In the upcoming third season of FX's Fargo, Ewan McGregor plays two brothers: Emmit Stussy, a successful real estate magnate referred to as "the Parking Lot King of Minnesota," as well as Emmit's younger brother Ray Stussy, a down-on-his-luck and paunchy parole officer. Usually, when an actor is required to perform opposite themselves, a body double is used as a stand-in; but McGregor reveals to press in a conference call that, Fargo has "gone one step further: they cast two different actors to play opposite me." You may never see their faces onscreen, but the 46-year-old Scottish actor credits his unsung co-stars with helping him craft distinct personalities for his two characters.
"For me, it was even better this time because I had two different faces to look at and two different people to act with," McGregor says of doing double character duty. "And they were both skilled actors, so that made it pretty effortless, really. You couldn't do it properly if you just had somebody standing there reading the lines at you. You need an actor, somebody to act with you, so that when you cut both sides of the scene together, you really are communicating with yourself." (Steve Belford is credited as Emmit's acting double; Ray's is so far uncredited.)
Although using two separate body doubles may be unprecedented, playing two characters isn't a first for McGregor. The first two instances were the 2005 Michael Bay action flick The Island — in which he starred alongside Scarlett Johansson as both a clone and its original version — and the 2015 religious drama Last Days In The Desert — in which he starred as both Jesus and the Devil. (Fun fact: his double in the latter film was Nash Edgerton, the older brother of film star Joel Edgerton.)
"I hope they feel like two different and rounded people," McGregor says of the Stussys — who are, interestingly enough, not meant to be identical twins. "I've always trusted my instincts as an actor, and I didn't overly prepare. I didn't know how I was going to make them different or unique until I got there."
So what was the trick that helped him get into character? McGregor says the makeup and costumes are an essential part of his process. The makeup for Ray specifically takes the actor 2.5 hours to apply every morning, and another two hours to take off — which can often lead to 18-hour days when all was said and done.
"I wear three prosthetic pieces," he explains. "One on the bridge of my nose to make my nose look slightly wider, one on my chin that makes my cleft chin disappear, and I have this heavy piece around my neck. And I also have a mustache and that funny receding, long hair"
Those prosthetics are in addition to the physical weight that McGregor gained for the role. He transitioned to Fargo immediately after filming the recently-released sequel T2 Trainspotting, and McGregor claims that he was "at the peak of [his] fitness" coming off of that shoot. When Fargo creator Noah Hawley (Legion) told McGregor over dinner that he would have to pack on a few pounds to play Ray, the actor says he immediately "ordered a massive dessert" and got to work right there and then. "I'm not the kind of actor that works from the outside in; I like to work from the inside out." (So how is it that Emmit looks so much slimmer than Ray? One word: Spanx.)
In fact, it wasn't the makeup or the physicality or the swapping back-and-forth with body doubles that was the hardest part of the job for McGregor: it was "that very tricky Fargo accent, which is difficult for a Brit," he says. "It's probably quite difficult for an American person, but for a British person, it's even more complicated."
So which Stussy brother does McGregor enjoy playing more? The actor claims that "they're both quite satisfying, I don't really have a favorite"; but he certainly seems to have a certain soft spot for the overweight underdog.
"I love Ray because he's so lovable and he's such an oddball. He's not a very patient or nice guy, but when he's with [his girlfriend] Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he's completely transformed, he's a different guy. I love playing both sides of him," he says. "There's something kind of hard about Ray because of his life I think, but it's being softened by his love for Nikki. And that's really fun to play."
On the other hand, there's Emmit, who McGregor thinks will inspire audiences to find some modern-day parallels. "In this Trump era, it's interesting to play this capitalist, soulless man. It’s been interesting as a reflection of maybe what's going on in the world at the moment."
Given that the show was renewed back in November of 2015, the character of Emmit was clearly conceived before the events of the 2016 election; but given that the season is still in production (McGregor confirms that filming wraps on May 5), it remains to be seen how much Hawley was influenced by current events when plotting Emmit's endgame.
Audiences will find out when Fargo Season 3 — also starring Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane), David Thewlis (Harry Potter), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) — premieres April 19 at 10:00 p.m. ET