Midway through our interview in a production hangar off Fargo‘s Calgary set, actor David Thewlis excused himself and rushed over to talk with a paunchy, balding man with a mean 70’s-porn-looking mustache. It took several minutes of me wondering why Thewlis was speaking so animatedly to what I assumed was a member of craft services before I realized the man with the mustache was, in fact, Ewan McGregor, fake-bellied and bald-capped to portray down-on-his-luck parole officer Ray Stussy. Folks, if you think McGregor looked unrecognizable in FX’s brief teasers, I can attest to the fact the effect remains when the Scotland-native is ten feet away.
But what an appropriate intro Fargo‘s third chapter, to Fargo as a whole, really, the Coen Brothers’ snowbound Midwestern bloodbath adapted as an anthology series by auteur du jour, Noah Hawley. Both film and series, so far, have always told stories about hidden faces, of the overwhelming dark or pent-up light lurking just beneath the stoic Minnesota nice.
‘Year 3’ is no different: What begins as a lifelong petty squabble over a stamp collection between the Stussy brothers, the aforementioned Ray and slightly older Emmit (both portrayed by McGregor), escalates into something far more violent, culminating in a whirlpool of botched break-ins, blackmail and one of the most violently inventive uses of an air conditioner in recent memory that manages to drag small-town police chief Gloria Burgle (The Leftovers‘ Carrie Coon) into its current. Overseeing it all from the shadows is the enigmatic V.M. Varga, portrayed with chilling apathy by Thewlis.
Speaking of: The actor eventually returned from his conversation with McGregor, explaining that he simply had to ask his co-star if he had read the script for episode nine. “I’ve just read it myself and I had to talk to Ewan about it. Because something happens where I went…” the actor opens his eyes wide in shock. “Just an hour ago I finished reading it. When I go home I’ll read it again, but right now I can’t stop thinking about it.”
What happened in the script, exactly? Thewlis won’t say. But like any trip to Fargo, our visit revealed its fair share of secrets eventually. Here is everything we learned on set of Fargo: Year 3.
Emmit vs. Ray
According to Fargo‘s head makeup artist Gail Kennedy, it takes roughly an hour-and-a-half to transform McGregor into Ray Stussy, to apply the one-use prosthetic to add weight under his chin, the $5ooo-apiece wigs that recede his hairline back into nothingness. But in Hawley’s story, the gulf between Ray and his thinner, more successful brother Emmit spans more than 90 minutes in a makeup chair.
When the brothers’ father died he left behind just two tokens, a rare stamp collection to Ray and a red corvette for Emmit. But Emmit, the more business-minded of the two, offered a trade. “They swap,” McGregor explains, sitting in full Ray-regalia. “And, of course, Emmit goes on to have an amazingly successful life, and poor old Ray…not so much so.”
“I put on a lot of weight [to play Ray],” McGregor says. “I’m wearing padding now because I’m not as fat as I was, but when we started, in the first episode there’s a scene where we see naked Ray when I get out of a bathtub. So I had to justify any padding with my own stomach. That helped me feel different, the weight of him. Of me.”
The contrast between the Stussy brothers extends past their bodies, though, into their lifestyles, the way they live. The Calgary mansion that doubles as Emmit’s on-screen Minnesota residence is a gorgeous, sprawling space, all polished hardwood and river views, every square inch a sign of decadence up to and including the eight-foot-tall stuffed black bear standing in the living room. But it’s isolated; built-and-abandoned in the 1980s in the empty Canada countryside, it took a substantial bus-trip down muddy roads just to reach it. In comparison, Ray’s apartment set, built on a sound-stage, is dark and practically underground but lived in. What it lacks in dead bears it makes up for with living fish in a tank.
It’s a difference between two roles that is palpable even off-screen. “Everyone likes Ray more on-set,” McGregor laughs. “There’s a real feeling of ‘Aw, Ray is finally here’ when I come out in makeup. Emmit is less sympathetic. Emmit is much more of a business man, and as businessmen do he focuses more on dollar signs. Ray has got heart and soul. There’s a lovely line where Mary says to Ray, ‘You’ve got the soul of a poet.'”
Mary, in this case, is Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), who plays Ray’s parolee girlfriend, the delightfully named….
