'Fargo' Star Ewan McGregor on Playing Two Brothers: "People Were Friendlier When I Was Ray"

The Emmy nominee says people on set were "slightly intimidated" when he was in character as the tougher sibling, Emmit, as he discusses the acclaimed series' challenges.
Courtesy of Chris Large/FX
Ewan McGregor in 'Fargo.'

[This interview contains spoilers for the third season of FX's Fargo.]

Twenty years after his first Emmy nomination, Ewan McGregor remembers the episode of E.R. that earned him the recognition, but he doesn't recall if he actually attended the show. Nominated again this year for Fargo, McGregor is the rare star who doesn't sound disingenuous when he claims not to know who his Emmy competition is. He's watched some of his category rivals, but mostly he's keeping busy.

Since completing Fargo in the spring, McGregor has been working steadily on features, barely taking a pause after an FX turn that was his third time playing multiple roles in the same project. In the FX anthology series, McGregor played Emmit and Ray Stussy, Minnesota brothers whose decades-long disagreement about the split of their inheritance eventually turns deadly. Neither brother is a pure victim or a clear villain; they're just men with different values and priorities who keep making unfortunate mistakes and don't realize how much they care for each other.

McGregor was hard to catch up with when I was doing interviews through the Fargo season, but he got on the phone from London to discuss the challenges and pleasures of doing multiple rolls in the same show, his bond with co-star Mary Elizabeth Winstead and how people on set treated him differently when he was in his two guises.

It's a pretty powerhouse Emmy category that you're in, a couple Oscar winners and whatnot.  Have you had the chance to watch any of the competition?

Do you know, I don't really know. Who is it? Who else is in there?

Let's see, you've got Robert De Niro, you've got Geoffrey Rush, you've got Riz Ahmed, you've got John Turturro — some good names in there.

Oh my God, I don't stand a chance. Well, it's nice to be among such talented actors. I really like Riz's performance in The Night Of. I thought it was amazing. I didn't see De Niro's, but of course I'm a massive De Niro fan, as most actors are. John Turturro I've always enjoyed watching, and also he's been nominated for The Night Of, right? Is he? Maybe De Niro's the only guy I didn't see in there, but I should check it out before we get there, before the big night.

You were nominated for an Emmy 20 years ago for ER. Does anything from that experience stand out in your memory?

No, other than making it. I loved making it, and I loved working with Julianna Margulies a lot because I was a big fan of that show, and I asked to be on it. I told my agent to see if I could be on it because I was a big ER fan. And I loved her. I love her work. So I remember I mainly worked with her, and it was like a special one hour. It was all shot in Chicago. I enjoyed it. I don't really remember the Emmys. I don't even remember if I was there. 

You talked before the Fargo season about how you'd played two characters in a production before and that gave you some preparation for it. Was there anything about the specific process on Fargo that still surprised you about the double duty that you had to do? 

No, not really. It was very well handled before and in advance in terms of the shots and how we would shoot it. And I had two different stand-ins, two different actors, that I played the scenes with. Where Emmit and Ray were in the same scene, they got two guys — Ray and Steve — to play Ray and Emmit, and it was great. When I've done it before, I just had the same actor, and then we would swap sides and we would swap roles if you'd like. This time they had specific actors for the specific role, and it went really well. It was well thought-out. 

Having done this a couple times, would you still be excited to do it again if the opportunity came up? Or do you feel like you've now done this particular acting experiment or process?

No, I love it. No, it's good. It's nice to be able to work on two different characters at the same time. It's a great challenge as an actor, and there's something very satisfying about it. Before when I did it in The Island, one was a clone of the other, so they were very similar. And when I did it in Rodrigo Garcia's film, Last Days in the Desert, one was Jesus and one was the devil, but the devil appeared to Jesus in his own form, so again, they were exactly the same character, really, although they had to feel like different people. But in this instance, they look completely different, and they should feel different, and then the challenge for me really as an actor was to try and play the two parts without it being a hindrance to the audience. My goal was to make people not see me playing Ray and me playing Emmit, but just see Emmit and Ray and forget that it was being played by the same actor. That was sort of what my challenge was that I set myself. Otherwise, it's a gimmick, and a gimmick doesn't really hold over 10 hours of television, so that was my goal. And that's quite difficult to do, and it was quite satisfying. I was happy that I actually achieved that, so yeah, I loved it. 

It's a bit like that thing where a news reporter puts on a latex suit and goes undercover as overweight, but did you find that people unconsciously treated you differently when you were in your Ray makeup?

The crew was very different. People were much friendlier when I was Ray or found me to be more friendly. People were a bit more standoffish with me when I was Emmit. I absolutely felt that on set. And makeup designer Gail Kennedy said that she was slightly intimidated by me when I was playing Emmit and not at all when I was playing Ray. So, there was definitely a difference. 

I liked that the brothers, over the course of the season, went back and forth between being sympathetic or seeming like the party at fault. Were you surprised by our own reactions to the way that shifted back and forth between scripts as the season went along?

No, because I was party to making it happen that way. That was the goal to have people feel a bit sympathetic toward Emmit toward the end of the series. It was again another challenge because we know he's responsible for a character's death who we really love. I think people really liked Ray. And so again, that was part of it. It wasn't a surprise, more than that was the goal. 

I talked to Mary Elizabeth Winstead during the season. And she said before going into shooting, she only really had one question, and that was to ask Noah Hawley if Nikki really loved Ray. And once she heard that she did, that was kind of all she needed to know. Did you have a similar experience with that relationship in knowing that it was real?

No, because from Ray's point of view, it's very clear. He's totally in love with her. So, I didn't have to really worry about that. I loved the ambiguity of it in the scripts. And of course, as the reader, or as a viewer, if you like, it was on my mind, but it's also in Ray's. I think in episode one, he really can't believe his luck. He can't believe that she's in love with him. And then we see it grow, and we see this realization of it in a way, that it is real. And I love the fact that maybe the audience doesn't believe it at first. And then I think most everyone knows that by the end, it was a real love, and one that she was prepared to die for in the end. But yes, she fought to the death for the revenge of her fallen love. So yeah, from my point of view, I didn't need to question it because from my side of the relationship, Ray's totally besotted with her right from day one. I loved it. I loved working with Mary very, very much. I think it was a very special acting experience. We're both very similar actors. It was great fun playing those scenes with her, and I loved it.