’s interesting. I don’t know exactly what it is. But whatever it is, Noah does understand what makes something Fargo-y, that’s what it feels like. When you say the lines right, it feels right. It feels like Fargo should.”
And with that, patting his belly, running his fingers through the stringy tangles of hair on his balding head, Ewan McGregor walks away.