When Fargo‘s third season was still in the planning stages Noah Hawley described Nikki Swango, according to Kennedy, as “the only Fargo character that gets to be really, really hot,” a sentiment echoed by Costume Designer Carol Case. “With Nikki, the sky is the limit,” Case says. Compared, of course, to Fargo‘s usual wardrobe palette of brown matched with slightly darker brown.
Which makes it all the stranger that Nikki ends up with the constantly put-upon Ray Stussy. “When [Noah] sent me the first script, he made it clear that Nikki’s love for Ray was real, which was very important,” Winstead tells me, sitting in an icebox-esque trailer in-between shooting scenes.
“In reading it, you could have played it totally differently,” she continued. “I could have read it and played it as she was manipulating him to gain something. Or she will be with him for a little bit then leave him. Because really, from the first episode, just on the page it’s hard to know where it’s going. You don’t know. I could have easily thought she was going to become some sort of really awful character. But knowing that little kernel, knowing that I could believe in that relationship allowed it to really blossom into something really, really fun.”
One of the few scenes I watched director Dearbhla Walsh (Penny Dreadful, The Tudors) film highlighted, at once, the often tedious nature of TV production and the genuine connection between Nikki and Ray. It’s a simple one, set in Ray’s apartment, that sees the parole officer offer an ice-pack and a foot rub to his parolee partner while describing the things he could do with a “sack of quarters” (or is it “sock of quarters?” McGregor had to ask). It’s an exchange the actors repeated a number of times, often identically, mostly to figure out the best way to frame the warm embrace that ends the scene.
“[Ray] has got a hard life,” McGregor tells me. “He works in a job where he watches men piss into a cup all day long. He works with cons and has to make sure they do their drug tests. He has piss on his boots, and he’s just not a very successful man. So when he falls in love with Nikki, his life just explodes.”
Of course, in typical Fargo fashion, “explodes” is as literal as it is figurative.
The season 3 premiere of Fargo includes what I have to assume is the most baller bridge-tournament montage in the entire history of competitive bridge, the complex, convoluted game that largely bonds Nikki (an expert) and Ray (a willing participant). “People spend their lives trying to perfect bridge,” McGregor says. “We tried to do it in two one-hour lessons.”
For Winstead, who admits she, too, still only has a basic-bridge knowledge (seriously, though, just look at these rules), the game is just another way for Hawley to paint his characters more brightly.
“I think it mainly speaks to her personality,” she says. “She is constantly strategizing, and she never stops planning and thinking about what her next move is. Trying to be one step ahead of whoever she’s against. Because she’s sort of one of those people that always needs to have an enemy so that she can win.”
Davis Thewlis enigmatic, rot-mouth criminal maestro V.M. Varga is a tough character to figure out, which is exactly how he likes it. “There’s a scene early on where Varga says, ‘what I like about this place is it’s so bland.’ And that is perfect for his operation,” Thewlis tells me (after he returns from discussing whatever it is that occurs in episode 9 with McGregor). “He needs that. Out of the whole world, he’s chosen this place to come to because he needs to be anonymous, he needs to blend into the background, he needs not to be noticed at all. What he needs to do is crime on a massive scale, and this environment suits that very much.”
Like the Stussy brothers, Varga’s home echoes his worldview; we tour what production designer Elisabeth Williams calls Varga’s “lair,” a cold, bare-bones shelter on wheels, more shipping container than shelter. A portrait of Chairman Mao hangs over his work desk (painted, according to Williams, by a member of the set’s crew). Appropriately, the first book I spot on Varga’s modest shelf is Gabriel García Márquez’s One-Hundred Years of Solitude.
“Varga has got no compassion in him at all. He’s got no kindness,” Thewlis says. “He’s got nothing redeeming about him at all. I keep thinking that there will be, as we get further on into the series, some kind of vulnerability…”
Thewlis pauses, thinking about it. “Well, there is some kind of vulnerability. He’s got a massive vulnerability, but it’s not good. It’s kind of gross.” He chuckles. “It’s very gross, actually.”
Without spoiling a plot-point, I will confirm that thanks to Hawley’s imagination and Fargo‘s very talented crew, Varga’s sole weak spot is indeed “very gross.”
Speaking of, Thewlis tells me he found inspiration for his character in the unlikeliest of places. “What has been useful to me, and what has changed very recently as you well know, is that what has just happened with the [U.S.] government. That has been part of my research, rather handily. While I’ve been here I have a lot of time in my apartment, nothing to do but watch the news.”
“You can watch [Donald] Trump news 24/7. I’ve been doing that and been fascinated by it, trying not to get caught in the echo chamber. I’ve been watching FOX, watching MSNBC, CNN, all kinds of things, and finding it fascinating, and convincing myself it’s alright because it’s research. My character is, in a way, much more a product of . It’s almost like Varga’s theories have come to the fore today. This attitude toward the truth. I haven’t paid much mind to 2010, but I have very much planted it in, ‘This world is what Varga would have wanted.'”
Strangely enough, this was not the first, or last time I’d hear the name “Trump” on the Fargo set.
No, the 45th President of the United States does not make an appearance in Fargo‘s third season; in 2010, he was still hosting The Apprentice and going to see American Idiot on Broadway. But Trump’s rise to the presidency, and along with it the ideas of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” was of great interest to the creative team behind the third season of Fargo, a story that has always billed itself as a “true” one, UFOs be damned. “There’s a thematic idea that Noah especially wanted to explore this year,” explains executive-producer Warren Littlefield
“It happens at the top of every episode where it says ‘This is a true story,” Littlefield continues. “[Hawley] wanted to examine ‘true.’ He wanted to examine ‘story.’ So there’s a thematic overlay of, ‘the truth is what we say it is.’ When we woke up with this new administration in America, suddenly that overlay was incredibly relevant and even more provocative. It provided a dimension that we never expected it would have. So I think that, for us, was our ‘holy shit, what did we step into?’ moment.”
For McGregor, Emmit’s grand bear-cave mansion might as well have been branded with a golden “Trump” over the entrance.
“It’s been quite interesting because I feel sometimes there are moments that I’m channeling a bit of Trump here and there with Emmit,” he says. “His thin skin, and the way he reacts when the shit goes down; he doesn’t react well. Which is why he’s got Sy (Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg, a Coen Bros. alum). Sy is Emmit’s right-hand man. You get the impression that he’s Emmit’s [Steve] Bannon, you know what I mean? He’s just better at dealing with stuff.”
As a Midwest native herself, Carrie Coon is perhaps especially equipped to portray the beating heart of Fargo‘s third season, Gloria Burgle, the requisite good-intentioned law enforcer in over her head (think Allison Tolman in season one, Patrick Wilson in season two). When she sits down across from me she is peak-Fargo, decked out in a brown-on-brown police uniform, complete with puffy coat and a heavy belt she calls “The Hip Chafer” (she left her hat on set, but I can basically guarantee it has ear flaps). But when it came time to single out how Gloria Burgle embodies the Minnesota Nice aesthetic, Coon points not to the costume, but to her hair.
“This is maybe silly, but didn’t feel silly to me; there was a time when to distinguish Mary and myself, there was talk of Mary would be the dark-haired character and Gloria might be blonde,” Coon recalls. “But I just felt very strongly that Gloria was a no fuss kind of gal. I really fought to keep my grey hair. Which, you can see, I have. Because that just felt more like a Midwestern no-nonsense attitude. She doesn’t have time for that.”
As a character, Burgle is the embodiment of Fargo‘s juxtaposition of small-town restraint smashing into near-otherworldly violence; she carries out a bulk of this season’s murder investigation in a public library (modeled by the design crew down to the book-stacks on an actual North Dakota library), crime scene statistics spread out on a table just a few feet from a “Children’s Corner” covered in crayon scribbles and picture books. To add to the melting pot, I spot a textbook titled Simple Satisfying Sex with a Post-It Note stuck to the cover that reads: “This is the book open on the table.”
For Coon, it’s a juxtaposition that needed to be embraced in order to fully understand the character, and for the character to understand herself.
“There was a metaphor that Noah used about neutrino particles,” she tells me, a complex comparison repeated casually throughout the set visit by two more crew members. “He has this lovely underpinning this season about how certain electrons only exist when they’re running into other electrons. For me, Gloria is sort of floating in space, feeling isolated and invisible. The only way she can feel real again is by bumping into another electron, or another person. Which is quite messy, actually. So the only way for her to feel like she’s in the world again is going to be a messy path. It’s going to involve bumping up against other people in an uncomfortable way.”